Shedding Some Light

Born to be a businesswoman, Greenlite’s Nina Gupta takes energy-efficient lighting to an international level

On Valentine’s Day, Greenlite gave away free CFLs to people walking on the street, to spread the word of Greenlite’s energy-efficient bulbs.

Business is in Nina Gupta’s blood. The daughter of a globe-trotting entrepreneur, Gupta—who traces her roots back to India, though she was born in England and lives in Canada—accompanied her parents on many international business trips as a child. “I lived in Switzerland, the United States, India, and England,” she says. “By the time I was 14, I’d seen half the world.” While she was seeing the world, Gupta was also learning the basics of running a business. “I could send a telex at the age of 12,” she says, laughing.

One night, her father had an epiphany while landing at an airport. “He saw the lights of the city and realized that lighting is a necessity, not a choice,” she says. That led her family to set up state-of-the-art lightbulb factories in India, to service the global market.

While her father built his business, Gupta struck out on her own. At age 18, she started working in the apparel industry as a buyer for major retailers. She wanted no part of college. “I hated school with a passion,” she confesses. After so much time spent watching her father do business, Gupta was used to freedom, even though her mother still needed some convincing. “My mother’s biggest regret is that I wasn’t a law student at Harvard,” she says.

By the time she was in her mid-20s, Gupta had moved from buying clothes for big-name retailers to owning her own clothing boutiques. After leaving the apparel business, Gupta settled down to raise a family in Québec. Her father, however, advised her to get back into business for herself.

“Honestly, I’ve never ever faced any kind of gender issues in my work. I find overall that the business community is very supportive. If your numbers make sense, if your business plan makes sense, I don’t think anyone cares anymore.” —Nina Gupta

That advice launched Greenlite Lighting Corporation. Originally a distributor for products from the family’s lighting business in India, Greenlite eventually transitioned to concentrating on energy-efficient lighting only. “We dug in our heels and said we are only going to promote energy efficiency; we will not sell the cancer and the cure,” says Gupta, who serves as president. Today, Greenlite services a niche market with compact-florescent lamps (CFLs) as primary products, followed by the introduction of LEDs.

At first, the company faced an uphill battle persuading customers to switch from the cheaper, though highly inefficient, incandescent bulbs. “I used to call people and say, ‘I’m selling CFLs,’ and they thought I was talking about the Canadian Football League,” Gupta recalls.

Based in Québec, with a sales arm in California, Greenlite found the United States a more receptive market compared to Canada. Having experienced an energy crisis, American consumers were more open to the idea of ditching incandescent bulbs to save money. “Even today, about 95% of our business is in the US,” Gupta says, though Greenlite continues to make inroads into the Canadian market.

However, getting CFL prices low enough to attract new consumers remains an ongoing challenge. “Right now a CFL costs two dollars, while a incandescent costs 50 cents,” Gupta observes. But the 50-cent incandescent lasts about 1,000 hours, while the two-dollar CFL lasts 10,000 hours. “If you look at it from a return-on-investment point of view, the CFL is way ahead of the incandescent,” Gupta says. “The thing is that consumers have to pay the two dollars today, so we need to educate consumers.”

Despite the lack of awareness, Gupta has no doubt that North American consumers will eventually ditch incandescent bulbs, opting for the greener alternative, as even governments across the world propose programs to ban incandescent bulbs. “Our mandate today is to be the only provider of innovative, energy-efficient lighting to build a community around environmental sustainability,” she says.

Greenlite has grown steadily from revenue of $300,000 in its first year to approximately $25 million in 2010. Gupta plans to raise that to $45 million in five years. The company is very dedicated to transparency and ethics, and this philosophy has stood Greenlite in good stead.

While her own children are in their 20s now, Gupta says she has tried to include them in her work from an early age, emulating her own upbringing. “I took them everywhere I could,” she says. “I think the best education you can give a child is travelling and seeing the world and how people live.”

That sort of family experience is what Gupta credits for her own success. “Having a strong family takes the fear away,” she says. “It leads to success in business, because you know how to focus on the right things.”