‘Life changing,’ is how Sanjay Sood-Smith would sum up his experience as a candidate on last year’s UK production of The Apprentice.
The gay banker made it through to week 10 of the 2014 series, before Sir Alan Sugar uttered the immortal words; ‘You’re fired!’
Today, Sood-Smith has absolutely no regrets about participating in the show – not least because it’s led to his new business venture: Tuk In is a range of Indian-inspired fast food sandwiches that he and business partner Thomas Cropper launched six weeks ago.
Sood-Smith, 28, grew up in South London. He began his career in the financial sector working for Lloyds. By the age of 23, he was a bank manger overseeing 14 branches in West London before taking on a senior management role in e-commerce development. It was at this stage that he decided to audition for The Apprentice.
He says it was the best decision he ever made.
‘It led to me making the decision to leave banking after six years and go on to do something I’m really passionate about, which is food. It’s led me to doing volunteering work with groups like Stonewall as a school role model, and of course, it was also great fun. I did really enjoy it.’
Sood-Smith didn’t plan to leave his banking position unless he won the reality business show.
‘My boss was kind enough to give me a sabbatical to go and do it, and we said, if I win, I’ll be leaving, but otherwise I’ll be returning after two months. But what happened was I took the sabbatical, and taking part in the show gave me the opportunity to use different skills; the different tasks give you an insight into the different stuff you can do.
‘Also, after meeting some of the other candidates, who had already set up their own businesses and were being successful at it, you end up thinking, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
‘When I went back to work at the bank, I quickly thought, “No, screw this!” I resigned about three days later.’
He says he understands why many people find the thought of launching their own business intimidating.
‘To a certain extent, it can be easy to get hung up on money. For a 27-year-old, I was earning a decent wage, and it can be difficult to turn your back on that, but the benefits of doing something that you enjoy far outweigh the financial changes.
‘Ultimately, the aim is to grow Tuk In into a multi-million pound business, but when you’re starting out, you’ve obviously got to be a bit more tighter on the purse strings.’
Tuk In was not the business he planned to launch when entering The Apprentice. Each contestant had to draw up a business plan for a proposed venture, and Smith’s was for a health and fitness social media site.
‘The reason I opted for that was because Sir Alan likes people to have some experience in what they’re proposing, and I had a background in e-commerce development. That’s why I decided to pitch that, but what I’ve always loved is food.’
It was Cropper who floated the initial idea for Tuk In,
‘He came up with the idea at university, wanting to be able to eat curry in a convenient way. We used to work together at Lloyds, he was my boss for a while, and he contacted me and said “I’ve got this idea – do you fancy doing it with me?”
‘Being half-Indian, my mum used to send me to school with chicken tikka sandwiches in my packed lunch. I saw the potential in the idea.’
Tuk In has initially launched with three products: Chicken Korma, Chicken Tikka and Chicken Jalfrezi, each individually wrapped in naan bread and microwaveable in 90 seconds.
For now, they’re only being stocked in the Brockley branch of Spar, but the chain may roll the products out more extensively if they prove popular. Smith says that he is also in advanced negotiations with a major airline to stock the product next year.
‘This is very much our testing phase and we have already received lots of feedback, so will be tweaking the packaging and branding a bit.’
Tuk In came about after the business partners manage to raise investment money – ‘mainly from people we know.’ This includes Sood-Smith’s own mum and boyfriend, with whom he has been for the past six years.
‘It does add to the pressure a little when you go home,’ he laughs, ‘and they’re asking how things are going and you’re getting the ninth degree because they’ve put their own investment in!’
He says that being a former Apprentice candidate has helped to open doors, not least in securing some press for his new business venture. Does he have advice for the current crop of contestants?
‘It’s about making the most of that opportunity that’s available to you. I think the candidates this year seem to be quite good at it. They’ve certainly been a lot more active on social media and promoting themselves than perhaps we were, and I’ve actually been surprised with how much they’ve been allowed to get away with. But I would tell them to just consider every opportunity that comes up.’
And does he have a favorite?
‘Charleine,’ he says after a pause. ‘She’s quite sweet and nice, but then she can have a bit of a tempter too. She’s fiery!’
The final episode of this year’s series of The Apprentice is on Sunday (20 December) on BBC1. More information on Tuk In at tukinfoods.com