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Shinam Seth, a graduate of Government Law College-Mumbai, worked in the chambers of Harish Salve for three years before obtaining a Masters in Law from King’s College, London. Post graduation, Shinam returned to India and began working with Trilegal before taking a sabbatical from the legal profession. It was during this time that she founded “The Yellow Polka” a shop dedicated to shoes. In this interview with Anuj Agrawal, Shinam talks about the challenges of being an entrepreneur, her love for law and how she wishes she had 48-hour days.
Bar & Bench: A shoe designer? An entrepreneur? A trendsetter? How exactly would you describe yourself?
Shinam Seth: An entrepreneur, who designs shoes, and an aspiring trendsetter hoping to establish that a ‘professional degree’ (or the lack of one!) should not come in the way of chasing your ‘other’ dreams.
B&B: So you graduated with a law degree and then joined the chambers of Harish Salve. Why did you choose litigation? What was the experience like?
SS: My fascination for the law actually started with exposure to Constitutional Law, back in high school. So litigation seemed like the most natural course to take once I had graduated.
I had also done a number of internships spanning across all facets of law and as much as I’d enjoyed my peek into the structured corporate law life, litigation was what really excited me. One such internship was in the Chambers of Harish Salve while he was the Solicitor General of India and I also clerked with Justice N. Santosh Hegde while he was at the Supreme Court.
Having seen matters like TMA Pai being argued by the stalwarts of the legal profession, I saw policy being effectuated right before my eyes. Those certainly were defining points in my trajectory to choose litigation over corporate- despite its many many temptations!
Not that litigation doesn’t come with a downside. The gestation period is far longer, money comes in slow and at a later point in your career, not to forget the inadvertent expenditure of your day, that’s almost inseparable from court practice. (Some thing that bothered me to a large degree!) But, it all eventually boils down to what kind of work makes your heart tick.
The experience was fantastic. I had the opportunity to learn from a brilliant senior and to advise and research on wide ranging issues relating to contracts, taxation, company laws and administrative law. I also saw the working of vital aspects of the Constitution, which was fascinating. The majesty and thrill of litigation particularly at the Supreme Court of India compares to nothing else in the profession.
B&B: And then you went and did your Masters. What did you specialize in?
SS: I went to Kings College, London for my LLM. Further studies and academia were always on the cards because I’ve enjoyed the study of law more than anything I’ve ever done.
I studied Comparative Constitutional Law, Intellectual Property Law, Comparative Arbitration Law and the Legal Aspects of International Finance.
B&B: Wasn’t that a bit of an odd combination?
SS: It sure was. My combination of subjects baffled most professors at university. Though my specialty ended up being one in Corporate Commercial Laws, I doubt if there were any other students who marveled and wrote papers on the right to free speech and expression and deliberated on term sheets & the role of a lead manager in an international syndicated loan process – during the same Masters degree!
But, considering my work background, this was the most natural track for me.
A typical day in chambers would start researching and establishing the basis for writs assailing private bodies (such as the BCCI) in their discharge of any public functions and end on the other end of the spectrum- international commercial arbitrations involving issues such as exclusion clauses and damages. I found that diversity so engaging, that I couldn’t imagine feeling content studying just one facet of law. In fact I’d often attend modules that weren’t even part of my programme simply because they were so interesting. Taking unconnected and complicated modules did make it more challenging to study, particularly for exams, but I did manage to get a merit/distinction in all.
B&B: So after completing three years with Harish Salve, you got your Masters. And then you joined Trilegal. Why this switch from litigation to a corporate firm?
SS: Corporate [law firms] come with an element of discipline that I find very endearing. I like to have an agenda and a “to do” list at the beginning of my day and make sure I’ve tick marked all (and more) at the end of it.
One of the major downsides of litigation (for me) was the reality that your day really begins post court. I loved the nature of work but the routine isn’t the best. And in any case, corporate was something I’d intended to try my hand at, at some point in my career.
B&B: And then you decided to open The Yellow Polka. First of all how did you choose this name? Secondly, what made you decide to leave law and branch out in this field?
SS: Well, actually the name literally popped in my head! There wasn’t even a second choice I considered. I wanted my footwear collection to be vibrant and in a lot of exciting hues. The Yellow Polka, I think, inspires such an image. Also our logo is a big yellow polka dot so it does look fun.
In the beginning, there wasn’t a concrete, thought out strategy to open The Yellow Polka, to be honest. And there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a plan to quit law altogether. I’ve loved the subject dearly, so my ideal life would be to be lawyer by day and entrepreneur by night. (I’m sure many people are familiar with this non out of the box aspiration of a 48 hour day!)
I wanted some time off so I took a sabbatical. The plan was to travel and do everything that I hadn’t made time for in the last many years. Since starting at law school every slot of time and vacation I had, had been dedicated to an internship, moot court and other such activity (an exercise that I fondly call CV building).
As much as I’d enjoyed every moment of that, there remained a suppressed desire to do other things, read more (other than law), make time for music and theatre, be politically involved, write etc. And as anybody in the profession will tell you, there is no time for anything other than work.
So the sabbatical was really supposed to be my outlet to explore things. And I did go on a culture overdrive doing all that I could. I even did a course in Creative Writing which has been extremely fulfilling.
But mostly, there had always been an innate desire to do something creative and entrepreneurial. Craft something new. Build it from scratch. I’d enjoyed being a lawyer, but was also looking for a different challenge where I could create something.
