B.TECH, CIVIL ENGINEERING, 1990
PROFESSOR OF PRACTICE AND HEAD DS SCHOOL OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP, IIT BOMBAY
DIRECTOR, AFRICA IMPROVED FOODS, RWANDA
DIRECTOR, FRONTIER NUTRITION, BANGLADESH
I grew up in Ahmedabad in a home with working parents and remember being a ‘speak when you are spoken to’ person until I was around 11, when I met some outgoing seniors at school and wanted to be like them. I went about working on my confidence and my oh-so-South-Indian accent. After a year of modelling myself on these seniors, it was almost a metamorphosis. This gave me the belief that I could be anything I want to be as long as I wanted it enough, and it has held me in good stead always. Appa was a geologist with a transferable quasi-government job and Amma was a school- teacher, who stayed strictly away from the school her children went to. So as long as I wasn’t following in the footsteps of my slightly laidback, mischievous older brother, life was good. Of course, being the nerd and every teacher’s first- bencher pet set the bar high for the unsuspecting younger brother who unfortunately had to follow me. Life came easy – math, books, friends, the game of lagori, train trips to meet relatives – all enjoyed with great gusto.
I was a wide-eyed freshie who took a train from a sheltered home in a small town to Big, Bad Bombay. After Amma left me and went home, my first realization was, “Hey, there is no 9 pm curfew, I actually have a 24-hour day to do as I please”. I had long curly hair in pigtails which got cut short rather early – I told Amma I was missing classes in my quest to comb my hair. But it was just a rite of passage, from nerdy schoolgirl to smart young woman. The gender ratio of my batch was 300 guys to 9 girls, in Civil Engineering 29 to 1. I think this unnatural proportion was overwhelming, and it wasn’t easy for either gender to make the first move. I decided to put my hand out first and slowly but surely made friends, not just with my class but the entire batch. Since then, I have always made it my job to be included in groups – to contribute and to belong, thank you IITB for giving me the practice. When I came back to IIT as a professor, seeing the multi-storey Hostel 10 and meeting the 1 in 4 IITian women has totally warmed my heart. I remember being the average on Prof. Dipan Ghosh’s first Physics quiz – got 6 out of 25. It kind of told you whether you would make it in the tech world or not. I wasn’t too bummed; was just happy to do everything else that IITB offered. Tried my hand at Mountaineering, HAM Radio, Treasure Hunts, crossies, even representing IITB at Inter-IIT basketball. Some of my favorite hangouts other than hostel messes were the SAC, H8 Chinese corner, Staff C, Vadilal Samosas. Give me chai and conversations over absolutely anything else. I thrived in leadership roles - Positions of Responsibility as they are called today at IITB - these told me I had a future in things that didn’t need engineering. So I went from being General Secretary of H10 to running Mood Indigo in 1990, spending nights out at the Student Activity Centre. I think I won the Hostel GSec election on the issue of ‘should we allow men into our hostel’, most of us clearly wanted it and I feel a little sad that times have regressed from our self-governing days. Mood I 1990 had a princely budget of Rs 3.5 lakh and going pitching to corporates was one of the things I did – I remember guarding a cheque of Rs 35,000 as if my life depending on it, as I travelled back from Unilever House to IITB. Managed an all-male Mood I crew and oversaw competitions, hospitality, PR and logistics-it laid the foundation for managing male-only sales teams as I started my career.
I went to IIM Bangalore after IITB and here acads came a lot easier. We were the children of India’s liberalization - opportunities presented themselves and I kept grabbing them. I spent more than two decades with corporate India working my way up the proverbial ladder – with companies like Titan, Unilever, Vodafone, Britannia. Worked on iconic brands and built a few new ones – my last role in Corporate was as Chief Marketing Officer for Britannia. I don’t remember a day where I had to drag myself to work – for me work and fun are intertwined, can’t do one without the other. I knew I wanted a second career – wasn’t sure whether it was in academia or non-profit or running a chai ki dukaan. I chose to go back to school – went to Singapore Management University for my PhD. While I was finishing my dissertation thesis, IIT Bombay reached out to come teach practitioner insights to aspiring entrepreneurs. You would think that I have been very fortunate with opportunities – well, that is true, but I believe we make our own luck. IITB knew me as an active alum long before the faculty role came about. I teach the ‘Introduction to Entrepreneurship’ elective with undergrad and post-grad students all bubbling with ideas. I go to work everyday, hoping to make a difference, to at least some project teams who are solving a relevant problem of today. ‘A startup is what I want to do, and I don’t see why I should do anything else’ seems to be the motto. It’s exciting to be a part of this revolution!
I am an out and out extrovert (I wasn’t born this way), happiest meeting people, solving problems and volunteering for causes and IIT is my favourite cause. So, during our Silver Jubilee reunion I got actively involved with fundraising for legacy projects – student scholarships, entrepreneurship programs, clean energy are projects we continue to work on. We were the first $1 million batch. Have been privileged to be able to give back to IITB through fundraising, through personally championing projects like student housing, gender issues, innovation and entrepreneurship etc. I look forward to the next decade of giving back – as an alum and as faculty member.
I don’t remember any insurmountable challenge as a woman professional. Of course, the numbers are stacked against you and everything you do catches attention, wanted or otherwise. I started my career in Sales and travelled almost 12 days a month to small towns – many hotel rooms scared me, there weren’t mobile phones then, I learned to barricade the door with a table and chairs. I was often a lone woman in senior management meetings, and I learnt quickly that not speaking up is never an option. Women professionals have gone through the constant debate between ‘blending in’ and ‘standing out’ – you discover what works best for you. For me, it’s Authenticity – I am the same person at work and otherwise, no work persona or home persona.
I don’t want to use platitudes like my husband supports me – that would be such an understatement. Ashish is my biggest cheerleader and true to his name, a big blessing in my life. We met at IIM Bangalore and our sales careers took us to different extremities of the country – Ahmedabad and Guwahati, Delhi and Cochin – and our friends joked that we would meet at Nagpur railway station to say our wedding vows and leave immediately to sell watches and paints. My idea of work life balance is not reducing work or life but maximizing both! It comes with some stresses, but I don’t remember missing any school function or work or a family or social function for that matter. We have a son, Adi, who was brought up by grandparents, friends and neighbours, nannies and housekeepers, I used to call our community a kibbutz lifestyle with other kids and their parents becoming one large supportive family. Every evening, I would tell Adi about what happened with me at work, and he would tell me what happened at school. Today, thanks to messaging and video calls, these rituals continue and I get to see Adi’s friends and the support system he has built for himself in California.
Grab every opportunity. Learn to recognize opportunities, they come masked at times. Reach out and network, you never know what each connection will get you. Focus not just on academics but on overall personality and roundedness. Don’t be the quietest person in the room - speaking your mind is a good thing.