In 1993, Rajeev Samant quit his job at Oracle to follow an entrepreneurial path in India. At the time even though it may have seemed like the road less travelled, it is now evident that the will to succeed flows through his blood. And, success came as a natural. For today, Sula Vineyards, the brainchild of this young entrepreneur is flourishing in all its glory and can safely be credited as the pioneer of the Indian wine industry. Even during his Oracle days, he enjoyed the distinction of being the youngest manager in the finance division! While Europe is known for its family-owned wineries, things are clearly different on this side of the globe looking at the Sula brand of wines that took shape after Samant began to experiment with farming mangoes, roses, grapes and teakwood on his 20-acre, family-owned Nashik plot. Samant, the founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards, shares his story in an exclusive interview with Youth Inc.
Why did you quit your job at Oracle in Silicon Valley?
RS: I realised quickly that I was not cut out to be a corporate clone. I definitely needed to do something of my own. I also decided that I’d had a good time in California but it was time to go back to India to do something meaningful. Both of these thoughts came at the same time and that is when I made my decision. I have not regretted it to date.
How did the name Sula come about?
RS: Sula is part of my mother’s name, ‘Sulabha’. We brainstormed for a long time over names that would not only sound Indian but would also translate across globally. This name came to me in a flash one evening. It was only later that my father pointed out that it was in fact my mother’s name.
Tell us more about your education at Stanford.
RS: Stanford was a very special place that instilled a strong belief in entrepreneurship and finding your own path. I was extremely inspired by the success stories that had spawned from this great university. Both my degrees helped a lot. A degree in engineering management teaches you how to manage a complex enterprise, which at the end of the day is what a winery is about. Economics gives you a strong grounding in finance, which has definitely stood me in good stead at the start-up stage.
Did you feel that you were taking a risk when you started out in the ’90s?
RS: It was a huge risk. We were the first winery to come up in Nashik. But there were also a few factors that led to this. One was the fact that my father already owned a small piece of land in Nashik. But, at that time, winemaking was an unknown industry with only two wineries in the country. Wine consumption was negligible and Nashik had no history of wine at the time.
During your start-up days, what was your initial instinct in a country that considered alcohol taboo years ago?
RS: What was very clear even at that time was that India was moving fast in all directions. I took a reference of what the consumption patterns had been in other Asian countries. I found out that in those countries, people started out with hard spirits, then moved on to beer and graduated on to wine. So for me it was clear and inevitable that India would also move towards wine. Even today, if you look at it, consumption is very small as compared to other countries. But there are two ways to look at it. One is that it’s not a big market; the second way to look at it is that it means it has the most potential.
What personal characteristics are required to be a successful entrepreneur?
RS: To be an entrepreneur in any field, one needs a huge degree of optimism, so the glass is always half full. You also need a lot of resilience because there are many testing times when you start things up. So you wake up one morning and you just think “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?” You have to overcome that and keep pushing until it happens. You also need a huge amount of self-belief. I think this is one of the defining characteristics of most entrepreneurs.
What skills have you developed along the journey?
RS: I’ve definitely learnt to work well in a team environment. I tended to be quite an individual when I started out, but now, the one thing you realise is that you have to take people along with you. That’s something that I definitely learnt along the way.
A recent report stated that the Indian wine industry has lost its sparkle. Your thoughts?
RS: It’s true that a large number of wineries are facing big problems, but then some of those wineries should never have been started up in the first place. Sula has had a very different story over the last few years. Sales are booming. It’s by far the consumers preferred choice. So the wine industry is really on a two-track path, and we must remember that everything that we read in the media is not necessarily true. You have to sift through the story to understand the bigger story. In effect, Indian wine consumption is booming at the moment and Sula is the biggest beneficiary of that because of our relentless focus on quality.
How vital is it to have sommeliers at restaurants? Do you feel it is becoming a popular career option?
RS: There are two things. One, you could have a trained sommelier, which makes sense for expensive restaurants and five-star hotels. But even the waiting staff at fairly good restaurants ought to have minimum knowledge of wine. Sula contributes a lot in this sphere by taking restaurant and hotel staff up to our beautiful vineyards to teach them the basics of wine. I feel that there will be a lot of opportunities in this industry in the years to come. Currently, it’s still a very small industry. But it’s surely going to be a boom time over the next ten years.
As the leader in sustainable winemaking, tell us more about Sula’s green efforts and goals.
RS: I strongly feel that there is no point in simply being a big success. It’s important to be successful while minimising one’s carbon footprint on the planet. From cutting down our water usage and recycling every drop of water that comes out of our waste-water treatment to using solar energy, right up to using earthworms to process our crushed waste into rich compost, these efforts really guide everything we do. Sula is one of the greenest wineries in the world and we hope that this is the path that others will tread in the years to come.
Our readers would love to know more about the man behind it all! What inspires you and what are you passionate about?
RS: I’ve always loved to do things differently. You can say that I march to the beat of a slightly different drummer. I believe that I evolved my life philosophy even before starting out on my Sula path. I strongly believe in a couple of things. The first is a healthy mind and a healthy body. So, as important as a career is as well as everything else in life, we shouldn’t forget to do basic physical exercise everyday, otherwise everything we do can come to naught if our health is not up to the mark. I also believe that life should be richly lived and this whole planet is open for us to enjoy. So we should not get too focused or stuck on trivial things in life but we should get out there, enjoy ourselves and spread joy among others and at the same time work hard.
Volume 1 Issue 6