A part of it was also brewing in me while I lived in London. I’d often walk through Covent Garden, besotted by the beautiful small stores. The creative energy in the products and the gorgeous aesthetics of their interiors always caught my eye. I met an entrepreneur there who was actually a PhD in War Studies. She held a research position but was fully involved in her venture at the same time. I think that’s when I wondered if it were ever possible to live this life of dual dreams in India. And that’s how The Yellow Polka came about.
B&B: How has the experience been? Did you start with a store or was it a gradual process?
SS: It’s been an interesting journey. Being an entrepreneur comes with a gamut of things. There’s no aspect of your venture that you can (or worse are willing to) delegate.
Whether it’s the aesthetic of the store, marketing strategies, the trends one wants to focus on or managing social media, you’re always wired. So you’re doing practically everything- production, finance, lease negotiations and yes, also being the janitor and porter! You pretty much thrive on your own drive.
How it all began is an interesting story. I’d always enjoyed shoes (no gasps at that!) but had noticed that I’d rarely find a pair in India, that I loved. I’d often try and put together a design and get it customized. But again there were hardly any people who were willing to do that.
Having studied the market, I realized that this gap created tremendous potential for a young, vibrant, not- too-expensive footwear brand that also offered customization. It helped that my mother, despite her own professional commitments was also interested in being involved in this venture. So I wasn’t entirely on my own.
We actually started out by customizing a limited collection of shoes. We took part in some shoe fairs and other lifestyle exhibitions and the orders started coming in. And so did the enquiries about a retail space and where people could come and see our products. The next thing I knew, I was surveying Delhi for an ideal retail space!
I found a good location; Shahpur Jat in Delhi, with its young designers, creative energy and comparatively low rentals seemed like a fantastic spot to nurture this venture. And then started designing the look of the store, which is very much in keeping with its name- bright, vibrant and a lot of energy.
It’s been an exciting process. We’ve exhibited and sold our products all over India- Jaipur, Hyderabad, Amritsar, Calcutta, Bombay etc. We’ve even had customers and enquiries especially for our bestseller Mojris from Pakistan and Bangladesh!
We’ve also customized shoes for the models, of one the largest car brands in the world, for the Auto Expo in Delhi at the beginning of this year.
B&B: In your current avatar as an entrepreneur, have you ever found yourself using the skills picked up in law school or through court practice?
SS: Your legal education helps you and follows you wherever you go. What you learn in law school is how to think like a lawyer, and that’s something that doesn’t leave you. You see everything to its logical extreme, think on your feet and learn to anticipate potential issues, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on how creative lawyers can be. You’re also trained to be risk averse and that natural skepticism can, I feel, insulate you from unsafe business decisions. Not to forget that legal issues touch every business, and I’ve looked at a number of such things purely from a lawyer’s eye- be it in the nature of trademarks, lease documentations or any other compliance issues.
Having said that, I also believe that there is a part of legal training that compels you into dwelling into excessive detail. One may need to put that to rest as an entrepreneur, else much time can be wasted on irrelevant ‘finer points’.
And, on a lighter note, little bit of the lawyer does creep into the shoes. One of my creations is called the ‘Your Honor Pumps’ and another (taking inspiration from the series-The West Wing, which I love!) is called the ‘West Wing Counsel.’
B&B: Best thing about your job?
SS: There isn’t a mundane moment. I find myself using skills I wasn’t aware I had. And there’s no average typical day.
My day could oscillate between shoe designing and production, brand building, sourcing new materials, consulting with clients on their designs, devising and implementing marketing strategies, bringing new designs into the range, working on trade mark applications (being a lawyer does come in handy!), surveying the market and researching trends, working with photographers, styling photo shoots to managing the store.
And did I mention, my day actually has tons of color! Also, I must say, it’s nice to work for yourself.
B&B: Worst thing about your job?
SS: We work with various artisans and sometimes the lack of professionalism particularly with regard to timelines can be taxing. And, on an exhausting day, I actually do find myself missing the structured law life, where we live in a box and play a set role and where things move like clockwork.
B&B: Any advice for lawyers who might be thinking of starting their own venture in a field completely unconnected to law?
SS: Go for it! Whoever said we were meant to do and make a success of just one thing in our life probably never gave anything else a fair shot. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an either/or situation. One may not need to quit law entirely (at least not in the long run), depending on the nature of your venture and how much time you need to dedicate to it. I just think there’s always enough room for things you truly want to do with your time. Sure, your trajectory and course may not end up being that typical, but then, isn’t that the point?
It’s never an easy decision. But you must find the kind of work that makes you want to jump out of bed, every single morning. And, life’s too short, to not have done everything you want to do. Or worse, to not have loved what you do with complete passion.
B&B: What plans for the future?
SS: We’re working on new designs and production for the upcoming season. And, we’re also in the process of supplying to some designer stores across the country. Also the whole e-commerce bug is a bit difficult to ignore, so The Yellow Polka shoes will be sold online very soon.
Besides that I still have a long list of things to do and aspirations to live. Trying to work through my 48 hour day dream, within the reality of 24 hours!
Shinam Seth initially spent two years at ILS, Law College, Pune before shifting to Government Law College, Bombay from where she graduated in 2004. She then joined the chambers of Harish N Salve and worked on a wide variety of constitutional and commercial matters. She further went on to get a Masters in Law from Kings College, London specializing in Corporate Commercial Laws. After her corporate stint, she co-founded The Yellow Polka. You can visit The Yellow Polka Facebook page here