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Shruti Shibulal: Ethics and hospitality

The Tamara's director of strategy and development speaks about her passion for food, building an ecologically responsible organization, and about growing up in the Infosys family

Shruti Shibulal. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Shruti Shibulal. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Dressed in a sleeveless black top over classic denim jeans, with her shoulder-length, curly black hair tied back, Shruti Shibulal, 32, meets me at Fava, a Mediterranean restaurant that she helped set up nearly a decade ago.

Shibulal orders a rainbow-coloured array of appetizers, including an avocado hummus, an organic beetroot-based burrata and a watermelon and feta salad, part of the spread sourced from organic farms run by Shibulal’s hospitality venture, The Tamara.

“I had moved back from the US with the idea that I wanted to do something on my own," says Shibulal, a former chartered accountant with Merrill Lynch in New York who is now director of strategy and development at The Tamara. “I had always been interested in food, service and restaurants—because growing up, my family always made it a point to eat out every week. It was always important to my family."

In 2008, a mutual friend introduced her to Abhijit Saha, who was the executive chef at The Park Hotels in Bengaluru, and they formed a partnership. “Our value systems, styles and visions aligned," she says.

Even though she is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Fava, which she started with Saha in 2010, Shibulal makes it a point to drop by from time to time as a patron. Before Fava, Saha and Shibulal had in 2009 set up the upmarket, fine-dining restaurant Caperberry, which specializes in molecular gastronomy. Shibulal’s family firm, Innovations Investment Management Pvt. Ltd, owns a stake in Avant Garde Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which runs Caperberry and Fava.

Busy with her business, family and travel, Shruti Shibulal doesn’t get much time for anything else—even her fitness routine has taken a back seat. “I love reading, but I don’t get much time to do that either these days,” she says. She is also a big fan of Hollywood directors such as Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan—of their recent work, she picks ‘The Departed’ and ‘Inception’. Of late, she has been obsessed with Netflix dramas such as ‘Riverdale’ and ‘13 Reasons Why’.-

Being the daughter of Infosys co-founder Sarojini Damodaran Shibulal comes with its own burden of expectations and Shruti Shibulal has succeeded in carving out a niche hospitality empire on her own.

The Tamara, which launched its flagship 180-acre luxury resort, The Tamara Coorg, in 2012, runs 10 properties in south India and Germany, including those under development. It launched and started operating Lilac, a collection of hotels in the affordable luxury segment in Bengaluru, and Palma Laguna, a boutique resort in the backwaters of Kerala. In 2016, The Tamara made two hotel acquisitions in Germany. Her hospitality chain currently has projects in Kodaikanal and Thiruvananthapuram and is expanding its property projects in Bengaluru and Guruvayur in Kerala.

By 2025, Shibulal hopes to operate at least 1,000 rooms, up from the 500 they plan on operating by the end of 2017, across all her resorts.

Shibulal’s sure-footedness in business hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was named a Young Global Leader (YGL) for 2017 by the World Economic Forum, one of five such leaders under the age of 40 picked from India this year.

Shibulal’s entry into business and entrepreneurship was triggered partly by her stint at Merrill Lynch in New York, where she started her career.

“I worked with high-net individuals to create their portfolios. What that gave me was a really good insight into portfolio management, which I use on a daily basis—whether it’s in our own family office and the work that we do here in terms of portfolio management, or (whether) it’s just looking at (different kinds of) businesses and understanding diversification. In that way it was great," she says.

“The reason I left is because I didn’t feel like I had ownership over the work that I was doing. And that is something that always drives me. I feel like I do my best work when I see tangible results for the work I’m doing. In hospitality, you get that sense of instant gratification," she says.

At the core of her ambition is a drive to build an organization that creates meaningful employment, invests in people and is ecologically responsible—things she feels are lacking in India’s booming start-up ecosystem, and the present generation of entrepreneurs. Shibulal has pushed for gender diversity across the organization and looks to promote women leaders at different levels. Under her, The Tamara has also put in place a new training programme for students who cannot afford to pay for the typically expensive graduation programmes in the hospitality industry. The Tamara currently has over 250 employees on its rolls.

“If you don’t create companies and these people policies and make sure your people are well taken care of, then you’re lost. So my top priority is to ensure that my people are well taken care of," says Shibulal.

Many of her values, when it comes to employment and wealth creation, were ingrained during a childhood spent in an Infosys family.

“We were very middle class. Our luxury was going out and eating. We would eat at Mainland China or Shanthi Sagar. Then obviously a lot of stuff changed—my father appeared on the cover of a magazine," she reminisces. “And people came to know about us… Because of all that, I feel extremely grateful. I feel extremely grounded because I remember very clearly what it was like before."

After completing her schooling in Bengaluru, Shibulal moved to the US, majoring in chemistry and philosophy at Haverford College in Pennsylvania before starting a one-year stint in private banking. Following her return to India in late 2007, Shibulal worked with Saha for two years before heading back to the US for a master’s in business administration (MBA) at Columbia University.

After her return in 2012, Shibulal plunged full-time into The Tamara. She also sits on the boards of her family’s philanthropic ventures, the Advaith Foundation and SD Foundation, which offer financial assistance and scholarships to students from less privileged backgrounds. In 2015, she married businessman and long-time friend Gaurav Manchanda.

With so much on her plate, Shibulal doesn’t get enough time to pursue hobbies, using most of her down-time to watch TV shows and movies on Netflix. “I love old Audrey Hepburn movies," she says as we dig into our main course of spaghetti, pizza and lamb chops.

This was the second time I’d met Shibulal in the space of a week. We had earlier met at her office in south Bengaluru.

The entire office is fitted with hospital-grade air filters—reflecting her goal of creating the best possible work environment for employees, alongside an ecologically friendly business. The Tamara, Shibulal says, has reduced water consumption by 30% by installing water-flow-control devices in faucets.

“The industry is not known for sustainability, we’re known for wastefulness—so Tamara’s energy usage is minimal, our water is recycled and used in landscaping. We also use glass bottles—no plastic. Our ethos with the company is that we want to create properties that are sustainable and responsible," says Shibulal, a vocal proponent of organic produce.

A manifestation of Shibulal’s passion for organic farming has been Organic World, which was launched by The Tamara five years ago, and sources organic products from farms owned by the family and others across the country.

I ask Shibulal whether she’s concerned about disruption to the hospitality industry from emerging competitors such as Airbnb.

“We have to get leaner, smarter and better at what we’re doing as an industry—otherwise we are not going to survive what’s coming. The entire industry has been disrupted by Airbnb and we better figure out how we can do things differently from our competition," says Shibulal.

“I think it’s really exciting to see the industry getting shaken up. Personally, I don’t come from the old school of thinking. I walk into a lot of these hotel conferences where I see CEOs who’ve been around for 40 years. They’re much less inclined to change, whereas when I walk in, I know that this is the reality of life. Disruption has to happen and you have to leverage that."

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