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In the book 30 Women in Power, the chapter on Naina Lal Kidwai (who edited the book) is titled “The ‘first’ Lady". Justifiably so, as chairman of HSBC India and the executive director on the HSBC Asia-Pacific board has many firsts to her name.

As a student, she used to top her class, and was the first Indian woman to graduate from the Harvard Business School in 1982. In her personal life, she was the first woman from her extended family to take up a job. In school, she was class captain, house captain and head girl and also secretary and president of the student union at Lady Shri Ram College, where she studied Economics. Professionally, she was among the first three women to be chosen as articled clerk back in 1977 by the company now known as PwC when she was studying chartered accountancy, and went on to become the first woman to head a foreign bank in India. She was also the first woman president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Born to a homemaker mother and a father who was the chief executive of a leading insurance company, Kidwai had decided to join the corporate sector early in life.

After graduating from Harvard, Kidwai got many lucrative offers in the US but she decided to work in India, which is where she will retire from HSBC at the end of 2015.

But the way to the top was fraught with obstacles and often frustrating. “I was caught in the cleft of change that was happening in the late 1980s. Multi-national companies began to realise that to retain talent, it was important to move to meritocracy rather than being hierarchical," she said. She believes that over the years, the banking sector, apart from others, has evolved immensely in the way it hires talent and advises, and gives them space.

Kidwai admits that being at the top meant a lot of time management issues. “Success is about the balance that you achieve while being good at your work, be caring towards the family and giving back to the society," she said.

A usual day starts with breakfast meetings as early as 7.30 am with clients and goes on till a working dinner. “I have learnt the art of speedy and unnoticed exits from meetings or gatherings. I zero in on the person I need to shake hands with, focus for 10 minutes and then leave to be where I am needed more," she said.

Though she has missed out on a lot of family events, she made sure she was there when needed the most, such as when her husband, Rashid Kidwai, was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent a long period of recuperation.

Shortage of time also meant lesser time to deal with her personal wealth. “I know the sectors and asset classes to be in at any point in time, but I rather go through an adviser," she said, adding that investments need constant monitoring and she is often unavailable when some urgent decision is to be taken. Her husband is the one she trusts her money with.

Despite the demands on her time, Kidwai has always made a conscious effort to stay connected with society. She has worked towards women’s empowerment, water conservation, sanitation and micro-finance, both by writing cheques and investing time to bring together companies, not-for-profits and communities. “Choosing what you want to volunteer for should be passion-driven. I can write a cheque for street school children and help the schools scale up and manage finances better than spending time teaching them."

So, what after HSBC? Kidwai plans to spend more time with family, books and nature. She loves music—Kidwai took the Trinity College of Music exams till seventh grade and played the piano.

She intends to keep learning, and quotes George Bernard Shaw in her book: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’" This also aptly describes the Padma Shri awardee.

Investment mantra: Believes in investing in markets through mutual funds, both equity and debt, and likes to keep some part of money in liquid assets.

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