To Indra Nooyi, with Love

Once again, you’re in the news.

But unlike the last time when you embraced a position of power as PepsiCo’s CEO, this time you’re stepping down from the position and title you came to own, over the last decade.

I still remember being in high school back then, when the media first spoke of you. Of how a woman of humble Indian origin, had climbed the ranks to take over the position of PepsiCo’s Chief Executive Officer.

And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t just me, but the world at large who took notice of you. Of your steady ascent to the much coveted seat in the boardroom, Collectively, we marveled at the grit, resilience and courage your journey demonstrated. At the way in which a middle class girl from Chennai, made it to first to prestigious institutions like IIM Calcutta and Yale, and took on the glass ceiling heads-on, shattering it, successfully.

As for me, over the years, once you were a global public figure and other facets of your life became known, I came to respect your authenticity, personality and your candidness. At how you openly spoke about your constant tussle between being the head-honcho of a multi-million conglomerate, and a wife and mother at the same time. Your openness , with which you narrated how your story of how being a woman with ambition isn’t easy, yet is definitely worthwhile.

I admired your sheer business acumen. At how you gave a fast-food company, otherwise notorious for taking people on the road to unhealthy lives, a heart. In creating the mission statement of Performance with Purpose. Of making Pepsi a greener, more environmentally aware company.  Of showing how business and benevolence can indeed be balanced.

Yet, more than anything, as a girl with ambition and zeal myself, you taught an entire generation of women to dream. To not only dream, but dream beyond the dream itself. Because that’s where it all starts. You taught us all, that talent and ability can surpass the biases of  gender and ethnicity. You demonstrated how you can be the iron lady in the velvet glove, how aggression can be soft too. And you led us to believe that positions of power, always come with great responsibility. For its never about the position you hold, its about the impact you create.

All good things in this world must come to an end, and so do tenures of powerful leaders. Yet, As you step down, and pass on the baton, you’re leaving a footprint. On the hearts of not only the company and its employees, but on millions of dreamers, believers and achievers.

 

An Open Letter to J.K. Rowling

Dear J.K. Rowling,

I probably discovered Harry Potter when I was all of 11. The same age that Harry was, when he received his letter. The one that took him from a mundane, meaningless existence into a world where he became the writer of his tale – a hero, a winner, and a character that generations of readers would admire and come to love as their own. Call it the innocence of childhood, but that summer, it wasn’t just Harry who embarked on a life-changing journey. With him, I did, too. I too, went to Platform 9 and 3/4, boarded the Hogwarts Express and went to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an adventure that would eventually serve as my getaway whenever I wanted a break from life. A would where I learned about magic, and friendship, and many other life-lessons. Like Harry, I too experienced an entire roller-coaster ride of emotions. I remember doing a victory dance when Harry won his first Quidditch match. Crying my eyes out when Sirius Black died, mourning the loss of the only family Harry had even known. Feeling the same fuzzy warmth, during the times Harry spent with Ron and Hermione, connected with that thread of emotion that makes friends, family.

I could potentially go on and on and on. Yet this would all take me to the same conclusion.My childhood would have never been the same without Harry Potter. My muggle friends would often laugh, even tease me at what they mistook as some absurd level of fandom. But only I knew that this wasn’t a temporary fad association. Rather one that would continue all the way up to adulthood, only to make me realise how Harry Potter was so much than a character. It was an entire universe of life lessons and experiences packed into a series of stories. One I know I’ll take with me to my grave.

As a reader I reveled in the bliss of the twists and turns of tales. As a writer and a woman, I learned that when a great story and a woman full of dream, passion, and resilience come together, they truly do create magic. I’ve been told that when you started writing the series, you were broke, starving and homeless. And maybe that’s why I can’t help but marvel even more at how you were able to create an entire universe from scratch, guided by nothing, but hope and a pen. I’ve even been told that you were rejected by many, many publishers before one decided to take a chance on you, and my heart skips a beat even to imagine what the world would’ve lost, had you given up on your dream midway.

As a reader, writer and storyteller, I can only aspire, to somehow half-replicate your success. But I know, that in a world where your story stand tall as an example of what one can achieve, should they choose to relentlessly follow their passion. I’ll always have big shoes to fill.

Thank you, for giving us, the Boy Who lived.

With love,

A Lifelong Potter Fan

 

Management lessons I learned from a chai-wallah (tea-seller).

As a middle class 90s kid growing up in India, I have fond childhood memories of what a majority of my Sunday mornings looked like. Down the corner of the road I grew up in, there was a tea-stall. Nothing fancy. Yet, every going every Sunday was a treat it itself. For out of that very rudimentary set-up, came some of the best chai(tea) served in earthen cups. With piping hot samosas to go with it. And jalebis in the winter.

