There’s a common perception about women bosses—if you’re too feminine, you are vulnerable and unqualified to be in charge. Be less feminine (read: too tough), and you’re disliked. I think women as bosses need to be a combination of feminine, vulnerable and firm. I can feel that switch in me—where I can go from soft and emotional to tough and firm as per the need of the hour.

Learn, keep learning

In the last three to four years, I have made an effort to get a deeper understanding of the work culture of celebrated bosses (both women and men) around the globe, and how they manage people. I read a lot of books about entrepreneurs and managers—and how they run their businesses. Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead; Rolf Dobelli’s The Art Of Thinking Clearly; and Timothy Ferris’ Tools Of Titans: The Tactics, Routines And Habits Of Billionaires, Icons And World-Class Performers gave me great insights.

It’s tough when you’re young and starting out as an entrepreneur because most people don’t take you seriously. I floated my label when I was 19, and was asked questions that I don’t think a man would have been asked, such as, “Are you pricing your garments right?", “Do you know how to make a challan?"

The other challenging aspect was building relationships with vendors, who, in this country, work purely on the basis of their friendship with you. If you’re too tough with vendors, they will perceive you as uncool, or that you’re putting up a show. In addition to them, I met a lot of people who said: “You don’t really know what you’re doing. Get your mom to speak to me or an elder in the family who understands business."

It was tough to address these concerns but I decided early on to be honest. I would say, “Look I’m here to learn. I have never done this. If I don’t know something, I will ask. People start taking you seriously with time."

Fear is your friend

It’s important to feel it, acknowledge it and act upon it. I experienced it myself when I joined Satya Paul as the design head in 2012. I was 23 and leading a big team of professionals who were over 30 years. They would have obviously discussed that it was ridiculous to appoint me. Most of my learnings came from experiences in those two years. Believe in people, and don’t act smart are two things I have taken away from my stint. Also, when I was really afraid, I asked for help. I looked at mentors for help and found that they helped me to resolve issues I could not on my own.

Anjana Sharma, the former head of IMG-Reliance who was at the helm of Lakmé Fashion Weeks, always gave me very sound advice. Fashion designer Wendell Rodericks told me how to be. Anil Chopra (adviser and entrepreneur, formerly with Lakmé India) was of big help when I was starting out. Roshan Abbas (former actor and RJ who now runs Encompass Events) is someone I talk to every other day. My husband (and film producer) Madhu Mantena has been my support system for the last three years. He found me a CEO, Sagar Chhabra, who is not from the world of fashion and looks at the business very objectively.

The ‘boss bitch’ syndrome

You will be called a bitch irrespective of what you say. Even if you are the kindest boss ever, something you say will not go down well. Being assertive is always associated with being a bitch. I don’t worry to much about these labels. But what I worry about is being kind. You don’t know what someone you work with is going through in his/ her personal life. So I try to be kind while communicating without being too soft. People should know you’re not their mother but as their boss, if needed, you can be there for them.

Masaba Gupta is a fashion designer and director of House of Masaba Lifestyle Pvt. Ltd.

—As told to Sandipan Dalal

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