In an exclusive interview with AAJ Magazine, Vancouver's most Ravishing Business Leader: RITA CHOHAN shares her success story.
Please share a little about yourself & your career!
Rita : My name is Rita Chohan, born in London, England to Ashok and Nirmal Sharma; migrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1973 at the tender age of 3.
I am an Interior Designer specializing in Home Staging. I’ve been in the business for over 9 years now and have been raising my beautiful supportive family along with my thriving business, which now employees nine people. I have over 120 homes actively on the market that have been staged by us in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, Sea to Sky and Vancouver Island. I also take pride in training young talent who has Interior Designer goals.
Married to a very supportive and loving husband, Ruman Chohan for 24 years and have two beautiful boys, Akash who is 16 and Armaan who is 8 years old.
You became the director of a fashion show at a young age, how were you able to oversee every aspect of the event, from concept to the final presentation? Being a teenager, how were you able to get such a great level of confidence?
Rita: At the age of 18, I decided to organize a Fashion Show, which had never been done before. I enlisted my friends from high school (Indian and Non-Indian) to participate as models; which thankfully they obliged without hesitation. Having women of South Asian decent walk the ramp, was probably one of the biggest challenges. However, as the shows became more popular, my ramp saw more and more Indian women.
Indian clothing slowly became more and more mainstream and my fashion shows were now being aired on local television programs and large multi-cultural events. My models could be seen in newspapers and cover of local Indian magazines.
I’ve always had a keen interest in fashion, working with people and being put on the spot! My confidence stemmed from parents’ upbringing who always believed in me and always boosted my confidence. Being young or a woman or an Indian was always irrelevant for my parents and bestowed responsibilities on me without hesitation.
How did you get involved in the family business “ASHOKA TRADING COMPANY”?
Rita: My parents’ business grew along with their children in the hustling neighborhood of Punjabi Market and us kids took a keen interest in retail, fashion and “public eye”. Alongside my education, I indulged in helping out at the shops, which became second nature for me. We had a beautiful and memorable childhood on Main Street as the other businesses had kids like us. We all went to school together and came home to the shops to help out our parents; shaping us all into enterprising business people.
Mr. Ashok Sharma, was amongst the first ones to establish a business on Main Street Vancouver in the early 1970s. Was it a great responsibility and inspiration for you as a young adult?
Rita: Yes, my parents were one of the first to open a clothing business catering to the local Indian community, now known as Punjabi Market in Vancouver; also founding members of the local Hindu temple. Therefore, my upbringing was amongst community pioneers and was involved in community initiatives from childhood.
My parents’ journey has been very inspiring as they were first generation from India who overcame many struggles. They were pioneers in bringing Indian women a little of bit of fashion from India to them and introducing Indian fashion to the younger generation. They were also able to keep Indian traditions and culture alive with supplying items needed for weddings, births, funerals and other religious events.
Indian clothing has now crossed boundaries and become very mainstream; internationally accepted. I’d like to say that those families from the 70s who struggled and opened these businesses have a big hand in shaping our cosmopolitan culture now.
Have you always been entrepreneurial? Fashion in the 1990s was minimalistic and how did you manage to appeal people with your designer ready-made collections and what was the response?
Rita: At the age of 20, I was the first person in Punjabi Market to open a Fashion Boutique. This concept was unheard of, as Indian clothing was not considered fashionable. I strayed from the conventional home-stitched “salwar kameez” to ready-made designer clothing from Mumbai and New Delhi. The boutique was a big hit as young women were now more fashion conscious and appreciated designer dresses.
I think at that time, I didn’t necessarily think I was entrepreneurial; I was more interested in making Indian women fashionable and accepting to wear Indian clothing not only at the temple or parties, but even at non-Indian events. Especially younger women, it became fashionable to wear Indian outfits and wasn’t just worn by your moms and grandmothers.
How did you get where you are today, and who was your inspiration and greatest support?
Rita: My inspiration doesn’t come from one individual; it comes from our community as a whole. I get inspired when I see our Indian community thrive in many fields, business, politics, medicine, journalism, teaching, fashion and beauty, especially women. I get very inspired by hearing stories of women who have made a name for themselves and still manage to juggle duties of a mother, a wife and a daughter.
