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POPxo Power Women List

Pastry Chef Pooja Dhingra On How To Be Taken Seriously As A Young Entrepreneur In India

Tanya SharmaTanya Sharma  |  Jun 11, 2021
Pastry Chef Pooja Dhingra On How To Be Taken Seriously As A Young Entrepreneur In India

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When Pooja Dhingra was training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she tasted her first macaron. Little did she know, that one French dessert would ignite a love affair that would result in her opening her very own patisserie. After graduating from the esteemed culinary school, the world was her oyster. She could have chosen the safer path and worked at any fancy five-star restaurant in the country. But Pooja noticed a lack of specialty dessert stores in the Indian market and decided to take a leap of faith. In 2010, she started Le15 Patisserie, a Parisian-style cafe in Mumbai—at all of 23! A decade later, Pooja has lovingly been anointed the ‘Macaron Queen of India’. And if you’ve ever tasted one from Le15, you would vehemently agree.

As rosy as it may sound, running a successful baking business is not exactly a piece of cake. In a country like India, being a young woman entrepreneur is bound to be met with skepticism—and Pooja faced her share of it when she first opened Le15. “The challenges I faced (when I started) were largely related to me being a young girl. It was tough to be taken seriously, people always wanted to know who is ‘really’ running the show,” she said. But Pooja brushed it all aside and carried on, unfettered. Today, she runs three outlets in Mumbai, has written two award-winning cookbooks and has earned several international accolades.

They say business, like life, has its fair shares of highs and lows. The year 2020 wasn’t kind to the food & beverage industry in India. Like other businesses, Pooja’s beloved Le15 too was heavily impacted by the multiple lockdowns. Her iconic Le15 outlet at South Mumbai’s Colaba, which had recorded its highest sales the previous year, was forced to down its shutters. Being quick to adapt to the new normal, Pooja pivoted her business to online sales. To support her staff during this period of low revenue, she also started working on an e-cookbook, launched a line of packaged foods as well as her own podcast, NoSugarCoat.

Pooja also used that time to really think about the future of her company. “While the pandemic changed many things for my business, I also saw it course-correct many things. The crisis showed me what truly matters, it gave me a better understanding of not only our business and people but also our customers,” she said. Her takeaways? Pooja is currently building a new vertical from scratch, and her vision for Le15 India is now ‘stronger than ever’. Her 2020 power move of adapting in the face of adversity was awe-inspiring. With the POPxo Power Women List 2020, we are celebrating changemakers like Pooja, who went the extra mile, swiftly adapted to the new normal and made strides that had a lasting impact. And we are so glad to have her on it!

In a conversation with POPxo, she told us about who inspires her, what she’s like as a boss, and her vision for Le15. Excerpts below:

What does power mean to you?

The ability to create positive change.

You inspired many in 2020 by quickly adapting to the new normal and thriving—who inspires you, and why?

My mom is my biggest inspiration. She pushes herself out of her comfort zone and adapts to situations like no one else. She also inspires me to be kind, gentle and live a life that helps others achieve their potential.

What do you think is the biggest challenge women face today?

There are so many it’s difficult to pick one! For where I am in my life today it would be about the balance between my personal and professional life. 

How do you define yourself as a leader? What are the traits a good leader should have?

While I’ve always had innate leadership skills, the last year has truly shown me what it’s like to be a leader. I would call myself a compassionate leader and I’m still finding myself every single day. I think self-reflection is a very important trait to have and the need to keep getting better. It’s also important to have a good feedback loop. And lastly, clear expectations and the ability to communicate them to your team is most important in my eyes.

As a woman in a leadership role, how have you built a work culture that supports women?

Inclusivity and diversity have always been very important to me. I started my business at 23 and was very young and naive but the one thing I knew was that women would have equal opportunities in my company. Over the years, this has evolved in many ways. We’re still a small organisation and we’ve built a work culture that supports all employees.

The pandemic has changed businesses forever. What kind of future do you envision for Le 15 Patisserie?

While the pandemic changed many things for my business I also saw it course-correct many things. The crisis showed me what truly matters, it gave me a better understanding of not only our business and people but also our customers. I’m excited to build a vertical from scratch and my vision for Le15 and its growth is stronger than ever.

Your online cooking tutorials got us through gloomy days during the lockdown—will you make them a permanent feature?

I’m trying my best to juggle work and do the tutorials too. I have worked on my next baking book through the pandemic and I can’t wait for you to see it!

If you could go back and tell your younger self something, what would you say?

I would tell her to have more faith and confidence in herself and her abilities. I’d also tell her to love herself more.

You studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and could have worked at any luxury hotel of your choice. Why did you choose to be an entrepreneur?

At the time I knew that no one else was doing what I wanted to do. The dessert scene in the Indian market was so different. I saw an opportunity and just had to go for it.

What were the challenges you faced when you were starting out?

I started when I was 23 and the challenges I faced were largely related to me being a young girl. It was tough to be taken seriously, people always wanted to know who is really running the show etc.

If you were to give financial advice to people who want to start their own brand, what would it be?

It’s crucial to have an understanding of your finances. If it’s something you don’t know much about—educate yourself. Ask friends and family, do courses and keep asking questions till you learn. This is something I wish I had done myself.

Tell us about the happiest moments from your journey so far.

There have been so many! I’m lucky I get to work in a profession that helps spread joy and happiness to people. My happiest moments are seeing the work we do be appreciated and becoming a part of someone’s happiest memories!