Now that I reminisce back, it is here that I learned some of my best lessons of management and leadership.

1. Product, product, product : A great product, along with a great experience is what wins. Every single time. Anybody can make chai at home. But you went for the experience you knew you wouldn’t be able to replicate at home. One of relishing the ginger, saffron-flavoured chai in earthen cups. And what’s more, you got the same experience, every single time. It was a feeling that never failed you.

2. Know your customer, and serve them well : Once you went to the chai stall, you made sure you went there again. And again. And again. For you’d find that thanks to your multiple visits, the chai-wallah knew all your tastes and preferences. How hot you liked your tea. How much sugar you preferred. And you’d always be served accordingly. Once you became a regular, you could even be served on credit, and have the option of settling your bill monthly instead of daily. All of this made sure you didn’t even bother checking out another place, since your regular place knew you so well.

3. Do few things, and do them well : In the past 20 years, I’ve been going to the tea stall, the menu has pretty much remained the same. Tea. Samosas. Jalebis in the winter. The only variant being that if you requested, they introducing the option of  a sugar substitute, instead of sugar. I remember once asking the owner if he would ever consider extending his menu. To which I remember him saying a no. Why? I asked. Because I have limited resources. And I’d much rather put them to use where they are going to be used. In some cases, its best to grow vertically, instead of laterally. A wise entrepreneur understands which road to take.

4. A great product creates its own community : A good product or service creates its own following. And can be a great leveler. At the tea-stall every Sunday, you’d find people coming in luxury cars, in two wheelers, and on foot. To avail of the same product. For the short period of time they were there, social differences would be forgotten, and they would all be members of the same community – lovers of the chai stall.

5. Stay true to your brand : The chai stall stood for few things. Modest, humble tea at great taste and prices. Even after it started making more money, it didn’t bother to convert itself into a fancy restaurant of sorts. Because it didn’t want to lose the very essence which was a crowd-puller in first place.

Years down the line, I go to the tea-stall. It still is there. And serves the same tea, as it did, years ago. The samosas are still as irresistible, and the jalebis still as piping hot, as they used to be, at one point. The chai-stall stands tall, as my very own institution, where I learned some of the best lessons of management, from the experience of a man who probably had no formal business education, yet the experience of a lifetime in what it takes to create a world-class product and enterprise.

My Superwomen

As a child, I would often wonder who my role models were. What did someone have to be, in order to qualify for becoming someone who I could possible aspire to be like? Over the years, I’ve come to draw parallels between the people who I admire.

 

First of, while there are many men to inspire me, I usually myself relating more to succesful women. Second, I find people who have achieved success on their own terms, extremely irresistible. And finally, an element of authenticity is crucial too. Real women. Who, despite their professional achievements, are still women with families and children.  As someone who has herself stumbled many a time the road to her destination, I relate way back to someone who has faced highs and lows, as opposed to someone whose journey has been all uphill.

So, after much thought, I’ve been able to put together a list of all these women, who I regard as my superwomen.

  1. Sheryl Sandberg : A leader with a heart and a passion for breaking glass ceilings, that’s what this tech COO of the world’s largest social networking platform is. While I developed a sense of admiration for her from the day I read Lean In, a book -cum-platform encouraging women to active take up leadership in professional settings, what made me truly fall in love with her was the manner in which she handled the untimely demise of her husband. And she didn’t just stop there, rather she took on a new mission to allow people to publicly mourn. Through her other initiative, Option B, a mission to help people recover from loss and adversity.

 

2. Melinda Gates : A successful engineer, entrepreneur and now philanthropist, Melinda Gates is simply goals. After all, at a life stage where most people who step back and revel in the fortune that they’d build (especially if your fortune happens to e a company called Microsoft!), Melinda and her husband Bill decided to take on a completely new challenge – The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The painstaking work they do through the Foundation, across the globe in the field of rural development, is heartwarming.

3.  Michelle Obama : Whoever said first ladies had to be boring, and shadows of their presidential husbands, clearly hadn’t met Michelle Obama. Nothing about Michelle is stuffy, run-of-the-mill or boring – and that’s what I absolutely love about her. A successful lawyer herself, not for a moment did you lose her within the rather magnetic of her famous former President husband Barack Obama. She maintained her own. If there’s one leaf we can all take out of her book, it is that one can do exceptionally serious work, while still having fun.

