14 March 2016 15:07:04 IST

There’s nothing holding women back

(L to R): Nalini Padmanabhan, session moderator Ruchi Mohunta, Kalpana Raghavendra, Gunit Singla and V Uma

Speakers at the MMA’s women managers’ meet relate inspiring stories of their Route to the Summit

The Madras Management Association’s Women Managers’ Convention has become an annual event that women in business in Chennai look forward to for fresh and meaningful insights and renewed inspiration. And this year’s edition was no different, as the “Route to the Summit” highlighted.

Participating in a panel discussion in the session Journey of Entrepreneurship were four women drawn from diverse areas: Gunit Singla, director of high-end corporate catering and consulting company Uncle Sam’s Kitchen; Kalpana Raghavendar, musician and mezzo soprano from Trinity College of Music, London, who has sung over 2,000 songs in Tamil and other movies, and worked with music maestros Ilayaraja and AR Rahman; Nalini Padmanabhan, Senior Partner, B Thiagarajan & Co, who forged a distinctive path as the only girl in her CA class; and V Uma, Founder, Suyam Charitable Trust, which feeds 100 slum children a day with a fresh, nutritious meal, looks after the families of 350 beggars and runs a programme that educates the children of nomadic tribes.

One might wonder what these achievers have in common. But the core values they stand for and the ideas that keep them motivated are very similar.

People matter

For Gunit Singla, her motto has been ‘Have courage, show kindness’. It’s necessary to recognise, she said, that ultimately, business success and profits aside, it’s the people who make up the team, as much as the clients, who matter, and that there is nothing more satisfying than keeping both groups happy and well-supported. “The first employee who joined Uncle Sam’s still works with us,” she said, adding that when team-members understand they are valued, no one really wants to leave.

Reassuring the audience that it’s ok to feel afraid, she said: “Fear is a natural force. It’s ok to be scared. But it’s not a deterrent. So, work on conquering your fear.” Passion and strength, as much as encouragement from her husband, Samir, who’s the head chef of Uncle Sam’s, have kept her motivated to work, she said, though she sees the journey itself as beautiful, and the summit as just another point in life.

Passion for excellence

Kalpana Raghavendar endorsed this view, saying passion for excellence in music drives whatever she does. And, far from facing any gender bias in her work, she acknowledged the continuing support she has received from men in her field, who play an important role in her life.

For her too, it is the journey itself, and the acceptance of life as it is, that are beautiful. Good or bad, every experience along the way has moulded her and made her grow as a person, she said, rounding off her talk with a beautiful and melodious rendition of 'Ezhu swarangalukkul' from the film Apoorva Raagangal , to enthusiastic cheers and applause from the audience.

Keep proving yourself

“Support everyone around you — husband, children, friends and community — to do what they want to do, and it will help you achieve your own goals as well,” said Nalini Padmanabhan, adding that “women are inherently empowered and can play several roles effectively.”

The understanding and motivation from her family was vital, she said, in her journey to success. On her experience of being a chartered accountant at a time when there were few women in a male-dominated area, she said: “No one sees me specifically as a woman; rather people perceive me mainly as a professional. Don’t see men as competition; keep working and proving yourself, and acceptance will come naturally,” she concluded.

‘Human being, above all else’

Speaking from her own experience, V Uma echoed this thought, saying it’s time to think beyond the body, to see a person, not as a woman or a man, but as a human being. And to give every human being the respect she or he deserves.

“We need to move to a higher level of consciousness to fight the ‘I’,” she said, explaining that, often, there is conflict between the ‘I’ and one’s own body. “Once we align the two, and achieve a natural acceptance of the inner essential being within us, we can begin to radiate that harmony to society,” she said, adding that one cannot be numb to the sufferings of those around us.

We need to be sensitive as, now more than ever, society needs this. The process of self-exploration keeps her energised as she responds, not reacts, to changes around her and helps in her quest of understanding life and people, she signed off.

Valedictory session

The valedictory session was marked by inspiring personal accounts of their own professional journeys by Chief Guest Lalitha Kumaramangalam, Chairperson, National Commission for Women; Soumya Swaminathan, Director-General, Indian Council of Medical Research; Jayashree Natarajan, Global Head, Assurance Services of TCS; and IIM-A graduate and best-selling author Rashmi Bansal.

