As a woman who has donned many hats throughout her professional and personal life, Bella Nilesh Shah has an inspiring story to offer to fellow female entrepreneurs. In this interview, Bella takes us through her journey from being a producer to a caterer and now the proud owner of one of Ahmedabad's most popular sweet-making companies, BelleZoe.
- What was life before BelleZoe like and how did you discover your true calling?
I had always had a passion and flair for the culinary arts, but sweets were my specialty. I had done my under-graduate degree in B.A. (Economics), followed by a Masters in Mass Communication and a stint as a trainee producer in ISRO. Post marriage, I became a homemaker. Around ten years ago, when my children were older, I decided to venture into sweet-making. I had made some sweets for a Diwali function which were highly appreciated and resulted in an order for more sweets for other events. Encouraged by the good reviews and feedback regarding my creations, I decided to explore my interest in chocolate making and also make unique Indian sweets that would make people want to buy my products.
- Can you tell us about BelleZoe’s journey since inception and what is your vision for BelleZoe?
Over the past ten years, BelleZoe has become a brand that is known for its quality and unique products. I offer a lot of variety in my products and I have never compromised on their quality as that is the benchmark my clients expect from me. At this stage, I have expanded my line of products beyond fusion-style, innovative mithais, sweetmeats and chocolates to healthy baked items like wheat cookies, granola bars, gluten and sugar-free cakes and more. Essentially, my vision for BelleZoe is to maintain consistency in the quality, variety and uniqueness of my products with an emphasis on making them as healthy as possible.
- What would you describe as the USP of BelleZoe products?
The USP of BelleZoe products is their quality, uniqueness and variety in the market as well as constant innovation to make them as healthy as possible. In addition to this, BelleZoe sweets also have a shelf life that is longer than average, which is a bonus for many of my clients, both corporates and individuals, since the orders tend to be shipped across the country or abroad for a period of time before consumption
- Where are your stores located?
Since inception and as of today, BelleZoe has been set up and is operational from my home in Ahmedabad. I do not have any plans of changing the location or establishing other stores as of now as the current business model works well for me from a professional and personal angle.
- Did you undergo any professional/skill training for BelleZoe? What courses would you recommend for any newcomer who wants to start a similar business?
I have not undergone any professional training for the purpose of setting up BelleZoe. I have honed my culinary skills over time with detailed research on products and a lot of experimentation in the kitchen to create the most innovative items. I have a loyal customer base who expect something new from me on a regular basis so I work on meeting those expectations by creating something interesting for them to look forward to trying. However, I would recommend that people should consider doing professional courses if possible, to stay abreast of the latest trends in the market.
- What kind of investment is needed to setup this business? What sources did you avail/reach out to for funding your business?
I established BelleZoe on a small scale within my home without seeking any external funding or loans. In time, as I generated profits, I invested the same back into the business as and when required, for acquiring new machinery or equipment. I have basically implemented a system of gradual, staggered investment as per the necessities of the business without depending on any third party for financial assistance.
- What is your high point and most prolific memory that you experience in your journey? How did it transform you?
I have faced many struggles over the past ten years since the inception of BelleZoe in building the brand and acquiring the recognition that it has today. However, there have also been moments of pride in the process such as the time when I bagged two large corporate clients sometime after establishing BelleZoe, and receiving orders from them on a regular basis. It gave me a sense of achievement and validation about the quality of my products.
Also, I recently received an order for creating sweets for wedding hampers from a distinguished family. This was another moment of pride for me as people go to great lengths to find the right person to entrust any job with respect to events of this nature. The fact that they had commissioned BelleZoe was therefore a professional high for me and a sign that my brand was being recognized and appreciated by various people.
- What is your low point or a most significant challenge that you experienced in your journey? How did you overcome it?
I am an emotional person and as such, one tends to get invested in the company one is involved with and has personally set up. The lowest point in the past ten years for me was a couple of years ago when a corporate client of mine, who had been regularly buying sweets from me for almost seven years suddenly decided to stop the practice of corporate gifting with sweets. I was upset at the loss of business caused by this change due to the long-term association with this client as well as the fact that I was dependent on corporate clients at the time for running the business. This experience made me unsure of the future of BelleZoe but I overcame my doubts in some time after shifting my focus to the retail sector within a matter of six months.
- Who would you like to give credits to? Any people who have inspired you, mentored you or supported you in your journey this far?
