International Women’s Day was celebrated just two days ago, so we thought this would be the perfect time for HT Café’s The Big Interview to feature Nita Ambani. Sure, you could see her as the wife of Mukesh Ambani. But Nita’s power also comes from her own hard work.
She’s an educationist, a social worker, a philanthropist, the founder chairperson of the Dhirubhai Ambani International School (DAIS), the co-owner of the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) Mumbai Indian cricket team, not to mention a daughter, sister, wife and mother. But it is not power that drives her, says Nita. “The responsibility that comes with power is more fulfilling,” she explains.“For me, power and money do not go together.”
Nita values initiatives and institutions that spread hope and bring smiles to the lives of those who are not as blessed as those of us who read and write for this newspaper. Educating, empowering and embedding self-esteem into children is her life’s biggest mission. Now she’s setting up a university and also getting into healthcare, with a hospital coming up soon.
All this comes from her middle class background – the Nita Ambani of Altamount Road was once Nita Dalal from the suburbs, noticed by Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries, at a dance performance, and married to his son Mukesh. This explains many things, such as why her kids Akash, Isha and Anant (when they were very small) got only R5 each as pocket money and are not unfamiliar with public transport. “They need to know how things actually are,” says the mother who’s determined that her children have values that are real and rooted.
And that also explains why we’ve seen slim and stunning Nita Ambani for a while now… but we’ll let the lady explain how that happened herself.
You have lost a lot of weight and are looking stunning. Why did you feel you had to slim down?
My reason and inspiration to lose weight and stay fit is my youngest son, Anant, who is fighting obesity. I would like to be an example for him.
Which role is the closest to your heart and why: wife, mother, educationist, philanthropist?
To me and to all mothers who multi-task, every role is unique and important and calls for commitment and dedication. Yet nothing gives me more joy than being the mother of my three wonderful children. To be able to bring up children with sound value systems — a fine blend of tradition and modernity - to be always there when they need me, that is very satisfying. Motherhood is the most challenging as well as the utmost satisfying vocation in this world. Yes, among all my roles, I put motherhood first.
Do you miss the days when you could freely walk the roads, travel by train or bus, go to the neighbourhood grocery shop or play dandiya with your group of friends?
Like many middle class Indian children, I grew up walking the streets of my city, travelling by buses and trains. Now as I look back, I recollect with nostalgia how fun-filled those times were. But I still enjoy the little joys of walking down Marine Drive, eating street food and dancing dandiya with my friends.
Have you ever thought of venturing into the entertainment world in some way, the way you have with cricket?
We have a presence in cricket with our team, Mumbai Indians. It was recently ranked 146 in the world in a survey of the world’s most valuable sporting brands, making it the No 1 sports team in India and a top global brand. Now we are working on entering the football and basketball spheres too. Mukesh and I are keen to change the sporting landscape of our country. Sport is not just about entertainment. It is equally about winning and losing, pooling and galvanising the energy of the youth, upgrading people’s physical fitness and mental prowess.
We are particular that our kids earn the family legacy in their own right
If there is one thing you want to change about women in India, what would that be?
Education of the girl child is the most important thing that should happen in our country, and through it we can empower every woman in India. By giving women skills and new opportunities, we can unlock their full potential and enable every woman to find a new meaningful place in society. Let us wholeheartedly accept that women, just like men, have the potential to significantly contribute to the economic progress and social welfare of the nation. This calls for a paradigm shift in our institutional and individual mindsets. That is why I would like to be involved in moulding the next generation of Indians through my school and other education initiatives.
What’s your opinion on the increasing crimes against women and senior citizens?
It’s deplorable. Crimes against women, starting from female infanticide, really pain me. After all, Indian values teach us to respect elders and women. I believe that a country can be called truly progressive only if its women are able to walk the streets freely and fearlessly and if its elders are protected and taken care of thoughtfully.
You are coming up with a hospital and a university. How are you planning to do both?
Both are my dream projects. We are modernising the Sir H N Hospital in Mumbai, transforming it into a world-class hospital that will provide quality and affordable healthcare. It is planned as a 375-plus bed multi-specialty hospital and we are getting ready to open it later this year. The university will be one of its kind in India, offering education and research opportunities comparable to the best in the world. It will be a world-class multi-disciplinary university where liberal arts will be given equal importance — similar to a Bharatnatyam scholar being treated at par with an engineer.
What is project Reliance Drishti all about?
