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Life beyond boardrooms: India’s top women bankers

We have all seen them clinch big deals. Now find out how India’s women bankers -- Chanda Kochhar, Naina Lal Kidwai, Shikha Sharma, Vijaylakshmi Iyer, Kalpana Morparia and Kaku Nakhate – manage their ‘normal’ lives.

brunch Updated: Feb 24, 2014 17:25 IST
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Hindustan Times

They negotiate the prices of sarees and jewellery just as well as they structure a deal in a bank. They aren’t just inspirational figures, but heroes for anyone – male or female – who dreams of rising to the top.

As heads of some of India’s most respected banks, they number crunch, broker deals that change fortunes and display the kind of grit that often crumbles lesser players.

But as women, they have fought the fight for their gender, made domestic compromises that only women are expected to, and done it with grace.

As Naina Lal Kidwai says, “It’s a constant effort to put a jigsaw puzzle together. All the pieces never fit.” What sets these women apart is the fact that they didn’t succumb to the pressure of being superwomen.

“The tough times are only a phase. They last a few years, but pass. And you can’t let those few years overtake your life’s ambitions,” says Shikha Sharma.

What’s life at the top like for these six women? What have they left behind? We find out.

The Zen CEO: Chanda Kochhar is a Zen-like calmness around her. Not a hair or a single sari pleat out of place. Chanda Kochhar is immaculate and focused. And it is with this very calmness that ICICI’s managing director and CEO runs the country’s largest private bank.

Consistently featured in lists of the World’s Most Powerful Women since 2005, the only time Kochhar perhaps lost focus was when, while studying to become an IAS officer in Mumbai, she got "distracted" by the city’s economic pulse and chose a career in finance instead. Born in Jodhpur, Kochhar’s family moved to Jaipur when her father became the principal of Jaipur Engineering College. She was just two years old. "All three of us – two sisters and a brother – were brought up with an emphasis on academics," she says.

The numbers game

The family moved to Mumbai just as Kochhar was finishing school. Even as her sister was studying to be a doctor, Kochhar wanted to be a civil servant. While earning her degree in Economics from Mumbai’s Jai Hind College, Kochhar decided to do a course in cost accountancy. An MBA was the natural next step. She joined the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies and finished her Masters’ in Business with a specialisation in Finance. "I was good with numbers," Kochhar says. "The economic scenario was playing out interestingly. So my orientation moved from the administrative to the financial sector."

Kochhar, now 52, joined ICICI in 1984 as a management trainee and over 25 years rose steadily through the ranks, to take over as the MD and CEO in 2009. Though the organisation prided itself on being gender-neutral, the going was never easy. "I had to work just as hard as my male colleagues," she recalls. "It wasn’t the age when clients were comfortable with a 24-year-old woman doing audits or talking numbers."

Many times, excelling at work meant giving up on her personal priorities: "There were so many occasions when I wasn’t around for my kids or my husband. But we learnt to work around it," says Kochhar, looking at the pictures of her family that adorn an entire corner of her majestic office at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex.

She got married to her management school sweetheart, Deepak Kochhar, a wind energy entrepreneur. "Thankfully I have an ecosystem of in-laws, parents and husband, who are my rocks."

In many ways, her children have motivated her too. "My son, now 18, was a sports enthusiast. There have been so many tournaments of his that I have missed. But he understood. My daughter, 24, has just come back after finishing her engineering from the US. On many occasions, she pitched in to look after her younger brother." a choice

Kochhar took over ICICI at a time when businesses across the globe were in turmoil. The economy was tanking. That is where her calm, focused planning helped – although she came under criticism for going against the company’s modus operandi, cutting down on businesses, and keeping the focus on her long-term targets instead.

"Outsiders perceived the grain of the company to be fast, aggressive growth. For me, the DNA was its flexibility and ability to execute any strategy with finesse. So all I did was to change the strategy. It was a time when we needed to consolidate. Even if that meant cutting down on businesses." Kochhar aligned her colleagues, took extensive measures to explain to every person her point of action and long-term growth plan and ensured that the targets were set and met at every level.

