A Tamilian born in Nagpur, I consider myself to be a naturalized Maharashtrian. Since my father worked in the insurance sector, I grew up in different parts of the country. But I came back to Kendriya Vidyalaya Nagpur to complete my matric (class 11). I was not the class topper but definitely in the top 5% of my class and also a National Science Talent scholar. Education is highly valued in our family. I spent the first 3-4 years of my life with my nani, while my mother pursued a PhD in Botany from BHU. My eldest mama is from IIT KGP, the youngest from IIT Madras. My maasis hold master’s degrees in physics and chemistry. Even before I could think about it, the family had decided I should go to IIT. I must have been in grade six so the planning was that long term. An aunt would sit with me, set me challenging questions in algebra or geometry. So it was a natural kind of environment for me. I didn’t take any formal coaching for JEE - it did not exist and for every subject I had a personal tutor within the family. I am the eldest of four daughters. All my siblings have had traditional educational paths spanning accounting, software engineering and management education. I was a contrarian from a very young age, with what was considered an unacceptable, outspoken and radical worldview for a girl to have. It made my parents, especially my mother, very concerned and fairly anxious.
I entered IIT as a 16-year-old and five years later, I had grown not just academically but as a person. My initial challenge was coming from a small town to the big city, the first experience of being away from home. So it took a couple of semesters adjusting to being independent, taking my own decisions. Also, coping up with some subjects like physics (my Achilles heel). We were just 40 girls in H10 between undergrad and post-grad, so we became really close. My hostel mates were my stress busters. They brought perspective to a bad grade or not being able to solve an open book exam. My fondest memories are simple ones like taking a walk around the campus. Sitting in the H10 lounge watching Chhayageet once a week. I discovered a whole new world, thanks to my peers. There were conversations about nihilism and existentialism - words I didn’t even know existed. Very abstract thinking and philosophical questions which changed my world view. To many of my peers, everything seemed to come effortlessly while I had to struggle. But I think that builds character and keeps you grounded. Over time, I realised that I am not meant for a STEM career. I could not see myself in fundamental research or R&D or as an academic. By a process of elimination I decided that if I want to break out, my best bet is to do an MBA. I joined IIM Calcutta and discovered the importance of EQ. And that part, which had never been nourished in IIT came to flower.
I entered the world of sales and marketing and had a very satisfying stint with Cadbury’s where I became a marketing manager. I was married to my IIMC batchmate Sudhakar Ram, we were happy as DINKs (Double Income No Kids). Sudhakar was working with Rediffusion advertising as CTO but in 1984, he joined a startup called Mastek as a co-founder. At that time Mastek had a 100 sq ft office in Nariman Point which did not even have 4 chairs. But Sudhakar was from a family business background and was clear that he didn’t want to work for anyone else. So I became the main breadwinner of the family while he struggled for over a decade to grow Mastek to a point where there was stable cash flow. After a decade, I moved to Raymond where I had the profit center responsibility and a mandate to transform the apparel business. I remember, during the interview, Vijaypat Singhania asked me a question, “Madam, what do you know about textiles?” I said, “Sir, if that is the reason you’re hiring me, we shouldn’t even be talking. Apparel is not about fabric, it’s about lifestyle.” I got hired and was, in fact, the only woman in the general management team at the time. I understood the strength of Raymond (distribution network) and also the problem (branding). Over the next 6 years, we made Park Avenue, the largest menswear brand in the country. And then my daughter was born and everything changed.
We were both completely absorbed in our careers, the kind who never watched the clock. I had a baby in my mid-30s, after 13 years of marriage, which was unheard of back then. Motherhood was a completely transformative experience. From a crazy uni-focussed career woman, I became multidimensional. I no longer wanted to work endless hours or live out of a suitcase. Four months post-Samvitha’s birth, I said to Sudhakar, “I want to resign”. He was my biggest cheerleader, he knew work would keep me energized and make me a positive influence on my daughter. So he said, “Girija, you forget that I have a 50% stake in this venture. Now can you please go to work? I will take care of Samvitha.” And he truly kept that promise. Sudhakar used to take my little baby to the office (he was CEO of Mastek) while I travelled for work. The understanding was that I would give myself 3 years in corporate life and if I still didn’t like it, I could quit. For those three years, he was more of a parent to my daughter than I was. He cooked and read for her, sang her to sleep, kept an eye on her during meetings. In 1999, I quit Raymond to become my own boss. One of my assignments was as a consultant to Madura Garments. I was attracted by the intellectual challenge of integrating the textiles business with the apparel business that Aditya Birla group had acquired. Side by side, I became a co-promoter with my brother-in-law, in what we now call a startup.
It was sort of fortuitous that my brother-in-law graduated from college and wanted to start a digital publishing business. He was in his mid-20s, I was in my mid-30s, so it was a chance to put my skills to the test. What I am passionate about is growth and transformation. Give me something which is already running smoothly - that’s not my forte. NewGen’s customers were large publishers in law and STEM. The challenge was to make the company cash rich and strategically move up the value chain. From typesetting to copy editing to project management to digitization, the whole process took 5 years.This arrangement also allowed me to be master of my own destiny, and my time. Today work from home is common but it was not so in the 90s. We lived in a duplex, so I had my office on the first floor. Later, when Sudhakar relocated to the UK and US, I continued working remotely. My daughter grew up with global influences, imbibing our conversations, our love for books.
When we returned to India after Sudhakar’s global stint he became captivated with Mahatma Gandhi. We travelled extensively across his janambhoomi - Tamil Nadu - and his karambhoomi Maharashtra. We visited many NGOs doing ground-level work. It was a huge learning experience as we had set up Bhavitha Foundation, to work on various social causes. On November 8, 2020, Sudhakar passed away after battling cancer. He remained his positive self right till the end, attending the AGM of Mastek two weeks before he passed away. No one knew he was critically ill. During his lifetime I had no involvement with Mastek but now I see it as his legacy and hence, am part of the Founders’ Group. I also interact regularly with the Executive Leadership Team. Sudhakar’s biggest legacy of course is Samvitha, who is all of 27 now. She went to Princeton, where she graduated magna cum laude and works with McKinsey in New York. I divide my time between Newgen, Mastek, Bhavitha and educating my maid’s four kids, who are my foster children. The oldest, Gayatri, is 15 while the youngest, Vighnesh, is just 5 years old. I care deeply about the kids and transforming their future. I am actively involved in their education and upbringing - I interact regularly with their teachers and school administrators. Seeing these children blossom gives me immense joy. I have many thoughts on how we can transform K-12 education in India. I hope I get an opportunity to do that someday.
Regardless of my IIT-IIM degree, I had to work twice as hard to be treated at par with my male counterparts. I created history by moving to a sales role in Cadburys. The distributors and sales managers were all male, it was their first ever experience of interacting with an assertive woman professional. At Raymond, I was the only woman at the General Management Level. One had to be exceptionally resilient to deal with the unstated patriarchal system.
If you have natural aptitude for math and sciences, go for a STEM education. It will give you a solid foundation in certain critical thinking skills that will stand you in good stead.