Interview with Aashnee Gajaria

Country Squire India’s (CSI) Kaustav Bhattacharya and Ishrath Mubeen interview Aashnee Gajaria, a young entrepreneur, about her start-up Meditourz. A student of Cass Business School London, Aashnee and her mother started Meditourz to connect patients with the best medical and wellness expertise for ideal and affordable treatment in India.

Kris Bhattacharyya: Good Evening CSM India readers, please welcome to this edition of the Interview with Aashnee Gajaria moderated by the CSM India team of myself, Dr. Kaustav (Kris) Bhattacharyya and Ishrath Mubeen. Now, both of you are young professionals of 21st century modern India and women professionals which makes this a very special conversation for our International Women’s Day issue. It makes me very glad to have you here Aashnee. And this is a bit of a narcissistic statement, but it gives me great pleasure that you are alumni of Cass Business School (name changed to Bayes Business School), where I did my PhD. It’s an old school tie. And since you are part of the same Alma Mater, it gives me great delight to watch a very successful entrepreneur in you.  For this interview, we will stick to the old name of Cass Business School which would make things easier for our readers and friends at CSM India Edition.

County Squire India promotes the Indo-British relationship 2.0. It looks at India, the young and vibrant nation forging ties with Britain a country with which it has long-established ties. And Dominic Whitman, who is the owner, Editor, Publisher of Country Squire UK as well as of India, is a firm believer in this new relationship.

Since I had a lot of history in my PhD I would always like to start at the very beginning, the way it all started. Can you please tell us how did this journey of Meditourz begin? Can we go back to the origins of Meditourz?

Aashnee Gajaria: Thank you for having me. It’s a great pleasure to be here.

Meditourz started because of my mother. She read an article in The Guardian about a Bangladeshi family, asking for mercy killing for three of their children. They were a farmer family and had no funds left or hope for treatment. They were suffering from a condition called muscular dystrophy, wherein your muscles degenerate in the early twenties. There’s not a scope of life beyond that unless you find a solution to regenerate those muscles.

Because she was connected with the pioneer of stem cells research in India, she somehow reached out to the NGO that was connected with this family. And then we got in touch with the then External Affairs Minister late Smt. Sushma Swaraj and requested her if she could grant them medical visas. Air India was really sweet to fly them down for absolutely no cost. That’s how we got them to Mumbai and treated them at absolutely no cost. So, we started Meditourz on a philanthropic note and then over time we realized that healthcare is not accessible to everyone in many countries of the world even if it is affordable. Sometimes they have to travel to the UK or the US because the quality of healthcare is not up to the mark in their home countries.

We realized that there’s a new reason for people to travel. We know people travel for leisure, for work; but people also travel for their health. And the pandemic has given them a bigger reason because people now realize that health is of utmost importance.

Kris Bhattacharya: Great. This sounds like a very fascinating story of a mother-daughter partnership. So, there are plenty of questions that are springing forth in my mind. You started on very humanitarian grounds. Can you describe where the company stands today? If you can give me a synopsis of the journey so far.

Aashnee Gajaria: We established in April 2017. The core purpose, I would say for the business, is to be in the regenerative and holistic space and to solve problems from the root cause. So, all our treatments are completely non-invasive, and there’s no downtime. There’s no hassle, there’s no pain following the treatment. We support them with numerous types of therapies. Be it occupational, speech, physio, different kinds of therapies that need to recuperate. When you try to solve a problem superficially, it doesn’t solve completely. They could necessarily have to go for another surgery or it could crop up because of the insertion of a foreign body like implants into their body. So, we try to do it most holistically. 

We’ve held about 24 workshops internationally in 14 cities and eight countries. This is pre-pandemic and a couple of them have been done in recent times. We restarted in November of 2021 since the International borders to Mumbai have opened up again. We’ve worked closely with the Royal family of Bahrain, the Dubai and Abu Dhabi health authorities, worked with school centres and associations internationally.

Aashnee at one of the International workshops.

