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Diversity is not just about women, it's about embracing the community: Dipali Goenka

The CEO and managing director of Welspun India speaks about how she managed to get a grip on the business after starting from scratch, and how she built a large, global home textile company

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Jul 3, 2023 10:58:05 AM IST
Updated: Jul 4, 2023 08:06:55 AM IST

Dipali Goenka, CEO and managing director of Welspun IndiaDipali Goenka, CEO and managing director of Welspun India

From getting married at the age of 18 to joining the business at 30, Dipali Goenka, CEO and managing director of Welspun India, has come a long way today over the past two decades. It all started with her wanting to be an example for her daughters, and after learning everything from scratch, she spearheaded the launch of the textile brand Spaces in 2003.

Along the way, she faced scepticism from insiders and was even called the "boss's wife". She remained unperturbed and made Welspun India one of the world’s largest home textile companies and the biggest supplier to the US. In conversation on Forbes India’s Leadership Mantras video series, Goenka talks about how Welspun is increasing the sales ratio in the domestic market, incorporating blockchain technology, her advice for upcoming women leaders, and more. Edited excerpts:

Q. You studied psychology and come from a non-finance background. You then went Harvard, but how much time did it take you to learn how to work with numbers and decode the balance sheet?
Yes, I'm not a finance person. But I know my business very well. And it has been a journey. So I think if you know your businesses well, you know where the leakages can be and what the opportunities are to look at, optimising your costs, businesses and margins.
So the journey from that yarn of cotton to manufacturing to the point of sale is a very interesting one, and you’ve got to learn it by getting your hands dirty. That’s something I did. I will also say that—and I tell my daughters that as well—you will not know everything, and you'll not have all the answers. You've got to be vulnerable enough to ask questions. And I do that. I always say, ‘I'm not an expert, can you help me with this?’ I always say that if you're the smartest person in the room, I don't think you're good. Your company needs a lot of improvement as well. I have a great team. And you'll constantly learn. Yes, I know my finances better, and I'll continue to learn as well.

Q. Currently, 94 percent of your production is exported to the international market, and only six percent is sold in India. Are you trying to increase the ratio in the domestic market?
When we started home textiles, it was meant for exports, and yes, today it is at 91 percent. We are now growing the Indian market. The journey from B2B to B2C has been interesting. As I spoke about it in 2003, when I launched by brand Spaces, the Indian market is growing. Today, India is a bright spot on the world map. The addressable market for home textiles in India is around Rs48,000 crore, and that is a great opportunity.
At Welspun, we are not just doing towels, sheets, rugs, carpets, and bedding. We are doing flooring, area rugs, hard flooring, and wet wipes as well. So we see a great opportunity. The Indian consumer is evolving, and that consumer doesn't live in metros. The aspiration is in Tier-II or Tier-III [cities]. Our vision for the journey from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Anjar to Agartala is true. We now have 11,000 stores in India. Today, if I say our domestic business is around seven percent of our total mix, we are continuing to grow and evolve.

Q. After the August 2016 crisis, you went big on technology, innovation, and ESG. I think you are ahead of the curve when it comes to using blockchain technology as well. Can you take us through that?
When we started Wel-Trak, the QR code allowed you to trace your product back to the last bale of cotton. Now, with blockhain, we have Wel-Trak 2.0, where you can trace it back not only to the cotton bale, but also to the ecosystems that you're creating around you, whether it's vendors or others. For us, the important thing that came in was environmental, social, and governance (ESG), and we continue to work on that. In Anjar, for instance, we don't use a drop of fresh water. We recycle 30 million litres of water. So communities get water to drink, and farmers get water for irrigation.

We are going to go completely green by early 2027. We have a roadmap that by 2030, how many lives are we going to impact? That's like 1 million lives. We are already on that journey, working with the farmers so they can have better cotton initiatives. That's something we are doing. And of course, governance, so getting independent directors on board to report back, is something that we've evolved from being a promoter-driven company.

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Q. What are some patterns that you've noticed about women at work? What are the things that can change to advance their careers?
When I started and came on board at Welspun, we were just seven percent women; today we are 30 percent women at Welspun. But I can also tell you a few things here: You can't just get diversity like that. It is about how the organisation embraces them by being sensitive to their needs. When we talk about diversity, you will see how your peers respect you. It's a very key one. And also, diversity is not just about women; it's about embracing the community. We have specially-abled people working with us in a spinning area, where we basically embrace all kinds of diversity.

Q. How do you view inclusivity?
We say that India is going to be a $5 trillion economy. But if 50 percent of the population does not work, it's going to be a problem for our country. And I think that's going to be key. For us, how we take on and embrace the communities around our factories? That's something that we're working on.

Q. What is that one piece of advice that you'd like to give to young female leaders?
Never give up. Challenges will constantly be there. But you've got to make the most of those challenges and learn from them. Always lead from the front. And, above all, you will not know everything, and you may not have an answer for everything.

Watch the full interview here: