In 2015 Suchitra Kamath was directing and managing global programs for regulatory and policy change for Wall Street investment banks. A year later she was dealing directly with printing customers in an Edison storefront, the owner of a Minuteman Press franchise on Talmadge Road. It was the first time she had ever worked in retail.
Now Kamath has been honored with the Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards’ Rising Star Award for making a successful transition from corporate officer to business owner. Presented by the Asian Indian Camber of Commerce in conjunction with other sponsors, including Eintein’s Alley, the Princeton Regional and Middlesex County chambers of commerce, and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, the annual awards were presented in September.
Other recipients included Kamal Bathla, managing director Maestro Technologies in Trenton, Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year; Pierre Hage-Boutros of Pierre’s Restaurant in South Brunswick, Caspar Wistar Award for Growth; and Jack Li of the Windsor Athletic Club in West Windsor, Albert Einstein Award for Innovation.
Kamath’s Minuteman franchise handles printing jobs for all kinds of clients, and is now able to do 95 percent of orders with in-house equipment, Kamath says. She has two full-time and two part-time employees in addition to herself.
The printing business is not an unfamiliar one to Kamath. She grew up in India, where her father owned his own printing business. (She never worked there, and the technology her dad used — offset printing — is now obsolete.) She earned a degree in instrumental technology with telemedicine majors from the Indian Institute of Technology. Later, she moved to the United States and began her career with high powered finance companies. Along the way, she earned a master’s in library and information sciences at Rutgers.
She says she faced an uphill battle as an Indian immigrant and a woman. “It was a hard struggle for me and my husband even though we hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said. “We were not looked upon with so much respect. We worked for lower salaries than our counterparts.”
It was doubly difficult for Kamath, who found a male-dominated environment in finance. “How many people listen to you, and how many people believe in you?” she says. Kamath, however, believed in herself and was determined to win the respect she deserved. “It was really hard, but I just found that if I was persistent enough, they would at least take a look at your ideas and if they were great, they would go with it.”
In 2016 Kamath’s career was overturned. She went through a divorce with her husband, and her company wanted to move her to a remote office. Rather than follow the job, she decided to begin a new career. A printing business was a natural fit given her family history. She had also taken some courses on graphic design, organization, and layout in college.
“I really liked the model, and I really liked the people at Minuteman,” she said.
But why the printing industry? With people turning to screens for their information, isn’t dead-tree communication dying off? One look in your mailbox shows otherwise, Kamath says.
While it’s true that print as a medium for conveying information (books, newspapers, magazines, etc.) is declining in the face of digital media, that still leaves plenty of printing to do. Starting with the obvious, direct mail marketing continues undaunted by digital advances. But printing is not just newsprint and letters.
“People have a very limited perspective of what print is,” Kamath says. Suppose you have a checkbook on your desk along with a pen with a company logo on it that you got at some promotion. “That check is print, and that pen is print,” she says. “At restaurants people are wearing aprons or hats or whatever with brand names, and all that is print. Print has become very closely tied with marketing now.”
The business was not in good shape when she bought it, but she turned it around, which is one reason she was given the Rising Star award.
Getting the equipment to do all those specialized print jobs was a big investment, but Kamath says it was worth it. It’s possible to send things out, as Minuteman has its own centralized printing plant, but Kamath prefers to take responsibility for everything. “If somebody else messes up, you mess up too because of them.”
She has continued to add to her capabilities, and recently bought a machine that prints invisible ink, a necessary addition for printing concert tickets that include it as a security feature. She wants to further expand her 1,000-square-foot store. One single more piece of equipment, even a desktop printer, will require adding more floor space, she says.
So far the largest job she has done was for a Canadian boarding school that wanted to send mailers to the entire town of Edison to promote an upcoming open house event. Getting everything done and shipped out via the postal service on a very tight deadline was a logistical challenge, but it was one Kamath was up to.
“This is my first time branching out into retail,” Kamath says. So she has relied heavily on Minuteman for advice. She makes the decisions herself, but says the ability to get a second opinion has been valuable.
It’s a big change from her corporate career. “It’s the same in the sense that investment banking is very aggressive. They want to get things done,” she says. But those companies liked to plan everything out in advance. In printing, Kamath never knows if a customer will walk in the door at any moment with a big job. She has to respond on the fly to customer demands. “That’s not something I was used to, but now I’m used to it,” she says.
Overall, she says, starting a business has been a great experience. Through her company she has become connected to other businesses in the Edison area. “It has greatly improved my resume,” she says. “I didn’t think I would be able to do this. But the road is only going to be easier from now on.”