All the work that we do is extremely credible. We work in a very unorganized sector because medical and wellness tourism does not have any governing body that sets down rules. We will often find people working in the tourism industry or agents, in general, hanging around in popular locations of Mumbai, like the airport or Gateway of India claiming to provide treatment but we don’t know the efficacy. We cannot take risks when it comes to our health. There are a lot of challenges, but this is where the company is. That’s our core purpose.

Kris Bhattacharya: Well, it seems like you’re a real Globetrotting businesswoman. Now let’s learn a little bit about your business geography. You’re headquartered in India and you did presentations across the world. Which are the countries you’re looking at in the future for market expansion?

Aashnee Gajaria: We are headquartered between Mumbai and Abu Dhabi. But we have to date targeted the South Asian region, i.e. our immediate neighbours, Southeast Asia, and the Middle east.  We have a huge scope in Africa as well. But by the time we could reach out there we were hit by the pandemic hence it’s stalled. It’s an ongoing process. It’s been overall an Asian- Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern market.

Kris Bhattacharya: Do you have plans to expand to other parts of India like Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad?

Aashnee Gajaria: We don’t work on the Indian market because there are issues of ethics with the team of the doctors that we are working with. They also have their in-house business development and marketing team. So, if we start entering into that territory, there could be a conflict of interest. We let them concentrate their efforts on the Indian market while we concentrate ours on the international markets for them, and we work on an exclusivity model.  If I’m working on a certain region for a particular doctor, we do not allow anybody else to work on that region, because for us it’s not about whose lead it is, but about the patient getting the accessibility to the treatment.

Kris Bhattacharya: Excellent. So, well, I wish you very good luck.

You keep expanding your global footprint and someday hopefully you’re going to be an Asian conglomerate. Now coming to one of the more personal questions. How was it working with your mother?

Aashnee Gajaria: It was great. We come from very different backgrounds. Also, we had very specific areas of focus in the business. My mother used to look after the business development side of things because the patient and the mothers who were going through these ailments preferred to connect with somebody elderly. They thought I was a child. More than facing any gender biases, I experienced age bias. They would connect more with mom on the ailment side and share with her how they would like to go about it. I looked more into the marketing and strategic side of things, like connecting with the ministry, connecting with doctors in India, getting the right partners and service providers on board, looking after branding, and digital and social marketing since that’s the degree I studied at Cass Marketing Strategy and Innovation.  It was great because we had demarcated areas and we had our focus on two different things. But the synergies came together for the company.

Kris Bhattacharya: Can you tell me a little bit about your life before Meditourz? 

Aashnee Gajaria: Sure, So, I did my Bachelor’s in Business from Mumbai. I was born and brought up in Mumbai. My paternal side of the family inherits from the UAE. My grandfather was amongst the first Indians to settle in Dubai.  I was in advertising for about two and a half years, working on various FMCG brands, under the Unilever brand. I have also worked in other categories like jewellery, insurance, media with Femina, Filmfare. I started Meditourz while I was in advertising.

We did about two conferences in 2017, one in the Maldives and one in Bahrain before I left for my masters to Cass business school in London. While I was in London, the business was doing well. It was growing. My mother worked for the British consulate in Mumbai for 14 years. She was a part of the embassy and understands the British culture and also the other nuances of cultural diversity. That’s pretty much our background.

Kris Bhattacharya: Can you tell us a little bit about your days at Cass, because Country Squire, as I said, promotes the British relationship 2.0, and one of the facilitators are the Indian students studying in London. You can skip the late-night parties for the record!! We have all been there. But tell us a little bit about being an Indian in Britain!

There are three separate questions, how was it being an Indian student in Britain and especially London? How was your overall experience? 

Secondly, if you can share your experiences at Cass? And thirdly how would you recommend Britain as a student destination for young Indians who would like to go abroad to study?

Aashnee Gajaria: I have been visiting the UK since I was six years old. I was very clear that if I would ever leave India to study, it would be the UK. I even got into NYU, but I declined it. My mother was at the embassy, so I grew up in the ‘British waters’ as they defined it. I’ve grown up amongst all her officers’ kids. Not only in India, but they have also been my family when I moved to the UK as my mother was in touch with a lot of her officers who are now a part of either the Home office or the Foreign office in Britain.

