From being the first Indian woman to graduate from the Harvard Business School, to being the first woman to head an investment bank and a foreign or private bank in India, and the first woman to be the President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry; NainaLalKidwai personifies excellence in every aspect of her life! Ridhi Lakra of PEAKLIFE meets her over coffee to trace her journey that is marked by milestones that are inspiring and motivating.
As we walk into her farmhouse at Chattarpur, on the outskirts of New Delhi, we are warmly welcomed by Naina Lal Kidwai who exudes an energy that’s mesmerizing and infectious. We are in absolute awe! While on one hand, she has the vibrant energy of a teenager, on the other hand, her composed, soft voice and articulate speech spell the years of experience that this ace-banker is respected for. NainaLalKidwai is a Padma Shri awardee, who was a former President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and has served as the former Group General Manager and Country Head of HSBC India.
Since her retirement in 2015, Naina has been actively involved with various initiatives that have always been close to her heart. Her deep interest in water and environment and empowerment of women are reflected in her board positions of not-for-profit institutions like Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, International Advisory Council of the Inquiry of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). She is currently serving as the Commissioner for the Global Commission on Economy & Climate; is on the Advisory Board for the Wildlife Conservation Trust. She also chairs FICCI’s Sustainability, Energy and Water Council, and her very own project called the ‘India Sanitation Coalition.’She also currently headsMax Financial Services and Advent Private Equity as the Chairman, and is a Non-Executive Director on the global board of Nestle, CIPLA Ltd and Larsen and Toubro.
In a tête-à-tête with PEAKLIFE, NainaLalKidwai opens up about her life, the challenges faced and the tough decisions she’had to take to make her mark, and how her never-say-never spirit kept her going!
You entered the world of finance and banking at a time when very few women went that way. What motivated you to take the path less taken?
I feel my decision to join the banking industry was a natural one, as my father was the CEO of an Indian general insurance company, and I had closely seen the world of finance and insurance through my growing up years. As kids, my mother would often take us to my dad’s office when he would be sitting in late at work. The minute my father would leave his chair, I would rush to sit in his seat as I loved the feel of the big leather revolving chair and the gigantic desk. At that age, these small things get engraved as a huge influencer.
While it may have all started there, but also logical thinking kicked in, and I realized that the world of marketing was not open to women. In those days, many organizations like Hindustan Unilever had a policy for not hiring women, because they didn’t know if women could manage field jobs and market visits. For being a salesman, traveling was mandatory. Frankly, when we traveled to smaller cities, we would face problems in finding toilets, and even at airports and railway stations, the toilets would be quiet unusable. So, if you look up at the challenges at hand, it is understandable why organization she sit at edin hiring women. The world of banking to some extent was more urban, so, it was easier to handle. And, hence my choices were narrowed down and I chose to join the banking industry.
Being one of the first three women to be employed at PWC has an interesting story behind it. Can you please share it with our readers?
At the time when I applied at PWC, they didn’t hire any women, and even getting an interview with them needed a lot of push.When I met them, they were like you have all the credentials and academic records, but we do not hire women. So, I asked them ‘why not’ and they gave me all sorts of excuses. I was keen on getting a chartered accountant stamp from a big firm as I wanted to do my MBA aboard, and even though I had graduated from Lady Shree Ram College in Delhi, but it wasn’t recognized as a global name. So,I was adamant to get this job at PWC to add to my college application.
I had a big discussion with the then head of Northern India for PWC, and I kept trying my luck for two and a half months. And, finally they called back and said that they would hire women and because hiring one woman wouldn’t be right, so they hired three to start with. I had company and we travelled often for audits as an all-women’s team.
After all these years, I feel happy when my friends at PWC tell me that in order to maintain the gender balance at work, they need to actively hire more men, as the women applying at PWC are not just good but usually more superior than the men applicants!
You have seen the Indian economy grow since the time of privatization. What are your views on the prospects of further growth?
The core of the Indian growth story will be its opening up for international trade. The role of institutions such as foreign banks in India is to help its foreign clients to work and to grow in the country. For instance, at HSBC one of the largest groups being served was Birla, which is a global conglomerate. We know Birla is a big name in India, but over half of their businesses are spread all over the world, in countries as widespread as Brazil, Thailand, and Indonesia, and they need foreign banks to facilitate their smooth functioning across continents. The role of an international bank is to help companies that come to India and handhold the Indian ones working overseas. Companies venturing into India for the first timer each out to the foreign banks for questions about the country, the economy and how it works and on how to set-up meetings when they arrive. My role, when I worked with multi-nationals like Grindlays, JPMorgan Chase or HSBC, was often of an ambassador for India. I was required to explain to them everything so that their expectations were rightly managed, and guide them on how to do their best and help them.
If you could switch industries, which industry would you choose besides banking and finance?
