But my family didn’t want me to have an education and go out to work. They were very traditional and there was a lot of pressure – particularly from my extended family – to get married and stay at home. Some of those cultural expectations can still hold black and minority ethnic women back today. But from a young age, I have always fought against those barriers. I was never going to do what I was supposed to do. My mother is my biggest champion – when I was a child, she used to sneak me out of the house to go to ballet or tap lessons. She has always said: “I will support you, but don’t let me down.”
The turning point for me was when I didn’t get the promotion I wanted at work. I was looking to move into management at Bayer. I’d set a goal, as I always do, and I expected to reach it. When that didn’t happen, I sat there and thought: do I really want to go and work for somebody else for eight years, only to be told I’m not good enough? The answer was no. I set up my own healthcare and IT consultancy business, Oberoi Consulting, in 2001. I would later start the Oberoi Business Hub in 2012 to provide back-office support to small businesses, and received an OBE for services to entrepreneurship and startups in 2014.
One of my biggest challenges was learning to trust other people. It wasn’t a natural thing for me. Entrepreneurs are naturally very controlling individuals and I’d never had any people management experience when I was first starting out. I had to learn the hard way about creating and motivating high-performing teams. While mistakes can be frustrating for a perfectionist like me, it’s important to let staff learn from them, without fear of failure or consequences. I am still learning every day about great leadership.
Giving something back should always be part of an entrepreneur’s game plan. In 2016, I got involved with an initiative to provide breakfast to primary school children in Derby, and funded it for a year to get it off the ground. We now have 16 schools involved, Kellogg’s is providing the cereal, and local businesses and Derby College are raising money. There’s already been an improvement in the children’s attendance, behaviour and attainment in class.
My biggest ambition is to inspire others, so they can achieve their potential. Self-belief is key for any business owner – you have to communicate the passion you have for your business, stay focused and be dedicated to your cause. Finding a mentor can help, as can spending time surrounded by like-minded, motivated individuals to keep your energy levels up. Above all, be prepared to sacrifice a lot. Failure is not an option.
Interview by Emma Sheppard
Kavita Oberoi spoke in Leeds at Business Made Simple, a Guardian event supported by Vodafone