4. J.K. Rowling : Who better to inspire a writer, than another writer herself? A woman who despite being a single mother, with absolutely no security or support system, took up a dream. Of writing her way to success. Of showing the world the power of a pen and a good story. In creating the magical world of Harry Potter from scratch, one that invited everyone from adults to children, to enter and never leave. A classic rags to riches tale, her story clearly teaches you to dream beyond imagination, and do everything it takes to fulfill it.

5. Sudha Murthy : What never fails to amaze me about this pathbreaking entrepreneur is her enthusiasm, her childlike, and her ever grounded nature. And her love for breaking stereotype. whether it was t becoming the first female student in her college and the first female engineer at TATA, to founding the juggernaut called Infosys with her husband, or to establish the Infosys Foundation, she’s left her mark everywhere.

Who are your role models, friends? Eager to hear them!

Iron Fist, Velvet glove.

What would you carve on your epitaph? What would you want your eulogy to speak about you? How would you like to be remembered?

Mine probably would be a phrase I’ve always identified with, indefinitely. Iron fist in Velvet Glove.  In other words, a strong heart within a soft soul.

Often times, I’ve had people come up to me and tell me, that there seems to be a disconnect between what I come across as, in my writings, and what I actually am. My physical countenance is apparently a much, much softer version of my fierce, sometimes even fiery self, that one might encounter were they to read my work. So much so, I’ve even been told that one could never imagine that a naive, innocent looking face like mine could heart a sharp, strong mind.

Maybe this is a compliment. Or maybe its not. Yet, I’ll still take it with a pinch of salt. And some lime and sugar.

Looks can be deceptive, I say. Don’t judge a book by its cover, I say. Yet what I also say, is that passion need not necessarily translate to aggression. Just because you are very, very passionate about something doest mean that you need to have that written all over you. Passion must reflects in one’s actions. Not face.

My writings occasionally might portray me a hardcore feminist, an angry young woman, almost. Yet, in reality. I know I never will be one. Just like even the toughest of diamonds are enclosed in the softest of velvet cloth, so I too shall continue to be. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

Women, go to work, please!

It was this article that got me thinking. And maybe it’ll get you thinking, too.

And if you don’t read the entire article, you can read just the first two lines.

LAKSHMI, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is the closest thing Hinduism has to an economic deity. How poorly her earthly sisters in present-day India are faring. 

Not that I was unaware of the scenario, but this mainly reaffirms what the reality is. This time, with real-life examples and figures to support the claim.

Ironic, very ironic. In the land where the ardently worshipped deities of wealth, education and power are all female, India is losing out a major chunk of its talent only because so many women are at home. A loss that converts into economic deprivation in terms of becoming a significant contributor to the nation’s poverty by a staggering 27%

Whats even more ironic that the only reason isn’t just the lack of education, it’s also the never-ending social pressures that collectively surmount to keep women actively out of the workforce. In-laws demanding the their daughters-in-law stay at home despite their education and desire to earn. Organizations that don’t support working mothers forcing women with children to quit their jobs and take a hiatus, which very often means that they don’t get back to work at all. Women entrepreneurs struggling to keep their ventures afloat, with collectively only around 2% of total venture capital financing going to women.

Of course there have been game changers within the society, in terms of women among the likes of Indra Nooyi, Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Chanda Kocchar, who have risen up the corporate ladder as well as gone to create successful companies of their own. And business models that supported women employment. AMUL and Lijjat Papad. And little proliferations of self-employed women with regard to the good old Tupperware and Amway aunties, the waxing ladies, the tuition teachers and the neigbourhood ladies with their pickle and tiffin businesses. Yet, the number of women who collectively remain unemployed still outnumber them.

Growing up, I was fortunate to be born to parents who viewed education and having a career equally important for both sons and daughters. Which meant that I never thought of myself not having a full-time job, ever. Yet again, that does not mean that I am biased towards stay-at-home moms. The point I’m trying to make, is that not every woman has to have a full-time job. There are women who stay out of active employment out of choice. But that doesn’t mean that the women at the other end of the spectrum, that is women who want to work, should be held back in any form. It is the birthright of every single woman, to have access to education, economic freedom and empowerment. So that when they fo genuinely want to go out and make a living, they are not are obstructed by  financial, physical or social barriers. From more education opportunities,  self-employment and work-from-home options, to child-friendly workplaces, maternity benefits, more microfincnace options and venture capital funding. We need them all.

Maybe this could be a wake-up call, and our mantra for the years to come: Sending more women to work. Hopefully our daughters and granddaughters, shall look at boardrooms and corner office aspirations as normal, instead of glass ceiling achievements, like our generation does. And we will have a fuller, richer economy, that thrives from the collective effort of both men and women.

