When Sapna Bhatia was living and working in Delhi as a journalist, she began to miss the nature she had grown up around in the desert of northern India. Not only did she long for the desert plants and the big open sky, but she wanted her young daughter to experience growing up surrounded by nature as well. Bhatia returned to Rajasthan, where she had grown up, and opened Kaner Retreat, India’s first desert botanical hotel. Kaner Retreat is located in a remote area where guests can enjoy nature walks, safaris, dining under the stars and a quiet stay in a beautiful minimal villa. Bhatia is passionate about working with the local community and encourages guests to engage in authentic experiences the area has to offer.
Bhatia’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
I grew up on a small farm in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in India. Surrounded by pristine, desert views and away from every trapping of modern life, my childhood was spent hanging out with the shepherds, who introduced me to the flora and fauna of Rajasthan. My grandmother used her knowledge of desert plants to heal the people in the house and around.
Then I entered the world of International journalism and was uprooted from paradise. I travelled extensively and got the opportunity to interview many people, including the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto in her London home two days before she was assassinated. In her interview she talked about her longing for her childhood home and the mango blossoms. I could relate to the longing and the desire to connect to my roots. I was unhappy that my daughter was growing up in Delhi, a heavily polluted city. I wanted to give her the gift of a childhood surrounded by nature.
I returned to my hometown and opened Kaner Retreat, India’s first desert botanical hotel. Kaner is the name of the local Oleander flower, also known as the desert rose. It is an apt name for a place that blossoms in the desert wilderness. We are away from the echoes of modernity. It is a seven-acre property and we are near a sacred grove that is full of wild desert plants. I take guests on botanical walks there. It is fascinating to see kids from cities enquire about desert plants and discover foraging. At night, my daughter and I watch the stars. The retreat is an ode to my childhood and it is satisfying to see that not only my daughter, but other people can also experience and connect with nature.
How do you define success?
My parents had a small business and the staff were family. We were there for each other and the little joys and successes felt good when shared. I experienced the same thing while working in the field of broadcast journalism. Your work is always connected with the work of other people and it is like a quilt where different patches come together through connecting stitches. All these experiences made me realize that success is never just about one person. True success is when it is shared with your team and the community.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
I come from a conservative family and I had to really fight for my education. My dad once said, “Good women don’t work.” Not giving up in the circumstances and striving for education is my biggest success. Education opened the gates of opportunity to me and I was able to stand on my own feet. If I would not have fought and struggled, I would have ended up without any power over myself. As they say, “Control your destiny or someone else will.”
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Kaner Retreat is located in a remote area. The nearest city, Jodhpur is almost two hours away. We are in a village and I soon realized people from the cities did not wanted to move there. I identified and hired local people who had some level of skills and had a great appetite for learning. I invested in training them and that has worked wonders.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
I am going through perimenopause and it has hit me like a rock: fighting brain fog, insomnia and other hormonal turbulences on a daily basis.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Do lot of research before you begin.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I find inspiration by knowing that I am being watched by a pair of young eyes; my thirteen year-old daughter.
Who is your most important role model?
My mother is my role-model. She finished school and was married at the age of sixteen. My father had heart issues and had to be hospitalized often. My mum looked after her three children and also helped in my dad’s business. She was a giver, not only to her family, but also to the community. She was engaged in the welfare of the tribes who lived near us. She would take the women to the hospital when the need arose and also ensured the children got education. It is because of her that I always see myself as a part of the community and not an individual. ◼
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