Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Naina Lal Kidwai: Banking on wonder women

The former head of HSBC India who has committed half her time to the not-for-profit sector on women's safety and empowerment in India

Naina Lal Kidwai has several firsts to her name. She was the first Indian woman to get an MBA from Harvard in 1982, the first woman president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), and the first woman to head a foreign bank’s operations in India. These days, however, she works for causes closer to her heart: environment, sanitation, access to water and women’s empowerment, to name a few. Interestingly, it was as country head of HSBC India that Kidwai got the opportunity to attend forums and debates on water and climate change, which honed her understanding of these issues. Over the last few months, she has been busy with her latest book Survive Or Sink, released in April, which deals with issues of sanitation, water, pollution and green finance.

This is her third book, after 30 Women In Power: Their Voices, Their Stories and Contemporary Banking In India.

We are meeting at Kidwai’s home office in her sprawling farmhouse at Jaunapur village in Delhi’s Mehrauli. Kidwai, 61, is surrounded by books, papers, family pictures and memorabilia and is dressed in a rust handloom sari, attire that has become synonymous with her.

“When I came back after my MBA in 1982, it was a big decision on what my work persona should be. I was not at all familiar with wearing a sari," recalls Kidwai. “But then there were very few women in the workplace, and all of them wore saris, be it lawyer Leila Seth, or PM Indira Gandhi. So there was little choice."

The sari became her uniform. The first time she did an interview in a sari, Kidwai says, there were 28 pins to keep it in place, “since I was so unfamiliar with the garment". Over the years, though, “it became a passion because of the handlooms in our country. So now I just wear handloom cottons or handloom silk."

The conversation veers from handloom saris to banking to environment, but Kidwai’s eyes light up when she talks about women’s empowerment. And she thanks her husband’s work with SEWA, an association of self-employed women, and the India Sanitation Coalition, which the couple founded in 2015, for helping her understand women and empowerment at the grass-roots level. Husband Rashid Kidwai was CEO of the Grassroots Trading Network for Women established by SEWA to empower women and create livelihoods; he continues on the board.

She talks about Gauriben, a feisty Gujarati woman, who lost her husband and found it difficult to make ends meet with two young children. She did not give up, however. She took charge of her life and learnt to read and write. Today, she is the village leader and a role model for many.

Kidwai says women’s issues do not change, be it in rural or urban India. Women are intrinsically shy, reluctant to voice their opinions. “Which is one of the reasons I put together the book, 30 Women In Power, that chronicles the success stories of 30 Indian woman CEOs from different sectors, women who were not very well-known, to tell their stories in their own voice. It’s time we hear from lesser-known women."

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Kidwai comes from a family of high achievers. Her sister Nonita Lall Qureishi was among India’s best golfers in the 1980s and 1990s, and recipient of the Arjuna Award in 1987.

Kidwai herself couldn’t “play golf to save my life" but was a brilliant student. “I think my sister took all the golfing genes of our father while I took all the finance-related genes," says Kidwai, who attributes much of her success to her late father, a golfer and former CEO of an insurance company.

“My father wanted us to excel in whatever we did. But he also told us that it was not about coming first at any cost," recalls Kidwai. “What was important, he used to say, was doing your best, and this advice has been invaluable."

At age 11, Kidwai was sent to the Loreto Convent boarding school in Shimla where she met film-maker Mira Nair, who was her classmate. Their friendship has withstood the test of time. Kidwai graduated in economics from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, in 1977, and joined Pricewaterhouse (Coopers; now PwC). She worked there for a couple of years before going on to pursue her MBA at Harvard.

Kidwai says she was always interested in finance. “A career in marketing," she says, “wasn’t an option back then. Companies like Levers (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) didn’t hire then and probably rightly so, as the infrastructure just wasn’t there. You couldn’t go on sales calls to Agra because there wasn’t a decent place to stay, safety was an issue." Banking, on the other hand, meant a career in cities, in a more protected environment—but even then, there were major challenges.