Not specifically the UK, it was more London that I wanted to be in because I’m a city girl who loves city life. And I didn’t want to live in the countryside. I need the hustle-bustle. London was my go-to city. 

Talking about my experience with Cass, I think I wouldn’t do my master’s in any other business school in the UK if it wasn’t for Cass because I feel it gave me the practicality and the information which wasn’t given to me in India. The Indian education system is very by-the-book. We have a lot of mugging to do, a lot of concepts and theories that we keep memorizing over the years. But what I liked about Cass was we could use those concepts in a practical environment- I was the president of the marketing society, hence I could get speakers to come to university and speak from different fields. I got in the Head of the European Union, Vodafone to come to Cass and give us a little insight into his career. We had the new Product Development Director at Unilever come in and speak to us. 

I also really appreciated the diversity. Some of my closest friends from Cass are not Indians. I have about two friends that were Indian. Since Meditourz takes me to different parts of the world, Cass was the platform that brought me those friends with who I can have a meal. Once I finish a hectic day at work, I don’t have to go back to a hotel, sitting lonely and eating a meal by myself. I appreciate all of those aspects of Cass. The faculty was amazing, making it a great learning experience for us. I keep telling my parents that it was the best year of my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To answer your third question about Indians looking to study in the UK. India and UK have had relations for the longest time because they have ruled India. I feel that our systems and our way of doing things, everything is very British oriented. Parts of Bombay, Calcutta or Madras still have British nuances to them. An Indian going to the UK is as much as they’re going to another city with just a little different geography. We have effectively adapted their education system, their legal system and the train networks.

I have never faced any discrimination in the UK while everyone says, “Oh, the British are very racist and they’re rude and are point-blank on your face.” I never have faced that, but I think there are always two sides to the coin to this. If you are sensitive towards their culture, understand their mannerisms, the sophistication and the way the British behave; like being on time, acknowledging them for all the work that they do, being grateful, and being polished and cognisant towards their culture, they would reciprocate.

Kris Bhattacharya: It seems you had a great time in Cass and you’re a very hardworking girl. You went to lessons, came to the residence, switched on your desk lamp and studied, right? You never went out partying. You never wasted any time. 

Aashnee Gajaria: I do not know what the pub culture is. I have never experienced it. (smiling)

Kris Bhattacharya: Exactly. I think one of the great things about Cass is you have Kaustav Bhattacharya studying there, who’s launching Country Squire. I think this is one of the most remarkable legacies of Cass. So, thank you very much for that. I think at this point, I should get Ishrath to ask a few questions. We are going to get technical after this.

Ishrath Mubeen: Since you spoke about how India has adopted the British education system; would you still recommend Indian students to travel to the UK for their further studies? Is it because of a better quality of education? And what was the reason for you to choose the UK for studying for your Masters over India?    

Aashnee Gajaria: Studying abroad is not only about education and what you grasp at business school. It’s not about that at all. It’s about what you make of your one year or your two years or your undergrad. It’s leaving your comfort zone, your safety net of living with your parents. It’s about doing everything on your own, doing your laundry, figuring out your groceries, your costs, work, the work-life balance, studying and entertainment. I don’t think it’s only about education. I feel the Indian education system is very strong because I wouldn’t deny, the concepts that I learned in India were so strong that I could adopt that in the practical world when I was in the UK. India grills you with the concepts, be it marketing, finance, or any other field. If you ask me about the brand, its depth, length, positioning, I can tell you what it is. Our concepts are really strong. I wouldn’t say that the Indian education system is bad. A couple of aspects of the Indian education system is outdated, but we also are seeing schools that are emerging. We have world schools coming to India now because they have realized the need and scope for education.

We are a population that believes in education. Even the Government is now pushing education for at least the 10th and 12th classes to be compulsory. We also have other business schools come up here, like the ISBs of the world.

We already have the IIMs and the IITs which are great business schools. For me, it was more a global and a package nuance that I left for, and education was a small part of it. 

Ishrath Mubeen: Good to know. So Aashnee, since I share a very good bond with my mother, I’m curious about how you spend your evenings with your mother. Do you discuss business over tea or do you have other discussions?

