'People will say a lot of things -- ignore the noise.'
The earth underneath her feet spun uncontrollably.
Fear for her own mortality confronted her in all its rawness.
'We're very sorry, but it appears that you have cancer,' said the doctor.
Kanika Tekriwal, then 22, who had just earned an MBA from Coventry University, London, felt the words entering her ears like molten lead. "In a few minutes, my life was completely turned around; everything felt so surreal. All I could think about was the years of my life, the goals to achieve, and the pathways to conquer."
That was 2011.
Eight months later, during which she underwent gruelling sessions of chemotherapy and radiation, Kanika not only vanquished the disease that both dispirits and kills, but also launched a New Delhi-based aviation startup, JetSetGo, India's first marketplace for private jets and helicopter charters that has vigorously transformed the country's chartered air travel industry with its success.
Now 33, she owns 10 private jets and has featured in the Kotak Private Banking-Hurun Leading Wealthy Women 2021 list as India's youngest self-made woman entrepreneur with a net worth pegged at Rs 420 crores.
Launched in 2012, JetSetGo, the private plane aggregator described as the 'Uber of the Indian skies', manages, flies, and operates the largest private jet and helicopter fleets in the country, including an 18-seater Global 6000 and a 6-seater Cessna Citation CJ2, and also looks after aircraft owned by high net-worth individuals based out of the Middle East.
Kanika's career is studded with laudable feats. They did not come easy as she had to face many daunting challenges and gender biases, besides the unsolicited tryst with cancer, and everything is starkly etched in her mind.
When the doctor diagnosed her with Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer, when she was barely out of her teens, it left her shell-shocked. Over the next two days, she pondered over the diagnosis and resolved to defeat cancer.
"I won't let a few cells get the better of me. Fighting was my only option. So, the question was no longer, 'Will I recover?' It quickly became, 'Who will I be when I do recover?' I'm a strong believer in the power of the mind. Once I believe in something, my actions automatically work towards achieving it," says the young entrepreneur, who is also a marathon runner and a painter.
Steeling herself for a big fight, the young wannabe entrepreneur battled her diagnosis, which required several rounds of the hospital visits, cheerfully and optimistically. She read motivational books by Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who fought testicular cancer to get back on his bike.
"And that's how cancer inspired JetSetGo's manifestation. Cancer made me a strong person ready to face any challenge," points out Kanika, who was chosen as one of the 100 most inspirational women in the world by BBC, while Forbes Asia recognised her as one of the 30 under 30 leading entrepreneurs in Asia.
"My brief yet very real brush with the concept of mortality led me to the idea that this life, that we are so miraculously granted, is to be used for dreaming bigger and achieving more. I spent my eight months of treatment analysing, planning, and structuring my vision, and I made it happen. In the end, it's all about making it happen," says Kanika, who literally pulverised the odds with her grit and gumption.
In her entrepreneurial journey, conquering cancer was not the only challenge.
Gender discrimination was also a daunting handicap.
"Traditionally dominated by men, the aviation sector is not an easy place to break into. I've received far too many backhanded compliments and prejudiced comments to the effect that I don't belong in this space. I was advised to set up a bakery and start baking cupcakes or take up a cloth-making business. I was also told to rethink my decision of venturing into the aviation space as it would be difficult to continue once I got married and had kids," she recalls.
Remembering an incident, Kanika says the intensity of the corporate worl's glass ceiling first hit her when she was in a boardroom filled with over a hundred men.
"I was the only woman in the room. I realised that to feel intimidated would be an injustice to myself and other women whose dreams were waiting to be turned into reality. When I spoke, the men did feel intimidated. There are daily challenges of the market to confront. Competition is fierce, but JetSetGo is fiercer!"
Initially, her family was also sceptical, but she stood her ground.
"When you belong to a typical Marwari family, entrepreneurship is in your blood. Though my parents were all prepared to pack me off into a 'nice Marwari family', which would have put my chances of doing business near zero, they have been incredibly supportive since JetSetGo was founded," says Kanika, a winner of the National Entrepreneurship Award for e-commerce.
It may sound incredible, but she forayed into the aviation sector with a paltry investment of Rs 5,600 and without an aircraft of her own. She built an app to book chartered flights and provided consultancy on the aircraft purchase.
