Women & Business Profile: Raji Sankar
“... I wake up every day excited about the possibilities ahead. Not that we don’t have challenges — there are plenty. But our vision is exciting and keeps me going.”
Co-CEO and Founder
Choolaah Indian BBQ; Wholesome International
Raji Sankar was working in the tech industry when she called it quits in 2003 to found Wholesome International, a restaurant development company.
Sankar, alongside co-founder Randhir Sethi, had a mission to make Indian cuisine mainstream in the United States. While developing a business plan for an Indian restaurant concept, they decided to make a pivot.
“While developing the business plan for our Indian restaurant concept, we quickly realized that we lacked the knowledge and expertise to open and operate a new restaurant concept successfully,” Sankar says. “[We] decided to table the idea, and looked towards franchising instead.”
In the fall of 2004, Sankar and Sethi opened a Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurant, the first of 25 Five Guys owned by Wholesome International across Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 2012, they circled back to Wholesome International’s original mission and created Choolaah Indian Barbeque, a 21st century Indian fast casual restaurant inspired by 4,000-year-old cooking techniques and up-to-the-minute fast casual ordering.
Sankar says the vision behind Choolaah — to transform the quality of life of everyone it touches — drives everything the company does.
“I wake up every day excited about the possibilities ahead. Not that we don’t have challenges — there are plenty. I also have my share of smallness moments. But our vision is exciting and keeps me going,” she says.
Choolaah has seven locations across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, though Sankar says the goal is to have one in “every corner across the globe.” For her, the most rewarding part in the process trying to get there is watching her team grow alongside the company.
“My amazing team of almost a thousand strong are my biggest pride and joy. Seeing them grow personally and professionally into extraordinary leaders and beings has been so fulfilling,” she says.
What’s Sankar’s advice to other women in business? “Business is a game of psychology,” she says. “Psychology of the founder is critical and the more we crush every limit, especially the ones we put on ourselves or accept as a lot in life, the more magical the possibilities.”
The best advice Sankar has ever received is to “Run to the middle of the fire”.
“So often it seems easier to avoid an issue or delay dealing with it or inner fear creeping up and creating a pause, only to find it mushrooming into something much larger. I have learned that running to the middle of the proverbial fire is a great maxim to live by and allows you to take massive action in the face of anything and everything.”
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