The story of Bobby Kothari’s first diamond is not long: when picking up a loose diamond for the first time, he grasped one with the delicate tweezers used in the trade and as he held it up, the small diamond popped out and away into the room. Fortunately, the diamond that got away was not a harbinger of events to come. Bobby went on to successfully found the jewelry manufacturing branch of his family business, which today employs nearly 2,000 people and produces over a million pieces of fine jewelry each year. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with this dynamic and energetic businessman about his career, what excites him, and diamonds – from the gems that got away to those that have lasted longer.
Q: What’s the story of your first diamond?
The diamond that flew away! I’m from a family of diamantaires and from birth I was expected to work in jewelry, so I began to learn the trade at our family office when I was around age 19. My first day, I picked up my first loose diamond with a pair of tweezers. I was concentrating very hard and then poof, the diamond flew out of the tweezers. I eventually found it, but only after a long search. Ironically, I spent more time looking for than at that diamond.
Q: What excites you most at the moment?
The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people on my team. With the pandemic, my primary focus has shifted from business to wellbeing. Here in Mumbai, many people live in tough conditions. We employ close to 2,000 people and it is my responsibility to improve their situations. In addition to creating a safe work environment, we have taken a 360-degree approach to their health including measures like steps to boost immunity, to detect disease, to offer doctors on call, and to help with medical and term insurance.
Also, I am big on adopting technology. During the past few months of lockdown, we have been exploring new ways to use technology to increase speed of delivery to customers, and to blend technology and creativity. For example, how can we use 3D printing and artificial intelligence to work more smartly. Could our next trend spotters be AI?
Q: What is your intention for the year ahead?
Better balance of life. During the pandemic lockdown, I realized that a lot can be done with the same effectiveness in less time. For example, I used to spend a significant amount of time traveling around the world for meetings that I now take online. I want to save time to spend with my family, my wife and two teenagers, and on fitness.
Q: What’s your greatest indulgence?
Getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city to spend a few days with nature, family and friends. A few years back, a few friends and I went camping in the Himalayas, one of Mother Nature’s finest creations. The mountains, with their crisp, cool air, are blissful. Without cell service, we only touched our phones to take pictures. We had planned to return in March, but had to cancel when the pandemic reached India. I hope we can go later this year or early next.
Q: What diamond destination is at the top of your list?
South Africa. In addition to diamonds, I had by far the most fun vacation there with my family. The variety of the country is unbelievable, from the safaris to the sea.
While there, we went on an incredible safari. It was open air and off road, so we could get very close to the animals and my God, that was exciting! One experience stands out in particular. We got out of our jeep by a somewhat dry riverbed. We saw one elephant crossing the riverbed and our guide suggested getting back into the jeep. We said ok, but were in no hurry. About 15 seconds later, our guide said, “You better hurry up.” We jumped into the jeep, backed up and watched as around 40 elephants arrived. There was one elephant that probably didn’t like us too much. It came quite close and trumpeted. That moment was something!
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in jewelry?
Growing up in a diamond family, my family made the decision for me in many ways. Our family is very close knit. My father and his brothers started the company. When I was in college, they decided to start a new line of business and to go into jewelry as well as diamonds. I guess I was the chosen one. While finishing my university degree, they applied for a jewelry manufacturing factory in Mumbai and I started my journey learning in a similar factory in New York. After finishing, my father asked if I wanted to continue my studies or take on the factory. I said, “Let’s go!” I was quite lazy, initially, but once the responsibility sunk in, I got busy and time flew. Today, there are six members of our family in the business, three on the diamond and three on the jewerly side. We continue to work very closely.
Q: What moment still blows your mind?
It’s difficult to think of one moment. On the personal front, it would be the birth of my first child and holding him for the first time. Before speaking with you, my wife and I were discussing how rare it is to have true tears of joy in your eyes. Holding my little baby in my arms, I did and I fell in love.
Professionally, it was less a moment and more an incident. During my early years at the factory, there were lots of struggles. Jewelry was a new business for our family and the industry was relatively new in India as well. There was no formula or precedent to follow, and lots to figure out. After lots of effort, we were very excited to land an opportunity with a wholesaler that at the time was the largest in the United States. We thought this could be the start of a great future together and we worked hard to process the order. Once delivered, we got a phone call giving us quite a hearing out for a mistake we did not commit. In retrospect, I think there was a rivalry between two heads at their company. Instead of taking it, we decided to walk away.
Looking back, the incident represented a crossroads for our business. We decided then and there, no matter how small or large, we would always have our principles and do business our way. Around then, we recognized an opportunity to begin working with retailers. Many of those partnerships became the foundation for our business today and have now lasted more than 20 years. It took some craziness to walk away from that wholesaler, but they do not exist anymore and we are here.
Q: What life lesson has been the hardest earned, and taught you the most?
In business, it is about bringing out the best in people, not hiring the best. There is so much talent and so much drive everywhere. For example, in a city like Mumbai, there are lots of people with dreams and aspirations. Instead of focusing on hiring, it’s important to listen to people, to understand their special talents and to identify their drivers. That is when the magic happens.
I have learned that talent can be found in the most unassuming places. For example, the head of our largest manufacturing team began as a basic trainee. He had no educational qualifications, but he had drive. Every year, he would reach his goals and ask for new opportunities. Over time, not only did I realize his talent, but the importance of looking for ways to bring that out in every member of my team.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
First in business, to build on my previous thought, identify the right people on your team, set goals together and then move out of their way, quickly. Secondly, slow down. I like to fit 28 hours into a day, but the lockdown has forced me to slow down. In turn, I have realized the immense satisfaction that comes from taking the time to enjoy life’s little pleasures.
Q: What’s next for diamonds?
This is a time to reflect and to collaborate. The current natural diamond industry in India is over six decades old. Most of this industry started in one little town with a few families beginning to work together. Those families shared opportunities with their uncles, cousins and other families. As they did, more families benefited and more opportunities came their way, their business grew and the industry we know today was born. Today, that spirit of collaboration is not as strong and not as selfless as it used to be. The future will be for those who can recapture that spirit of collaboration.