Text Farrah Darma
Our annual homage to the Women We Love features six women who have dazzled in their determination to succeed in life.
Born in Mumbai and raised in Hong Kong, Datin Lavina Melwani Valiram’s story began when her father pursued opportunities outside of India and find a place that felt like home. As a refugee from now Pakistan, her father settled in Mumbai but it never really felt like home. After having Datin Lavina Melwani Valiram in his late 20s, he moved abroad and ended up in Hong Kong.
Growing up, Datin Lavina always had a fierce sense of independence. “I got my first job at 16. At the time, I decided not to go to college, as I wanted to be financially independent and did not want to ask my dad for anything,” she explained. Her first job was as an editorial assistant but quickly realised the need to go back to the drawing board. “I discovered I wasn’t a journalist, but I loved to write and there is a difference. I came back home for a bit before starting sales (she sold mobile phones when they first came out as a door-to-door salesgirl), logistics, sourcing and a number of other jobs before getting married and moving to Malaysia.”
Datin Lavina Melwani Valiram had her children very young. Although she had help, she was a very hands-on mother with support from her husband. She started strategising her plans early on so when the time came, she was ready to go. “When I travelled, Sharan (her husband) would take care of the children. I also had a home business at the time, which made things flexible. I was just getting my feet wet and moving around nicely.”
Starting a business
She started her first business on day her eldest child started school. “Again, I was looking for financial independence and I started a business in jewellery. As most entrepreneurs do, I fell flat on my face. I started again, this time in retail, and here I am.”
Apart from her innate need to be independent, Datin Lavina was also inspired by her dreams. “I knew very early on that big things would happen for me. I just had to follow that path. If I fell, I got up and kept walking because I knew success was guaranteed. It was just a question of when I would succeed and what that success would look like.”
There isn’t, however, a singular vision of success. She describes it like the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once: “I serve in spiritual organisations; I still want to graduate (she is currently studying for her bachelor’s in creative writing); and I have the businesses.”
You might like – ‘The People’s Princess’ Tengku Zatashah
On a daily basis, Datin Lavina oversees three brands within the Valiram Group – fashion houses Charles & Keith and Pedro, and Wycon, an Italian cosmetics company. She also runs her own shipping and logistics company, POSable. She recently started a technology company, which will be going to market soon.
With so much responsibility running multiple brands, managing disappointment and anger is unavoidable. For Datin Lavina, some level of self-awareness and mental strength is needed, a skill she admits takes practice. “Managing disappointment is not difficult if your eye is always on the prize. You should not allow yourself to stay in that moment for too long; you need to keep moving. It’s organic for me and I don’t like negativity. Even if I’m having a bad day, I just let it pass. People get very attached to their own sorrows and tend to indulge. It’s okay to fall and take your time to recover, but you need to start walking soon. Focus on the next thing and move on.”
Pedro and Wycon
Behind the success of Pedro and Wycon, Datin Lavina Melwani Valiramcredits her more than capable team that has dedicated their creativity and passion to growing the brands. She prides herself on the team she has built and nurtured, leading them as they expand to 50 outlets in Malaysia today. “On average, our employees stay with us for seven to 12 years, which is an accomplishment as the company has only been around for 15 years. I believe the secret to running businesses in any industry lies in its retention, continuity and culture.”
People lie at the crux of Datin Lavina’s job and motivation – more of leading people and less of running the operational side of things – and recognises the importance of her people and their wellbeing. “My proudest achievement would be the ability to provide opportunities as a by-product of enriching yourself financially. It’s a win-win. I mean, here I am, running the business, strategising and planning growth for our business, and the prize on the side is that other people benefit. They have access to more opportunities. You and your business grow, and you have all these people who are coming up with you. That’s the high for me.” For her, seeing people grow humanises the entire financial process, giving it a human face and purpose.
A Learning Curve
Looking back, Datin Lavina acknowledges that there have been many things she could have done better. She went into many businesses without enough due diligence and research, decisions made purely based on trust and red flags were downplayed. “I regret not following my instincts. I found that every time I had a bad feeling about something but went through with it anyway, it didn’t work out. I wished I had listened to my gut more because every single time, it has been right.”
Her advice on starting again is to always start with a clear mind. “I wouldn’t say give up on your dreams but, if you’re going into anything, be clear on what you want. We tend to hold on to dreams from a long time ago and we think that this is who we are. By all means, try and fulfil your dreams, but assess them first, because a lot of them were made a long time ago and you may be a very different person today.”
In any business environment, there are always challenges and Datin Lavina has faced her share of them. She is more cautious of what is unsaid rather that what is said. “There can be unvoiced doubts directed at you, a silent feeling of being intimidated by someone who knows what they’re doing. I learnt to deal with that by just ignoring it. Let actions and success speak for themselves. I’m not saying that you have to fight off people but, rather, block what these doubts may instil in you. It ends up being a battle with yourself, which is better, because you have more power to control it.”
What does Success mean to you?
View this post on Instagram
Describing a successful woman, Datin Lavina uses words like ‘powerful’, ‘humble’ and ‘empathetic’, qualities that she herself learnt from some of her biggest mentors in life. When it comes to her personality, it is her mother who has been the most influential; when it comes to work, it is her husband that she aims to emulate.
“Personality-wise, my mom was the nicest and most charitable person. If she hugged, she really hugged. She always saw the other person and it was rarely ever about herself. I aspire to be that. Work-wise, my husband is such a great mentor. He’s a gentle soul and a kind man, also very selfless. When I watch him interact with his people, I realise I’m a little more confrontational while he is more reflective.”
Although she can come across as intimidating in her leadership style, deep within her is a bubbly and larger-than-life personality. Her down-to-earth and relaxed persona should tell people that, at the end of the day, she doesn’t bite. “I’ve made my peace with people assuming I’m intimidating. How people seem and what they are can be two different things. Truth is, I just want to chill.” Datin Lavina wants people (be it family or colleagues) to be able to look back at moments with her and know she has given more in this world than she has received.