From Living with Hearing Loss to Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur
In this first episode of a new series of Our Voices, we focus on Pinky Lilani: an insightful and inspiring female entrepreneur with a passion for food. Pinky describes how she grew up in a culture in which men were supposed to be the breadwinners.
She also talks about her struggles with dealing with hearing loss in the midst of her newfound career in cookery. Finally, she reflects on how support from a kind friend and an inner determination to succeed saw her overcome her challenges and achieve lasting success.
A man’s world
Pinky grew up in India in the ‘60s when a woman’s role was at home and it was rare for females to participate in economic life. Despite this, she describes growing up in a privileged background and being able to attend university as a result.
Moving to the UK
After completing her undergraduate studies at university, Pinky went on to do a postgraduate diploma. Even after this, there was no expectation that she would take a serious role in the outside world. “What was expected of me was that I would get married quite early.
There wasn’t any encouragement or aspiration to really have a career.” Pinky got her postgraduate diploma at the age of 23 from the University of Mumbia. She also met her future husband while studying there.
“It was a semi-arranged marriage. So I married him three weeks after meeting him not knowing much about what life would be like.”
Shortly after this, the newly-married couple emigrated to the UK. Perhaps surprisingly for someone who would go on to become a celebrated chef, one of the first things she was looking forward to was visiting McDonald’s.
Her first job
Pinky continued her studies in the UK and, due to her outgoing nature and her love for cooking, she quickly made new friends in the process.
“I used to entertain a lot, I loved having people over and I started putting together recipes and telling people how to make a good pilau rice and chicken tikka.”
From these social gatherings and her passion for food came a job opportunity. Pinky was hired to teach Indian cookery classes. “I remember them telling me they’d pay me 11 pounds an hour, which I was very excited about because nobody had ever paid me for anything.”
Living with hearing loss
This would only be the beginning of Pinky’s forays into economic life. But just as she was getting used to her new job role, a major obstacle unexpectedly arose. She began to lose her hearing. This meant that she was finding it more and more difficult to communicate with her students.
She would ask questions to the class which had already been answered. As her hearing loss continued to get worse, she went to visit a doctor who told her that it was irreversible. “I really was absolutely distraught, because I thought, if I keep losing it and there’s no hearing left, how will I spend the rest of my life in a silent world?
It was absolutely frightening. It was … worse than frightening.”
Words of kindness
By this point, Pinky had become a member of various boards and committees alongside being a cookery teacher. With her hearing deteriorating, she worried that she would no longer be able to continue with these commitments. However, a kind colleague approached her with words of encouragement.
“ I remember her telling me that [if you stop teaching,] you won’t be letting yourself down. But you will be letting all of us down because we really liked the way you teach.”
These words inspired Pinky and gave her the strength to figure out how to cope with deafness. “When I look back, I see how I am where I am because of the kindness of so many. I can think of so many people along the way, who’ve been so kind in helping me in my journey.”
How to cope with deafness
Pinky made adaptations so that she could continue carrying out her various roles while living with hearing loss. She became a part of smaller board meetings so that it was easier to keep up with the conversations.
She also spent more time communicating with her students in a one-to-one capacity at their cooking stations. For Pinky, the key to her success was being able to change her perspective. All of these adaptations showed her how to cope with deafness.
“I think you can use everything to a positive advantage; it’s the way you’re actually going to look at it that’s important.”
Connecting with others
One unexpected advantage was that living with hearing loss actually made it easier for people to connect with Pinky. Telling them about her own vulnerabilities made the people around her more patient and compassionate.
In fact, it seemed as if people were coming to her classes as much to hear her tell stories as to learn about cookery. It would seem to naturally follow then that her students would often insist that she write a book.
Becoming a female entrepreneur
Pinky decided to take their advice and wrote the book “Spice Magic: An Indian Culinary Adventure”. But now she needed to find a means of getting the book sold. Initially, she contacted booksellers directly to try to encourage them to stock it.
But they were unwilling to do so “they’d ask me, Are you a celebrity? Have you been on television? Why should we buy your book?”. She realised that, if she was going to get her book sold, she would have to be creative.
So she called a store and made them a unique proposition: “ If I bring my electric wok and make spicy Bombay potatoes in five minutes in the shop, would you let me sell my book?”
The owner of the shop agreed and the event became such a success that Pinky began travelling to other shops with her book in tow.
Despite living with hearing loss, Pinky has become a celebrated female entrepreneur. Pinky gave a talk on leadership at the supermarket chain “Asda”.
A week later, a buyer from the company called her and told her that they would like to buy her book. They ended up buying 6,000 copies. Pinky has since gone on to feature on the BBC, GQ magazine and The Times newspaper.
She has also given TED Talks. On top of this, she has created the Women of the Future programme, an initiative that supports and develops women for leadership roles. And she has become a trustee and ambassador of countless charities. She has also received an OBE for her services to charity and a CBE for her services to business.
Following your heart
When asked how she has been able to become such a successful female entrepreneur, Pinky puts it down to kindness and community. She believes that she has received a lot of support and she now wishes to provide that support for others. “It’s about building communities.
And I think that’s what Women of the Future does well; we bring people together and we let their energy then take everyone to another level…”
Talking about the idea of success, Pinky says “I think people are successful if they do what they really love and they do it with passion… For me, I’ve always followed my heart.”