Kanika Tekriwal was barely 21 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. ‘Stage-2 Hodgkins Lymphoma,’ she tells me.
When she recovered two years later, she remembers speaking to a few people wanting to know if they would be willing to hire her for a job.
Kanika was in for a nasty surprise. Many were reluctant to offer her a position convinced that following her illness she would not be able to work like a regular staff. ‘I was hoping that they would want to enable me... to empower me,’ But few she approached were supportive. Recruiters felt she could end up becoming a liability to the company. ‘I found that very weird,’ she recalls.
That was in 2012.
Not one to allow headwinds to throw her off course, Kanika took a decision. ‘I told myself, ‘I’m not going to ask for a job; I’m going to be somebody who’ll be able to give jobs to others.’
While in college she had worked with Aerospace Resources, a company that delivers innovative solutions to firms in the field of aviation and aerospace, and had gained some experience in the field. Also, while pursuing a Master’s in management in the UK, she had found that the charter jet services business there was thriving, making her realise that there was huge potential for a similar charter aircraft service in India.
Convinced she had a plan that could fly, a year later, in 2013, she set up JetSetGo.
Thanks to some strong tail winds in the form of her hard work, a dedicated team and reliable investors, her company today has revolutionised the private aviation business in the region.
Operating one of India’s largest private aircraft fleet, her firm, at last count, owns 10 private jets that are available for ‘hire’. She also provides helicopters and air ambulance services.
Starting as an aircraft aggregator, JetSetGo has grown to a Rs1.5 billion company with offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Dubai and New York. Last year alone it handled 100,000 flyers operating 6,000 flights. According to a recent report, her company is managing 28 aircraft of HNWIs in India and the Middle East covering both domestic and international destinations. They take care of crew, getting flight despatches, maintenance, route clearances and providing inflight amenities.
A ROCKY START
‘At first, I thought I’d do something like a digital platform or a mobile app where you can book a flight,’ says the CEO of the company. The idea was that plane owners could list their aircraft on the site, and customers could book a plane or a helicopter for their needs. ‘I felt I was the next Mark Zuckerberg and was going to take over the world.’
But pretty soon she realised that an app was not really going to solve the problem because aircraft owners often cancelled bookings at the last minute. So she went around and met airplane owners offering to manage their planes, creating a whole new market. ‘And when demand began to exceed supply we went out and started buying our own planes,’ she says.
Kanika’s tone is one of a woman in a hurry. Her sentences are staccato-like, but the undertone is warm, friendly and calm. She takes time to listen to questions before framing her thoughts in a clear and concise manner.
The youngest woman to make it to the 2021 Kotak Private Banking Hurun Leading Wealthy Women list (a compilation of the wealthiest women in India), her net worth has been estimated at Rs4.2 billion.
‘There really is nothing in the world that can stop you from achieving what you want… nothing but your own [self-limiting thoughts],’ says the successful businesswoman, in an exclusive interview from London where she was on business. ‘If we create barriers in our minds, we will never be able to realise our dreams. If you think you are not going to be able to do something, you never will.’
Was it easy to raise funds for JetSetGo? I ask.
‘Initially I didn’t know much about how to go about raising funds,’ says Kanika. ‘I didn’t know whether people would be interested in backing my idea. But soon investors started approaching us including [cricketer] Yuvraj Singh. In fact we closed talks with him in under 2 hours.’
Businessman Puneet Dalmia, a flyer with JetSetGo, enjoyed the service so much that he too chipped in and soon Kanika’s idea was quite literally flying.
AMBITION TO SOAR
From young, Kanika’s dreams had wings.
‘I always wanted to become a pilot,’ says the 33-year-old who was born in a traditional Marwari family. Her father has a diverse range of businesses including real estate, manufacture of pharmaceuticals, waterproofing chemicals and ATM machines.
The first time she saw an aircraft up close was when she was four years old. A helicopter had landed close to her house and she scampered off to get a closer view. Although a tad scared initially – ‘I thought it was a giant ‘roach that might eat us up,’ she says with a laugh – so fascinated was she by the flying machine that she requested the pilot to show her the chopper’s interiors. ‘It was a memorable day,’ she recalls.
Keen to learn more about these metal birds, little Kanika scoured the Encyclopedia Britannica – ‘we didn’t have Google at the time’ – reading up everything she could about aircraft. ‘There was one volume that had a lot of stuff about aircraft and I read it over and over again, and soon knew that entire chapter by heart,’ she says.
Although the desire to become a pilot remained even when she grew up, her parents did not share the same passion. ‘It was made clear that girls in our family were not expected to work and definitely not in frontline jobs. Women were expected to get married and help her husband in his business if it was anything related to say, design or architecture.