(The article cited appeared in The Economist : Why India needs its women to work. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/07/05/why-india-needs-women-to-work)

The World Seems Unsafe Tonight

Ma, my tears go unnoticed
My cries, unheard
My dignity, hurt
I’m sorry you brought me into a world
That doesn’t even pretend to care
Ma, can I climb into
Your womb for a while?
The world seems rather unsafe tonight
I’m tired, Ma. I’m tired
Of fighting,
Of struggling,
Of begging the world
To for once, be kind
Please let me climb into
You womb, just for a little while
The world seems just so unsafe tonight
I feel like I’m being punished
For a mistake I never made
I flee like a wounded animal
Only to find a spot that’s safe
But alas they find and hunt me
However hard I try
Ma, I promise I’ll only
Stay in your womb for a while
But please do let me
The world seems
Very unsafe tonight
(On account of India being declared the most unsafe country in the world for women)

Small Business. Big Impact.

A typical 90s kid, I grew up in an India which wasn’t exactly free of big corporate giants. Butter meant AMUL and chocolate meant Dairy Milk and washing powder meant Nirma. Yet, as much as you became a recipient of mass commoditization as introduced by well known brands and big national and multinational businesses, a typical day in your life also involved ample integration with small businesses. The neighbourhood salon, which you visited not only for their services but also a fresh round of gossip of what was happening in your locality. The chai-wallah (tea-seller) down the road whose ginger tea pulled in everyone from the aam aadmi (common man) to the multimillionaires of the town. The kirana (grocery) shop, where the uncle behind the counter had seen me since I was a toddler, where thanks to a relationship that spanned generations (my great-grandfather knew uncle’s grandfather) we got to to buy entire months worth of grocery in advance on credit.

And if that weren’t enough, being an offspring of a first-generation entrepreneur, allowed me to gauge first hand what small businesses were, how they were established, the challenges they typically experienced, and how they had to grow strength to strength to sustain themselves in competitive environments. They struggled, and stumbled, yet managed to stay, survive and thrive.

At first glance, small businesses might seem like the Davids of the world, in comparison to the Goliaths – the multinationals. Yet, combine them together, and they’re quite a force to reckon with. There’s data to prove it too. According to reports by CII, in 2017, a staggering 95% (almost 42.5 million) of business units in India comprise small and medium scale enterprises. SMEs in the country collectively employ almost 60% of the workforce in the country.

Which means the conclusion is clear. Small businesses are big.

What is about them, though? What makes them vulnerable, yet resilient enough to withstand the forces of the big daddies? Why do small businesses manage to not just compete, but coexist with their international, mammoth counterparts?

Possibly because at heart, they are more than a mid-sized profit-making entity. Or because they offer nimble, personalized services as opposed to homogenized offerings of the faceless corporation. Or maybe even because due to limited resources as opposed to their bigger counterparts, they are forced to remain lean and cost-effective in true startup sense. And if nothing else, the fact that at heart, they remain largely relationship oriented – both within the enterprise as well as with customers. For instance, every trip to the kirana store ended with me getting complimentary candies from uncle. My chai-wallah knew exactly how strong my father liked his tea. And in a society that still thinks with a heart, like ours does, such snippets of customer delight are huge.

Small businesses are a living proof to the entrepreneurial zeal of the country, society and times we live in. In an era where foreign giants are eyeing companies in India that they can buy out, these are essentially the start-ups in true sense. Which is why it’s no coincidence that everyone, from Facebook to Amazon are working relentlessly to strengthen their relations and operations with small players, instead of dismiss them as worthless competition.

In developing, populous, heterogeneous countries like ours, small businesses are the heart of the economy. Ones that are critical to national well being, both financially and socially.  For on a slightly more romantic note,they don’t just serve the economy they’re in. They make homes, families and households run. They give an entire strata of society, economic valuation, financial freedom, and social status.

Not every small business remains small in the long-run. Every mega conglomerate was once a small business. And small businesses, make a big difference.

Masturbation, Menstruation, Mental Health – We need to Talk

This is not a rant. Or passive commentary. Or even a mockery. All this is, is a realistic reflection of the times we live in. As much as I am proud of being Indian, there are times when my own culture and society has failed me. Even in a modern, free, independent India.

For instance, should I dare to commit the inconsolable sin of kissing my partner in public, I will be booed, arrested, lynched even. On grounds of being socially immoral. Yet, no one will bat an eyelid at the lines of (not-so-gentle)men who publicly take out their manhood to urinate. Because even though that is (technically) socially immoral, it is still socially acceptable.

