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Excerpt: India’s wonder women who fought for their place in a man’s world

Women achievers often have to fight for their rightful place in a man’s world. Gunjan Jain spoke to 24 women achievers about their paths to success. This excerpt from the book’s introduction highlights their common values

books Updated: Jul 31, 2016 10:08 IST
Hindustan Times
Indra Nooyi, Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo., rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on June 8, 2015. The event marked the 50th anniversary of PepsiCo at NYSE.
Indra Nooyi, Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo., rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on June 8, 2015. The event marked the 50th anniversary of PepsiCo at NYSE.(Getty Images)

Gunjan Jain spoke to 24 women achievers about their paths to success. This excerpt from the book’s introduction highlights their common values

Acts of heroism done by women often go unnoticed.

The world is awed by an influential woman’s positions of power, but knows little about her journey — her sacrifices, the hurdles she crossed, and the battles she continues to fight. The overarching message she gets from society is that success for women — personal or professional — is the exception and not the rule. While women of influence are either on a pedestal, or off it, women still inhabit a largely patriarchal workplace where gender discrimination exists. In a world that never expects a man to prove his allegiance to his family in pursuit of his career, a woman has to demonstrate, at every step, that she can balance both, without compromising on either.

The Indian woman, today, faces unique challenges at every step, within her own home and outside of it. Ours is a country that worships the Mother Goddess, but shuns the girl child. An Indian girl with any trace of ambition has a long, hard road ahead of her and, yet, India has never lacked incredible women who set out to realise their most audacious dreams — whether in the past or the present. As an ambitious Indian woman myself, I am passionate about and determined to decode their stories. The genesis of this book lies in my admiration for the woman achiever, who has peaked summits in every field — finance, media, Bollywood, the arts, the corporate world and sports. But more importantly, I wish to tell the story of how they got there.


My mother was my first role model — a strong and confident woman in a patriarchal set-up. From her, I learnt that achievement does not arrive of its own accord and sit lightly on the shoulders. Achievement and success have to be sought out and fought for spiritedly on a day-to-day basis. She remains my greatest influence.

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When I returned from the UK in 2006 with a degree in finance, I was trained for a career in investment banking, but, while on the cusp of it, I was slowly gripped by a feeling of futility. I was unconvinced, almost bored, with the idea of numbers and felt a tug towards something ‘larger.’

Looking around for inspiration and instruction, I became engrossed in the success stories of the many Indian women making national and international headlines. I read their interviews and profiles, but they felt incomplete. They spoke of grand achievements but did not detail the many subtleties that contributed to their success. Of particular interest was one question — what had driven these women to pursue exceptional lives and careers?

Back home, I devised a morning routine, involving a meditation practice. It was during one such session in 2013 that the idea of an anthology of women achievers, in the current format, came to me.

Growing up, I loved books. They opened my eyes to the possibilities that life holds for each one of us. To write a book is a huge decision and I had no clue about the monumental task ahead of me. In retrospect, that proved to be a blessing in disguise. If I had known the distance I would have to go with it, fear may have stopped me from taking that leap of faith. In that moment, I just knew I had to surrender to my vision and let it guide me to the path — and the people — who would help me bring it to fruition.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon Limited. (Hemant Mishra/Mint)

As I write this, I realise that it is fitting that all twenty-four women profiled in this book had also set out m pursuit of success with determination and faith. In a way, this book’s journey — and mine, as an author — has echoed theirs. Meeting each of them offered me a rare opportunity and the strength to discover people and territory that were new to me. This was, after all, the raison d’etre for the book: to find inspiration and then use it to change lives, my own and those of others.

These twenty-four women are pioneers. They are heroes. They are warriors. At the same time, they are women who set out to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, who overcame the barriers of patriarchy, who shunned their humdrum lives of ease and comfort to make their existence meaningful for themselves and others, who charted paths that few dared to tread.


The first step was to make a list of the women who had inspired me. My first list ran into 200 names. These were all women who stood out in their respective professions: entrepreneurs, writers, artists, bankers, and more.

The two questions I asked myself while whittling down the 200 names to the final twenty-four were: One, how has she contributed to change in the larger social context? Two, what can a reader learn from this achiever’s story that cannot be learnt from anyone else in her field?

I did not restrict myself by age group or profession. Thus, alongside Indu Jain who exhibits the capability to view everything in life through a spiritual prism, there is Saina Nehwal who is unrelenting in her focus to reach and stay at World No. 1. Many will be inspired by Sudha Murty’s deep sense of individual identity, and others may aspire to be the next Indra Nooyi, the finest example of how far sheer hard work and grit can take you. My aim was to show the scale of achievement by Indian women over the past five or six decades: women did not bow down to personal difficulties and traditional mindsets and stuck to pursuing their life’s purpose.