‘Love what you do’

Not all the women who graduate from the IIMs or other top B-schools end up in the top leadership roles they could well be in, said Rashmi Bansal. And this will not happen unless these women are mentored, right from a young age, and taught that they are no less than men.

“Learn to love what you do, learn to delegate, and make money your friend,” were three bits of advice Rashmi offered. She said: “Don’t be afraid of money, learn how to handle and understand it; this will stand you in good stead in your work.” She went on to describe and give examples of three categories of women entrepreneurs — the Lakshmis, Durgas and Saraswatis, who have different entrepreneurial styles, the first involving the whole family in the business, the second being forced to strike out on her own following a misfortune in her life, and the third choosing to move from a lucrative career to starting up on her own.

Earning trust

Talking of her work in TCS, particularly the early years, Jayashree Natarajan had the audience chuckling away at her humorous account of her first work trip abroad, to the UK. She described her first flight, with two large bags packed full of provisions to last two months, and her experience at Immigration at Heathrow, where she had to wait endlessly for her baggage, which came out last, as the authorities didn’t know what to make of two double-locked suitcases covered in camouflage material!

To top it all, she discovered she had to work on a highly complex Y2K conversion project that she was clueless about, having been assigned to it following a clerical error! But, though aghast, did she just up and leave? She couldn’t, she says, as that would have been acknowledging defeat. Instead, she stayed up nights “mugging up manual after manual on the Y2K issue,” and learning how to make business proposals.

By the end of the eight weeks, she had such a good understanding of the problem that when she returned she was, at age 26, asked to head the project team, drawn from several countries and comprising mainly men, most of whom were nearly twice her age! This, Jayashree says, was a game-changer in her life, both career-wise and personally, as she also met her husband through the project!

Gaining the acceptance of her team was no easy task. She had to slog, working double shifts, from 7 am to 9 pm, to earn their trust. And, from then on, there was no looking back as she progressed in her career. Through her working life, support from her husband and two children, she said, has been crucial in her being able to achieve her goals, and in her “route to the summit”.


Support of a different kind, that from other women, is equally important, said Soumya Swaminathan. “Historically, we have seen that when women decide to team up towards a common goal, wonders can be achieved,” she said, citing the instances of the powerful and successful Chipko Andolan in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, as also the sustained civil rights activism of the women in the North-Eastern State of Manipur against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Family, friends and team support are key to enabling women achieve their goals in the face of several odds and stumbling blocks, said Soumya. Even in the scientific community, for long, there was a mindset that did not even consider women when setting up one or the other committee or task force. Things have changed, though, and in recent times women scientists and technologists have come into their own and are making a mark in the policy-making sphere too, she said.

‘Be ambitious’

“What most women in India are not taught from a young age is ‘Don’t doubt yourself’,” said Lalitha Kumaramangalam. “Growing up, girls face so many restrictions, are always told to ‘adjust’ (‘that horrible word’!). But thankfully, much of that has changed and there are so many women in top positions who feel that boundaries exist only to be crossed,” she said.

Though it is acknowledged widely today that women are as good as men in almost every field, enormous gender bias still exists, she said. “So, don’t hesitate to trust your instincts, to take decisions and to aspire to positions of power, even if the general trend is to ignore women as candidates for top positions. Even today, there are very few women CEOs or heads of committees. And where, for instance, is the long-promised Women’s Reservation Bill that will ensure a minimum number of seats for women in Parliament?” she asked.

Urging women to believe in themselves, Lalitha said: “Don’t compromise on your reputation, or allow anyone to be unfair to you. Stand up for yourself and make a noise; especially in the case of gender bias or, at its worst, sexual harassment at the workplace, even of a minor nature. Shout, if necessary! Trust yourself. And work, work, work!” Everyone has to work really hard and make sacrifices to reach the top, said Lalitha. She advised women to be ambitious for themselves and, most importantly, to know their legal rights.

“Conditions for women at work are definitely getting better, so there’s nothing holding women back,” she concluded.