Devika Saigal is a woman entrepreneur who designed her own path and founded M2M Ferries. This ferry service offers year-round connectivity between Mumbai and Mandwa Jetty. For the past eight years, Devika has worked to redefine Mumbai’s waterways and build terminals and other facilities for easy passenger movement along the coast.
In this candid chat, she discusses how she took significant risks during the darkest of times. She emphasises the value of receiving support from loved ones and of taking time for oneself. She has big plans and is moving toward spreading the idea to more cities. Her resilience is admirable, and has rewarded the country with the innovative waterfront at Mandwa.
Some highlights of our interaction
Finding a value-gap
Entrepreneurship is about locating a gap in product or service offerings and then finding ways to add value and bridge that gap. The idea of developing waterfronts, though quite popular abroad, was quite new to India when Devika started M2M ferries. When the government opened bids to develop the Mandva jetty, her family pitched for the project and won the deal in 2016. They began with a restaurant as a way of popularizing the destination. In a jetty where there weren’t even restrooms or any public conveniences
there began to grow a small hub of shops and activities and slowly footfall grew to 40,000 a day. At this point, exploring how to build this concept out further, Devika started M2M ferries in 2019. Coming from a family that has been in shipping for three generations, her journey with M2M ferries has been about carving a space for herself as a businesswoman and creating a niche offering in the leisure-shipping industry which is a first-of-its kind in the country.
Running any business comes with its risks and there will be lots of unknowns as you are starting out, especially if you are a pioneer in an industry. Devika was in her early twenties and just back from her Master’s degree in the UK when she set out to redevelop and revamp Mandwa Jetty to include restaurants, retails and open area spaces for people to enjoy. With the increasing demand at the jetty it was natural step to introduce and bring in a large ferry to travel between Mumbai and Mandwa and experience the high seas of Mumbai Harbour. M2M ferries started and much of the process for her has been about learning on the move. Having floated the business,
the first challenge was to fill seats. Unlike speedboats that carry a small number of passengers, a ferry can easily seat a 1000 people. And the success of the business depends on filling all those seats. Just as things were picking up, COVID hit and nobody was travelling anymore.
A dark time for many businesses, for Devika it was particularly daunting as M2M ferries had just taken out a large loan to grow the business. They were burning cash everyday just staying afloat and had no clue what lay around the corner. Navigating through that time was one of the hardest things for Devika. Through it all she stayed calm and kept searching for solutions, talking to people, exploring options; and her learning from that is to prepare for the worst, and if the worst is something you can live with, then just dive in!
Renewal and reflection
Even as a young leader, Devika speaks of the value of some space for recovery and reflection. For many busy leaders finding time for a workout or rest or leisure is a challenge, but this is where the best of leadership begins, with the unfolding of the self. Most of the successful leaders we have interviewed or researched have all had some space in their lives where they keep time for themselves which directly contributes to the quality of choices they make and to their energy levels through a long 30+ year career. Devika’s go-to is 30 minutes of either yoga or a workout in the morning, watching the sunrise to calm down her mind and bring clarity to her thinking.
Gender at work and home
The shipping industry is a male dominated one and women in key roles are few and far between. Devika recalls an instance when dealing with a government official over some issue at the port because of which their business was stuck. His rather angry response to her request was that she should go ask her father to solve these problems for her and not keep troubling him. But she stuck to it despite his yelling and throwing her out of his office and he finally made the phone call that resolved the issue. Her take on the gender issue is that being a woman, and also being a young entrepreneur, no one takes you seriously and you just have to stick it out through that resistance. If you do, some way forward emerges.
Being an entrepreneur, she is also in a position to enable other women at work and her view is this is one of the few maritime businesses where women can contribute in every department, even on board the ship. Some of the women at M2M ferries have been quite dynamic, like a Greek woman who worked for a while as First Engineer on board their vessel. But these still remain an exception rather than the rule. M2M ferries recruits locals from Alibaug and surrounding spaces a lot and while women are willing
to put their hand up for any role, there are still many hard wired prejudices that they have to fight about being on board a ship, late hours, etc. Families are not always supportive and this remains a work in progress.
Asked about how she balances her roles as a wife and entrepreneur, and what her family has to say about the long hours she works, Devika reflects that family support is really essential for women to solve this one. She got married around the same time that she started M2M ferries and of course there have been choices to make about whether to be at a family function or whether to attend to work, but her family’s support has really helped her figure these things out and she is very grateful for their acceptance of her other roles
M2M ferries is a unique value proposition in India and Devika believes that it is replicable. She hopes to take this as many port cities as possible and create world-class experiences across the country.