In this series, I speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with me their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
When Ramya Ragupathi embarked on a mission to cure her sinus issues through a wellness lifestyle, she had no idea that it would transform more than her health. She discovered that food sensitivities—particularly gluten and dairy—were the primary culprits. So she eliminated them from her diet. But the avid baker relearned how to make sweets with alternative ingredients. Her resulting wheatless and milk-free chocolate cake was a hit with friends and family, accompanying Ramya to every dinner party. And, after she returned from studying abroad to her home in Singapore, the recipe would eventually become the inspiration for a sweet new business: Oh My Goodness!
Ramya still works other jobs to pay the bills, and financial success sometimes feels impossible. But her business is taking off—Ramya’s cakes are now made in an industrial kitchen, and she has more than a handful of people who help with making and packing the cakes as well as operations, sales, and marketing. Her social enterprise hires people with disabilities and those transitioning out of the criminal system. When pressed, Ramya notes she feels successful because she hits her goals and makes a difference in people’s lives. Here, Ramya explains how—and why—she started a business while $150,000 in debt, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
In Ramya’s words:
“I left Singapore to go to business school in Europe. I have to emphasize that it had nothing to do with Oh My Goodness! My plan was completely different. But during that time, I started making this chocolate cake that was gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free. I served it to my classmates, and they loved it. It basically became my thing I made at every dinner party. People were like, ‘You need to sell this.’ I laughed because I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. Apparently, you should never say never.
A lot of people start businesses with mommy-and-Daddy funding, and I had none of that.
At that point, I’d spent $100,000 on my MBA. I had friends supporting me financially too, and my debt was growing. It was getting very difficult to remain in Europe because of my visa and the kind of role that I wanted. I felt like my life was a bit unstable, and it might make sense to move back to Singapore. That’s when I decided, ‘You know what? Screw it. Why don’t I just start making these cakes and see what happens?’ I was absolutely broke but I threw myself into getting Oh My Goodness! off the ground.
I started my business while I was $150,000 in debt, which I’m still clearing. My very kind and wonderful friends have not come claiming their money back yet. But it does weigh on me from time to time. It’s not like 20 bucks or 500 bucks. We’re talking thousands of dollars, and on a bad day, I get worried that I’ll never be able to pay it off. A lot of people start businesses with mommy-and-daddy funding, and I had none of that. I love it when privileged people aren’t aware of their privilege. But you can’t expect people to understand something they’ve never experienced.
I’m still trying to get my parents’ validation.
My dad’s a taxi driver; my mom’s a cleaner. So their world views are very different from mine. They don’t always understand the choices that I make. Once, at a Christmas party, someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I heard you’re selling these cakes.’ And my mom poked her head into this conversation she wasn’t even a part of and said, ‘Only part-time.’ It offended me, but at the same time, I knew where she was coming from. I had some media coverage recently in the Singapore Tatler and the Business Times, and I took all these copies home to show them that they had something to be proud of. I’m still trying to get my parents’ validation.
I don’t draw a salary from my business yet. I’ve been reinvesting everything. I do have a half-time gig, and I consult just to pay the bills. So I obviously lead a very minimalist life. When I was in Europe, I spent a good amount of time living out of two bags. And at one point, I was living in Albania. If there’s one thing I took away from all of this, it’s how little you need to be happy. You don’t need 15 friends and 25 cocktails. You need three solid people in your life who’ve got your back.
It’s up to you to decide what your success factors are and how you define that. I’ve learned to just make peace with this idea that my company’s doing ‘well enough.’ You’re going to keep having people who are telling you to give it all up and go back to work. ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’ The number of times I’ve heard that! But at the end of the day, if you crash and burn, your friends are going to love you all the same. And so will your family. And so it’s really okay. When you take that pressure out, everything changes, I think.
I’m really hoping to eventually be able to throw myself into Oh My Goodness! 5 million percent because that’s really what I love and what brings me joy. One of my staff sent me a message to say, ‘This is the longest dedicated job I’ve had in my life.’ I’m motivated by stuff like that. Of course, I would love to have $1 million, but I’ve changed someone’s life.”Illustration by Germán González