Aashnee Gajaria: She’s actually in the room with me right now. So, she’s hearing us. Honestly, Ishrath, what happened was when I initially joined the business, I felt that she had made this strategic plan to get me on business with her so that she can hog on all my time. So I told her, “I have to see you- the first thing I get up in the morning, the full day at home, the full day at business, or when we are travelling for work, I see you for those few hours of the flight. Is this your strategy to just hold up all my time?” But over the years, we both realized that it was getting too much for us. 

We made a conscious decision that we don’t bring work home. In the evenings after work, we would normally go to one of the Bombay clubs, the Breach Candy Club, which is also a British club, coincidentally. We go there for tea or some snacks. We would play some board games. My dad’s a big fan of live music and Orchestra, so he would put on the TV with the live Rahman Show at the Berkeley school of music. We would be having some beers together. My mother who’s a teetotaler would come with her Bacardi Breezer and chill with us.

Aashnee with her mother and business partner, Neeta Gajaria.

There were different aspects of our family. I come from a broad-minded family. There was nothing I needed to hide from my parents, even if that was partying in London. So, we bifurcated our work and personal life, and that balance helped both of us. 

Kris Bhattacharya: I think in cities like London, or even in some of the other universities outside London, I have Associated with like that of Surrey University in Guilford you experience the global society. You experience multiple views and different ideologies. I think it’s those experiences that become an eyeopener. I arrived in the UK much later in life. But I could see the value of global education. I think Aashnee makes that point very powerfully.

Now I’m going to move to the pandemic. Because you’re in healthcare, I’m sure the pandemic would have affected you. You also talked about how it bolstered the healthcare industry. We are already alert to the perils of a virus, which can bring the entire world to stand still. Can you dwell a little bit on that as a healthcare entrepreneur? 

Aashnee Gajaria: So, Kris, the pandemic was a lull period for us for about two years. While we are in the healthcare industry, we are into medical and wellness tourism, which means bringing international patients from abroad to India for treatment. With the global borders shut due to the pandemic, things were very bleak for us, but having said that, what the pandemic did for us was that it made people realize that no matter how hectic your life may be or whatever is happening in your life that you think is more important, nothing under this sky is more important than one’s health- not your 12-hour-job, not those big cheques, not the sleepless nights.

People have become more cognizant about their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. My entire family is into Buddhism. We are into Buddhist chanting for about 10 years. It gives clarity of thought and helps our mental wellbeing. In all the hustle of city life, you burn out and you get extremely exhausted. Being an entrepreneur is great, but it comes with a lot of challenges. You have to show up and stay strong. Because if you crumble, the team automatically crumbles. If you start getting affected because of business not coming in or the pandemic affecting you, be it mentally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically, it reflects in your environment. I think the pandemic has made people realize the need for good health. and that no matter what it should be more preventive than curative. 

Kris Bhattacharya: Excellent. Of course, we still don’t know if the pandemic is over. Every few months, we pray and hope, but then you have another new wave. I’m a Covid survivor. I suffered from Covid in early January. Do you see trends that the travel industry is picking up? Would your clients like to come over to India? Is there any positive trend?

Aashnee Gajaria: Definitely, Kris. Things opened up for us in November. But again, in December, we were hit with Omicron. Things got a little bleak then. But sitting in February, I’d say that things have improved. I’m hoping there are no more variants. What’s become an interesting study in this pandemic is burnout. People are burning out very easily. Everything has become digital; people are not being able to draw their energies and resources from things that they usually do. Wellness is going to become the next big thing. And India is the pioneer for Ayurveda, naturopathy, and yoga.

Kris Bhattacharya: I think the boom of online conversation is going to stay. How does it affect the healthcare industry? 

Aashnee Gajaria: It doesn’t affect us, but is an additional boon, Kris, because I’m into treatments and services. Irrespective of online consultations and tele medicines, they have to come down for the treatment because it is not available in their country. or too expensive in the west. 

Kris Bhattacharya: How do you see the Indian healthcare industry in a global context?

