In 1987, while doing her Ph.D. qualifiers in organic and synthetic chemistry at Northwestern University, Chicago, Rinita Singh, CEO, Quantum Market Research, found herself at a tipping point: pure sciences were not for her. “I was not the kind to spend my life in a lab,” she says, sipping a glass of her favourite Brunello red wine. And sitting at her home, as the evening rolls into night over olives and conversation, this becomes amply clear.
Still, Singh is glad that she pursued her lifelong passion for chemistry, and bucked the trend of “a whole generation where girls had to make the perfect round chapatti rather than worry about synthesizing a substitute for penicillin”. The concept of taking any object in the world and slicing it down till you reach its bare elements has helped her enormously in her work and in her approach to life, she says.
It’s life outside the laboratory that has fascinated Singh. She’s a closet people-watcher who comes alive most when she “researches” people and what makes them tick, otherwise known as the science of qualitative research. Quantum, where she is one of four partners—who all also happen to be women—is India’s first qualitative research company and was founded in 1990.
Today, the firm has nine offices all over India and Asia, with an impressive roster of more than 1,500 clients across every industry. Multinationals such as Unilever, Pepsi, Citibank and GSK are some of the firm’s largest clients by size.
Qualitative research is the “other” side of market research, drawn from anthropology, sociology and psychology. While numerical analysis will tell you how many people enjoy a product like Pepsi, with age groups and demographics, its soul or “quality” will tell you why ‘yehi hai right choice’. “It can tell you what people think and how they are likely to behave, and that’s useful information for companies to know and apply,” explains Singh.
It’s in the hot area of “trend-spotting” that the field really gets interesting. For instance, take the mid-size, upcoming Indian entrepreneurs who now fervently want to understand how to deal with what multinationals have been doing for years. Singh says: “Currently, in Mumbai, there’s an upsurge in the number of IB schools and courses. Five years ago, we started working on this for entrants who wanted to understand whether the soil was ready. Now, we are delighted that strategy developed with clients has come to life.”
Over a second glass of wine, Singh’s delight becomes even more evident, as she draws a fascinating portrait of the shifting trends in globalized India. “Every day there’s a new wow in this business. Can you believe there are still people in small-town India who store their jewellery in the pressure cooker, instead of putting it in the locker? We help banks overcome such barriers,” she says.
Putting together a perspective on a study on Indian youth, Singh reveals that every single milestone—like puberty or the age of initiation into a beauty parlour, smoking, drinking, sexual awareness—is arriving earlier these days. Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Indore and Madurai, it appears, are rocking and reeling. “Today’s 25-year-old is sounding like a 45- year-old. He is talking retirement at the age of 30 and is already planning for it. What a shift from the ‘angry young man’ of the 1980s,” she says.
There is also a “reverse learning phenomenon” occurring with mothers in India. Singh explains: “The mother is left feeling that she doesn’t know best any more. She is trying to learn a new code, the new language of computers and gadgets, so that she feels she is still central to her children’s world.”
Today, 30% of Indian women work; even those who don’t do some business from home. “In the 1970s and 1980s,” reminisces Singh, “the working woman’s perspective was that ‘I am entering a male domain. I need to learn how to be a man. It’s not okay to wear jewellery at work or say that my child is sick.’ Now, the most strait-laced companies are looking into well-being, HR issues and crèches. Today, women are going to work like alpha-shes, like a feminine force.”
By now, it’s time to bid Lalitaji goodbye and stoke the ‘alpha-she’ in Singh. So, we move on from the workplace to her other abiding passion—football. Why football, I ask. “Hey, I am a Bengali! A Bengali is born with fish, books and football. Football is life, you grow up with it. As a kid, it was Mohun Bagan versus the East Bengal club. It was a family thing; my proper bhadralok family would morph into this passionate, crazed avatar while watching it,” she says. So it came to pass that on their wedding night, the newly-wed Singhs got off to an auspicious start: they watched the 1990 World Cup final together, with both families.
Every memorable point in Singh’s life is matched by a football game of equal recall. During her chemistry lab days at Northwestern, Singh’s research guide, Tony Barrett, became her football mentor. “In 1987, I watched Maradona score the perfidious ‘Hand of God’ goal to win the World Cup. All the Englishmen from our lab broke their TV sets at the unfairness of it,” she exclaims.
Viewing football encompasses the three Rs. There’s ritual—Singh and family don the jerseys of the teams they support, occupying favoured positions on the couch. There’s riyaz—every day, she will study ESPN on the Internet to understand the moves. And there’s revelry—red wine in abundant measure; never, heaven forbid, róse. Singh’s beloved is Arsenal, the English Premier League club, but the country she supports is Italy.
As the evening draws to a mellow close and the ruby-like Reserva from Montalcino reaches its final dregs, Singh gets a determined glint in her eye. “I’m going to rent a villa in Tuscany, taste wine and immerse myself in learning the language. At the end of this year, I’m going to take part in a football-skills’ camp in Milan. One day, I fully intend to own a nugget of a football club, maybe in Italy.”
And then, Galileo and da Vinci grapple with Rabindranath Tagore, as Singh makes the final confession, “In my last birth, I’m 100% sure I was an Italian.”
Name: Rinita Singh
Born: 1963 (Kolkata)
Education: An M.Sc. in organic chemistry from Northwestern University, Chicago
Work Profile: Worked in client servicing and strategic planning at J. Walter Thompson, India, from 1987-1991. At Quantum Market Research from 1991 to present
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