Romana Abdullah is a professional par excellence with a resume that would be the envy of most. She however chose to tread her own path and took the leap to become one half of the duo behind the newly launched kidswear brand Hopscotch along with her husband, Harris Syed. With stores in Lahore and Islamabad and plans of continued expansion Hopscotch is providing quality clothes for children upto the age of 8!
Romana is undoubtedly a power woman who is incredible at what she does. Which is why, we absolutely loved speaking to her about her career and how she manages the various facets of her life.
She says: “It’s scream-out-loud frustrating, bone-wearying and ulcer-inducing, yet it’s a source of infinite joy and satisfaction to me. I am finally doing what I think I was meant to do.”
Tell us about your childhood, I believe you grew up in Karachi?
I did grow up in Karachi, in a joint family system – big house, lots of cousin to play with, many aunts and uncles. I am also the youngest of three kids, so was quite pampered.
Which school did you go to? What are you fondest memories…
I did my O Levels from Convent of Jesus and Mary and my A Levels from Karachi Grammar School. It’s all a blur now but highlights would be discovering Enid Blyton in Grade 2, becoming Head Girl at CJM, and daily break-time with my friends, chilly chips (a Karachi thing) and coke.
How did your education contribute to bringing Hopscotch to life?
I believe life is a step wise progression – everything that I have done or been through before now has contributed to who I am and what I am doing today. My education (academic and professional) has taught me to dream, to think, to strive – and that’s my job description at Hopscotch.
What did you do prior to Hopscotch?
I started my career in New York, first in Investment Banking and then in Management Consulting where I worked with Fortune 500 clients in the financial services and consumer sectors. Prior to Hopsotch, I was part of the Management Teams/ Committees of MCB Bank and Soneri Bank respectively, leading their strategic planning, transformation and new initiative functions.
Given you were employed before, did you always dream of being an entrepreneur?
Always. Since I was 16 years old and read some rags to riches story about a woman entrepreneur and probably even earlier, since I am a Memon and business supposedly runs in our blood.
Do you feel that your prior work experience helped your venture?
Yes, to the extent of developing work skills, managing people and relationships and solving business problems. However, since this is our first foray into fashion retail, I am developing industry knowledge and know-how as I go along.
Was it a tough decision leaving a cushy job behind and venturing into an unchartered territory?
Not really. There is of course, a slight twinge when I think of the fat paycheck I let go off but that’s only momentary. For me, starting my own business was always a foregone conclusion – it was just a matter of what and when. In fact, when I moved back to Pakistan in 2006, it was with the goal of being an entrepreneur. It took me 7 years, 2 kids, and some work detours to finally get there.
Why did you decide on retail? And children’s clothing?
We (my partner and husband, Harris and I) wanted to be in a space that was consumer-centric, creative and where we saw the whole gamut of business activities (from product development to sales and branding). We explored a few different ideas and eventually settled on kidswear partly because we could never find clothes (we liked) for our kids in Pakistan and we saw that as a market gap. The other reason is more prosaic – we got sick of brainstorming and researching ideas, so we just jumped!
Given how little formal research is available, how much of this startup was instinctive?
Retail is a highly analytical business in the West and you are right, in Pakistan, at the sector level, there is scarce research available. So yes, apart from validation from qualitative research and industry insiders, a lot of our start was gut-driven and to some degree, continues to be.
What does Hopscotch mean to you personally now?
It’s baby number 3. It’s scream-out-loud frustrating, bone-wearying and ulcer-inducing, yet it’s a source of infinite joy and satisfaction to me. I am finally doing what I think I was meant to do.
Where do you want to take Hopscotch?
Very, very far.
Is there any particular international brands you benchmark against?
We are in a very competitive field and we look at a lot of local and international brands closely. However, there is no one brand that we look to as our holy grail.
Is being an entrepreneur challenging in Pakistan?
Being an entrepreneur is extremely challenging. Anywhere in the world, I suspect. In Pakistan, I feel our biggest challenges are finding good talent and developing/ following processes.
What keeps you going every day? What do you love about your work?
My drive to make Hopscotch succeed. To create something good and meaningful, be it a product, a customer interaction or a responsible, well run company.
What does it take to be a good entrepreneur?
I think you have to be a practical dreamer. Your dreams will keep you motivated through the daily trials of startup life but without a rigorous, practical approach, you will never be able to achieve your vision. Having a strong support system is also essential.
What does a day at work entail for you?
No day is like the other – and every day brings at least 3 to 4 different issues to grapple with. Typically, the mornings are for department updates. So, we may start the day with a Sales and Production update, spend mid day with the Design team working on new designs, afternoon with Marketing on our social media strategy, late afternoon with Finance on our cash flow needs and then stop by a store to observe staff and VM before heading home.
Tell us a bit about your family, what role have they played in your journey so far?
My family has always pushed me to be better, to reach higher, to try harder. They have always had my back – unconditionally.
I remember a couple of years ago, when I had taken a year off during a difficult pregnancy, my father and my brother-in-law had serious conversations with me about how I needed to get back to work very soon. My mother and sister are two incredibly strong women who have always managed their personal and professional lives adeptly and who inspire me daily to follow in their footsteps. My mother-in-law is amazingly supportive and without her help with my kids, I would flounder. And I am regularly awed by the immense faith and confidence that Harris has in me – that keeps me going through the inevitable lows in entrepreneurial life.
Clearly you manage various facets of your life very well, what is your mantra?
As boring as it sounds, my life is completely governed by a calendarized to-do list. I could not manage things otherwise.
How do you disconnect from work?
Who said I disconnect from work? Unfortunately, I have a very hard time unwinding. But the kids and Harris help me a lot with that, at least while they are awake.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten?
“It’s better to start and fail, then never start at all”. It’s been over said but that does not make it any less true.
If you could change one thing about the way this industry works what would that be?
I would make it a lot more professional and process oriented.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs wanting to get into retail?
Retail is very exciting but very difficult. It’s best to get some experience working with someone in the retail sector before striking out on your own.