“I hope to get some innovation going in the Indian lighting industry”

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Rajeev Chopra, CEO, iBahn Illumination

To lead the transition from standard LED lighting to smart lighting is his passion, and he believes that innovation is the key that can make this happen. With more than a decade of rich experience in the lighting industry behind him and with strong support from his friends, Rajeev Chopra set up iBahn Illumination in the end of 2016. This startup in the smart LED lighting space aspires to become an Indian multinational. In a candid conversation with Shruti Mishra, business journalist, Electronics Bazaar, he shares some interesting and important aspects of his life.

About myself
Year of birth: 1963
Favourite music: Old Bollywood classic songs and western rock
Favourite food: Coastal south Indian food, Japanese, European and Schezwan cuisine
Favourite films: Dangal
Favourite singer: Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and the group, Pink Floyd
Favourite actor: Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan
Favourite sports: Cricket, football, golf
Hobbies: Photography and playing golf over the weekends
Qualities that matter: Passion, integrity, functional skills and the ability to work
as a part of a team

Childhood and education
I had the luxury of a happy childhood filled with friends, family and lots of outdoor sports. I grew up in Kolkata where my father worked in a jute factory. We used to live in a colony, so invariably I had friends living next door. I did my schooling from La Martiniere. As a student I was fairly good at both academics and non-academic activities. Apart from studies, I also indulged in my favourite sports like cricket and football. That is something I continued to do in my college days as well.

Since childhood, my dad was extremely keen that I become successful in whatever I wanted to do. He never tried to push me into anything, yet he was always there to encourage me. I still remember when I cleared the IIT entrance exam, he was more happy than I was.
I did my graduation in metallurgical engineering from IIT Kanpur. Right from that time, I had made up my mind to take up jobs or assignments that would further my learning and help in building my career in the long run.

After completing my graduation in 1985, I got my first job at the Usha Fans factory. While working there, I also started preparing for an MBA course and eventually joined A.B. Freeman School of Business, Tulane University in the United States, for which I had earned a scholarship.

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Professional journey
My professional journey has been quite diverse and interesting. After completing my MBA, I returned to India and started approaching companies of my preference. I wanted a career in sales and marketing. After looking for a month, I got an offer from Reckitt & Colman. This was technically my first job, in this new career. I joined as a management trainee and travelled through many small towns and villages. The four-and-a-half year journey with Reckitt & Colman taught me many different aspects of sales and marketing and, therefore, it has remained one of the best learning experiences of my life, professionally.

I then switched to Hewlett Packard (HP) in Singapore, which was a totally different field as I transitioned to the IT industry. After HP, I came back to India and worked with two other IT companies—Microsoft and Cisco. So, by this time, my career path had shifted from the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry to hardcore IT. Coincidently, at each of these companies, I worked for roughly four years, adding up to about 11 odd years in the field of IT.

I was introduced to the lighting industry in 2003, when I joined Philips Lighting as head of the luminaires business unit in India. I moved up the ranks, serving in many different positions in the company —from the managing director of Philips India to worldwide CEO of the home lighting business group at Philips Europe. I decided to quit the company because my family was in India, and my son was at a crucial stage of his academic career. So I left Philips in the end of 2015 and came back to India.

Why lighting?
When I came back to India I explored both the options—of joining another company and

Rajeev Chopra with his family

doing something beyond a job. But this time, I was determined that rather than work for a multinational, I should work for an Indian company that has the ambition to become a multinational. I spent nearly two months exploring the opportunities. While I was looking around and evaluating my options, major changes were happening around the Indian lighting industry. I was struck by the idea that there was a tremendous opportunity in the lighting industry for an Indian firm to become a multinational. Because of a strong personal background in the lighting sector, I had a fair idea of how the global lighting industry and market works. In addition, I could easily figure out the trends that have the potential to define the future of lighting, and that’s what made me choose lighting as a new business.

Founding iBahn Illumination
Seeing the rapid innovations in the field of LED lighting, I truly believed that this sector was going to transition into smart lighting, within three to five years. Fortunately, I knew people like Arjun Sahani, Kunal Chaudhuri who had a similar vision and that’s how we founded iBahn Illumination together. Beyond this shared vision, all three of us have been corporate executives and neither of us had any sort of entrepreneurship background. So this experience was totally new to us.

