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30 Women in Power by Naina Lal Kidwai

The Sum And The Substance By Naina Lal Kidwai

This extract from 30 Women in Power by Naina Lal Kidwai has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.

In December 2012, a young physiotherapy student was brutally raped; she died two weeks later. The brave heart, appropriately called Nirbhaya (without fear) by the media, roused the consciousness of a nation and its youth. On my part, I was deeply distressed at feeling so helpless and had a strong desire to do something for young women, for us, for my twenty-two-year-old daughter.

Three weeks later, I was elected president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). During meetings with foreign dignitaries and chief executive officers (CEOs) from around the world – prompted by the press coverage of Nirbhaya’s rape and subsequent articles on the plight of girls in India – I’d often be asked about the state of women in my country. This at a time when India had the highest number of women CEOs of banks (amongst other female CEOs) compared to anywhere in the world!

I believe we need to tell the India narrative better, so that good stories about women in this country also get recognition. Moreover, we need to emphasize the fact that such accomplishment is not limited to banking, but is evident across many fields.

This is exactly what 30 Women in Power attempts to do—highlight the success stories in the business economy of India, picking from a mix of industries, presenting a range of professional CEOs, entrepreneurs and heads of family businesses. I have chosen to focus on women who have led large organizations, and there are many more I would have liked to include.

Despite my best endeavours, this was not to be. Needless to say, I have consciously left out the entire area of politics, sports and entertainment, where women excel. If we were to document all the successes of women in sectors across India, many volumes could be written, and indeed, should be written!

The essays in 30 Women in Power are unique, for they convey the dreams, inspirations, challenges and accomplishments of a range of powerful women in their inimitable voices. Each composition is unlike the next, presenting a personal struggle, a well-defined moment of realization or a distinctive style of working. Yet, there are common themes that bind the essays and unite them. There are values emphasized, integral to all success stories.



  • Passion Is Essential

When you read 30 Women in Power, what is likely to first strike you is the passion displayed by each of the women featured, their willingness to push themselves.

While Aruna Jayanthi says that the daily challenges at her workplace keep her adrenaline pumping, Anjali Bansal feels that work, even today, is an integral part of her existence and a life without it would seem entirely incomplete. Kirthiga Reddy, on her part, encourages every one of us to remain committed to and enthusiastic about our varied roles:

I believe it is imperative to take your whole self with you—whether you are at work or at home. I am a full-time professional, a full-time mother, a full-time wife, a full-time daughter, a full-time friend and   more.

  • Ambition Is Not Necessarily Bad

Passion is undoubtedly steered by the ambition to succeed. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Debjani Ghosh are, perhaps, two of the most ardent advocates of such aspiration. While Kiran admits that she was fuelled by drive and vision rather than by expertise when she started Biocon, Debjani asserts that women should not be ashamed to initiate career choices:

It’s time we, as women, accepted that ambition isn’t a bad word. To me, being ambitious is what keeps me on my toes and continues to drive me to be the best version of myself. It’s what got me my first job and it’s what gets every young aspirant a career break—after all, how is one to secure that prized position without displaying drive and interest?

Such ambition certainly helps when you believe you deserve a promotion or an assignment and need to drum up the courage to ask for it. Indeed, in today’s competitive world, I’d say that it’s vital for women to draw attention to their achievements and ask for a break if they believe it is their due. Chitra Ramkrishna raised her hand each time she wished to work on a project at the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and, later, with the National Stock Exchange (NSE).

Sangeeta Pendurkar, while working at Hindustan Ciba-Geigy Ltd (HCG), asked to be part of a strategic project with McKinsey to draft the blueprint for HCG’s next ten years. And Roopa Kudva voluntarily made a PowerPoint presentation detailing why she’d be ideal for a post:

As I completed my presentation, the CEO smiled and said, ‘Sounds great, leave the presentation with me.’ I did. For a few months, I didn’t hear a thing. Then suddenly, one day, the CEO came to me and said, ‘Do you remember, a few months ago you had sought the position of CRO? We are happy to offer it to you.’

Experiences of this sort make Kaku Nakhate say that we, as women, must overcome the ‘inhibitions that prevent us from asking for a job we covet’. Verbalize your desire for a designation, she says, even if it happens to be that of a CEO.

  • Humility Is a Hallmark of Success

In 30 Women in Power, we see that humility is the hallmark of most of these successful women. Meher Pudumjee’s entire narrative underlines her unassuming disposition—a virtue she came to fully appreciate during a trainee workshop:

I realized there was a direct correlation between the size of a house and the trust factor: the larger the house, the less its occupants trusted strangers!… [The workshop made me realize] the power and value of humility; it helped us shed our arrogance, intellectual or otherwise, and understand that respect is not linked to one’s economic or social strata. This was a strong lesson, for work as well as for life.