Be it with her family or in the boardroom, Kochhar has ensured she puts her best foot forward. "It’s about maintaining balance," she says. "Plan better, be organised. I chose to be a working wife and mother. Why should I compromise on either?"

The Juggler: Naina Lal Kidwai ‘first’ was second nature to Naina Lal Kidwai. So neither she nor her family were surprised when she became the first Indian woman to be accepted to Harvard Business School. Or when she became the first woman to head ANZ Grindlays, a leading foreign investment bank. "The only people surprised when I came back to work in India were my colleagues," says Kidwai, 56, now group general manager and country head of HSBC India.

Born in Mumbai, Kidwai finished her schooling from Loreto Convent, Shimla, and went to Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College to pursue Economics. Studying to become a chartered accountant, she was doing her articleship at PricewaterhouseCoopers when Harvard Business School came calling. "My uncles believed Harvard was a waste of time and that I was being unduly aggressive," Kidwai recalls.

But Kidwai didn’t really care and fortunately, her parents stood by her. "If some people thought I was aggressive, they should have met the women I worked with in the US," she says. "They were women who would slam the door on the faces of the men who opened doors for the ladies."

Freedom of thought

Harvard liberated Kidwai. "My years there encouraged the go-getter in me, but they also honed my inherent cultural traits. My basic sensitivities as a woman became fundamental," she says, adding, "I liked and enjoyed the door being opened for me. So I was always cautious not to slam it on anyone’s face." Kidwai entered the corporate world, the pressure to be taken seriously was immense. But it was never the work that scared her; she was good at it. For Kidwai, constantly trying to prove to the world that she was indeed "good" was the bigger burden. "I was a young woman," Kidwai says. "Besides, there was zero tolerance for failure. Strangely enough, most people around me were waiting for me to commit that one mistake so that they could pull me down."

Kidwai made big personal sacrifices to not let anyone point a finger at her or make discounts for the fact that she was a woman. "I was half the world away on my first anniversary. I have missed a number of my children’s birthdays, parent-teacher meets and many such occasions. It’s not a nice feeling when you hear your child tell someone, ‘I’ll never be a banker because then I’ll always have to be on the phone,’" she says. Thankfully her husband Rashid, who runs a non-profit organisation, Grassroots Trading Networks, is a support. "If your partner celebrates your achievements more than you do, you are home. And I was," says Kidwai.

The Nomad: Shikha Sharma

Growing up as an army child, Shikha Sharma enjoyed a nomadic childhood filled with freedom, open spaces and lots of security. "There was never an insecure moment in my life. Despite not staying in one station for more than three years, we were comfortable," says the Axis Bank MD and CEO.

So, moving to Mumbai, a big city with small living spaces, after her MBA and marriage, was quite a drastic transition. "It was claustrophobic initially. I was used to big bungalows with lots of greenery. In Mumbai, I yearned for a little balcony. Finally, we have a house in Tardeo, with a balcony."’s girl

The eldest daughter in the family, Sharma, 53, was born in Lucknow. She has two younger brothers, but remained her father’s favourite. After graduating in Economics from Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College, Sharma went to IIM Ahmedabad.

While studying for her MBA, she met the man she would marry a few years later. "I met Sanjay on the day of my interview. He is six feet tall, so it was difficult to miss him," laughs Sharma. Two years later, they married and settled in Mumbai. Sanjay Sharma today heads Tata Interactive Systems, making them a power couple.

Although it wasn’t the most sought-after company during her campus placements, Sharma opted to work with ICICI for its egalitarian work culture. "Its senior leadership of KV Kamath and N Vaghul, among others, were great colleagues and mentors."