I guess we were one of the first to act on smart lighting trends and considering our work experience was only in the corporate world, I think we have done fairly well so far, as entrepreneurs. One thing that I want to state to job seekers is that although currently we cannot match the salaries of the big companies, we can offer them a work environment that is unparalleled.

Learning from the past
I have picked up many little things from lots of people at every stage of my life. During my student days in the US and when I was working for HP at its regional headquarters in Singapore, I met people from different cultures and learnt about diversity. I think that the strongest plus-point of living in different countries is that it broadens your perspective and builds strong values, helping you grow as a person. In the process of setting up iBahn, I learnt a lot about the industry and its ecosystem from our competitors and channel partners.
Similarly, apart from sales and marketing, my job profile at my first job in Reckitt & Colman taught me the nitty-gritties of rural marketing, possibly more than what I could have learnt from any marketing text book. In Microsoft, I was heading the marketing department and there I learned the managerial aspects of such a job.

From all the experiences that I have had till now, I would say that the most striking difference between a company and a startup is that in large firms you have a strong workforce and solid support infrastructure. But when you are in the startup phase, you and your small team are the only support infrastructure you have. We had to do a lot on our own, starting with purchasing electric kettles for the office to hiring employees for the company, which I feel was a new kind of learning altogether. What’s more, in the case of big companies, their name and brand values are enough to build the trust factor for an employee but as a startup, you need to convince people with your concrete ideas and build the trust factor to make them join your company.

Defining success
I think there are three different elements that define success. The first one is, whether you have achieved the goal that you set for yourself. Second, have you left a legacy behind or will you be remembered for the right things a few years down the road. The third aspect is whether you really enjoyed the process or journey of reaching your dream position. If you can tick a ‘Yes’ against all three points, that is success for me.

In my case, I can say a ‘Yes’ for all three aspects. I always wanted to be a very senior corporate executive running a company, and that happened. As of now, we have got a brand named Svarochi, and if this brand remains in the market for a very long time, I think that in itself will become a legacy. Lastly, if I ask myself whether I have had fun during this journey, the answer would be, ‘Absolutely yes!’ If we efficiently achieve the targets that we have set for the company in the desired time period, then yes, this would also be counted as a success.

Management style
Right from the time I was a kid, I could always organise things so that there wouldn’t be any last minute pressure. I always have a fair idea of how and by when I will be able to finish a certain task. That’s why I can say that I am a reasonably organised person, and good at organising things both personally and professionally. I have been this way for a very long time and therefore I never have to juggle deadlines. While planning my day, I usually don’t do anything in the last minute and try to avoid any kind of hustle.

Professionally, I never micromanage, neither do I think I am good at it. Also, I never try to create extra pressure. Even in my days in the corporate world, if somebody tried to put pressure on me about something, I handled that myself and did not let it get transmitted to the team.

Personally, I believe in allowing people to carry on their tasks in their own way as long as things are progressing towards the end goal.

The future
With iBahn, I, as a part of the team, hope to get some innovation going in the Indian lighting industry. If we can change the innovation mindset or even play a role in changing it within the entire sector, I think that will be a huge achievement. We are trying to build a new concept and to propagate it based on the belief that the market will move in that direction.

Meanwhile, we keep coming up with new products, finding new markets, offering enhanced concepts and experiences because, in the end, we want to be an Indian multinational company. To execute this dream, we are planning one milestone at a time, keeping our next milestone very much in perspective.

Suggestions to budding entrepreneurs
I think anybody can become an entrepreneur and doesn’t even require any entrepreneurial background. One thing I strongly recommend is to always look for innovation, and not just copy or import products. In addition, get hold of a decent business idea, ensure you have the resources and the ability to execute it well, and the passion to follow through. If any newcomer who wants to join the lighting industry has these in place, then nobody can stop him or her from becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Another important point that I would like to emphasise is that startups are no longer a high risk proposition now. Thankfully, things are changing now as corporates tend to value those who have any sort of startup experience. Therefore, due to any circumstance, if your startup doesn’t do well, you can join the corporate world at any point of time. Many companies are even ready to give you full credit for the work that you have done in the startup. And that is making startups a very viable option for today’s young generation.

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