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This article was first published 14 years ago

This single mom is also a successful entrepreneur

Last updated on: September 7, 2009 

Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani

Thirty-four-year-old chocolatier Roopali Gulabani discovered her entrepreneurial spirit almost entirely by accident.

Ten years ago, she was attending a party in Bandra, Mumbai, and gave a handmade champagne and chocolate preparation as a gift to the host.

"Wow, this is great! Do you make these professionally?" the host asked.

Hardly thinking about it, Roopali remembers, she blurted out 'Yes.' But although chocolate was one of her passions, and she had made them for years, she'd never done it professionally.

"I said to myself, 'Hey, let's try this,'" she recalls.

The host then passed word onto friends, many of whom wanted to place orders. Four days later, Roopali was working on seven different orders.

She was officially in business.

Today, almost single-handedly, Roopali runs Chocolate Sentiments, a leader in Mumbai's designer and custom chocolate scene. From her studio in Juhu, Andheri, she makes custom chocolate arrangements for just about anything: weddings, holidays, births, corporate events, etc.

At the moment, for example, Roopali is working on an order from Hong Kong. A client there has ordered 175 boxes to announce the birth of a grandchild. Roopali has made the packaging light blue and shaped like a baby's bootie.

She's also designed chocolate roses for Teacher's Day (September 5).

"Many children bring the teacher a rose on Teacher's Day. Others bring chocolates. But how many bring chocolate roses?" she says, laughing.

"I make gift packages for many different occasions," she adds. "Recently, on Doctor's Day, I put out the message to my clients about the holiday. I received orders for 350 boxes in less than 24 hours. Later on, doctors were calling me to thank me. They said that rarely do people remember Doctor's Day. So it's an exciting, rewarding profession. But it requires a lot of creativity and an ability to market yourself."

Striking a balance

On top of all her work, Roopali is swamped at home too: she's the single mother of two children, aged seven and three. "Being a single mother and running your own business is a tough task," she says.

There's always something to do.

"I'm constantly shuffling from one place to another. I will have to spend three or fours in the studio, then spend time visiting a client. Then I have to pick up the children from school, or take them to the doctor, or to meet friends. It never stops."

Without question, she says, the busiest time of year for a chocolateer is Diwali and the months that follow. "During peak season, the kids are also here with me in the studio, because I have no time to leave. They get treats to keep them happy though," she jokes.

While she's had a core workforce of five women who have worked with her from the start, during holiday season she hires 20-25 additional workers. "The studio runs 24 hours a day, around the clock. We make between three and four tonnes of chocolate in a month," she says.

Obviously, whatever she's doing is working. Her clients include Bipasha Basu and Priyanka Chopra. But while she's at the forefront of Mumbai's chocolate scene today, she's not always been a businesswoman.

"When I was younger, I was oriented toward creativity. I used to play around with packaging and I also loved to make chocolates. By the time I was in my late teens, I had started making small orders of chocolates, usually wedding and birth announcements."

But she had to do this on the sly. "I come from a conservative family," she explains. "So my dad didn't expect me to be working when I was younger."

One day, she says, one of her dad's business clients told him about this young girl who prepared wonderful chocolate arrangements. When her dad asked the girl's name, he was stunned to hear the mystery chocolate woman was his own daughter!

"He didn't understand at first. He didn't think a girl so young should be doing that. But then he realised the passion I had for it. And now today he is a huge support. He's my rock. None of this would be possible without my family," she says.

Creating a niche

Roopali separates herself from the big name competition -- Cadbury, Amul, etc -- because she's able to create custom-made chocolates that cater to specific clients.

"I have company logos embossed on the chocolates. For example, a few years back, the Sensex was close to crossing 7,000 for the first time. There was a lot of excitement, especially in the corporate community. So I got this idea. I would make Sensex 700 chocolate."

She called up one of her clients, an investment firm, and explained her plan. She would emboss the Sensex building in Mumbai onto a chocolate, with 'Sensex 7,000' embossed at the top. The client loved the idea.

"No big company would have been able to create such a product so quickly," she adds.

She says one of her toughest tasks occurred during the July 26, 2005 floods in Mumbai. During the initial stages of the flood, a client had placed an emergency order for 12,000 boxes, and asked Roopali to finish in just three days, despite the rapidly deteriorating situation on the streets. Many of Roopali's workers had homes that were affected by flooding, and told her that they wouldn't be able to come to work. Roopali promised she would help them pay for whatever damage had occurred to their homes, as long as they helped her finish the order on time. Three days later, the order was done. When she called the client, he had to ask for another day, because the floods had thrown his schedules out of order.

"It felt great," she remembers. "I actually beat the client on the emergency order!"

Nuggets of wisdom

Today, she says, chocolates are becoming more popular in India. But the competition is also increasing, because more people are making and selling chocolates.

"It's a tough business. You have to be able to sell yourself and you have to be very efficient and very consistent in quality."

Conventional wisdom says that chocolate in Mumbai always melts at room temperature. "It's not true," says Roopali. "My chocolates do not melt. I sell them in Mumbai. I sell international orders to Dubai and Hong Kong. I have sent my chocolates across India via ground delivery without any melting. The key is to temper it properly."

On what is popular, she says that Indians prefer a mixture of milk and dark chocolate. Her top sellers are chikki dipped in chocolate, almond chocolates, cashew chocolates, praline chocolates and nougat chocolates.

Roopali's also an entrepreneur at heart. A friend has started selling her chocolates in Pune under a new brand and another contact has plans for taking her chocolates to the rest of India. She's also been doing wedding preparations -- not just chocolate gift packages -- for the past six months.

Still, chocolate is her true love.

"It's my passion, and that's why it's such a great career. I feel like I can really give it my best, all the time, because I love doing it. My dream in 20 years is to have Chocolate Sentiments listed on the Sensex."

Roopali's three pieces of advice to budding chocolateers:

1. Temper properly: "Proper tempering is the most important thing you must learn. If you heat chocolate too much or too little, it will develop a white, waxy layer. It doesn't look very nice."

2. Create events. "This is how I made my name, like the with the Sensex chocolates. You must create events and do unique orders."

3. Never turn down a client: "If you turn down a client once, they won't call back the second time. There's too much competition to turn down orders."