In a country where women are often held back from participating in the workforce or starting up on their own, Saroja Yeramilli is a pleasant exception. Not only did she rule the corporate world in high profile roles at Titan and Dell for more than two decades, she is also the founder of a startup which has popularised online purchase of fine jewellery. In fact, her brainchild, Melorra garnered attention soon after its launch in January 2016, when it raised $5 million (about Rs 33 crore) from Lightbox Ventures, making it the largest early stage investment in the country.
Today, Melorra - a digitally native, direct to consumer brand - claims to be the largest distributed jewellery company in India, having delivered to nearly 1,700 towns within four years. Saroja says that her company is the only one in the world to follow the fast-fashion model of design, launching 75 new designs every week. The Bengaluru-based startup has raised a total of $17 million so far from multiple investors, and claims to have clocked a revenue run rate of Rs 160 crore in 3.5 years.
Speaking to MAKERS India over a Zoom call recently, Saroja recounted her journey before becoming one of the most prominent startup founders in the country. Having grown up in Rourkela (Odisha) in 1980s, Saroja had a progressive upbringing, and was never made to feel different from her two brothers. After finishing her MBA, she worked at Ogilvy in advertising, before moving to Titan Group in the mid-1990s.
Saroja tells MAKERS India, “At a very young age, I had men older than me reporting to me, and it was probably uncomfortable for them initially. But over a period of time, through your hard work and leadership, where you lead by example, you win their respect. If you are open to learning from people around you, regardless of their gender and age, humility naturally will come to you. And once humility comes, you can work with anybody.”
It is this dedication to learning and working harder that helped Saroja climb up the career ladder. At Titan, Saroja has headed sales and marketing for Tanishq Jewellery and was part of the turnaround team that made the brand profitable. She had launched Tanishq Jewellery in the US as well, before returning to India in 2008. Upon her return, she headed Operations at Kaya Skin Clinic, and later in retail at Dell. She left the corporate world in 2013, and worked for Infosys co-founder and bureaucrat-turned-politician Nandan Nilekani’s campaign in Lok Sabha elections of 2014. It was a year later that Melorra happened.
Although she calls herself an ‘accidental entrepreneur,’ Saroja has dedicated the past four years for Melorra. As a solo founder, she has the responsibilities for raising money and planning the business. But, for her team of 150 employees, Saroja also makes time for building a culture to be proud of, as she believes that great culture builds great companies.
And Melorra’s 400 percent annual growth shows that Saroja has got it right too. Following an asset-light model, Melorra maintains no inventory. All its designs are virtual and manufacturing starts only after a customer places an order.
Saroja adds that Melorra’s designs are all fitting for western wardrobe, which is growing fast in India, and that Melorra stays away from traditional, heavy jewellery which are used only during weddings. Melorra’s designs are for everyday wear, and are pocket-friendly for millennials as well as Gen Z women. Since fine jewellery is also an investment for the future, Saroja says, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has not damaged her business. “Nowadays weddings are happening virtually; so gifting of jewellery is also happening online now,” she adds.
Saroja’s vision is to build a global consumer brand, and, along with it, make history again.