Sharma’s big break came when she was asked to establish ICICI Prudential, the first private life insurance company in India. "I nurtured it from inception," she says with palpable pride. go

Nine years after establishing the brand, Sharma quit ICICI amidst media speculation about the Chanda Kochhar-Shikha Sharma turf war, to head Axis Bank in 2009. Though she maintains that there was no animosity between the two of them, she hated the media scrutiny. "It became impossible to walk out of the house without being asked what had gone wrong."

In her new assignment, she reinvented Axis Bank, earlier known as UTI bank. She cut through the red tape to evolve a corporate-style work culture and helped Axis became one of the largest private banks in the country.

Today, it seems, the nomad has finally settled, at least in her head. "I’ve become secure, more comfortable with myself once again." With both her children now grown up and settled in their careers, all that Sharma aspires for now is some time to relax in her much-deserved balcony.

The home-grown success story: Vijayalakshmi Iyer her final year of college, studying Commerce and Statistics in Mumbai, Vijayalakshmi Iyer, then 19, saw an advertisement for the nationalised banking service on her college notice board. Looking at the dates, Iyer realised there was only one day left to submit her application. Immediately, she decided to apply.

Owing to a combination of factors, Iyer reached the exam hall 90 minutes behind schedule. But a delay in the arrival of the question papers ensured she made it in the nick of time. “That was when I realised that I was destined to be a banker,” recalls the Bank Of India CMD with a smile.

Hello Officer
Having joined Union Bank of India as an officer, the climb up the ladder was easier for Iyer, albeit just slightly. “The fact that I was a woman and very young wasn’t to my advantage,” she admits. “It took a lot from me to prove to the world that I was serious about my job.” Besides, there was this norm of women dropping off the professional wagon once they wed.

Iyer didn’t let either her marriage at 24 or her children distract her. So strong was her bond with her mother-in-law and her husband, an officer with Tata Consultancy Services, that she never had to worry about her kids. Iyer moved from promotion to promotion, taking frequent transfers in her stride.
But her beautiful world came crashing down in 1997 when, at the age of 39, Iyer lost her husband to cancer. He left behind two daughters, aged 12 and 9, and an ageing mother. “I can’t even say that my world collapsed suddenly because he had been suffering for 22 months,” she recalls. “Those months were incomprehensible,” Iyer adds, shuddering at the memory. In that period, it was her husband’s strength, she says, that gave her solace. “He was suffering. He knew he wouldn’t be there, yet he didn’t give up. And I got his strength after him.”

After just a week or 10 days of mourning, Iyer realised she had to get going. Her parents, siblings and mother-in-law rallied around. “A few days after my husband passed away, my mother-in-law came to me and said, ‘I’ll do all that your husband could not do for you.’ It was the most touching and strength-giving thing to hear.”

Iyer and her mother-in-law brought up the children together. Today, with both her daughters married and settled, one in Seattle and the other in Dubai, the two older women have only each other for company. “We have dinner after I get home from work and our morning tea together. She has been my greatest friend and my biggest support,” says Iyer. Back

After 36 successful years at Union Bank, Iyer, 58, was transferred for two years to Central Bank and then finally asked to head Bank of India, one of the largest nationalised banks in the country. As a boss, Iyer has brought in a refreshing non-bureaucratic ‘open door’ culture. She is available to her staff across the country via mail and video conferencing. The changes are already visible in the bank’s profits. "Just the other day, I met an MD of another bank and he said laughing, ‘Madam follows a home-grown model of work’," she says with a laugh. She does and the model works.
The reluctant boss: Kalpana Morparia Kalpana Morparia, CEO of JP Morgan, India, the battle to succeed was never with the outside world. It was always internal. Morparia, 64, says that in a lot of ways, she has reached where she has today, because of the many strong people around her. "To begin with, my mother, then my husband and then Mr KV Kamath, the ex-CEO of ICICI, each of them, in their own way, pushed me to go ahead in life," she acknowledges. "Had that not been the case, I would have happily been a regular Gujju housewife," says Morparia with a laugh. That she would retire from India’s top private bank as Joint MD and later head the India operations of another international bank, didn’t figure in her wildest dreams.