My pillars of support have been my family. As mentioned before, my parents have done the ground work with a solid foundation and my husband and boys have been such positive and uplifting affirmations in my life. Collectively they have always stood by my side, picked me up whenever I’ve been down and pushed me when needed the most. I’ve been very blessed to have such positive surroundings, including my sisters and my friends.
What was it about your mentality that changed when you switched your career from fashion business to work as a marketing head at the Insurance Company called Transamerica Life?
Rita: In addition to work and school, met my husband, Ruman Chohan, and married him in 1995 at the age of 25. At this time, I decided to lead a more conventional role, passed the boutique to my younger sister to run and I got a “regular” desk job at Transamerica Life as a marketing coordinator.
I think at that time I wanted to follow a more consistent timetable and travel with my husband. I loved my time at Transamerica Life as I met some amazing people and learnt quite a bit of an industry I wasn’t familiar with.
Please share a little about your family.
Rita: After getting married, this is where the next chapter of my life started where I was blessed with a beautiful baby boy, Akash in 2003. Motherhood took me over and I embraced it with both arms. Casually helping my Husband with his transport business, but enjoying being a Mom immensely. I was a “stay at home mom” for 8 years when I decided to take a new direction. We were hoping to have a second child, but was not in our cards at the time; therefore, started exploring new possibilities.
And just to add a little more excitement in my life, when I was in the business for not even six months I became pregnant with my second beautiful son, Armaan, who was born in 2011! I can proudly say that at the age of 41, I not only gave birth but established a successful business.
My husband I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary this year!
Why Home Staging? How did you get into the home staging business? What was it like switching careers at that point in your life?
Rita: Home Staging was introduced, believe it or not, watching daytime HGTV television shows! I was fascinated by the concept as had never heard of it. After some research, I found a keen interest amongst realtors and builders. That’s when “An Elegant Touch Home Staging & Design” was conceptualized in 2010.
Right timing and place was a major factor as my business soared, being the first Indo-Canadian to open an Interior Design company specializing in Home Staging. Construction in the Lower Mainland was booming and the concept of home staging was introduced by me. There were a few companies in this business, but catering to major developers. Builders and Homeowners had never been introduced to Home Staging and I took the role of not only staging these homes but educating the importance of Home Staging.
I have been embraced and accepted as one of the most sought after Home Staging companies; however, didn’t come my way that easy. First of all, not only was this a new concept but also, a lot of people didn’t understand the importance of Home Staging. Builders did not understand how their new construction will be showcased better with Home Staging. After many assurances and convincing and finally success stories, this form of marketing has become an important tool to list your property.
Home Staging is also very rewarding, especially after hearing success stories like property on the market for months and no offers; home gets staged by us and SOLD in one week! I have many success stories like these to be proud of.
How did your earlier work in fashion business impact your career in home staging?
Rita: The fashion business and interior design/home staging both have to do with being creative, sales and marketing and of course, working with people. My passion for design and putting things together have always excited me, I love working with colors and textures, and most of all, I love pretty things. The fashion business was a great foundation for me to build on my interior design career. I learnt business ethics at an early age and still implement those ideals in my day to day business.
How would you say your degree in Business Administration help your career?
Rita: In addition to the business endeavors at the boutique, I continued my education on a parttime basis. Worked during the day and went to BCIT (Marketing Management Diploma) then to Simon Fraser University (Bachelor’s in Business Administration, Major in Marketing and Minor in Psychology) in the evening. I actually finished my degree after marriage.
Of course any kind of formal education shapes a person immensely. Problem solving, being organized, implementing your thought process… these all are powerful tools to be successful in any field. My strongest skills have been marketing and have always had a knack for it. With specializing in it, I learnt the most effective ways to demonstrate sales, working with people and having a keen business sense. Even though I never had intentions to pursue my knowledge in Psychology, I really enjoyed that subject and I think it has also aided me through the years on understanding human behavior.
Walk us through a day in your life!
Rita: I am not a morning person! Those who know me well, definitely know this of me! However, I’m still up before the boys to get them ready for school and drop them off. I’ve always tried maintaining this routine, which gives me a chance to start my day and my boys’ day with some positive thoughts for the day.
