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You have heard of woman nation, well that is coming

Businesses, particularly family-run businesses, are tinged with patriarchy. But many are now seeing women rise to the top. Let us look at what has changed now

If the reel world is ultimately a reflection of the real world, then Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) revealed a well-known but less talked about reality: businesses tend to be patriarchal. In the film, the daughter of a business tycoon, despite being endowed with business acumen, is encouraged to think about starting a family whereas her free-spirited brother, the heir apparent who baulks at the thought of being a businessman, is expected to help his father resuscitate the flailing business.

But things are changing. As more and more women are entering and managing family businesses—whether of their husband’s family or their father’s. According to Shiv Gupta, founder and chief executive officer, Sanctum Wealth Management Pvt. Ltd, there is a clear, distinct and well-documented trend with examples across some of India’s most prominent business families that women, particularly the new generation, are engaging much more actively in family businesses. “That said, the trend is still relatively recent and the proportion of women with active roles in their families’ businesses is still small," he added. 

Marriage, or its eventuality, no longer seems to be a deterrent. The winds of change are gaining speed. But what is causing this change in mindset? Ramya Bharathram, executive director at Thirumalai Chemicals Ltd (TCL), says it’s a universal phenomenon that started with women getting serious about education and pursuing a career. Bharathram, 45, is active in her parental business. TCL—a chemical manufacturing company for plastics, paints, food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries—is a listed company with a market cap of about Rs1,510.99 crore as on 29 September. It was founded by her grandfather and granduncle. Currently, her uncle R. Parthasarathy is the chairman and managing director. Her father R. Sampath is a director in the company and is also chairman of Ultramarine and Pigments Ltd, the parent company of Thirumalai group. An unsaid understanding in the family is that children don’t work directly with the parents. 

Bharathram didn’t join her family at the start of her career. “As a child I was never expected to be a part of our family business. It was expected more from my male cousins. Of course, this was not a conscious decision, not even something that was communicated, but it never occurred to me or to my family that I could be a part of it. So, I did my chartered accountancy, went to Delhi and joined a law firm where I learnt and worked in international trade law," she says.

But destiny had something else in mind. “We decided to move back to Chennai and I started helping by working a couple of hours a day. I was also a mom to two kids (a daughter, currently 15, and son, who is 11) and had to straddle two worlds," she added. The 2008 financial crisis catapulted her full-time into TCL in 2009. In 2014, she became a board member: “I have been a shareholder almost from birth but being a director wasn’t easy. I had to prove myself to my board."

Nikhil Vikamsey, partner, Alpha Capital, a multi family office, says, “Instances of women joining businesses are increasing, be it their parents’ family business or their husbands’. But size is important because it needs to be lucrative enough. In fact, we are noticing that women with grown-up kids or empty nests dive back into work."

“Young daughters of business families have clearer career goals from an early age and they tend to pursue education accordingly. They are more...ready to participate," says Vikamsey. But the fear that after marriage things might change tends to keep women from joining their parental business. “I think somewhere there is still a fear that daughters will get married and live in the shadow of their in-laws and may take decisions that are influenced. Location also plays a role as most women tend to follow their husbands," says Bharathram.

According to Vidya Sampath, dean and director of the Akshaya Vidya Trust, a philanthropic arm of TCL which runs two Vedavalli Vidyalaya Schools in Vellore district in Tamil Nadu, the push-back is from both younger and older generations. “Women are pushing boundaries and no longer live in a protected environments. I chased my penchant for fine arts and got a degree in it. Then worked on 3D animation for 6 years, did my masters in graphic design, followed by working in an ad agency for 2 years. More women are now given the freedom to prove themselves, which in turn inspires confidence in the family to take you seriously as a professional," said Sampath, 40.

Sampath is Bharathram’s younger sister and manages the family’s philanthropic interests along with her aunt. She has two daughters, aged 10 and 12.

One reason why women are getting greater encouragement, according to Gupta, is the changing structure of families—smaller units often result in women-only heirs. “Other structural changes that may have had an influence include legislative changes such as the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act giving women inheritance rights, and the changing nature of business from industrial manufacturing—traditionally a male-dominated activity— to services, which have a much wider range of activities making more choices available for women," he adds. Whatever the reason, the list of successful women scions in India is increasing with every passing year.

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