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From investment banker to furniture designer
Larissa Fernand
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January 03, 2006

When I walked into Tranceforme, a furniture shop in south Mumbai, the first thing that struck me was its warm, inviting, spacious look.

It actually felt like walking into someone's home with well laid out, off-beat furniture and artifacts.

After wandering around awhile, a lady enters, walks right up to me and offers her hand in greeting: "Hi, I'm Vinita."

Vinita Kumar turned out to be a vibrant and affable person with an interesting tale on how she moved from the world of finance to furniture.

The beginning of the dream

Vinita's foray into the furniture business stemmed more from a desire to pursue a passion than as a conscious career choice.

After a Masters in Finance and Control from Delhi University, she landed her first job in Lazard Credit Capital as Project Officer, Investment Banking. She worked there for two years before moving to Jardine Fleming as Executive, Investment Banking. Both these positions were Mumbai-based. 

One day at work, she got into a philosophical conversation with a colleague on the purpose of life. Investment banking, Vinita says, gave her none.

Her colleague asked her to list the 10 things she really wanted to do. She did; what topped the list was her desire to own a retail furniture store.

She tucked away the list in her diary and kept it there, not quite convinced it would ever come to pass.

Little did she realise that, within two years of this incident, her dream would turn into reality. 

The switch

If the furniture business had a considerable 'pull' factor, investment banking turned out to be the dominant 'push' factor.

When asked to describe her life as an investment banker, Vinita is extremely candid. She also manages to pare it down to just two words: all-consuming.

As high profile and racy as investment banking is often made out to be, it can turn out to be a drudge. 

The money is deceptively luring and, once in, before you even get accustomed to be referred to as an investment banker, you get a crash course in time management.

Forget being a parent or someone's spouse or child; your new identity is that of an investment banker.

"As an investment banker, you are not allowed to have another life," she explains. "Your time and your mind belong to your job at the cost of everything else."

One has to be on call round the clock; the travel involved too is a killer.

Vinita speaks of how she had to fly to the UK for a series of meetings and return, all within 48 hours.

The solution for jet lag? Strong coffee sprinkled with a few more meetings and some complicated spread sheets to pore over.

If you are an investment banker, pursuing a hobby is unheard of; reading a book is a probability if you like to read when you are travelling.

Yet, it was during her stint as an investment banker that Vinita got married and had a baby. Since neither her spouse nor she had parents living in Mumbai, they were at the mercy of maids. After a while, she decided no amount of money was worth this life.

So, after more than a year of toying with the idea, she finally decided in 2001 that she wanted out.

The days after

She sat at home for around a month and realised she better start doing something fast (the jump from an investment banker to a housewife can be rather drastic). That's when she got in touch with Manisha Shah, a former colleague's wife who was an architect.

Vinita suggested they collaborate on designing and creating furniture. After a few months of cajoling and coaxing, Manisha agreed.

The start was easy since Manisha, already an architect, had a lot of back office operations in place. For example, she had reliable carpenters who operated from their workshops. They roped in men for polishing and making sofas. 

Vinita now had to deal with and manage labour, something unheard of in her investment banking days where you only meet with the top brass at corporates.

It was here that her exposure to finance helped greatly. With a backend in place, she drew up a business plan, crunched numbers and worked on scalability and profitability.

Making the dream a reality 

In the modern era, furniture is said to be the second most designed item in the three-dimensional design (automobile ranks first).

Conceptualising a piece of furniture and then translating it into a one-of-a-kind creation is no easy task.

Once it is created in the mind, it must be sketched. Vinita had to learn how to draw to scale, come up with 3D sketches and use Autocad (a popular computer aided drafting program developed by AutoDesk) to come up with 3D visuals.

The design then has to be explained to the workers. What is the texture and type of wood that will aesthetically bring this design to life? How will this design be best transformed into reality? A 2 feet by 2 feet table may not look as great as a 2 feet by 3 feet one. Which colour will suit it most?

Custom-made furniture is even more time-consuming. This entails talking to the client and working within specific requirements (colour, budget, utility, space) and delivering it within a schedule.

Running the show

Today, Vinita has two workshops in Mumbai and sells her furniture under the brand Tianu.

Till date, she has serviced around 450 to 500 clients; her most prominent client is filmmaker Shyam Benegal [Images]. But she is quick to add that all her clients are not from the upper echelons of society and her furniture is affordable.

For instance, a dining table in teak would cost anywhere between Rs 23,000 and Rs 27,000. All her furniture is hand-crafted and available only in solid teak and teak veneer.  

Her furniture is available at Tranceforme store and is also displayed in exhibitions and art galleries. Though she has not yet realised her dream of actually owning her own store (her furniture is just retailed at Tranceforme, she does not own the store), her dream is just a stone's throw away.

Stepping back into old boots?

Finally, the inevitable question asked of people who kick up their jobs to pursue a widely divergent career.

Would you ever go back to investment banking? "Absolutely not," she vehemently declares.

How much do you make?  "Since I run a private company and not a public one, I don't have to disclose my income," pat comes the answer. But she concedes that she makes "just a little less than I what I did as an investment banker."

Fair enough for someone who has managed to make her passion her source of income.

Any words of wisdom?

For those aspiring to be investment bankers�

"Investment banking certainly has its pros. It builds your confidence, is intellectually stimulating, pushes you to give in your best all the time and offers tremendous exposure. And the money is great. But the job expectation is commensurate with what they pay you. Sure, you rake in the moolah but never forget you are paying a price to do so."

For someone who wants to switch careers�

"If you get up every morning feeling pained to go to work, it is time for a switch. If you do follow your dream, you will be a wizard at what you do because you will give it your all. Have a dream and work towards it. If you don't, revisit life. Stop and think. Otherwise, you will just be a dead man walking."

Finally, what is the best thing about being on your own?

No boss.

Flexible timings.

And your life is your own.

Remember, these are words of advice from someone whose identity at one time was a 24/7 investment banker.

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