This is a project that is very close to my heart. Since its launch in 2003, Reliance Drishti has carried out over 11,000 corneal transplants across India. Last year, we launched Reliance Drishti — India's first registered national Braille newspaper in Hindi.
How have you and your husband nurtured your dreams together?
Mukesh has always believed in my convictions and stood by me in all my projects. He inspires and encourages me to do my best. As husband and wife, as parents to our children, we always nurtured a mutually appreciative and sharing approach. Our dreams have grown from the life philosophy of partnership, while having the freedom to express each one’s point of view and being able to empathise with each other. For us, all the dreams are joint dreams, they are our family dreams, with the children also inspiring and influencing every element of our dreams. We would like it to be that way always.
How much quality time do you get to spend with him, considering his hectic schedule?
Despite his work commitments, Mukesh is quintessentially a family man. It’s the same with me though my work portfolio is ever growing. Both of us ensure that we spend some quality time together — at and away from home. He reaches home very late in the evening but we make it a point to have dinner together. We always vacation together, most of the time in the jungles of India and Africa.
Will all your children join the family buisness or will let them pursue their individual dreams?
Mukesh and I want them to pursue their dreams. We have given them roots and values and we are sure they will find their way and acquire their own wings. We are particular that they should earn the family legacy in their own right, through hard work and dedication. On the whole, we would like them to enjoy what they do and do that to their fullest potential.
Do you cook? What’s your husband’s favourite dish?
I do cook whenever the time permits. But my daughter Isha is a much better cook than I am. Mukesh’s favourite dishes are idli sambhar and bajra roti.
What’s it like to be the wife of India’s richest man, and still manage to keep a strong identity of your own?
I would prefer to be referred to as the life partner of one of India's foremost visionaries with an indomitable spirit. Mukesh is getting busier with the next level of business transformation of our company and through it, facilitating the country's transition to becoming an economic superpower. I am happy to be able to support him in whichever way I can. I think my work speaks for my identity. I believe excellence follows best effort. From childhood, my parents motivated me to give 100 per cent to everything we did. Mukesh has always been my backbone, supporting and encouraging me to do my best in my areas of passion. I must say my children also encourage me to pursue my passions and projects with full steam.
What’s the bond you share with your sister Mamta Dalal? Do you visit the neighborhood where you were born and brought up?
I share a strong bond with my sister Mamta. We were 11 girls – myself, my little sister Mamta and nine cousin sisters. We were raised in a joint family. All of us were brought up to believe in the power of education and the critical need for equality and empowerment of women. I do often visit my ancestral home in Santacruz, and I get nostalgic about it. I am proud of my place — the invaluable moments, the foundational years spent there inspire me like nothing else.
You are also spearheading the Reliance Foundation in a big way. Could you share something about it?
Mukesh and I passionately believe that if we can unleash the huge potential of our people, we are sure to see a far more productive, prosperous and equitable India. Still in its formative stage, the foundation has taken up several initiatives across its five pillars: rural transformation, urban renewal, education, health and the preservation and promotion of arts, culture and heritage. Through the ‘Bharat-India Jodo’ (BIJ) initiative we have reached out to over 18,500 marginal farmers in over 300 villages, spread across 10 states — empowering them with better agricultural practices and facilities.
What is that one thing about your husband that you would like to change? And what’s the best thing about him?
The best thing about Mukesh is his utmost simplicity and his vision not only for Reliance, but also for India. He is a born optimist. And perhaps the one thing I would like to change about him is his love for food!
Do you advise your husband on things?
I don’t think I am qualified to advise Mukesh. Our life experiences have taught us many things; I have learnt a lot from Mukesh — maybe I am able to re-transmit to him what I have learnt from him over the years. Between us, it is more about sharing our thoughts and perspectives. I am more of a sounding board. I am sure I have learnt more from Mukesh than the other way round.
What’s your usual day like?
I am up every morning at around 8 am. When the kids were younger and going to school, it was the busiest time of the day, but now I begin my day by practising Bharatnatyam for 45 minutes, followed by prayers. Then I get on to work. Earlier the Dhirubhai Ambani International School took up much of my time, but now, while the school continues to get a good amount of time, my focus is more on the hospital project. I also devote significant time to the activities of the Reliance Foundation. Keeping abreast of cricketing developments round the year has become part of my daily itinerary. And during the IPL and Champions League seasons, the Mumbai Indians take most of my time. I also spend time conceptualising the university model and look forward to spending more time on it as the project takes off in full measure. Typically I am home around 9 pm and then it is family time.