This was going to be a celebration Of womanhood.

Saina Nehwal in action against Sung Ji Hyun of Korea during the India Open Badminton quarter final in New Delhi on April 1, 2016. (Mohd Zakir/HT Photo)


My list in hand, I began establishing contact, making calls and sending out my requests for meetings. For someone with no background in journalism or writing, every single step brought home a lesson. There were times I was tempted to give up, but I persevered. I learnt to trust both my concept and the generosity of the people I met, people who knew the achievers I was profiling and helped me to establish the connection.

I chose the anthology format as it can be both capacious and concise in a time-starved era. One can read this book from cover to cover or dip in, depending on which achiever one is most drawn to. Some profiles are longer, as it seemed almost criminal to leave out any of the information that I had gathered. As I was reaching out to every woman on my list, I began researching their lives not only via media coverage but also through people who knew them, personally and professionally. This helped me get both an academic understanding of each one’s life and a rare window into the lesser-known areas of their lives, which was essential to capture the breadth and depth of each woman’s life and work. In this process, I met and spoke with over a hundred people — achievers, themselves, no less — who were kind enough to speak with me several times, and help me get a foot in many doors.

Over time, I succeeded in getting my top twenty four women to say yes to being a part of the project; so, this book is authorised and supported by each of them.

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The first person I met was Swati Piramal, vice chairperson and backbone of Piramal Enterprises, and the last was the multitasking, troubleshooting perfectionist Nita Ambani. My meetings made me realise that almost nothing I had read or heard about them had managed to bring to the fore their personality and character. Each of these women surprised me with her warmth, honesty and compassion. They made time for me, a first-time author, over and over again, and shared their stories with candour. I travelled across the country and abroad to meet my subjects and those who knew them. What struck me was that, while they remained focused on their goals, these ladies did not forsake their relationships. They drew support from parents, husbands, children, in-laws, friends, colleagues, and bosses and mentors. They did not shy away from asking for help or apologising for their absence to those who mattered to them. This was a key lesson for me. It also became clear that not one of these women had let anything stop her from working towards every goal she set for herself.

Each one’s journey has been singular, gritty and wholly admirable.

Nita Ambani with Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Sachin Tendulkar at the inauguration of Indian Super League at Salt Lake, Kolkata on October 12, 2014 . (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT Photo)

Grit and courage apart, these twenty-four women always stay tuned in to that little voice inside them. They craft their lives and routines in a manner that allows them to pursue a goal and stay alert and responsive to opportunity. They do not indulge in self-pity. They go where their destiny takes them, surrender to it and revel in it. To let go and trust that things will work out, to not get deterred if the outcome is completely different from what one had envisioned, and then to mould as per the new scenario is to show a rare maturity and an incredible sense of mindfulness.


It is easy to imagine that successful people are helped by a special force; that they have a special line of fortune on their palms, which ensures their success from birth. But that’s not true and it would be naive to believe so. When I conceptualised this book I did so as an admirer; but as I set about giving it form and shape, it became a source of many life lessons.

The conversations that I had in the course of writing this book offered me a rare chance to understand the architecture of success and changed me, personally and professionally. As I traced every individual journey, I realised that while each story is unique with its own set of triumphs and obstacles, there are some success values that are common to all of them.


Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was twenty-six when she started out. She had little capital inflow and zero experience at running a business. And, she was promoting an unknown sector — biotechnology. But, she was determined to make it happen. And she did, shattering every stereotype that came her way. Sudha Murty was a young engineering graduate, about to embark on her career when she took on an established business house like Tata. She did not let their age-old policy change her path, instead she got Tata to change their policy and employ their first woman engineer. These women make their choices and stick to them, even when it means veering off the beaten track. The courage to push through and achieve their goals has made them icons in their chosen field.

Sania Mirza receiving the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award 2015 from President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi on August 29, 2015. (Vipin Kumar/HT Photo)


The women in this book shatter the myth that women are risk-averse. They go with their instincts and take that leap of faith. Take the example of the Piramals, the textile business was familiar territory, a business they knew inside out. But, the industry was fading out and it was imperative to look in a new direction, to explore the unknown. It was Swati Piramal’s vision that steered the way for the Piramals to move into the unfamiliar world of pharmaceuticals. ‘When I started R&D, people said that no Indian knew how to innovate, they did not know how to file a patent, and if they filed a patent, anything that they did during a clinical trial would not be accepted by the West,’ she remembers. Under her direction, Piramal Enterprises proved all their detractors wrong and scripted the great Indian pharma story.


