A book that profiles nine success stories of women from diverse backgrounds, their personal journeys in building the empires that they have, also reads like a short history of India’s economic and social growth. It holds a mirror to our society, how it has changed in the last couple of decades, and what it has taken for women to reach where they have. Women of Vision: Nine Business Leaders in Conversation With Alam Srinivas is a collection of freewheeling chats with women such as television and film producer Ekta Kapoor; ICICI Bank Ltd managing director and CEO Chanda Kochhar, Biocon Ltd’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Shobhana Bhartia, chairperson of HT Media Ltd (which publishes Hindustan Times and Mint). Sometimes spirited, sometimes vulnerable, breaking the stereotypes and overcoming the challenges in male-dominated businesses, the stories of the women featured in Women of Vision are refreshing and candid.
Delhi-based Srinivas is a freelance journalist who has written for several Indian as well as international publications. He has previously authored three books—Storms in the Sea Wind: Ambani vs Ambani; IPL—An Inside Story: Cricket & Commerce; and The Indian Consumer: One Billion Myths, One Billion Realities.
In the chapter “Naina Lal Kidwai: Dominant Deal-maker”, Kidwai talks about the time when she was about to have her first child and the tough choices she had to face. Edited excerpt:
In the life of every woman who has broken the corporate glass ceiling, there comes a phase when a combination of luck, grit and family support enables her to sail through difficult, but opportunistic, times. The same happened with Naina in 1991.
Since 1982, for almost nine years at Grindlays Bank, she had been involved with investment and merchant banking. She had excelled in those areas, but there were two others that she had not had experience in. One was corporate banking, but Naina was clear that she did not want to be in it as she already knew all the large companies because she had raised money for them through the capital markets.
“What I did not know at all was retail banking. All my colleagues in that division were older and far more experienced. It was one of my toughest conversations and moments when I was told by my overseas boss that the job was there for me.
“By then I was pregnant, but only my husband and parents knew about it. It is customary among Indians not to talk to outsiders about it for the first two months. So, during the conversation, I was not focused on the answers. I could not even tell him the problem. So, I bought time and asked him to give me time to think. In such situations, having a husband who knows about the corporate world helps a lot.”
She discussed it with her husband, Rashid K. Kidwai, who maintained that she should come clean to her employer.
Naina told her boss about the pregnancy and sought advice as the new job as the head of NRI banking would have involved a lot of effort and it was not clear if she could do it. Her boss said that the decision was hers and the job too if she thought she could do it.
Naina took up the challenge, travelled around the globe, especially to East Asia, Middle East and New York, and made a huge success of the division.
A little bit of luck helped her. After the Gulf War (August 1990-February 1991), several Indians settled in the region decided to take their money out of Middle East and invest in India as they were unsure of the regional politics and crisis and, hence, wanted to seek a safe haven for their savings. Ironically, it was the same set of NRIs, and others, who had taken their money out of India in 1990, which led to a balance of payments crisis.
Suddenly, in a reverse move, NRI inflows to India boomed, which helped Naina and her bank. Another factor that contributed to her success was the fact that the Indian government wanted to woo NRIs to invest in the country.
In 1991, the morning after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, Naina was on the way to the Bombay airport to catch a flight to Dubai. “The first reaction was one of horror.”
“Later, I was only thinking of how to reach the airport, and not about how I would turn around and reach home. In my mind, even after knowing what had happened the previous night, I could not think of letting my colleagues down by cancelling the trip. I had to be in Dubai. Anyway, I reasoned that it would be safer for me to be out there in Dubai than be in Bombay.
“My husband, meanwhile, was hopping mad. Till this date, he hasn’t forgiven me for my decision to carry on with my trip. He cribbed to my boss about how I was taking stupid chances.”