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Vermilion: From banker to foodie

(MoneyWatch) Rohini Dey admits she's an unlikely candidate for owning a restaurant. As a child growing up in India, her dream was to work for the World Bank. She made that dream come true by studying Economics at the Delhi School of Economics, and Management Science at the University of Texas. After managing foreign policy at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. and traveling the world as a strategic management consultant with McKinsey & Co., Dey took a leap of faith: She quit her job and bought Vermilion restaurants in Chicago and Manhattan.

Rebecca Jarvis: What were you doing before you started your company?

Rohini Dey: I had been working for ten years (in academia, teaching business & economics during my PhD program, worked at The World Bank on infrastructure privatization and published with them, and at McKinsey & Co. management consulting, primarily growth and business development across hi-tech. My only exposure to restaurants was through dining out compulsively (have always been passionate about food) and expense accounts!

RJ: How long did it take to turn your idea into a business?

RD: I had no exposure to the small business world of restaurants, entrepreneurship or start-ups prior to this. Had worked only with Fortune 100s, countries and their institutions. My McKinsey skills and experience proved invaluable (timelines, work plan, deliverables, networks, financials, outside in research, feasibility analysis) to compress and shorten the entire learning curve and build-out of my first restaurant. It took me one year end-to-end from the first gleam of my Indian-Latin restaurant concept and starting on the business plan and feasibility analysis to opening doors and the big launch. (Inclusive of giving birth to my second daughter, who came a month early). With the entire spectrum of entrepreneurial activities in between -- business plan, feasibility study, raising the finances, location, legalities and permits, designing the interior, oversight of build, building the front and back team, menu development, food, beverage and supplies sourcing, maintenance contracts, marketing, launch.

We had some unusual factors going for us (woman led, still a rarity for restaurants, even more so 10 years back; my unique Indian-Latin cuisine), which I also leveraged, and received amazing PR and visibility very quickly (lauded as "best new restaurants" when we opened by Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, USA Today, Bon Appetit, Chicago magazine, Wine Ethusiast and others) which translated into traffic. I'm also maniacal about measuring and tracking our costs, which I believe may be the reason for the alarming high failure rate in this industry. We've always been in the black.

RJ: What's your number one piece of advice to entrepreneurs?

RD: For the start-up stage, take off the rosy-tinted glasses and really learn your industry and run the numbers before you dive in, unless this is going be a philanthropic effort. Invest in yourself. Passion and optimism don't suffice.

Once you're underway, surround yourself with a solution-oriented team who energize you and are loyal. Sounds trivial, but I wish I'd done this much earlier and aggressively, learned the hard way how critical it is to both sustaining economic viability and enjoying what you do.

RJ: If you could ask one person for advice, who would it be and what would you ask?

RD: Several come to mind -- from Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel (the two most powerful women) to iconic names like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (whom I admire for their their incredible value creation and their philanthropic drive). I would ask them how I, as an individual outside of my business world, can make much more of a positive difference in the world -- and can I do it with them?

RJ: Are you hiring? How do you get hired by a start-up?

RD: Always -- it's a high turn industry. Those interested should contact the NY or Chicago restaurant managers to see what the openings are.

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