Family as colleagues

Episode 7, Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: Deepa Soman and her daughter Rhea take a frank, introspective look at what it’s like to work with family and what they’ve learned as they ‘grew up’ together

Founding Fuel

Yes, there are challenges when you work with family. But it also offers a unique opportunity to discover each other.

In Episode 7 of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation, mother and daughter Deepa and Rhea Soman discuss what the experience has taught them.

Deepa is the founder and CEO of Lumiere Business Solutions, a boutique research, consulting and design firm with a very distinctive identity and philosophy. And two-and-a-half years ago, her daughter Rhea stepped into the firm to kick-start the new design practice.

The discussion explores three broad themes:

  • Learning together
  • Leadership
  • Balancing home and work

Edited excerpts from the discussion, anchored by Harsh Mall:

Growing up together

Deepa: When you're a parent and you observe your child, you kind of use the same tactics and techniques that work with your first child, for the second child. I was very comfortable reading books [for son Rahul]. And I discovered very early, that drill didn't hold your attention. We saw that you were doing so much more with art, working with your hands—you learnt to tie your shoelaces super, super early… [When you were in kindergarten] you confidently came home after your English worksheet, saying you ‘drew’ your exam very well. These are clues. That worksheet that was sent home, I remember you'd drawn this beautiful apple, coloured it red, instead of spelling 'apple'.

Rhea: Discovering [that I had] learning disability was quite shocking to me. Both you and baba were not that surprised. Today, I would really call it a challenge as well as a gift, because I did get very early [remedial intervention], which taught me how to learn. It wasn't as much about learning what to learn, but how do you learn differently.

Deepa: The highlight of growing up—and I say this very thoughtfully—it was really also growing up with you and Rahul… We were very clear that we must do activities together. Our piano classes, Spanish class, learning golf. And even for you all to discover that I could be the bottom of the class between you, Rahul and me. We did put a lot of emphasis on play because that's great for creativity, for building confidence when you get good at something. Also, I like the part of putting in that routine and that daily practice because that for me is also very important—that discipline—and it's good for building leadership.

On leadership

Rhea: What were some of your apprehensions as a leader and as a mom when I joined Lumiere?

Deepa: I think both of us didn't really take the bull by the horns. These were more like sensing stuff. I sensed that little undercurrent of discomfort in the early days… should I say mam, or mama. Maybe those were thoughts in your mind. Maybe we were reading too much into it… [And] that whole thing of [you] seeing research separate and design separate. It was a little worrisome and unsettling that maybe we were not on the same page.

Rhea: [I was saying to myself] I need to work very, very, very hard. Which definitely is a must for anyone. But I realise today that it really was me telling myself and nothing else.

On spotting potential

Rhea: Tell me a little more about how you chose your team?

Deepa: It goes back to starting Lumiere. I was 29. Rahul was about four, you were nine months old. It was all targeted at women professionals looking to come back to work. I was pretty much looking for people like me who had taken a break from work… [It was also] really about spotting potential.

I remember one [time] there was one research we were doing. I started off. And I was very clear that the next interview onwards, I was going to ask her [my colleague] to do it… I knew she was meticulous and well prepared. I didn't have any qualms telling her, give it a shot. [But she] became teary—will I be able to do it? And I said, the respondent will wait, whenever you can hold yourself together, we will start. I call it tough love. She was extremely afraid, but I was 100% sure she could do it. And obviously, if she faltered, I was there to step in.

Deepa: When you came to Lumiere and we conceptualised the design lab, incubated within Lumiere—you are a very different person when it comes to leading, and I felt that your leadership style might be different from mine, and maybe the prevailing culture... Did you see that like an advantage or a challenge?

Rhea: I was learning a lot by observing you every day. I have my own ground as well. So that was also very helpful. And I could always come to you for advice…  a lot of leading, for me personally, is about collaboration and teamwork. Building our design team was a crucial part of this process… The team challenges me every day. And overall, we challenge each other. It really comes out with all of us being winners and our own heroes.

On their similarities and differences

Deepa: I must say, I can see the similarities now. But let me tell you, I was not… like, how you are so proactive [in asking for] feedback. That’s also probably your background [of going through] design school… you're always sort of saying that I'm creating something for a client. So, there is a certain objectivity that you're trained for. And feedback is always good because it allows you to iterate. I discovered that fairly late in life. Today, that avatar has come through a lot of trial and error, through a lot of mistakes. But I see that younger people when they come and ask for feedback, I think it's a big leg up.

On working together

Deepa: There is a huge amount of confidence and trust in each other… I remember that time when I was away in Nepal, and we were supposed to come back and go for a meeting together. The client wanted to change dates, and you went for that client pitch alone…

Rhea: We were pitching an exhibition design. The night before, we scrapped our presentation and we drew out a pitch on a really long chat paper. And we rolled it out on the long conference table. It landed so well with the client that they insisted that they keep the chart. It was a confidence booster for us also, and I have to thank you for letting us take that risk.

Deepa: In fact, when you came in for that first meeting, after you sent us your CV, you said 'I really see a place where I can add value’… In the very first year, design labs contributed 30% of the revenues… You were second guessing and doubting, but that itself should tell you that you came with the idea of adding value and that's exactly what happened.

Working together as a family

Deepa: I understand that you can keep that [work relationship and friendship] separate. You can remain friends [even after someone quits your company]. Because for me, family and friends are for keeps. At Lumiere we have a concept of ‘no farewells’. Once Lumiere-ite, always a Lumiere-ite.

Rhea: Even today you are so encouraging of [team] members transitioning to another phase in their career. It’s been a really interesting observation. You always mentor. It’s a bigger picture, and you do it so effortlessly and graciously.

Deepa: The point you mentioned about working with family. What has made it easier is that you guys [husband Milind, who set up the consulting practice, and Rhea] have come in and you have completely believed in the Lumiere core purpose and values. If there was a mismatch there, maybe it would have been hard. But how we work, what we do, all of that is fairly flexible. Everybody comes with their own talents. And that's great.

Rhea: That also has its challenges. Ever since we were young, you have always made us a part of the company conversations. We were around, we were listening. And so home becomes office too. There are weekends where I will wonder, okay, you go home on a Sunday for lunch and you end up discussing work. [We've now] balanced it out very well with a routine…

The mother daughter relationship is also at the core. At the end of the day, we are the same people—at office or at home.

Deepa: What actually helped was, we were not living in the same home. So, after work, we could choose not to talk with each other…

It's also about style. … I get all my thoughts in order before I speak, so it wouldn’t be like an argument [if we happen to disagree]… It's just the discovery [of a different side of Rhea]. We went with that whole space of wanting to explore.

Rhea: When it comes to criticism and feedback, a lot of it is about listening with a very open mind. And I think both of us became much better listeners to each other… That also applies to anybody we work with.

What’s the next episode about?

With this episode, we bring the curtains down on Season 1 of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.

We are taking a two episode break, to recharge ourselves, take stock and come back with an exciting new line-up of guests.

We open Season 2 on Saturday, September 26. With renowned chef and entrepreneur Sanjeev Kapoor and his daughter Rachita. They will discuss the future of home kitchens.

If you haven’t registered to watch the show already, register here: https://bit.ly/FFTAMG 

In the meantime, here’s a playlist of Season 1, E01-07

Bookmark the series. (The show is supported by a column on Founding Fuel, and an ongoing conversation with the Founding Fuel community on our Slack channel.)

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Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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