Vani Kola, one of the early practitioners of venture capital investment in India, is a blunt talker and a straight shooter. Before she became a VC (venture capitalist), Kola had a long, prolific career in the Silicon Valley, building and selling companies such as RightWorks, an e-procurement company, and Certus Software, a player in the financial compliance market. She spotted the start-up boom early on in India.
On a visit to India in 2006, she found the country teeming with aspirations, optimism and opportunities. To tap into this, she set up IndoUS Advisors, a venture firm in partnership with New Enterprise Associates. Eventually, the firm has morphed into Kalaari Capital, which today has invested in nearly 60 companies including the likes of Snapdeal, Myntra, Urban Ladder, Zivame, Bluestone and VIA. The name Kalaari comes from the ancient martial arts form Kalaripayattu - Kalaari meaning battlefield or combat arena, thus an apt name for a firm investing in start-ups fighting battles to win markets.
Ashish Goel, the CEO of Urban Ladder, an online lifestyle furniture retailer in which Kalaari is an investor and Kola a board member, says, "She brings deep, strategic and consumer thinking. She has built and run large businesses in advanced markets like the US. She asks the right set of questions and is blunt in providing feedback. She knows the ups and downs of an entrepreneur's journey."
A self-confessed yoga enthusiast, Kola has the knack for convincing start-up entrepreneurs as also established businessmen like Ratan Tata to see and consider her point of view. Tata has not only invested in a few of Kalaari's portfolio companies, but also signed up as an advisor, mentor and sounding board to all its investee companies. So, what makes Kola tick?
According to Rohith Bhat, CEO of Robosoft, a mobile app and game developer company in which Kalaari has invested, Kola's approach stands out because she is extremely data-oriented and candid to a fault. "While it is true that if a company is good, a VC will invest, what sets apart Vani and Kalaari is that they go that extra mile to help investee companies. When we raised Series B and Series C, Kalaari even spoke to other prospective investors." Robosoft has cumulatively raised around $16 million, and has 600-plus employees today.
Goel points out how a senior member in Urban Ladder's team was brought on board thanks to Kola's efforts. "When she met somebody and realised that we were looking for somebody with a similar profile, she immediately made a connection. Also, she is able to make valuable contribution and open doors everywhere because of her network," Goel adds.
The CEO of another portfolio company of Kalaari who chose to speak anonymously to Business Today has this to say: "In my limited interactions with her, she has come across as knowledgeable, but very brusque and demanding. If she likes the entrepreneurs, she will go out of her way to woo them, but can be dismissive, too, fairly quickly, if she finds them uninteresting."
Kalaari gets several hundred pitches a year seeking investment. The CEO quoted above admits that "part of it is thanks to Vani's reputation of having the ability to spot winners. An investment from Kalaari is also a kind of validation".
More than the money, this avid hiker and trekker (Kola has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro), is admired for her ability to see around corners and help entrepreneurs build successful companies, making her one of India's most powerful women in business.