Pushed to college

Growing up in Mumbai’s Walkeshwar locality, Morparia was six when her father, who traded in cotton textiles, passed away. The youngest of four siblings – three sisters and one brother – Morparia grew up in a household dominated by women. "My eldest sister was married even before I was born and my brother married young and moved out of the house a few years after my father’s death. So the family was essentially my mother and us two sisters. An all-woman household," she says.

Even though her mother was a homemaker, she was adamant that her daughters be financially independent before getting married. That was a really progressive mindset for the 1960s, says Morparia. Her mother was ahead of her time but Morparia thought her expectations were bizarre! "All I wanted to do was get married after school," she exclaims.

But that was not to be. She earned her Bachelor’s in Science from Sophia College, Mumbai, because her mother wanted her to be a doctor. "As long as I didn’t have to repeat a year, I was happy," she recalls. After graduation, Morparia sat at home for a year before deciding to study law – just for a lark.

It was in her second year of studying law that Morparia’s dream of getting married came true. And it would have taken no convincing for Morparia to quit law. But her husband, businessman Jaisingh Morparia, convinced her to stay the course. as Morparia was debating whether she should take the solicitor’s exam, she joined the legal team of ICICI in 1975 at the age of 26. And it gave her a renewed focus. Morparia grew in stature to become the joint managing director of ICICI till she retired after 33 years in 2008.

In September 2009, amidst the furiously changing economic dynamics of the globe, she took over JP Morgan, India. Morparia was preparing to present a ‘road map’ for the India operations to her international bosses when tragedy struck. "My husband suffered a massive heart attack days before my presentation in Hong Kong. He was in the ICU when I had to fly out to make that presentation. It took time but thankfully we survived the crisis. Though emotionally, I was broken."

Even as Morparia was doing well at work, a personal desire remained unfulfilled. She couldn’t have children. "It’s rather unfortunate but I guess it became easier for me to concentrate on and manage my career because I didn’t have children. And that, in spite of my achievements, will remain my biggest failure as a woman," she says.

Kaku Nakhate: The unassuming pathbreaker isn’t your regular corporate banker. In fact, Kaku Nakhate says not having that "uppity suaveness" identified with so many women bankers doesn’t bother her. "I don’t want to be trapped in ‘sari-clad’ imagery. If you know your job, no one will dare to not take you seriously," says the country head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

This is the confidence with which Nakhate has governed her professional life. Whether it’s dealing with clients or learning the ropes of trading at the stock market, Nakhate never shied away from getting her hands dirty. "That training came from my dad," she says. "A businessman, he always treated me like his son. Standing at the trading centre to check deals or outside the lawyers’ offices to get the audits in order, he made sure I learnt it all."

After an MBA from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Nakhate joined DSP Merrill Lynch’s equity research team, before moving on to equity sales. At 23, Nakhate realised that she had to work doubly hard and keep putting her point across to be heard amidst all the men. The personal front wasn’t easy either. "From how ‘girls should not be trading’ to ‘how no good boy will ever agree to marry me’, I heard everything!" she says. an impression

But things fell into place. The same men who refused to hear her at the trading centre sought her point of view every time a deal needed to be cracked. And her college sweetheart, whom she married, had no qualms about her doing equity sales.

Nakhate, 46, rose through the ranks to become the head of global markets at DSP Merrill Lynch. However, in 2009, when the company merged with Bank of America, she decided to move on after 19 years in the organisation. But Nakhate was called back just a year later. This time, as country head.

Working a 12-14 hour shift is not unusual for her. That’s something that her 19-year-old son, now in the US, also complains about. "He keeps telling me that I am unlike a CEO. I should socialise and network a little more. But then that’s the way I am."

Photos: Kalpak Pathak

From HT Brunch, January 5

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First Published: Jan 03, 2014 18:37 IST