Then my business day begins, which thankfully with an amazing staff, they make my job easier. I can now delegate many duties and I can focus on new business. My day mainly consists of finding new business and consultations. All homes that are staged and designed are personally viewed by myself and then instructions are given to the crew to stage the home. Initially when I started this business with not much staff, the sourcing, shopping and execution of stage were all done by myself, which in turn giving me long, hard days. I have now given duties to the staff to take these tasks on which I overlook.
Networking is a very important aspect of this business and I have to keep the brand marketable. It may entail meetings, lunches or attending events. With all the consultations and networking, my day gets consumed quite quickly as I have to travel quite a bit as well. As we have expanded now to Squamish/Whistler and the Vancouver Island, immense driving is also quite crucial in this business. There is a wide variety of clients I see all day, realtors, builders and also major developers. I may also see homeowners who are seeking to put their home on the market and may need staging done.
I try to be home in the evenings and on the weekends and that’s where my second job, as a mother, wife and daughter takes over. All the duties as a Mom, activities, homework, dinner, board games takes up the whole evening. After the boys are in bed, that’s when my business duties are back on again. I have to send the crew instructions for the following day, send the necessary paper work to our client and then I’m up till wee hours working on my social media. I have a considerable amount of following on my social media pages and have to keep the content fresh and interesting.
What are some of the biggest challenges in the home staging industry? What's next for your business?
Rita: Educating the real estate and the construction industry has always been the biggest challenge in this business. When I go for a consultation, not only am I viewing the property, but many times I have to also convince the importance of staging and how their property will not only sell quickly but for more money. With a volatile market right now, owners try to cut corners and may drop listing price by thousands of dollars, but won’t spend a fraction to stage the property. This is the most frustrating part. However, I can proudly say, that once you’ve staged, you won’t go back!
Another challenge is the investment in this business. Trends are constantly changing. Styles of homes and colors used are always evolving which is dictates how we design the property. All homes have their own unique style, traditional, modern, contemporary, or transitional… the staging has to coordinate. Therefore our warehouse has to cater to all these styles.
Taking the investment factor further, keeping our inventory available is also a challenge. We currently have 120 packages out at stages. And we are still consistently staging a home every day. Therefore, shopping never ends. We are constantly increasing our inventory. Especially with the slower market, staging is demanded more.
I am quite content with where my business is today. My next goal is to work on a second crew so that we can stage two homes in a day. We are finding it challenging with one crew as business is at a constant rise.
If any, what challenges have you experienced as a woman in business during your overall career?
Rita: Overall, I have to say I have been quite blessed with not having to face any major challenges as a woman. I think the only challenge I’ve found is time management. Trying to establish a business takes a lot of time and effort which takes you away from your duties as a wife, mother and daughter. Late nights and divided attention even when you are home are difficult aspects of anyone running a business, whether you are a man or a woman. But I think women take a little more in their basket as they have more responsibilities toward their home and their family.
As a business owner, how do you personally find time for yourself?
Rita: With great difficulty! Earlier in my business, I didn’t so much, but recently I try at least once a week, whether it’s a quick trip to the spa or it’s to meet a girlfriend for lunch or shopping. I actually find my time at home with my hubby and boys is the most therapeutic. Whether it’s playing board games or snuggling with my hubby with our favorite TV shows and drinking chai.
Tell us about your community involvement.
Rita: I love being involved in the community and really believe in trying to give back as much as possible. I try to stay involved in various local philanthropic and fundraising events in the city.
Currently I sit on Children’s Hospital “A Night of Miracles” cabinent. Which has raised over $6.1 million dollars in the past 11 years for the hospital.
I assist my son, Akash, with his initiative “Kids Care” which involves kids to collectively make care packages for the homeless. Every December they congregate and assemble these packages and hit the streets of Downtown Vancouver and personally hand out these packages to the homeless.
Recently I was recognized in Seattle, WA as “Ravishing Woman of the Day” rewarding my business achievements and representing Canada.
What advice would you give any aspiring female business leaders reading this?
Rita: Not sure what else is stored for me in the future; however, currently quite content with my many roles as business woman, philanthropist, wife, daughter and mostly importantly mother.
” I like to inspire young women to take initiative and take risks. Don’t follow the easy path, take challenges and challenge others. Also would like to inspire those who are stay at home mothers, if you’re feeling the impulse to change paths, follow your intuition. “
It’s never too late! – Rita Chohan