Aashnee Gajaria: India has made a mark in the healthcare industry. When people would go to the UK and the US for treatments, they realize that most of the doctors are Indian or of Indian origin. We also made a mark with the vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Serum India. There are different aspects of the Indian healthcare system that now are adopted extensively abroad, including alternative treatments.

Kris Bhattacharya:  A lot of people were surprised to know that students go to Ukraine to study medicine. Are we having enough finance pouring in or do you see the infrastructure as a challenge? What are the challenges ahead for Indian health care industries?

Aashnee Gajaria: To retain the talent in our country, the policies made by the ICMR or other healthcare organizations need to be updated and conducive to the changing times.

Science is ever-evolving. The current government spoke about making India the next medical tourism/wellness tourism destination, which countries like Malaysia, Russia or Turkey have probably done more than 10 years ago. 

Kris Bhattacharya: Earlier during this conversation, you talked about how the healthcare industry is not very well regulated. What kind of regulation would you like to see?

Aashnee Gajaria: Making medical and wellness tourism a more organized sector. It shouldn’t just be agents catching people at random tourist spots and promising them the world they know nothing about, the FDA can approve a lot of new treatments otherwise available only in the west. Dubai became Dubai from the sand because the king had the vision to make it the next biggest tourist destination. He invested in infrastructure, in entertainment to make it what it is now. So, India can do that in the medical space.

Kris Bhattacharya: What is the roadmap for the future for Meditourz? If you can mention a few trends in the industry.

Aashnee Gajaria: There are two trends. One is preventative instead of curative. The second one is wellness and wellbeing. These will be seen on a very big scale in the healthcare industry. People are looking at alternative treatments, holistic options, they’re questioning the norms. They are becoming aware and cautious. 

Meditourz is looking at leaving a global mark. Like they say there comes spring after every autumn, and there is light after every darkness. Although it takes a lot to overcome the barriers, we are doing our best to do so. 

Kris Bhattacharya: We are already in March. May you have spring very soon. May you see the light also very soon. 

Ishrath Mubeen: Talking to you, I realise it’s true that the key to achieving what you want is self-confidence. But during your journey, did you ever have a moment of doubt before starting Meditourz? If yes, how did you overcome it? 

Aashnee Gajaria: Medical and wellness tourism was never the industry I saw myself in. I always wanted to be in the FMCG industry. In terms of doubting if I’m doing the right thing, yes, I did have that because I don’t come from a medical background. Neither does my mother. Additionally, we were working in an industry where we had absolutely no benchmarks. We didn’t have any competition to see how things were done. We were literally working in a black hole because we were figuring everything out on the job. There were several doubts in my head. The journey of an entrepreneur is not easy. You have bad days; you have good days. And there are more bad days than good ones. There are numerous days when we just break down and we don’t know how to go about it. But the good part about being an entrepreneur is the faster you break, the quicker you learn how to pick yourself up and get rolling with things. You learn that if you break, no one will serve or save you. You have to pick yourself back up and see what best you can make out of the situation. 

There’s one thing that I keep telling my friends, that ‘it’s always sorted’. And how you sort it out is left to you. It’s the hustle culture. You have to work your way around and always sort it. Buddhism has helped me a lot in the clarity of my thoughts. It has helped me calm down. Plus, an hour of a workout where I just sweat it all out. There’s never a right or a wrong answer. There are always permutations and combinations and you always have to let go of something and make the best of it.

Kris Bhattacharya: Entrepreneurship is a lot like sink or swim. I think it was a very fascinating conversation. There was humour. A lot of the answers would be smiling in brackets. I hope your mother has a good impression of the Cass alumni at Country Squire India asking very intelligent and pertinent questions. 

Aashnee Gajaria: I sure will. She’s giving me a thumbs up. While she says that she’s not fond of Britain and the UK as much as I am, anything British, she always has a soft corner for.

Kris Bhattacharya: She should read Country Squire, Indian edition every morning, over a cuppa tea. We are trying to bring the English-speaking Indian, modern Britain, modern India together. Thank you for joining us. Have a nice weekend, Aashnee.

Aashnee Gajaria: It was a pleasure. Have a great weekend.