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“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them”

– Madam C.J. Walker

She can never forget the day June 21, 1982. The previous night itself, with the help of the local rickshaw pullers, she had pushed the mobile cart to the beach. It was a small move, but thrilling as it was her own and she was going to be a business woman the next day. While such carts sold only tea and cigarettes, she decided to sell cutlets, samosas, fresh juice, coffee and tea. On the first day, she sold only one cup of coffee, and that was for fifty paise only! She was very disappointed and came home crying. She told her mother, that she would not like to continue. But her mother consoled her   saying, “at least you sold one cup of coffee. That’s a good sign. You will do better tomorrow.” Today, of course, the total sales from the 14 outlets average Rs. 2 lakh, daily.

It is my privilege to present Ms. Patricia Narayan, who runs the Sandeepha chain of eateries across Chennai, and has earned the Best Woman Entrepreneur Award from FICCI in 2013.She lives in a posh duplex apartment in Velachery where you will find a luxury car parked outside the door. Her story is as much about success as disappointment and tragedy. An entrepreneur by accident, Patricia belongs to the ilk of those who bloom in adversity. Her tale may sound like the quintessential rags- to- riches story, but it is also a stark tale of survival.

Patrica Narayan

When she was 17, Patricia Thomas secretly got married to the man she fancied, believing that a Mills & Boon story was coming true — it didn’t matter to her that he was 13 years older and a Brahmin. Today, at 56, she is a role model for many, as she narrates her rags to riches story, on how to survive in spite of being wedded to adversity. But it’s been one hellish ride for her, starting from the sands of the Marina where she once sold snacks for a living because she had discovered, immediately after marriage that her Prince Charming was actually a drug addict. “Even today, I don’t know why I got married like that. It was a big blunder,” laughs Patricia.

She was studying in Queen Mary’s College when she met Narayan, the man she married: his family ran a small restaurant across the road on the Marina, and she would frequently hop over to watch chhola-puris being prepared, only to fall in love with him. In 1977, they quietly got married at the registrar’s office, with his friends fudging papers to show that she was not underage. The idea, at the time, was that she would finish college and only then break the news to her parents. Her father worked in the Posts and Telegraphs department and her mother in Telephones. Along with Patricia and her two younger siblings, they formed a typical middle-class family living in Santhome.

“But within three months, he started putting pressure on me to come out. He would threaten me, that if I didn’t tell my parents, he would. I had no choice,” recalls Patricia. When the news spread to relatives, they advised her father that the only way to control the damage was to have the couple socially married. So, Patricia and Narayan took the vows in a Purasaiwalkam church, after which her father told her that he was done with her. She moved in with her husband to a rented house in Anna Nagar, only to realise that life was not a bed of roses. She made discoveries in quick succession — that she was pregnant, that her husband was heavily into alcohol and drugs, and that they had no money to survive.

Pushed against the wall, she returned to her parents’ home, with the husband tagging along. To make herself useful, she started making jams and pickles: her mother would take them to office and sell them to her colleagues. Her husband would stay sober during the day, but at night would turn abusive and violent, if he was not given money to take care of his cravings. Fortunately for Patricia, her father worked night shifts and hardly got to see the ugly side of Narayan. “I reached the crossroads where I had to choose between living and dying. I chose to live.” Keeping her two children in mind, Patricia decided to fight her own battle. Recalling her routine during the period of struggle she said” I used to get up at 5 a.m. in the morning, make idlis and go to the beach. The whole day would keep her busy till 11p.m. My monthly income in those days was around Rs 20,000.”

In 1980, when Patricia’s son was two, she set up a kiosk on the Marina. “I had to do it for the future of the child. For one whole year, I walked up and down the stairs of the Secretariat, with the child in my arms, to get permission from the PWD,” she recalls. One day the Slum Clearance Board gave her an offer to run the canteen at their office with a proper kitchen. The chairman met her during her morning walk. It was a huge success. Thereafter, she never looked back.

One day, after a fight with her husband who used to come to trouble her often, she boarded a bus and travelled till the last stop; she got down and saw the National Port Management training school run by the Central government. On the spur of the moment, she told the security guard that she wanted to meet the administrative officer. She met him and told him that she was a caterer and that she heard they were looking for a one. He said, to her surprise that they were indeed looking for one, as they had problems with the current contractor. Narrating the turning point in her life Patrica said” I still believe it was God who took me there. I got the offer. I had to serve three meals to about 700 students. They gave us quarters to stay. It was a new life for me. I got into the groove in a day. It was successful from day one, and I took care of the canteen till 1998.My first weekly payment was Rs 80,000. I felt very elated.”

By now her children had grown up; her income had grown too. What had gotten worse was her husband’s behaviour: he would beat her and stub her with cigarette butts when she didn’t give him money, and had also taken to disappearing for months together. In 2002, during one such disappearance, he died.

A few  years later, just when she was beginning to put the past behind her, her daughter Pradheepha Sandra, fresh out of college and newly married, died in a car accident along with her husband. The husband’s brother and his wife also died in the accident — they were returning to Chennai from Dindigul. “She had called me from the car just minutes before. She had asked me to prepare biryani and payasam,” says Patricia. She along with her son started Sandeepha, derived from the daughter’s name, in 2006.

Ms. Patricia also operates an ambulance service from Acharapakkam, the spot of her daughter’s accident to Chengalpet. “I shall never forget the sight of my daughter’s corpse which arrived in the boot of a car, as the ambulance had refused to take her.” Willpower is the most important attribute to succeed, claims the entrepreneur. “When she sets her mind to something, she always achieves it,” her son Praveen asserts. Not a complacent entrepreneur, she sets targets for herself. Her next goal? “To operate a cruise liner,” a wish that was triggered off at an event in Tiruchi. Going by her record, this should be a cruise as well.

Ms. Patricia Narayan is now focusing on building a brand image with the able support of her son. It is the story of a determined lady who has travelled a long way from employing 2 people to 200 now and her earnings have soared from a mere 50 paisa to 2 lakhs per day. When asked to spell out her secret of success she said “My only thought was to prove myself and move ahead. There was a fire in me that made me believe that I could be successful without anyone’s help. I did not want to be a failure. If you have that fire, nothing in the world can stop you from succeeding.” Everybody should have an aim in life to succeed.” According to her,” the hallmark of the restaurant is the home-made quality of the food. When asked to give some advice to new entrepreneurs she said,” Do not ever compromise on quality. Never lose your self-confidence. Believe in yourself and the product you are making. Third, always stick to what you know. When you employ people, you should know what you ask them to do.”