Pranoti Nagarkar Israni: Get out of your comfort zone to get more from life

Mechanical engineer Pranoti Nagarkar Israni, 32, always wanted to build her own product.

After graduating from the National University of Singapore, she worked for engineering design company Amtek to gain experience in product development.

"It was an awesome experience. I led a team to design a part of a vacuum cleaner," says the India-born inventor, now a Singapore citizen.

Then, she set out to build an automatic chapatti maker to take the tedium out of mixing, kneading and rolling dough for the flatbread, a daily chore for her and Indian women worldwide.

"It is our staple diet. We can't change it. I thought, we washed clothes by hands, then came the washing machine. Where's the machine to make chapattis?" she recalls.

Six years ago, she sank $20,000 into her start-up, Zimplistic, to create her Rotimatic chapatti maker. She built a prototype to show potential investors and won the national Start-Up Singapore competition in 2009.

Users just put in flour and water, press a button and out comes the chapatti. But the machine had to look good and be intelligent enough to recognise the type of flour and use the right amount of water. It will sit on the kitchen top of every Indian home and so must be pleasing to the eye as well. The choice of colours and metals and plastics as well as size were important considerations for industrial design.

The turning point came when husband Rishi Israni joined her start-up in 2011. He is a software expert and entrepreneur himself, having co-founded mobile security software start-up TenCube, which was acquired by security giant McAfee for an undisclosed sum in 2010.

He wrote the software that runs the Rotimatic, and helped to raise US$3 million (S$3.7 million) in 2012 from private investors for customer testing and to prepare for production. He is Zimplistic's chief executive.

The first Rotimatic units will be out before the end of the year.

Looking back, Ms Nagarkar recalls people who thought she was crazy, "that I was in Disneyland".

She said that the moral support of both her and her husband's parents were crucial.

When both husband and wife were working on their start-ups, they survived on about $1,000 a month. They went about on a motorbike and shared an apartment with others.

It is unusual for a woman entrepreneur to build a hardware product, she said. "People didn't believe I was the chief technology officer and engineering architect in the company. They'd think I was the sales or marketing person."

She rode a motorbike to meetings to signal that she was different.

"I'm an engineer first, then a woman. Even when I was pregnant last year, I hid my pregnancy for as long as I could because I didn't want any special preference."

She took three months off after the birth of her son last May, but also made space in her office, at Block 71 in Ayer Rajah Industrial Estate, to breast-feed her baby.

Ms Nagarkar came to Singapore to study on a Ministry of Education scholarship and did her A levels at National Junior College.

She has a brother, who is an automobile engineer in India. He is also helping to design Rotimatic's manufacturing line.

"My parents encouraged us to do what we wanted to do. At 11 years old, my brother rode 1,000 km across India on horseback. I wanted to be the top national cadet in India and I trained, including in shooting, and I got the top position."

Her advice for young girls is to be adventurous and see the world. "When you do this, you're out of your comfort zone, you'll get so much more from life."

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