As a teen growing up in the US in the ’90s, Shruti Shibulal was oblivious to how her father, S.D. Shibulal, a co-founder of software giant Infosys, was an inspiration for scores of Indians.
Even as Infosys was setting new milestones, she and her brother, Shreyas, were insulated from the adulation coming the company’s and their father’s way. “Like any other teen, I was more involved in my own world which centered on my high school,” Shibulal laughs.
But she was not any other teen. Shibulal got the opportunity to meet several enterprising individuals, especially her father’s colleagues, in her early days which, she says, opened her eyes to numerous possibilities.
It was this exposure, along with a set of really supportive parents, that made her realise she could explore several diverse opportunities and aided her later in life as she dived into entrepreneurship with Avant Garde Hospitality (AGH), Tamara Coorg and more.
Back to the Basics
While most Indian parents harangue their teens to pursue a medical, legal or an engineering degree, Shibulal’s did not.
With her parents’ support, she joined Haverford College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, for undergrad where she chose chemistry as her major. She also signed up for other courses, including photography and an education class, to get a well-rounded education. “I would travel 220 kilometres to Philadelphia to visit public schools and teach children there as part of the latter course,” she recalls. “I also took up classes for economics, anthropology and math. When you are exposed to so many different things, your horizons get broader and you are better prepared for the future.”
After interning with Shangri-La in Hong Kong and working with Merrill Lynch in New York for a year, she decided that the world of finance was not for her despite her acumen for number crunching.
She believes that the kind of education she received gave her a considerable leg-up, even more than her family lineage, when she finally decided to become an entrepreneur.
Shibulal decided to come to India in 2007 and get down to business. “When I thought about entrepreneurship at that time, the word did not really register. I wanted ownership and accountability for something I had built from the ground up but I did not know what it was,” she recollects.
She was introduced to Abhijit Saha in 2008, the then executive chef at Park Hotels in Bengaluru. The duo jointly started AGH which flagged her foray not just into the world of business but also into the incredibly exciting yet challenging sector of hospitality.
Why challenging? Because no one from the Shibulal family was familiar with the restaurant business. All she could do was fall back on her internship at Mumbai’s Indigo Deli restaurant which had given her some idea about the various restaurant functions.
Having said that, Shibulal also knows that her family’s last name helped her tremendously in her career, especially when she was starting. The respect that the Shibulal surname commanded helped open doors and gain the trust of people she partnered with.
“I know that my coming from an illustrious family helped me though it was not a name that meant much in the hospitality industry. Nonetheless, it has always demanded a huge amount of respect which applies to all the families involved in Infosys. The company did something pretty radical not just as an IT company but as a value-driven organisation in a challenging time when there was a License Raj,” she concedes.
Like always, her parents backed her. “My father has always been a solid support in all stages of my career, including AGH. However, since the ultimate responsibility rests on me, the fruits of the labour also come to me,” she states.
The launch of two restaurants—Caperberry in 2009 and Fava in 2010—in Bengaluru gave Shibulal her first taste of entrepreneurship. Slowly, she got exposed to other aspects—from dealing with legal, finance or marketing departments to managing people.
She believes that starting her business in her late 20s, a much younger age than when her father did, worked in her favour. With age on her side, she absorbed everything quickly while also developing a high risk tolerance. This also prompted her to later launch an organic product retail venture and an online fashion site.
To hone her business skills, Shibulal joined the Columbia Business School in 2010 to pursue a master of business administration degree. Once back in school, she realised that the experiences that came with running her enterprises placed her well ahead of her classmates as she could match theory with reality.
It was around this time when work had started towards the launch of Tamara Coorg, the first resort under the aegis of Tamara Leisure Experiences (TLE), part of the Shibulal family-run Innovations Investment Management.
“While I shuttled between the US and India, late Senthil Kumar, the then director and CEO of TLE, managed the operations for the 30-key Tamara Coorg luxury resort. Spread across a 170-acre estate, we launched this property in 2012,” Shibulal says. In fact, after her parents, she considers Kumar as her inspiration. “He was my mentor who was preparing me to take on more responsibilities and his death some years ago left a huge void in my life,” she adds.
Shibulal had joined TLE as head of strategy in 2012 and worked from the US primarily. She returned to India in 2015 and three years later, assumed the role of CEO.
Today, TLE has expanded to have 1,090 keys in its portfolio under three brands—Tamara Resorts, O by Tamara and Lilac. While Tamara Resorts are experiential-oriented resorts in Coorg, Kodaikanal and Alleppey, O by Tamara is an upscale business hotel in Trivandrum. Lilac is a mid-segment hotel in Bengaluru and will add properties in Kerala’s Kannur and Guruvayoor and Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu within a year. The company also owns four hotels in Germany, run by local operators.
