Honor and transparency have always stood by your side. Where did they come from?
Let’s go back to my childhood in Darjeeling. My father was a scrupulously honest bureaucrat. There wasn’t much money but he wielded a lot of power. My life was that of high thinking, poor living. I remember… we had several government cars parked in front of our house but I was made to walk six kilometers to school every day. Those cars were meant for the country, not for us. My dad’s secretary’s daughter was my best friend and she would come in a car.
Then there was the time when I scored 99% in English Literature in my Senior Cambridge exams. My dad wrote to Cambridge to ask whether they had made a mistake. Those days I just couldn’t understand the rationale! But my dad instilled a sense of honor in me. He taught me the boundaries between what belongs to you and what does not. Today, I have such admiration for him.
How did your path lead to volunteering with Mother Teresa?
Because of my grounded background and my focus on intellectual stimulation, I often did very well. When I got out of school, I received a national scholarship and went to a college which my father couldn’t have otherwise afforded. This created a certain amount of conflict within me because I was hobnobbing with elite classmates with different priorities.
“I needed to find some sanity so I volunteered with Mother Teresa. Twice a week for seven years, I spent my day at the Missionaries of Charity. This gave me a sense of wellbeing. It left an indelible impression on me.”
What kind of student were you?
I was a fairly good student but I was hidden in the woodwork. If you were to talk to my classmates, they would express surprise at my becoming a CEO running a business in multiple countries. I was quiet and mousy. My hobby was immersing myself in the library. So I did my MBA and specialized in marketing. I was the only girl in my class. Those days we had to really trudge along. I was hard working, not exceptional, not really that talented.
You are more talented than you give yourself credit for.
Talent is a natural flair and something that you are born with. I am extremely tenacious. I don’t let go or give up. You know, they say all Bengalis are meant to sing. So my mother would send me to singing classes. I didn’t have a talent for singing but I would out-study the theory and practice hard. I would always win a prize. That seems to be my personality profile. I’m not exceptionally good at anything. There are many who are far more talented but I make up through sheer hard work, by not losing sight of the horizon and by taking life seriously.
Isn’t it hard to take life so seriously?
I know no other way. The other day, my daughter gave me a lecture. She said, “Your problem is that you’re too hands-on, Ma. The whole world is not your responsibility.” Sure, maybe it isn’t.
“But if there is an opportunity to help others and I don’t do so, how can I face myself in the mirror and say that this day has been a good one? This need has prevailed in my life across all my decisions.”
Your hard work has paid off. How did you go up the corporate ladder faster than others?
I got into corporate life with the same principle – whatever you do, do it well or don’t do it at all. I joined the Oberoi Group and created a genre of professional women who were not exceptionally glamorous. In the leisure industry, that was a new trend. I tried to create a positioning where my opinion was valued. I then became a managing director of a multinational company and looked after India and Southeast Asia. Every time I felt a little fatigued, my boss would give me a new country to look after. It was very flattering. There were not many Indian women looking after international countries in those days. Having lots of others reporting to me gave me a bit of a high. But it was only a temporary high.
Would you describe yourself as ambitious?
What is ambition and who are ambitious people? I was driven by the need to do well. It was not like ambition for acquisition, for position or even for recognition. It was for the satisfaction. I would drive myself, and then drive my team, and then drive my company.
How did you balance being a global CEO and having a family?
It was interesting to me that I could pursue whatever I wanted and keep my family together. When I was posted abroad, I was able to take my family and manage my motherhood. I’m not saying that it is a straightforward, cushy journey. There are ups and downs but I tell women that it is extremely possible. If you and your family really value each other’s opinions and sense of wellbeing, you will work it out. I held on to what was valuable. Whatever I gave up was not valuable to me. I have to give credit to my husband and now my daughter. We do the same thing for one another. I’m not saying we’re the best family, but we are the “together family.”
What made you decide to give up your corporate career?
My upbringing taught me to recognize the huge disconnect between the privileged and the larger part of the population. This disconnect is something that I find very difficult to deal with even today. It’s slightly bizarre, but at the turning point, I got interested in obituaries. I wrote my own and found that I had very little to write. Yes, I was Woman of the Year. I got this medal and that medal.