“You barely had a toilet in office (Grindlays Bank in the 1980s) for women on the same floor, a loo on the fourth floor was all that you had, to which you would have to shuffle up," she says. Kidwai calls this the “loo quotient—you can determine how important women are in an organization going by where the loo is, its size and quality. When I joined Grindlays, we didn’t have a toilet on every floor. But now things have changed."

Kidwai started her banking career with ANZ Grindlays (1982-94) and moved to Morgan Stanley India in 1994, where she rose to become the head of investment banking in 1997.

In 2002, she was recruited by HSBC Securities and Capital Markets (part of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corp.) to become their vice-chairman, managing director, and head of investment banking in India, a post from which she retired in 2015.

She might have engineered mergers, deals and initial public offerings (IPOs) for the best companies, but, today, that success sits lightly on her shoulders.

Investment banking, she says, is easier to master than banking—it is difficult to maintain focus in the latter, and one can easily get lost in the “jhund (crowd)". “The world of investment banking helped me short-circuit my way," she says.

The subject veers naturally to the conflicts in the Indian banking system today, and the role of two women leaders—ICICI Bank’s Chanda Kochchar and Axis Bank’s Shikha Sharma. Disturbed, Kidwai is not shy about voicing her opinion. “What we have is two outstanding professionals who run extremely large banks and have been running them extremely well. It’s a bit unfair that they are being picked on and I am puzzled by the fact that it is all coming out now," says Kidwai.

In Kochchar’s case, “if the review wasn’t done as it did appear to have been done in 2016, then it should be done now and the truth will emerge, but I find it hard to believe that there would be an issue because it looks like the board has looked into it. These are not areas in which people (such as these) who understand these risks and conflicts would have done anything amiss.

“So I would like to see that rather than ruin reputations, the investigative agencies get on with their job and finish the matter and not leave it hanging because it’s highly unfair. Close it one way or the other and clear the name—but I suspect that will happen (ultimately). It’s rather unfortunate and unseemly."

Kidwai likes to spend time holidaying with her family, which includes stepson Rumaan and daughter Kemaya at wildlife preserves like Corbett or Ranthambore. She is also a voracious reader, though much of her reading is limited to journals. She loves watching movies. “I love both Hindi movies and Hollywood movies. I enjoyed watching ‘Dangal’, ‘Toilet’ and ‘PadMan’. Hats off to these guys, they have women protagonists, and these are the real stories that put you in a real good mood.-

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Apart from chairing corporate board meetings—she is on the board of Advent International Private Equity among others—Kidwai also chairs Ficci’s sustainability, energy and water council and is part of a global think tank on climate change as well as several NGOs. She seems to have neatly split her time between her corporate work and not-for-profit work.

So how would she like to be remembered? “As a person who cares; for the environment, for the family, for my employees and the people who worked with me," she says. “Just someone who was there for what was important at the time. Going forward, my agenda around women’s empowerment remains important because I engage in a lot of things to do with the women in the corporate world."

At Ficci, Kidwai is mentoring a group of women from corporate India who are being groomed for boards. This comes naturally to her.

“If women work, they find their voice, if they have the economic power, they have a voice at home, and that voice is so important because they then vote sensibly, they are citizens who exercise their right," she says.

She also mentors women on finding the right work-life balance. Kidwai feels women agonize a lot about this balance and feel guilty, more so than men. “We have to confront this guilt. But we need not be guilty. Being ambitious is not wrong, you need to be ambitious for yourself, enjoy what you do and find solutions," she says.

Kidwai’s optimism is contagious, and so is her firm belief that India is heading in the right direction despite all the societal problems. “You have to speak of India in many dimensions—talk about the women CEOs and leaders we have so their position in society goes up...and these lumpen elements would not dare to do what they do if the law also supports it," she says, referring to the recent rape cases.

“But I am proud of India’s boys and girls who have risen up in protest and about a media that showcased it. Some things have improved after the 2012 Nirbhaya incident, but there is still a lot to be done.

“I don’t despair though. We are going to see change because we cannot ignore it. But we need more voices, more lawyers. I want to see more action."

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