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Devita Saraf- the brand ambassador

The founder, chairperson and CEO of Vu Televisions talks to Mint about being the boss and the stylish face of her own business, and the much talked about Donald Trump ad

Devita Saraf.
Devita Saraf. (Photo: Jayachandran/Mint)

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Devita Saraf remembers an amusing anecdote from the mid-2000s, when she had just launched Vu Televisions. Offline traders would often tell the company salespeople: Your boss is Marwari, she will get married and the company will close. What will we do for spare parts?

The founder, chairperson and CEO of Vu Televisions, who started the company when she was 24, laughs at the memory. Vu is currently the fourth largest-selling brand in the country, behind global entities Samsung, Sony and LG. It has sold 1.5 million televisions worldwide since 2006 and now has over 300 employees across 11 offices. The offline traders’ fears were, clearly, unfounded.

Considering Saraf always wanted to be in her father’s business her trajectory is not surprising. Rajkumar Saraf, her father is the founder of software solutions provider Zenith Infotech Ltd. She says she started attending press meets and dealer conferences from an early age and office from when she was 16—she has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California.

“I always felt women’s careers are not taken seriously when they aren’t necessarily working for money," says the 38-year-old, sipping a frothy cappuccino at the veranda of Mumbai’s Willingdon Sports Club that overlooks a lush golf course. “Most respect and power in India, subliminal messages that I saw as a child, rested with men. I realized I wanted to be powerful like dad."

Her entrepreneurial stints started in college itself, she says. “A lot of entrepreneurs want their children to be professional managers but the child of an entrepreneur also wants to be an entrepreneur." Saraf would intern every summer with Zenith, so by the time she finished college, she was familiar with the company and the industry.

“I was working in what my brother (Akash) calls MIS, or the Marwari Induction System. My dad is a fantastic parent—he made sure my brother and I attended high-level meetings," says Saraf.

Becoming a leader was not a difficult transition for Saraf, who comes across as confident and driven, with strong opinions. “I am clear that I am the boss. I am unapologetic about who I am and what I do," Saraf says, speaking rapidly. “I enjoy being a leader. Even if someone wants to undermine me, I make it clear they are wasting their time."

The Indian market changed between 1999, when she left for college, and 2003, when she returned. She realized that youngsters who had grown up in a liberalized economy were going to look for lifestyle rather than security. That is when she told her father they should aim for a high-end product.

Saraf, who calls herself a “creative capitalist" because she provides design direction and strategy to the company, made a business plan and presented it to her father in 2005. The idea was a range of products for digital homes, from the TV, which she imagined as the centre of the house, to digital photo frames, 3D cameras and Bluetooth-enabled speakers.

Vu stands for (and is pronounced) “view", its name a by-product of “SMS language". It started as a separate company registered in California because if it went under, she didn’t want to be responsible for harming the Zenith brand, Saraf says, laughing. “I remember we were in a car on the Bandra flyover when my father asked me if I wanted to be the CEO. Within 3 seconds, I said yes."

The business grew from the initial revenue of 30-35 crore—which qualified as a “hobby" in her father’s opinion—to one with about 1,000 crore at the end of the last financial year. An initial push for the company came from its design and name, which created the impression that it was an international brand, and helped distinguish it from more budget Indian products, believes Saraf. Her fascination with Apple and the late Steve Jobs shows in the way Vu integrates software with design and hardware. Their TVs are priced between multinational brands (like Sony, Samsung) and Indian brands (like Videocon).

But building a great product is one thing, figuring out distribution quite another. A few years ago, when traditional retail did not get them the expected returns, the company decided to transition. In 2014, when e-commerce was just growing, Vu signed an exclusive deal with Flipkart. They have done business worth 2-2.5 crore with the company, making it the largest-selling TV brand across e-commerce platforms.

“If I wanted to do business with someone, I would turn up at their doorstep," says Saraf. “You can never look at technology from an egoistic point of view; of how you are better than the competition. You have to look at technology from a consumer point of view—how it enhances their life."

Real-time data and feedback also helped the company learn and modify its products. A year ago, the television maker launched a 100-inch 4K HDR (high dynamic range) set for 20 lakh called Vu 100.

Saraf owns Vu Televisions: there are no outside investors or debt. “I have considered going public. But I don’t want extra work in understanding how to deal with regulators, etc. The government might be pro-business but not pro-entrepreneurs," she says.

I ask about the perception that she may have had it easy because of Raj Saraf and Zenith. “I will not apologize for being the boss’ daughter," she says. “You can choose to look at these things in a negative way or as an opportunity.... People may think ‘she is daddy’s girl’ but once I start conducting my meetings, they realize I know my subject.

“You would think that as his daughter, I would be able to convince him of something, but he comes with his own knowledge. My team will tell you my father is a much nicer and kinder person than I am," adds Saraf.

She is clear about why she decided to be the face of the brand, instead of getting a popular celebrity. When Vu announced the launch of its TVs with a Netflix button on the remote three years ago, it brought out a full-page advertisement in a leading Mumbai daily. The Hello Netflix campaign had a picture of a smiling, bright-eyed Saraf, holding two remotes.

“A lot of India is being driven too much by a mass populist mentality. To compete with the global best, you are banking on high levels of education and intellect." She isn’t in favour of hiring cricketers and actors for endorsements. “Why get a guy who is dancing, acting and singing for a living to promote a high-end product?

“It’s authentic—for example, in the US, Steve Jobs was the face of his business. I once asked (Virgin head) Richard Branson about the pros and cons of being the face of your business. He said, ‘If I had your face, I would be even more successful,’" says Saraf, who was called India’s model CEO by Forbes magazine in 2016.

Additionally, she says, it’s a message, that you can be young, female and a tech CEO. “For a country so obsessed with education, it’s tragic that our role models didn’t even finish 12th standard," she says.

The other full-page advertisement she took out that generated a lot of conversation was Saraf posing with Donald Trump after the latter was sworn in as US president in 2017. The picture had her standing with the businessman, holding a copy of the book Business Czarinas, which featured her.

She had met Trump in Mumbai before he became president, and asked him a question on fathers and daughters in business. She had read a book by (his daughter) Ivanka (The Trump Card: Playing To Win At Work And Life) and asked if he could give Business Czarinas to Ivanka. “He told Donald Trump Jr that I am like India’s Ivanka, in an endearing father-daughter way. I thought a businessman becoming president was a good sign," she says, explaining the idea behind the ad. “One of my competitors called a common friend, saying ‘ask Devita how much did it cost’. I said please tell him that I didn’t charge Donald Trump anything," she says, laughing.

Saraf believes people need to see their daughters as their heirs, to see women in their family as equally intelligent, and be able to envisage a 25-year-old as their boss. “My biggest vision for the country is the more we move to global, modern thinking, the better it will be for the economy and women," she says.

With her interest in fashion and style, Saraf says one of the biggest challenges for women in the workspace is stereotyping: either the “matronly, sari-clad image or the masculine, Hillary Clinton power suit. Why can’t I be a woman who loves colour, design, and still be a good business leader?

“I worry that for the next generation, if they do not change the visual representation of women in business, more young girls will be driven towards (becoming) entertainers than entrepreneurs."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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