It added three properties to its portfolio in FY21--a 19-key ayurvedic resort in Alleppey called Amal Tamara, a 147-room hotel in Coimbatore—an acquisition that will be reopened under the O by Tamara banner—and a 128-room hotel (Moxy Bremen) in Germany. The total addition of 294 keys marked the brand a 36% growth from the previous year.
A diverse profile of hotels in Tamara’s portfolio paid off during the pandemic, when the business hotels did not do well, the resorts saw good occupancy. With the travel industry seeing an uptick again, Shibulal is optimistic about a balanced growth in each segment.
Chip off the Old Block
Senior Shibulal has always maintained that an entrepreneur needs strong leadership at all levels with the ability to know what is required, make sense of it and execute. His daughter has done her best to emulate that at TLE, especially by surrounding herself with people who share her passion for sustainability and teamwork.
“We (she and her father) are quite operations driven. We know how to execute things and get them going,” she says, underlining their similar approach to business.
This, and their shared value system, creates a complementary environment for the father-daughter duo to work together. “He tends to absorb situations whereas I lack that experience because it could be the first time I have encountered them. So, I might not necessarily react the same way,” Shibulal points out.
When it comes to sustainability, she says that it was ingrained in her and Shreyas from their early days. Naturally, she absorbed several of her father’s words of wisdom on TLE, a brand that focuses on sustainability. The resorts reflect this ethos down to the last detail.
For instance, Tamara Coorg has been created in a way that it does not disturb the contours of the hill. The cottages resemble wood cabins and are constructed from fallen logs. She even built an entire viewing deck around the trunk of a giant tree because she could not bring herself to cut it down. “These actions come naturally because they are an extension of deeply embedded values. When you grow up with it, you do not question it,” she elucidates.
After her father retired from Infosys in 2014, he joined TLE’s board of directors as chairman, a position he held until a few years ago. Although he did not get involved in daily operational matters, Shibulal benefited tremendously from his presence. “His involvement is more at an advisory level, especially in compliance since most of our properties are ISO certified. He gives me the freedom to run the organisation as I see fit. It is a wonderful thing to have because here is someone with a wealth of experience and unending advice—solicited or otherwise,” she jokes.
Somewhere, subconsciously, she was also aware that she had the margin to err because her father had her back. This gave her a huge head start over other start-up founders who might not have the same security cushion. At the same time, she also believes that the expansion of the start-up ecosystem has democratised entrepreneurship, making the famous last name almost redundant.
Either way, Shibulal is grateful for her father’s unequivocal support throughout her career and for letting her own her work. That is something she does not take lightly.
Even today, she often goes to him whenever she needs sage advice, especially since Tamara leverages technology extensively to become more efficient and analyse guest data to make the right business decisions. As technology is his domain, she checks in with him regularly on how to chart the company’s tech plans. “I spend a lot of time talking to him about this and how we can create things that could benefit the organisation and that is where we have the most fun working together,” she fondly adds.
Banking on Familial Values
During the pandemic, when hospitality saw mass layoffs, TLE did not sack its employees. “We used that time on training so that when TLE reopened, we had a well-trained, fully staffed hotel,” Shibulal explains.
Moreover, laying people off goes against the values she grew up with, especially the ones she picked up from her mother, Kumari, who would lavish kindness and generosity on people. Infosys, too, had earned a place of pride for being a workplace that emphasised fairness and justness. “Watching how my parents treated people set the foundation for my value system where I look at employees as whole human beings with lives outside the workplace and not just as workers. This is part of TLE’s ethos as I endeavour to build a value-driven enterprise,” she adds.
Today, Shibulal serves as a trustee of all foundations under the Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiatives which provide educational and healthcare assistance to underprivileged. In 2019, she launched SAATHIYA as a hospitality skilling programme that enabled young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to become employable. She is also a trustee of the Women’s Education Project which focuses on uplifting young women from vulnerable backgrounds. In addition to that, she is on the governing board of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment.
The CEO points out that the Shibulal surname is a huge privilege and responsibility which she takes very seriously. “It is my guiding star and presents a clear value system based on my upbringing. This makes it easier to take decisions since I have a framework to operate within,” she adds.
She says that all entrepreneurs, especially those waiting in the wings, must ensure that they get into the business for themselves. “The ambition should belong to you from the get-go, whether you are from a legacy business household or a non-family-backed one. You need to think about the impact you will have on the planet and people,” she opines.
Ultimately, businesses are built on relationships with their team, investors, suppliers and vendors. They determine the heights of success that a company can scale and a famous name can only act as an ice-breaker. The true intent will determine how that conversation will shape up. Shibulal has shown exactly how that is done.