I loved what I did in the banking industry, and even within banking my body of work had much to do with capital markets. My role in investment banking involved raising money in capital banking and managing debt markets too. In fact, I also helped in the formation of NSE and NSDL, which are organizations that were much required by our country. I think my journey was not just about banking and investment banking but it was a formulation of institutions and practices which really empowered the way things work today. I don’t know if my impact in that space would be as much as if I were in any other field. The good thing is that because of all the CSR work for the organization that I worked with, and out of my own interest, I was able to indulge in community service, which was largely in areas of environment, water and now sanitation. So, I was able to do much more than just banking. So, I really cannot say that there is any other space that I would want to work in.
Tell us more about the philanthropic work that you are associated with?
We were brainstorming on what India really needed and what can we do to help, and we came up with the idea of setting up the India Sanitation Coalition. This was set up just before the BJP government came into power. The purpose of the India Sanitation Coalition is to look at sanitation agenda in India. Almost within three months of its formation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ‘Swatch Bharat Abhiyaan’ during his Independence Day speech. I didn’t in my weirdest dreams think that the PM would be passionate about such a program. It is very fortunate for the Government to take up the issue in a magnanimous way.
For India Sanitation Coalition, our purpose remains to ensure that everybody working in sanitation can share their skills, make sure that best practices are understood, and that support and help can be provided to each other. The non-profit sector is quiet small in terms of engagement, and we want to encourage more players to come in. We wanted to show corporates how they could contribute and help create a partnership with NGOs, and the research institutions in terms of what they are doing, and engage with the Government for support.
Your book, ‘30 Women in Power: Their Voices, Their Stories’is an inspiring work; tell us about the experience of working on this book?
This book came during the time when I was the President of FICCI. It was just after two weeks of the hideous Nirbhaya incident, which was a dark period for the women in India, and how India was portrayed before the world. The first question asked by the visiting delegation, whether it was CEOs or Chairmen of companies or indeed the President of countries, particularly seeing me as a woman head, I was asked ‘what is the status of women in your country?’
I felt that maybe there is room to showcase what India has. While we absolutely need to sort out the situation that’s making women unsafe in India, on the other hand, we do have a large number of companies with women CEOs. So, I decided that it was time to portray and highlight what India has. I banked on getting all my friends, and finally got 30 incredible women to share their vision, for the world to see that we have some great women in our country.
How did you manage your personal life, given the very demanding professional life?
It’s never an easy journey. Every working woman is faced with the question of striking a balance between work and married life and children. I don’t think there is a standard answer to this, as each one of us has to chart our own journey. I think we are very fortunate in India as we have two big advantages – one is an affordable help; whether it is someone who cooks for you or someone who looks after the children and family, and secondly the support of the mother-in-law is probably the most important in that respect. I was quite struck by the fact that the 30 women CEOs who I featured in my book, each one swore by their mothers-in-law for taking care of their children when they went to work.
What is your concept of taking a break after a hectic day?
My family is my pillar of strength. With all the ups and downs at work, it is the support of my family that helps me to keep on going. Also, music is obviously relaxing and I love western classical music and Indian classical music. Some of my favorites are Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vilayant Khan, and for sitar, Ravi Shankar.
What are your favourite holiday destinations?
I love exploring wildlife with my family during the short trips we take. You come back absolutely refreshed and energized despite getting up five in the morning for jungle safaris, or going to sleep late at night during the holiday. KazirangaNational Park tops our list, and we go there every year. The Madhya Pradesh forest of Satpura, Kanha National Park, Bandhavgarh, and Darbha and Penchin the West, and Corbett in the North are all our favorites. I also love the African Safaris of Masiymara, Botswana and South Africa.
During your travels across the globe, you must have developed a palate for different cuisines; which one is your favourite?
I love all kind of food, and enjoy dosa, chats and all wonderful street foods of India as much as I enjoy the fine fare of French cuisine. I love anything in small portions, well put together, tasty and well-prepared. I tend to prefer vegetarian food.
What’s your favourite pastime?
I am an avid reader. I am like a sponge when it comes to information, so a lot of my reading will be around works, magazines and newspapers. I love poetry and biographies, and read about just anything and everything.
How does a day in your life look like?
Each day depends on the meetings listed for the day. Annoying for the family, I am like a monkey on a hot tin roof, jumping around always wanting to do something when I am up. My day is usually pretty packed, if it’s not work related, I have hundred other things that I am involved in. I write a lot, and I work with non- profit organizations and do a lot of meetings, making each day different and exciting.
What’s your health and wellness mantra?
Being happy in the mind and positive in spirit is a cure for everything.
Your advice for the young readers who aspire to reach the top?
You have to know what you enjoy most and be focused at achieving it. You might fail at times, and hopefully those failures will be important turning points. I say so because some of the biggest turning points in my life were those which looked like failures at first, but they gave me the chance to re-think and redo what I was doing wrong, and in my view every failure is a lesson learnt.