What's it like to be a female entrepreneur in the Asian food industry?

Red Rickshaw
Red Rickshaw
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If you’re going to take on an old school marketplace like Asian food, you have to face facts that the industry is heavily steeped in tradition and very proud of its values and deep-rooted culture. So it is to be expected that as a newcomer to the scene, you are likely to face a number of interesting challenges along the way.

Tradition can often be a great thing for business in terms of stability and reputation but it can also present barriers that you need to try and break down while still retaining that element of innovation which make your products and market offering so appealing. To survive in business today I’ve learned that your business must be agile and able to flex to accommodate different demands and changing customer preferences – but I’ve found this isn’t so straightforward in my industry.

In the past, certainly in the case of Asian culture, women were always the homemakers. Despite being consistently exposed to western culture and seeing women in the working world, this generation of business people has been stuck in a time-lock where certain traditions and values continue to be upheld. Starting a new business in a sector that is heavily male dominated and with much of the sector not used to dealing with women in business negotiations, there is much to learn.

Choosing your battles

To set the scene, I’ll share one of my business stories, which helped me to decide which battles are worth fighting and to make informed decisions based on my desire to get ahead. I recently met with one of my suppliers along with a male member of my team, yet despite being well aware that I’m the owner of the business they still directed all of their questions to my male colleague and only maintained eye contact with him and not with me.

Most men in my industry would feel uncomfortable shaking hands with a woman. From the way you dress to the way you address, each minute and irrelevant detail is observed differently simply because I am a female entrepreneur. That’s often hard to swallow, but sometimes it is about choosing the battles that are worth fighting and dealing with them in the right way.

From the way you dress to the way you address, each detail is observed differently simply because I am a female entrepreneur.

Battles are common for most entrepreneurs starting out. In my case, for those that don’t have an issue dealing with female entrepreneurs, I’ve found that being an online tech entrepreneur can sometimes be perceived as a threat. In the Asian food sector, the internet is a disruptive force that could change the way people do business forever and that is either a concern for them or something they choose to disregard. However, facing challenges head-on is part of what sets you apart as an entrepreneur and these situations also provide great learning opportunities.

There are things that I’ve learned to do that have helped me in business, such as to try and speak the same language where possible. I will also dress a certain way and even bring a male colleague with me if I think the supplier or contact will be uncomfortable dealing with me because I am female. Whether I agree or not is of little consequence, because this will remove the tension from the nonsensical barriers and help bring the focus back to the core aspects and objectives of the meeting (and my goals for the business).

Retaining the core essence of your business

If you are really serious about disrupting a traditional market place that is very passionate and sometimes defensive about its heritage, you need to understand how that market operates. At the same time, you need to retain the core essence that makes it wonderful or unique or you risk losing the very reason you went into that sector in the first place. It is critical to get the key players in the marketplace to cooperate and work effectively with you and that is not always the easiest task.

I faced some difficult times with my suppliers initially because they immediately assumed that the prices of my products would be more expensive than high street prices and so provided me with uncompetitive rates. It took me a long time to communicate my business offering and to negotiate the deals I wanted. When I deal with my competitors it is a completely different story, but you have to involve them all along your journey, so that means finding an approach that doesn’t alienate or intimidate others.

Startups like mine need to be mentally prepared too; it is about turning restlessness into relentlessness.

I believe that my business is disrupting the current market and I am looking to raise the bar in providing better customer service than the norm, something that requires a huge shift in thinking in the current marketplace, as well as a need for greater efficiency as the industry has a very high level of wastage associated with it. There is also a need for tighter processes and controls – increasing the general standard and quality of the goods through improved supply chain management.

Resilience and persistence will stop you giving up

There is an ongoing challenge to flex and adapt to different cultures when you work in an industry like mine, but I’ve found this has got easier as I have begun to learn and understand more about the thinking and psychology behind the purchase. Getting to know your customer is vital to provide a product offering that people will truly appreciate. Success in business is really all about resilience and persistence, and a will to achieve your goals because sometimes it can feel like a much easier option to give up; usually because it is.

Gender will always be an issue in this marketplace, I’ve had to accept that change is happening, gradually, but it will be slow. There are more females working in support functions, but I have yet to come across any leading women in the Asian food or supplier sector that are truly making decisions at the top - I am hopeful that will change in the future.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

I’ve learned not to bite off more than you can chew. Understanding exactly what the barriers to entry may be and creating a plan of action to overcome them is the best way forward. Without being aware of the barriers, it is difficult to pre-empt and tackle them successfully. Startups like mine need to be mentally prepared too; it is about turning restlessness into relentlessness. We will all have setbacks and come across challenges we may not have thought would occur. It is important to maintain a positive frame of mind and to not let things get you down.

About Jyoti Patel


Red Rickshaw is the UKs largest online Asian grocer providing a one-stop shop for authentic Asian groceries and spices, delivered straight to your door. The online store aims to awaken the taste buds and encourage greater food exploration. Shoppers will find a range of delicious Asian recipes to try at home with helpful ‘add to basket’ features, useful guides and tips to create exciting and tasty dishes. Inspiring those new to Asian cuisine as well as the more adventurous foodie, Red Rickshaw brings the many exciting flavours of the Far East to dining tables across Europe.

Authentic spice kits, recipe subscription boxes and hampers are also available to purchase online.


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