The first two years were tough, but she conquered the problems by taking advances from clients and credit from vendors to run the business.
A cloud-based, customer-centric enterprise, JetSetGo has now grown into a robust company with a Rs 250 crore (Rs 2.5 billion) turnover, managing 30 aircraft. It provides its customers choice, transparent pricing system and flexible booking on both Web and mobile platforms.
With offices in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Hyderabad, it has around 200 employees, including pilots and crew members. Its clients are mostly corporates, celebrities, politicians, and HNIs.
Apart from ad hoc charters, it offers private travel packages such as JetSetYatra (pilgrimage trips to the remotest of locations), JetSetWed (wedding destinations), HeliSetGo (for individuals and corporates), and JetSetRescue (widest range of modified aircraft and helicopters equipped with advanced life support systems for evacuations and emergency medical assistance).
The company has so far flown more than 3,000 flights with zero accidents and complete regulatory compliance.
JetSetGo is leveraging its first mover advantage in urban air mobility with its eVTOL or electrical Vertical Take-Off aircraft, which are capable of vertical take-off and landing and may play an important role in urban mobility eventually.
Kanika's vision is to democratise air travel by making private flying more accessible, economical, and efficient.
"I want to make chartered air travel the future of transport for those who greatly value time and convenience," she says, with her trademark confidence that stems from over a decade of experience in the aviation industry.
While pursuing her MBA, she worked with Aerospace Resources in London, and that stint made her realise the enormous potential of chartered flight in India. Before that, in college in Mumbai, she also worked with India Bulls' aviation division, where she got an opportunity to meet many people from the aviation industry. It gave her the first look at the business.
During the initial phase of her career, she was quick to realise that India's chartered aviation sector was bedevilled with several problems: The industry was dominated by brokers and operators who were more concerned about their commission than meeting the requirements of customers.
The private aviation arena was not technology-driven; the pricing system wasn't transparent; the fares were indefensibly high.
JetSetGo is the result of Kanika's desire to solve this problem, which takes care of its operators and customers by providing a technology-based platform with a transparent and economical pricing system.
The pandemic hit the aviation sector hard. but her business remained largely unscathed. There has been renewed interest by customers in using private jets and one of the hottest selling trips is Hyderabad to Tirupati wherein it does four trips per day. The company also ran many rescue operations during the second wave of the pandemic, she says.
Mumbai-Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Goa-Delhi, Delhi-Hyderabad-Delhi are the most flown sectors for the company, which offers the shortest wait time for an aircraft.
Kanika, who is married to a businessman based in Hyderabad, is upbeat about the prospects and opportunities of chartered air travel and air taxis in India, especially because we are a nation with three cities ranked among the top 15 most traffic-congested cities worldwide -- Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi take fifth, 10th, and 11th spot, respectively, in the TomTom Traffic Index.
According to her, travel by air is a viable option now, and probably a mainstream mode of transport in the immediate future.
JetSetGo is experimenting with its ambitious air-taxi project -- SkyShuttle, which will be a shuttle service or air taxi between two points within a city. A helicopter is to be used for this service, and the company is testing its feasibility.
"It can resolve today's urban challenges by sustainably propelling the mobility industry forward. Fully electric, autonomous drones, ride-sharing, and, to a great degree, affordable -- these are some of the advantages through which SkyShuttle aims to be the catalyst of change for Indian mobility," she says, exuding confidence.
As for her message for wannabe women entrepreneurs, Kanika says the first step for them is to assume that most things in their lives are negotiable and they must not settle for whatever they are offered. They need not accept the status quo as fixed and rigid.
"People will say a lot of things -- ignore the noise. They need to know that brilliant businesses were not built on money, but on great ideas. Performance is the only thing that matters.
"What people say is irrelevant to the bling of the dollar in your top and bottom line.
"Go dominate that male-dominated industry; they won't even know what hit them.
Pushing boundaries, breaking barriers, and taking over the skies, the cancer survivor is determined to set a higher benchmark and reform private aviation in India.
An earlier version of this feature incorrectly mentioned Ms Tekriwal's last name. The error is regretted.