A country that proudly declares itself secular, imposes a beef ban. Which is when I must accept the unfortunate truth that if I had to choose between being a cow and a woman in India, I’m better off opting for the former.

And if that wasnt enough, may I also take the opportunity to remind you that , that in the same breath that I declare with pride that foreign conglomerates acquire Indian homegrown startups,  under Section 377, having a same-sex partner is still legally a crime in this country, and marital rape is not.

On account of this, I dedicate this blog post of mine to three widely misunderstood topics –  masturbation, menstruation and mental health, especially in the desi context.

Masturbation. A recent Bollywood flick, one which that braved the sanskaari junta to show a woman masturbating publicly on-screen, resulted in the actress being trolled all across social media. As if she, instead of her character had committed some kind of crime by expressing her right to self-pleasure. Is it because a society, we’ve conned ourselves into believing, that a woman’s right to sexual pleasure is an offence? And maybe a bigger offence, is fulfilling it without a man.

Menstruation. This brouhaha about a woman bleeding for five days of the week amuses me, then makes me sad, then makes me angry – in that order. Don’t touch the pickle. Stay out of the house. Because we have to make a tamasha about everything. Literally everything. Which includes even a perfectly normal biological process, whose onset should make women and their families sigh out of relief. But we, on the other hand, must treat it like some kind of warped interpretation of human anatomy.

And finally mental health. Sadly, I’m living in a society that’s decided to framework and yardstick how it defines success and happiness. Anyone who sticks to the code is accepted, anyone who doesn’t is ostracized, Maybe even if we just allowed more people to live their life, the way they want it to, we wouldn’t be losing Kate Spades and Anthony Bourdains to depression and eventually suicide. Why just celebrities, we’d have an entire population of happier, fuller, more content people. Because they weren’t living their life on a pre-decided, dictated social roadmap.

I think sometimes, my relationship society feels like the one with a human significant other. Where on more than one occasion, you want to take a stand and say the following words. We Need to Talk.

 

 

Four shades of Lust.

So far, the done-to-death Bollywood plot has revolved around one four letter world – LOVE. The kind that makes the protagonists run around trees, The one that up until the late 90s, didn’t even acknowledge that emotional attraction resulting in physical intimacy was a perfectly natural, biological process. I, for one, am reminded of days when anything with a slight hint of carnal affection was substituted rather poorly by showing two flowers brushing against each other?

Flash forward to times today. Audiences have evolved. Even though mention of sex does raise eyebrows, we’ve moved past the flowers kissing phase, showing real people. In such a scenario, what happens when LUST, another four letter world, one that has so far been socially booed and shame-shamed, gets thrown at four stalwarts of contemporary Bollywood, and each one of them is given the opportunity to interpret this in their own manner?

Boy, do they come out fantastic results. Each one different, yet very relatable. Perhaps the only thing that’s uncannily common in all four of them is that in all four cases, the protagonist happens to be a woman.

Each tiny tale, takes a life and path of its own, not shaming carnal desire, but rather accepting a normal, human need.

A free-spirited schoolteacher, who openly experiments with her sexual adventures, breaking convention, stereotype and the stigma associated with open marriages.

A household help who gives in to her employers sexual advances, only to be reminded , of her status quo in society. Confronting the harsh truth that her employer will bed her, yet will wed only someone who belongs to his own strata – socially and educationally.

A middle-aged woman, who resorts to infidelity as her only solace, her escape route out of a loveless marriage, a career she ditched in favor of domestic bliss, and a husband who prides himself on the fact that he owns her.

And finally, my personal favorite of the lot, the dilemma of a newly-wed woman, who is coming to terms with the fact that her husband treats sex as an act of one-sided pleasure, not even being able to comprehend her hints about being unsatisfied.

As a millennial, urban Indian woman myself, the takeaway I get when I watch a series like this is that none of the situations seem unfamiliar. The multiple facets of love, sex, relationships presented on screen depict slices of the huge pie that is contemporary Indian society.  One that’s realizing over time that sex and sexuality, are not physical privileges, they’re basic human needs. One that’s only still coming to accept that sexual pleasure is as much as a female prerogative as much as it is of a male. One that’s opening up the idea of sexual pleasure being prevalent in multiple colors, flavours and forms.

The feisty kind. The guilty pleasure kind. The unapologetic kind. The desirable kind.

And to each one of them, a woman has equal right as much as a man. While ironically, a land that produced the world’s encyclopedia to sex, the Kama Sutra, shouldn’t have to be emphasizing the fact that love making is a two way traffic, I’m glad we’re having that conversation. Or at least, beginning to.