Natasha Vora: Setbacks fuel determination; preparation leads to business ownership.
A professional figure skater for 10 years, from the tender ages of 6 to 16, Natasha Vora says operating a store with furnishings marked by exotic woods and textured material may not give her quite the same opportunity for self-expression that executing a double axel to music from Madame Butterfly in a kimono-style costume once did, but it’s expressive nonetheless. In fact, Vora sees a number of parallels between her figure skating past and her home decor present. The artistic expression that helped her develop a passion for figure skating has also influenced her selection of Asian-style furnishings and textiles at Indocara, her Madison store.
As a figure skater, Vora was good enough to qualify for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, a very big deal for a young girl. She was known in the skating community for being more of an artistic skater, and she reveled in the freedom to design her own skating costumes and choreograph her own routines. The artistic expression that once came through in her skating costumes is now illustrated by her selection of textiles from India, and her perseverance for retail comes from enduring the emotion, the pain, and the mental challenges of being part of such a highly-competitive sport.
“I used to fall 30 times a day at least on the ice because you’d be practicing and you’d learn new jumps, and you’re trying to perfect your program and your spins,” she said. “I skated for four hours a day, five hours in the summer, not including weight training. It was a very intense thing to do at such a young age, but it was just one of those things where you kept going. You didn’t think twice about it.”
Not to worry. Skating, and all the ankle fractures and knee operations that came with it taught her so much about dedication that when she was denied entry into the UW business school, she was simply not willing to accept failure. She would simply take a different path to becoming an entrepreneur, one not all that different in shape than the Figure 8s she once skated during the compulsory segments of her competitions.
Vora, who grew up in Racine, received an eclectic upbringing by entrepreneurial parents, including an Eastern Indian father who owned a polymer manufacturing plant, and a French Canadian mother who ran a swimming school. In keeping with her multi-cultural identity, she made up the name Indocara for her store — Indo meaning Asian and cara being the Spanish word for face.
Her attractive, 4,000-square-foot store on West Washington Avenue definitely has an Asian face. Vora did not believe that Madison stores had a very interesting selection of furniture, home dÃ©cor, or lighting, and she sensed an opportunity to introduce a niche product.
She started Indocara three years ago with a carefully crafted business plan, bank loans and personal savings from previous stops at LandsEnd, where she was mentored by Bill Bass, and Rayovac, where CEO David Jones first brought her on as an intern and then leveraged her UW-Madison degrees in French and Spanish when he promoted her to international operations analyst at Rayovac’s Latin American division in Boca Raton, Fla.
Vora’s experience with Rayovac was good prep work for Indocara. She facilitated the movement of raw materials that went into the company’s batteries, coordinating shipments of cargo from all around the world to Rayovac’s battery plants in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Guatemala. This experience, along with memories of the blue collar workers and 30-foot high reactors in her father’s polymer plant, and a senior year of college spent in Paris and Spain, gave her ample confidence to travel to the Asian manufacturing plants she had researched on the Internet.
“When it came time to me putting ideas together for this business, I didn’t have any fear,” Vora recalled. “I was kind of intrepid in the sense that I had already done a lot of traveling. I had already gone to all these countries in Latin America by myself. I knew the process.
“Here I was, pretty young at the time, but I really kind of learned the ropes on how to deal with being in another country, going alone, that type of thing.”
Armed with Internet research that told her there were beautiful wood and upholstery resources to tap into, she traveled to different trade shows and plants and used her intuition to figure out what would sell — not only in Madison, but globally. The Internet is a powerful sales and marketing tool, and Vora uses it to branch out internationally. She now makes one foreign trip each year and is frequently visited by customers from New York City and Washington, D.C. Thanks in part to the Internet, about 25% of her sales come from outside of Wisconsin, and that piece of her business is growing.
Vora buys directly from the manufacturer, and she claims to be the only importer of the type of furniture that can be found in her store. Buying directly rather than working through suppliers gives her more ability to work with plants that are certified as “fair wage” in their respective communities, and it removes one more potential complication in a business loaded with them — including importation and duty laws, the red tape involved in shipping, and foreign exchange rates.
This is not an easy time for any business, let alone an upscale furnishing store. With one employee and friends that chip in, Vora tries to keep payroll down and invest as many dollars as she can in marketing and inventory. Since she does not buy through suppliers — she is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the “middle man” — she can’t manage inventory the same way most retailers can. There are benefits to that, but there also are challenges.
“I can’t have somebody come up to me and say I want this coffee table in a lighter stain, and then have me order it from California,” she explained. “So hopefully, I have the inventory of this in a lighter color or otherwise somebody is going to have to wait until I can get enough interest from people for this same manufacturer.”
In an ideal world, she sees herself coordinating large-volume shipments for boutique hotels and restaurants around the world. In July, she plans to launch a brand new Web site, IndocaraTrade.com, for which customers will have to get a password and sign up as architects, interior designers, or as retailers. They will be able to see an expanded assortment of furnishings that Vora does not necessarily have in inventory but can get for them. Relying on established skills, Vora also will coordinate shipping containers for boutique hotels or restaurants.
“It’s been a long haul to get the Web site to this place, but that’s more of a long-term vision,” she said.
Vora also entertains thoughts of franchising, but for now she would simply like the economy to return to normal so she can give Madisonians some unique alternatives when it comes to shaping their dÃ©cor.
“I feel really good,” she said, “about what I’ve brought to people here in Madison.”