“Who writes that in an obituary? What you write about is the impact your life has had on others. I felt that I had a long way to go.”
You must have taken the world by surprise…
A lot of people said, “Oh, it was easy for you to leave because you were one of the highest earning women CEOs in the country.” I don’t know whether I earned the highest or not. But I do know that I led a very comfortable life. I traveled first class, had a Mercedes, stayed in luxury hotels, and had an entertainment budget. Truth is, the more you get, the harder it is to give it up. I see that in the kaleidoscope of what’s happening around. You’re stuck and too dependent.
That must have been an incredibly difficult decision to make.
Well-known business magazines wrote that I was taking a sabbatical. But the best way to move ahead is to burn the bridges behind you. I decided that enough is enough. I’m going to quit. I was very clear that I would not ask anyone for money until I had something to show. That meant I had to use my own personal savings. It was important to play with high stakes. To succeed, you have to show some kind of impact. I wasn’t going to do a business plan, get funded and then have to change the module to suit the donors. I wanted to have a constructive, consolidated program which would get support.
That is a bold decision.
The world that I was getting into was not totally unknown. It was daunting but I was not overwhelmed because of my experience in volunteering. You don’t need to be Bill Gates, Azim Premji, or Narayana Murthy to contribute to the world. You don’t have to wait until you become old or accumulate a lot of wealth. Doing good has to be a part of your life. I decided to begin small, doing whatever I could do rather than trying to change the world.
So the secret is in starting small?
“The question is, do you want to make a change in the world or do you want the world changed? I’m very happy just making a small difference.”
After leaving my corporate life, I worked with a multinational non-profit organization for three and a half years to understand what it was like in the board room. I found that what works in a for-profit, doesn’t always work in a non-profit. One size does not fit all when you are dealing with lives. I felt that I had to change the model. I said, “I think I know the way I have to do this.”
So how was your way different?
NGOs are riddled with three issues. One, how do you make the model sustainable? Next, how do you scale? Very few actually ask for how you can have impact. I decided to begin with impact, even a one-person impact. Then you sustain and then comes scale. We began with the idea that even if we could change one child’s life, it was a big change. The scale just happened.
What does it mean to have a one-person impact?
We cannot approach change by saying, “I know what you need and this is what will change you.” It’s important not to play god. The stories of the poor have not been written by the poor. They’ve been written by the privileged, the more educated. You need to hear their real life stories first. 98% of their fathers are alcoholics, 92% of their families have someone in jail. You have to deal with this sensitively, with a great amount of patience and understanding. You have to learn to let go because you can’t own anything. I have been working with them for the past eighteen years but even today, I don’t really understand what causes people in these communities to take decisions. I don’t really understand the trauma. It still feels unreal.
How do you manage to change these children and their families?
Parikrma is more than a school. We provide three meals, healthcare, hospitalization, immunization. We look at a very high level of education and all the things that we can do for our families. There are kids whom we picked up from the streets thirteen or fourteen years ago. One boy, Shiva, who is now working at Cisco, completed his computer engineering. His mother is a maidservant and his grandmother sells flowers at the temple. Today, he has moved his family from the slums and has bought his mother a little shop. His grandmother, however, refuses to change. She goes in front of the temple every day to sell her flowers. I told him to admire the quality that she does not want to depend on him. This is a household where the total income has suddenly gone from Rs. 4,500 to Rs. 42,000. It’s not just the economic condition alone that has changed. It’s the mindset.
Are there any risks to such sea changes?
One of our girl students, an orphan from Manipur, is now a dentist. We have helped set her up and to understand what it means to make a commitment to treating the poor with subsidized rates if not for free. These are changes in the value system. Since our children come from such economically deprived homes, the risk is that they will give earning money maximum priority. It’s very important for us to understand that need and not look down on it. To say, “Sure, you must make money because it will change your life. But that’s not the end of it. There’s more that you have to do.”
How do you guide your student’s career choices?
“I have a sense of wonder about how things evolve. About nature, patterns and balance. The extraordinariness that exists in the common has always appealed to me.”
Each one of us has a great deal of exceptional qualities that either have not been unleashed or are slowly blossoming. To recognize that is where the real challenge and excitement is. I think my real talent is to be able to identify young potential and to create an opportunity for them to blossom. This I will even admit to myself.
