Special Report: India - The top of the ladder

Changing values and globalisation are behind the rise of Indian women to positions of power in many businesses.

by Jayanthi Iyengar, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Any discussion on the status of women in India tends to conjure up pictures of illiteracy, exploitation and low life expectancy. Although this is still true for many Indian women, another reality is driving a new India and relates to a booming nation, powered by female business leaders. Such a position has been made possible by several developments.

At one end of the spectrum are the family-run businesses: here, with globalisation, modernisation and education, the traditional patriarchal patterns have given way to an acceptance of women members, particularly relatives, on an equal footing.

At the other end of the spectrum is a burgeoning Indian middle class, estimated at 300 million, which values education and is extending this advantage to its children, irrespective of gender. And somewhere in between is the government, which is empowering women at grass-roots level with schemes such as free midday school meals, which has had a dramatic effect on school attendance. The position of women in India has also improved thanks to more women working in local government. The United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) report, State of the World Population 2005, pointed out that local government - panchayat raj - had become more responsive to healthcare and housing demands since women entered its ranks.

Women can also look to the increasing number of role models in Indian business, such as Meher Pudumjee, chairperson of engineering company Thermax, and Shobna Bhartia, vice-chairman and editorial director of the Hindustan Times. Although their ascent is partly a function of family inheritance, many professional managers have worked their way up into top management positions - for example, Renuka Ramnath, chief executive of ICICI Venture, and Ranjana Kumar, chairperson of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. Below, we look at four examples of female success.

NEELAM DHAWAN - managing director, Microsoft India

Neelam Dhawan has worked her way up the corporate ladder. She began her career in the IT industry nearly 22 years ago, working at IBM and HCL, and later at Hewlett Packard India as vice-president of the customer solutions group, before joining Microsoft India as managing director in February 2005.

Dhawan joined the IT industry at a time when few knew how fast the sector would grow in India, and she has taken on her new assignment at a time when Microsoft has big plans for India. In December 2005, chairman Bill Gates announced that the company will invest $1.7 billion in India over the next four years.

Although Dhawan's appointment created a ripple at the time, she does not believe her gender has been a factor: "I have not felt hindered because I am a woman." Dhawan attributes her successes to three drivers: her commitment to the challenging roles at every juncture in her career; her association with high-growth phases in the companies she has worked for; and her understanding of customer needs in a changing business environment.

Dhawan says there is a need for women in technology, particularly the business of technology, and she believes that India has what it takes to nurture female entrepreneurship. "It is one of the few countries where the constitution granted equal rights to women and men, right from the start."

EKTA KAPOOR - creative director, Balaji Telefilms

Ekta Kapoor is a rising star of India's television industry. At 31, she has produced more than 20 soaps on 10 major Indian television networks and created a comedy series that ran for five years.

Daughter of Jeetendra Kapoor, a hero of Hindi cinema, Kapoor began producing soap operas at the age of 19. Her first production, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because A Mother-in-law Was Once A Daughter-in-law Too), was not only a blockbuster, but also kicked off a new era in Hindi television entertainment.

Kapoor's productions are seeped in melodrama where the good are pitted against the bad, the bad against the ugly, over several weeks of agonising entertainment. Controversially, Kapoor upholds many stereotypes of Indian women, portraying them as subservient, suffering, traditional and religious.

Hence, her soaps are often accused of being regressive.

Nevertheless, Kapoor is a trendsetter. She has toyed with the big screen, but has always returned to television. And unlike many film-makers who focus on mainstream Hindi entertainment, there is a strong regional flavour to her work. Recent programmes include a foray into Bhojpuri - a dialect of Hindi, spoken in some of the north-eastern states of India.

Kapoor's success and vision have attracted foreign investors. Asian Broadcasting FZ-LLC (ABF), an affiliate of Rupert Murdoch's Star Group, owns a 26% stake in the company.

KIRAN MAZUMDAR-SHAW - chairman and managing director, Biocon India

Mazumdar-Shaw has come a long way since the day in 1978, when a chance meeting with Leslie Auchinclaus of Biocon Biochemicals in Ireland resulted in her being coaxed into business. Thus, Biocon India was born. "From then on, there was no looking back and Biocon today is a 28-year-old success story," says India's richest woman and head of one of the country's most successful enterprises.

Mazumdar-Shaw has overseen Biocon's transition from an industrial enzymes company to an integrated biopharmaceutical company with strategic research initiatives. It is now worth over $1 billion and Mazumdar-Shaw herself is worth an estimated $440 million.

In 2005, she entered Fortune magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women in international business and has been referred to as "India's mother of invention" by the New York Times. In recognition of her success in helping to build India's biotechnology industry, she has received several awards from the Indian government, including the prestigious Padma Shree and Padma Bushen.

When she first started, she says, her main worries were her gender, age, inexperience and lack of finance. However, she now believes that knowledge does not have a gender divide: "I have always felt that being a woman provides us with special attributes: compassion, sensitivity, multi-tasking and the inner strength to excel."

RITU KUMAR - fashion designer, Ritika

Ritu Kumar is the diva of Indian fashion. The size of her financial empire is not known, since Ritika, the manufacturer and distributor of the 'Ritu' label, is a private company. But what is clear is the extent to which the industry has changed since she began in 1977.

"Opportunities when I started 29 years ago were few and far between," says Kumar. "Today, there are huge opportunities, with little distinction between men and women. Nowadays, women expect to compete with men on an even playing field." Kumar is credited with reviving some of India's dying crafts, such as zardozi (an ancient form of embroidery from Persia using gold thread), kantha (delicate embroidery from the state of West Bengal) and khasida (intricate embroidery from Kashmir).

She sits on the board of governors of India's prestigious fashion school, the National Institute of Fashion Design (NIFD), while her book, Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, has been published by Christie's, London, and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, has shown a retrospective exhibition.

Kumar, who started with a handful of block printers and two tables in Calcutta, has production centres in New Delhi and Calcutta, and directly employs 200 workers, while indirectly providing livelihood to 3,000 craftspeople.

In total, 13 fashion boutiques in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Amritsar and Chandigarh retail the 'Ritu' label.

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