Every woman in this book has admitted to being humbled by accomplishment—from Lynn de Souza, who makes it a point to detach her designation from who she intrinsically is, to Avani Davda, who asserts that her upbringing keeps her grounded and reminds her every day that she is just another normal person…my mother made it clear that irrespective of my role outside, once I returned [home], I was just my parents’ daughter. Even now, I may be a CEO at work but I slip into a different role once I get home.

Nirupama Rao goes on to say:

Very often in our society, people who have achieved success tend to place a premium on being vainglorious and bumptious. It pays, in my view, to be generous and large of heart and mind; bumptiousness never pays.

Simultaneous with such humility is the fact that our women achievers don’t shy away from learning from co-workers, juniors and associates – Mirai Chatterjee says there’s never a moment when she isn’t overwhelmed by the homegrown wisdom of simple, often illiterate women, while Sudha Pillai maintains that some of the best ideas come from her young staff.

Kaku Nakhate agrees when she says that business solutions emerge from all levels in the office hierarchy. Anjali Bansal sums it up by asserting that leadership amounts to having the humility to learn from colleagues. These women never stop learning, acknowledging and giving credit to others.

  • Integrity Is Paramount

Most of the women in this book highlight integrity in the list of values they cherish; for them, there are no shortcuts or quick fixes, no stopgap arrangements on the road to success.

Chanda Kochhar begins her essay by recounting her father’s refusal to make concessions for her brother, despite being the principal of the college her brother wished to apply to. She says that while at first dismayed, she came to appreciate the strength of her father’s stand; how ‘no matter the temptation, he never compromised on his integrity and sense of justice’. Honesty and fair play, consequently, have become her cornerstones.

Preetha Reddy refers to integrity as her moral compass; Nirupama Rao says it’s the one quality that helps you remain ‘an honest judge of yourself’; and Chitra Ramkrishna views moral rectitude as the foundation stone of the NSE. Chitra says:

…my biggest source of sustenance has been the experience of building an institution which is trusted by market participants because of its high integrity. When we began the NSE, we tried to create a set of guiding principles, so that work ethics were built into the team’s fabric right from the outset. Today, all decisions that are made are based on this system of belief.

  • There Are No Shortcuts to Hard Work

In 30 Women in Power, our essayists refuse to bank on past plaudits or rely on a surname. Shobhana Bhartia says that her desire to prove herself began when her parents enrolled her in a non-Birla school, where her surname was no advantage and she had to build an identity for herself.

Zia Mody, despite being the daughter of Soli Sorabjee, asserts that she has always worked very hard to secure deals. And Mallika Srinivasan says that far from getting a red-carpet welcome when she joined her father’s company, she was given a slim corridor for a workspace and a stern directive to make a mark:

My father…said, ‘Sit down young lady, you might be a Wharton graduate, but I do not need one to run my business.’ With that cutting remark, he put me in my place. I could have airs and graces as a B-school graduate, but I was talking to a man who had nurtured the company and the group; had held his family, group and all the professionals together post the early demise of his father; and had earned the respect of the business community.

  • ‘Only Those Who Dare to Fail Greatly Can Ever Achieve Greatly’

So said Robert Kennedy, and our women in power agree. Each woman (and man) in power has faced immense challenges. Jyotsna Suri saw her hospitality venture being written off by the media and members of her fraternity when her husband passed away.

Sangeeta Pendurkar, on starting work as the brand manager for a feminine care range, found herself under immense pressure when, for no fault of hers, a new product was recalled just two weeks after its launch. And Pallavi Shroff describes a ‘baptism by fire’ in 1980 when her husband and she—still young, still ‘novices’— had to start from scratch and set up the Delhi branch of Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co.

While each of them managed to turn a massive challenge into a stepping stone, the fact is that every woman (and man) in power has also tripped a few times or made a few errors in judgement. Roopa Kudva did not get to join her dream school, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, the first time around due to political tensions in Assam. And Shobhana Bhartia mentions a television venture that nosedived:

We were to launch Home TV… In hindsight, I can spot all the errors—there were far too many partners in the venture; decision- making wasn’t streamlined; and the channel had been positioned as a niche undertaking with highbrow entertainment but little content for the masses. One must learn from such errors in judgement. Home TV may be an opportunity lost, but I’ve come out of it so much the wiser.

Arundhati Bhattacharya, quoting John Keats’s unforgettable statement—‘I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest’—reminds us that ‘there is no shame in defeat’.

Indeed, what sets the women in this book apart—and all successful women apart—is their willingness to dust off the failures, move on to bigger, newer dreams, take fresh risks and keep learning. To believe in oneself is key. As Shanti Ekambaram says:

I keep telling colleagues—you can do extraordinary things if you believe you can—and that is what drives me. It is not possible to always succeed, so it is important to learn from your mistakes.

This extract from 30 Women in Power by Naina Lal Kidwai has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.




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