‘So, being a pilot pretty much flew out of the window,’ says Kanika, who graduated from high school when she was 16 having skipped a couple of classes as she was found to be academically ahead of her peers.
After completing her schooling from The Lawrence School in Lovedale, she did a diploma course in visual communication before graduating in Economics and going on to earn an MBA from Coventry.
She credits her father for teaching her a few valuable principles of business. ‘Several of my school vacation days would be spent at my dad’s office where he would teach me the basics of banking – how to write cheques, withdraw and deposit money, maintain books…’
He gave her valuable lessons in business ethics, too, underscoring the importance of being transparent in business dealings, and never compromising on quality. ‘So, when I set up my business, I decided I’d do everything ethically so at no point in my life would I have to worry about my actions,’ says the businesswoman, who has received the National Entrepreneur award for e-commerce from the Indian government.
Another lesson her father gave her was on the importance of being frugal.
‘When you set up a company and get funding, most people set up fancy offices and offer fancy salaries. My father would often underscore the importance of being frugal. I practice that.’
There were more valuable pieces of advice he gave her – to never compromise on service and never repeat a mistake. ‘But I suppose one of the most important pieces of advice he gave me was to own up if I made a mistake.’ It would be a lesson that would come in useful when early in her business, she made an error in a booking.
‘At the time I did not have the kind of team I now have, and was juggling a lot of things. A client booked a flight to Hyderabad. But for some strange reason, I heard it as ‘Chennai’ and activated a flight to Chennai,’ she recalls.
It was only half an hour prior to departure when the customer’s secretary called to ask why they had been sent a confirmation sheet that said ‘Chennai’ when they had booked a flight to Hyderabad did Kanika realise the mistake.
‘We had to delay the flight, and scramble to fix things. I remember calling the customer and apologising for the error. I made it clear it was my fault and did not make any excuses,’ she says.
Surprisingly, the customer took it in his stride, and appreciated that she was not trying to find scapegoats for the lapse. ‘He said, ‘We respect you for that’.’ Kanika managed to arrange another flight for the client and although late, he arrived at his destination for his meeting.
For Kanika and her team, it was a lesson learnt – to be extremely vigilant and careful.
The pandemic was in many ways a gamechanger for the business of flight charters. ‘It changed people’s perceptions towards travel and charter flights,’ says the woman who BBC chose as one of 100 inspirational women in the world.
‘If private jets were considered an uber luxury option or massively expensive, the pandemic redefined this notion. People became more concerned about their health and privacy, and began considering the option of chartering a flight for their family’s or small groups’ travel.’
If earlier it was only top business heads and HNWIs who were opting for charter flights for business-related travel, today she says there is an increase in people ‘hiring’ flights for personal reasons. Recently, a client chartered an aircraft to celebrate her mother’s birthday with the family in the sky. Kanika’s team arranged that, personalising the decor in a small private jet.
Her company, popularly known as the Uber of the skies, also hires out private jets for leisure and pilgrimage trips and weddings, too. Within India, Goa, Rajasthan and Kerala are top tourist destinations for charter flights, while internationally, Maldives and Dubai are hugely popular.
DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
So, how does she define success?
‘Very often, success is measured by what other people have to say about you… it’s about validation. I don’t agree or believe in that,’ says Kanika, whose most memorable day in her career was when her own plane joined her fleet of aircraft.
‘To me success is about being able to sleep without a worry. And I say this because peaceful sleep is the hardest to achieve today. Success is also being able to look at myself in the mirror with pride and be happy with what I am doing.’
The CEO is convinced that her team is her ‘biggest stakeholder’. A fierce opponent of the ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am’ culture, she believes in collaborative decision making and often bounces ideas off of some senior team members before taking a decision.
Another thing she despises is the patronising tone of some people. She mentions an incident when a potential customer asked if she could fetch him a coffee. ‘It took all the courage in me to tell him that I am the CEO of the company.’ Today the customer is one of her closest friends, she reveals.
Who are her pillars of strength?
‘I always say there is no one who can understand what exactly you are going through. So, one should not look for external gratification, motivation or validation. If there is something you want to do in your life, you have to do it for yourself,’ says the woman who also figured on CNN’s list of top 20 under 40.
What is her dream, I ask.
‘To arrange the fastest possible connectivity for a traveller from point A to point B in the shortest possible time.’
She admits that she does not believe private jets are a solution to issues of connectivity. ‘I think it’s only a part of the journey,’ she says. ‘Fifty years ago, most people could not afford cars. Today a majority of people can. I think the sky is the next big place where there’s going to be a lot of things happening. I want to make air taxis a reality. I want to be able to take people from their homes to their offices in air taxis.’