I come from a typical Army family background. My dad got transferred every couple of years, so my siblings and I grew up in small towns like Ambala, Secunderabad, Bangalore (it was small back then!) and Jabalpur. We went to local schools, had friends from different parts of the country. We never identified ourselves as Tamilian, or South Indian, we were Indian. My dad lost his father when he was three years old. So, he was pretty much a self-made man. He wanted to see his boys and girls well educated. In Tambrahm families they say, either you study well, or you will be herding the cows. In the case of girls, you would be married off early. So all that sort of pushed us to make something of ourselves. I have two elder brothers, one was doing postgraduation in science, the other went into engineering. When I finished my schooling, I was packed off to Madras to be with my maternal grandparents. I started preparing for the entrance exam, side by side. It was just good luck that I got into IIT, because I got rejected by all the local colleges! I actually joined the M.Sc. Physics program. But there were just 12 students in the class, including the AIR JEE rank 1. And though I loved physics, I really felt out of their league. I also realized I didn’t want to be an academic or researcher, I wanted to be more real and do something with my hands. So, in the second year, I switched to electrical engineering.
I went in at 16 and came out at 21 - those five years transformed me completely. There were so many clubs, from hiking to foreign films, music, sports, you name it. I dabbled in a little bit of everything, exploring so many things I didn’t have access to before. I was like a sponge, picking up a little bit from everybody and everything around me. The seniors in the hostel were more like elder sisters and moms, you could confide in them, and they would say, “Don’t worry, you will settle in, you will shine”. I found my identity as a person, as a woman on campus. I understood something about social issues, and how important they were for me. It was also my first brush with feminism. We lived in what was then called the ‘Ladies Hostel’ and that label irked all of us. So one fine night, a few of us took a bicycle, a can of paint and changed all the signboards on campus from ‘Ladies Hostel’ to H10. The next day, we sent a letter to the administration saying that henceforth, we are to be addressed as H10. There were archaic rules, such as curfew after 8 pm, only for girls. A few of us made it a point to climb down the pipes, go fetch samosas and lassis and come back after 8 pm. That was our way of registering a protest, saying ‘this is not fair’. At the general body meeting we managed to convince everybody that the girls hostel should allow visitors, just like the boys hostel did. I learnt that if you want to do something, you have to be assertive and work hard for it. When I was told ‘girls are not allowed on hikes’ I marched into the Diro’s house, which was right across from H10 and said, “Sir, we want to go on this hike”. He (Prof. A.K. De) listened to us and said, “Okay, no problem. But I’ll get a professor to chaperone you”. So Prof. Rehana Ghadially sportingly came along. It was exhilarating but poor Prof. Rehana was not the trekking type. It was very difficult for her; the boys literally had to carry her while coming back. But she gave a clean sheet to the Diro and, said, “These kids are all fine, just let them go”.
I joined Tata Burroughs straight from campus, without putting much thought into it. Software was a new field back then so great opportunities, a lot of learning and a lot of travel. Then I moved to Wipro because I wanted to be based in India. Wipro was a hardware company but also provided services to build applications ground up, like payroll, ERP etc to its clients. But when readymade software packages became available, they no longer needed an army of coders. So I got into field engineering services and went on to head sales for one region, then two regions and then the entire country. I enjoyed the transition from being a technical person to a supervisory role and then actually taking responsibility for business and leadership. After handling the domestic business for a couple of years, I went into the international business and headed the finance vertical for Wipro. Excellent journey of 17 years, then I started Tarang Software with a couple of my colleagues. Again, heady days, we had VCs approaching us and saying, “Hey, you guys, here’s the money, please start your business”. But then 9/11 happened and all our business plans went for a huge toss. The telecom industry in Europe collapsed, US was in chaos, we had to rethink. I think IIT Bombay taught you resilience, how to pick yourself up each time. We went through various ups and downs before it finally got established. I sold my stake to the investors and decided to do something in the social space.
In 2008, I started Laqsh Job Skills Academy. What youth want is the skills and the education to be able to access a job, and to have a good life. So we work with government schools across the country to impart skills in electronics, IT, finance, beauty and wellness. The idea is to make the youth employable or even start their own entrepreneurial ventures. It is a for-profit venture in order to be sustainable but the primary focus is social impact. We believe that skills must be integrated with academics. Skill training is for everyone, not just dropouts. With my background in technology, I wanted to build online content and Learning Management Systems but every time I went to the government, they would politely hear me out and do nothing. Then came the pandemic, schools closed overnight and everything changed. We started by training all our 500 odd trainers across the country in how to use screens and be comfortable with new technology for teaching. During the peak of the lockdown, we had 30,000 students in class everyday. Another cause which is close to my heart is bringing greater gender diversity into boardrooms and C-suites. I am part of the Diversify Club which aims to see that more and more women get a seat on corporate boards. And for that purpose, we provide training and support, creating a pipeline of eligible candidates.
There’s no beautiful formula for this great work life balance. Everybody is different and we all manage. I’m a single mom supported completely by my parents. They were always at home when my daughter was growing up. For me, it was always work first and then life and family fitted around that. It was understood that you had to make choices. I remember, when she was in 5th or 6th class, one day my daughter came home and said we had a debate in school about working moms vs stay-at- home. You know how it is with all of us women who are working, there is this deep sense of guilt. So I almost stopped breathing and I was waiting and she says, “Don’t worry. The working mom side won”. The kids concluded that stay-at-home moms are helicopter parents while working moms are the ‘cool’ type. Hearing that was such a relief!
I took the plunge into the social space when I felt I had built a decent kitty, taken care of my child to go to college etc. But if you are committed and feel passion for a cause, you needn’t wait. NGOs nowadays pay you enough to enjoy a decent quality of life. I would also like to see. IIT students mentor kids from tier 2, tier 3 towns and inspire them to pursue their dreams.