Some call it endurance or perseverance; I see it as an all-pervading mental attitude. In these women I sensed an innate ability to see opportunities in challenges and surface on the bright side of the deepest crises. They adapt, manoeuvre and persist with sheer stamina, never once taking their eyes off their ultimate goals. Unflappable fighter Sania Mirza turned the dusk of her career as a singles tennis champion into the dawn of her journey towards the doubles number one position – ‘l like to fight back hardest hen people think that I am out for good.’

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For Shobhana Bhartia, the Home TV debacle was one of the few dark chapters in an otherwise impeccable career run. But she doesn’t brush it under the carpet. ‘You have to bounce back,’ she says. ‘You can’t shy away from failure; instead, you learn from failure and you come back stronger and you take that risk again.’


Scaling the summit is not the end point; it is the first step of the next phase — staying there. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi says, ‘It is like climbing Mount Everest — once you reach the summit, staying there is harder than the journey that brought you there, Because the view is fantastic but other people are looking to reach that summit.’ At the top, with too many critics, few supporters and a lot to get done, standing your ground is anything but easy. It is, in fact, a journey in itself. For those like Indra, goals are not end points; they are milestones to the next achievement. Sachin Tendulkar tells me, as he analyses badminton ace Saina Nehwal’s journey, ‘...to stay at the No. 1 position takes plenty of hard work. It will test one’s commitment and one’s character. It is important to celebrate victories, but not to get carried away.’

Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra at an event in Mumbai on May 3, 2015. (HT Photo)


Adaptability qualifies these women. They accept their shortcomings and learn from mentors, peers and juniors alike. Good leaders are good students — they listen, absorb and apply. Priyanka Chopra might have reached the highest rung of the ladder, but she says that the ‘struggle’ still continues — ‘It’s just that it changes form. Success is a validation but it doesn’t mean you are validated for life.’ When Anu Aga lost her husband almost overnight, she found herself responsible for the health and fortune of the Thermax ecosystem. Always ready to learn, Anu appointed international consulting firm Boston Consulting Group to help turn things around. Then CEO Arun Maira describes Anu’s willingness to learn and grow into her new role, ‘I would explain everything to her in black and white and she would pick up whatever she had to.’


Successful women don’t shy away from mentors and, as they rise, they are keen to pay it forward. They understand the importance of teamwork and of giving credit where it is due. Equally important is the attitude with which the team is developed. By pulling their teams forward along with them, they have proved that a great leader is one who is self-motivated and is able to motivate those who s/he leads. Indra Nooyi puts it well: ‘Aspiring leaders have got to raise the bar for themselves all the time. You have to listen a lot, get out of your office, reach people — your employees, partners — and have as much EQ as intelligence.’


The one common trait that all these women demonstrate is their innate capacity for compassion and empathy for the less fortunate. Some of these women were born with the proverbial silver spoon and others had a humble start; but all of them have made it their business to give back to society, whether it is Rajashree Birla’s widow remarriage scheme in villages, or the Premjis’ commitment to The Giving Pledge. To quote Yasmeen, ‘What if we tell the youth that instead of buying more Ferraris, they could build more schools and may be show that off instead?’ Then there are those like Nita Ambani, whose 360-degree vision of philanthropy keeps her on her feet; Shabana Azmi, who has been the face of many a cause, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who has pledged 75 per cent of her wealth to charity.


They toe the line between their careers and their families with panache, and nothing can topple them. When Naina Lal Kidwai started her investment banking career with Morgan Stanley in 1994, she would start work at 5.30 a.m. with a conference call with her Hong Kong team and end with a late-night conference call with the team in the US. Yet, she always managed to find time for her family, especially her young daughter. ‘If I had stepped away [from my job], I believed it would have reflected on all women. I was determined to make it work,’ she says. Parmeshwar Godrej was a hands-on and today is a doting grandmother who spends time with her grandchildren irrespective of her busy schedule. For each of the women profiled in the book, the family is the cornerstone of their happiness.

My endeavour with every story was to make evident the essence of each woman and share the core nuggets of her success. But, as I went about the task of assimilating information, what touched me were not the grand successes, impressive as they were. It was the success of the everyday -- winning the daily battles, finding inspiration in the ordinary, and following the arc of growth with focus and intention.

My biggest hope for this book is that every reader is compelled to possess three copies — one for their bedside table, one for their work desk and one to give away. The lessons in here are inspirational, and they are applicable no matter where one is in their life. These twenty-four unique lives are a testament to the fact that there are as many paths to success as there are people. We just have to discover the path that is right for us, and walk it with courage and conviction.