My mother has been my inspiration in setting up BelleZoe. As a woman in her forties who had been a homemaker after dabbling in multiple fields, I was unsure of what to do next. I had tried my hand at working in a call centre but I found the job to be dissatisfying. My mother was the one who reminded me of my flair and passion for the culinary arts and asked me to think about setting up a place through which I could showcase those skills. So I started off with making savoury items like falafel, nachos, dips, Mexican / Thai etc. which were unheard of in Ahmedabad at the time. The breakthrough, as I mentioned earlier, was when I had made sweets for Diwali ten years ago which were highly appreciated by people and led me to set up BelleZoe. My mother was a constant source of motivation throughout this journey.
- In your opinion, what are the most crucial aspects to be kept in mind when setting up and sustaining a business like yours?
As long the business offers a product or service that does not compromise on quality and is also unique in the market, sustainability should not be an issue. This is something I believe in and recommend from my own personal experience. Despite the various struggles along the way, I have ensured that my products stand out in terms of their innovation quotient and quality which I believe is the reason for BelleZoe’s growth and success.
- What type of advertising and marketing has worked best for your business?
I have personally not employed any means of advertising at any point of time in the past ten years for promoting BelleZoe nor have I utilized any contacts to increase my client base. BelleZoe's growth in popularity has been solely through word-of-mouth over time. I am happy I had engaged a social media manager four or five years ago with the intent of exploring business opportunities, however, it did not significantly contribute to my business at that point of time. I still have a social media page for BelleZoe but I am not actively involved with it. While I still do not utilize advertising or marketing strategies in a conventional sense, I would consider social media a useful tool to invest in with respect to start-up businesses.
- What networks/groups local/national have helped you grow your business?
Aside from Mompreneurs India, I am currently also a member of BNI Club, Gujarat Chamber of Commerce for Women, and some other organizations. A year ago, I had consciously made the decision to expose myself to more business and networking opportunities as I realized that relying solely on word-of-mouth as a means of promoting the business would be inadequate in the long run. I have gained a lot of knowledge and exposure through my interactions with fellow entrepreneurs, as well as training programmes organized by these networking platforms / organizations. I would therefore recommend that female entrepreneurs should join professional networking circles to gain a better perspective on their business and other opportunities.
- As someone who has taken the leap of faith and emerged victorious what advice would you give to other mothers who are afraid/hesitant to make this transition from being homemakers/day jobs to being a mompreneurs?
I think that beyond a point, one needs to implement the thoughts and ideas she has for a business into action. It is important to plan certain things out like finances and the business model, strategies etc., but ultimately one has to take a plunge after doing their research on the business plan. Also, one has to keep researching on the market trends and available opportunities even on the job, so that the learning curve never stops. Through my interactions with fellow female entrepreneurs through networking circles like Mompreneurs, I have also discovered that there are many opportunities available for women, even with respect to financial assistance like subsidized loans etc, and I would advise female entrepreneurs to keep themselves aware and informed of the same.
- If there is something that you would like to change in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that would enable a woman's business like yours succeed what would that be?
I feel that there are many women whose talents and abilities are not given their due because of the societal constraints imposed on them. Many women are still not allowed to work, let alone set up their own business. I have personally observed such attitudes in my city, and I think that it is essential to have a strong support system from one's family and society at large. I believe that it is important to pursue one’s passions and that women should be encouraged to explore as many opportunities as possible. I have personally had a great support system in the form of my family, right from my mother, to my husband and my two children, who have encouraged and assisted me in every way possible right from the beginning of my journey with BelleZoe and continue to do so.
- Lastly, what is your mantra in life or the one piece of advice which you have been given that you consider to be invaluable?
Never give up. That would be my advice to my fellow entrepreneurs. I have experienced many struggles in my life, and I value them as much as my successes as they have been valuable lessons for me. Overall, I have had a great learning curve and if I had given up during the hard times, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Pursuing my passion with determination, hard work and a willingness to learn has been my formula thus far and that would be my recommendation to other women as well.
On that optimistic note, we concluded our interview with Bella Shah after an engaging and informative session of stories and lessons. Her journey is undoubtedly the kind of convention-bending, fearless and motivational path that we wish for all our members and female entrepreneurs at large.MompreneursIndia, thanks Bella for her valuable time and wish her all the very best in her endeavours.