Avni Biyani, the concept head of Foodhall, the upscale retailer, came by her gourmet sensibilities as an undergraduate in New York. As the daughter of Future Group founder and chief executive officer Kishore Biyani, she naturally gravitated towards the food side of her father’s business. All of 27 herself, she is a millennial managing millennials. Her team comprises 420 people, 93% of whom are below 35. Here are the edited excerpts of her interview.
Was Foodhall a conscious choice for your first job?
I think timing plays a very important role in everyone’s lives. Ten days after the launch of the first store, my father asked me to go have a look at a Foodhall outlet and tell him what I thought of it. I came back and said, “It lacks imagination. I just think that a lot more can be done.” About 15 days later, I joined the business. It wasn’t my father’s succession plan, but something that just happened.
Do you think you were prepared for what you were going to take on, given you were so young?
I had done a few classes on food and society, so my outlook about the way food had to be approached was slightly different or more nuanced, if I could say so. I understood food better, but there’s so much that one has to learn and introspect. I spent the first year just coming into the group, running one store, and just building a team. And the time between working in the first Foodhall and ideating the launch of the second Foodhall helped me shape what the next five years of Foodhall could be.
Was it easy to set people’s expectations of you?
I think my sister, Ashni Biyani (director, Future Ideas), had a harder time than I did. When she joined the group, people really wondered if she was serious, if she would walk into work at 9.30am and stay late if required. But she crossed all those barriers. She had been in the business for six years when I joined. I was lucky that she set the expectations right, so it was easier for me. I was always in and out of the office, even before I joined the business. People had seen me around and knew what I was like. I also knew everything that was happening at the strategic level because I spent a lot of time with my father.
What is the best piece of advice you have got?
Some things my father has said to me have stuck with me. He’s always said that business is like riding a bicycle—you shouldn’t stop or there’s a danger that you’ll fall. He’s always asked us to look forward. We’re called “Future Group” for a reason. A large part of my business philosophy which is to keep innovating and bringing newer shopping experiences to our customers has been derived from my father’s philosophies. He plays a very significant role in my sister’s and my life. Other philosophies such as the ability to keep ingenuity at the heart of the business and to have clarity and simplicity in your thoughts and ideas are all pieces of advice that have stayed with me.
You are a millennial managing a team largely comprised of millennials. Tell us about your experience of managing and working with millennials?
I think there are pros and cons to it. It is a lot of fun to work around millennials. The whole work culture becomes a lot more exciting and vibrant. But at the same time, it needs to be mellowed down with wisdom and maturity that comes from experience. We’re 93% millennials but we also have experienced people, like our CEO, leading those millennials. So, I think it’s all about striking a good balance between the youthfulness, the energy, and maturity, which as a group we’ve tried to do.
What is the biggest challenge with managing millennials?
It’s the impatience that each one of us, as millennials (including myself), brings. As a millennial, one has to bring tremendous amounts of patience and constantly learn and evolve. I think, sometimes, being young, you also have that arrogance, or feel that “I know it all.” Millennials should keep the hunger to learn, and not let arrogance come in the way.
As a leader, my job has to be to balance a young team with a mature one, to strike the right balance, and (to know) for what role which person is appropriate. I think that’s the hardest job—to balance the youthfulness and energy with wisdom and maturity.
What’s been the most difficult part about leading a team?
I’m learning that just because you said something doesn’t necessarily mean that the person has understood it the very same way. I think, as a leader, one also has to spend a lot of time just making sure that you and your team are on the same page. This is a lesson hard learned. I have seen enough leaders around me to understand that empathy plays a critical role in leading teams, but patience is something that only comes with time.
Have there been any failures along the way and what have you learnt from them?
Failures happen every single day. I went to the Facebook office and heard that Mark Zuckerberg does “no meeting Wednesdays,” which I thought was so amazing. I thought we should have a day where we just, you know, casually chit-chat and have no meetings. It was a big disaster. I tried it with my team and it flopped on day one. I then realised that I was trying to simply adopt someone else’s successful practice, without thinking about how that fits into our work culture. That was one of my failures.
We don’t dwell too much on our failures, but we do learn from them. I don’t know if I’ll call them failures. I just call them learning experiences.
Do you manage to take out time to learn every day?
You do need to learn every day; you need to introspect every day. I believe everyone needs to spend time introspecting because how else will you learn if you don’t reflect?
I have two hours in the car every day. I like spending that time ideating. The whole journey of creation is also to introspect. You can introspect in the shower, you can introspect while eating, you can introspect while watching television. Honestly, we travel so much, we have so much time in our hands. When you’re on a plane what do you do? Great time to introspect (laughing)!