If you live in a rural village or small city in India and run low on toothpaste, rice, or cooking oil, you’ll likely visit your local kirana, the equivalent of a U.S. neighborhood variety store and a mainstay of the country’s $932 billion retail economy. The shops are ubiquitous, accounting for at least 75 percent of India’s consumer goods sales despite the significant inefficiencies of an outdated business model.

“Kiranas are limited-inventory, 2,000- to 5,000-square-foot shops that don’t always get on-time deliveries or access to affordable credit,” explains Shruti Shruti (MBA 2019), cofounder of ApnaKlub, a wholesale digital platform that helps kirana owners aggregate their buying power and access credit tools and other services. “These are micro businesses that run on tight margins. If shopkeepers run out of something, they have to travel to a larger market by scooter, rickshaw, or bus to restock. Their orders are relatively small, so they can’t negotiate on prices or credit terms,” adds Shruti, who watched her uncle’s kirana go out of business years ago due to issues with pricing and product selection.

ApnaKlub (Hindi for “Our Club”) disrupts the existing purchase and distribution model by providing a digital platform where shop owners can order fast-moving consumer goods online or by phone from local wholesalers who combine their orders with others from nearby kiranas. “We’re like a Costco or Sam’s Club, but for retailers,” Shruti explains. Once the orders are in hand, ApnaKlub—which leases warehouse space and trucks—sources the requested products from brand-name manufacturers and distributes them to the wholesalers, who deliver within a reliable time frame. “We leverage technology to bring our customers supply consistency, better profit margins, and access to more brands and SKUs,” she says.

Shruti, who graduated at the top of her class at the Indian Institute of Technology and had experience in consulting and impact investing, came to HBS to gain the skills to launch an India-based impact investment fund for small businesses. But she was immediately drawn to classmates who had experience creating products or processes from ground zero and was inspired by cases about entrepreneurs whose creative concepts have benefited the world.

“HBS pushes you to be ambitious but also clear headed,” she says. After extensive soul-searching to come to terms with her tolerance for risk and responsibility, Shruti returned to India and jumped into entrepreneurship “head first, feet next.” With a startup team, she began fine-tuning plans to launch a digital platform to help local travel agents maximize their effectiveness through better customer service and human connection. “But then COVID-19 hit,” she says, “and all of India stopped traveling.”

The risks Shruti had considered in the abstract became real. “The 15 people on my team had devoted a year of their lives to the travel venture,” she says. “My cofounder left, I had loans to pay, and the difficult conversations about layoffs and pay cuts we discussed in The Founder’s Journey course at HBS weren’t theoretical anymore. I wasn’t sleeping at night.”

Scrambling for another small business–oriented tech startup idea—one that might take hold during a global pandemic—Shruti returned to her uncle’s kirana-store experience. “I always wondered why so many kiranas fail, and I decided to dig deeper into that,” she explains. An angel investor in her travel venture introduced Shruti to Manish Kumar, an expert in consumer-goods retailing, who became her mentor and signed on as cofounder and COO of ApnaKlub in July 2020.

This time, Shruti’s entrepreneurial timing was spot-on. Kiranas have an open-air layout, with counter-based transactions. When the pandemic closed indoor stores, kiranas became the lifeline for everyday needs. Facing frenzied consumer demand and sputtering supply chains, shop owners were motivated to try ApnaKlub’s data-based fixes to unprecedented sourcing and transport problems. “We got our foothold because we could help when no one else had solutions,” Shruti says.

After rapid growth over the last two years, Bangalore-based ApnaKlub now has 200 full-time employees, a network of 500 wholesalers, and a customer base of 33,000 kirana-store owners across three Indian states. Earlier this year, the company announced $16 million in Series A funding from investors, which it will use to expand its platform and offer more products and services to customers.

Shruti likens the current phase of her entrepreneurial journey to “being on a hike where you can’t see the summit but you’re confident about your next steps.” As the leader of a small but growing company, she is committed to instilling company-wide values, including respect for individuals, personal responsibility, and data-driven decision-making. “I want to make sure that even if Shruti is not your manager or your manager’s manager, everyone knows what is okay and what is not okay,” she says.

Despite several well-funded competitors, Shruti is betting on ApnaKlub’s “human” approach in an increasingly automated world of customer service. “We stay close to our customers,” she stresses. “We listen to their problems and offer guidance in their local language. We invite them to chai-and-samosa events at our warehouses. A lot of our customers have seen 40 to 50 percent growth in their incomes. We are succeeding together.”