What was the toughest choice that you have had to make for Parikrma?
I’ve made tough choices in order to hold on to our principles. In the early days, when I had run out of personal funds and had to raise money, a group promised a very large sum to us. It was too good to be true but we lapped it up. When we were signing the memorandum of understanding, certain stipulated conditions affected our philosophy to keep our schools secular. I had to walk away from funds that were absolutely essential. We had already decided to start another school. It was heart wrenching but I knew that if I had compromised, we would be unable to say no to other things asked of us later. Sometimes I wonder whether I am too obstinate and that I put lives at risk. That is very scary.
Those were very tough circumstances.
There was another situation when getting building permission required a large bribe and I refused to pay. Permissions were held back for seven years. They’d say, “This classroom is illegal because you’re one foot short in space.” We divided our small classrooms into two. It was inconvenient for my teachers and heads of school but they pitched in because they understood. We’re doing society a service. We are keeping these children safe, with something to look forward to so that they become contributors to society.
What inspires you?
“The understanding that each of us is so powerful and that the only thing you don’t have control over is where you are born. You have control over the way you live and the way you die. I wish we would acknowledge that.”
I know people who say “I’m just not lucky.” Yes, I have been very fortunate to have worked with people who have invested in me. I was fortunate that I got an opportunity to work hard and be recognized. But was I lucky? I don’t think so. I played a role in making things happen the way they did. I think that is what inspires me. That inherent control of destiny that we have.
How would you characterize your leadership style?
I have to exercise a different kind of leadership skill. It is more transformational than operational. I have to carry people along with a goal that has meaning for them, not just for me. To be able to provide universal meaning is a skill which takes a long time to develop. My challenge has been how to evolve my leadership style so that I attract talent without the kind of salary that they would have otherwise gotten. It’s not about me, it’s about their passion for our cause. And the cause alone isn’t faceless. It’s little children’s faces.
What keeps you going strong?
I get emotional support from the friends, family and colleagues who believe in what we are doing. My children are my vitamin pills. I am sixty-one years old but I have the energy of a thirty year old. This is because I have a reason to come to school. I have a purpose. When I see children making their turnaround, I see transformation happening even in their family. We’ve opened bank accounts for mothers. They are earning better and moving out of the slums. This encourages me. The support comes from seeing the fruits of your work.
I wish all energy sources felt as renewable as yours!
When I was a CEO, I took one of my colleagues from Copenhagen to meet Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa’s reaction, an absolutely honest one, was to ask why this lady had come from so far just to meet her. I would give my arm and leg for that kind of humility and simplicity. I really strive to make life simple for myself and my organization. I don’t believe in delivering really earth shattering news but rather, in being consistent. My young colleagues are bright and they really want to do great things. I tell them that I don’t want them to fatigue after one big flash.
“We have taken responsibility for children and we have to take care of them for eighteen years if not more. I want their energy to last. That’s what I call sustainable energy.”
How would you describe the Parikrma dream?
The Parikrma dream is for a college to choose our graduates because of the value they will add to the college ethos. The Parikrma dream is for an employer to review our students’ resumes and know what kind of person they are hiring. The dream is less about getting students jobs at IBM and more about the value that they will add to IBM. Parikrma is about social reengineering – changing the mindset of the poor and changing the mindset of the rich who look at the poor. That’s the ultimate objective. School is just a medium.
Your dream is truly blossoming.
This June, we began with 1,920 children – 99 slums and 4 orphanages, impacting at least about 22,000 people. That’s one segment. The other segment is a teacher training center, where we are training teachers of government schools. What we are doing is resurrecting pride in the teaching profession. Through that we will be impacting abut 63,000 children. So you see, scale was not what we began with, scale was never a part of our plan but scale automatically happened.
Where do you see yourself when you’re 80?
One of the things that I have announced very publicly is that I want to hand over Parikrma to the students. I’ve selected a few kids whom we are developing as trustees. We hold a little school after school hours where the kids are learning to take Parikrma forward.
“When I’m 80 years old, I see myself in a wheelchair being wheeled into the morning assembly of a Parikrma school that has been started by a Parikrma student. That’s what I mean by circle of life. That is my story.”
The article was published in The Leela Collective