|Women's wealth raised to the power of
By Raju Bist
MUMBAI - This
story - and it is not apocryphal - is often retold in
Indian banking circles to illustrate Naina Lal Kidwai's
dedication to work. When she was carrying her second
child, investment banker Kidwai attended office at J M
Morgan Stanley until the last of her pregnancy. She took
only a day off for the delivery and was back at work the
So, conclude her admirers, it is not
surprising to find Kidwai's name regularly popping up on
the lists of Indian women achievers. In September 2000,
Fortune featured her among the "50 Most Powerful Women
in Business". Two years later, she was back in Time
magazine's "List of 2002 Global Influentials".
And now, Kidwai has made it to the "India's Top
20 Billionaires" list compiled by Eastern Eye of
Britain. She rubs shoulders with other super rich, like
IT tycoon Azim Premji of Wipro Ltd, actor Amitabh
Bachchan and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Kidwai is among
three women to be honored. This is the first time that
any Indian woman has been featured in such a list.
Shahnaz Husain, chairwoman, Husain Herbals, who
makes her moolah from the beauty business, has been
valued at Rs 4 billion US$85 million). The net worth of
Anu Aga, chairwoman of multidivisional engineering
solutions company Thermax - active in energy,
environment and chemical fields - is pegged at Rs 3
billion. Now the vice chairman and managing director at
HSBC Securities and Capital Markets, Mumbai, Kidwai is
worth Rs 1.7 billion.
The three women in the
billionaire club stand out for their contribution to the
business field in which they have excelled, the Eastern
Eye report said. Husain is a first generation women
entrepreneur in her family. She imbibed a love and
knowledge of herbals and ayurvedic products from her
grandfather. What was a humble beginning in Delhi now
stretches all over the world.
Aga inherited an
ailing, decaying business from her husband Rohinton. She
not only got rid of the loss-making units but brought in
professional managers to handle the show. In five short
years, she turned Thermax around completely. Along with
her business skills, Aga has stood out for her humane
qualities. She was a rare business person to speak out
against Indian business' apathy towards victims of the
Gujarat communal riots in February 2002.
Investment banker Kidwai is the first Indian
woman to graduate from the Harvard Business School (in
1982). Despite lucrative job offers from abroad, Kidwai,
a devotee of Western and Indian classical music, says
that she has no plans to leave India, the report said.
"In the US, I may have brokered bigger deals, but here,
it's much more at the cutting edge of reform, the
ability to influence, to shape," she was quoted as
Indian businesswomen have traditionally
reached the top either through family connections or
government service. But the new economy, with its
flexible structures and ethos of meritocracy, is
providing an important avenue of advancement for women
of talent and determination. Reflecting the growing
stature of the urban Indian woman, none of the Eastern
Eye women billionaires is a "rich daddy's little girl".
But each represents a new face of the modern Indian
woman: Husain the entrepreneur, Aga the manager and
Kidwai the professional.
entrepreneurial acumen, for example. Ayurveda is an
ancient Indian system of herbal healing involving the
use of herbs for medicinal as well as cosmetic use. It
has always been used in a basic form in most Indian
homes. But Husain was the first entrepreneur to spot a
big business opportunity in it.
"I was only 15
when I was married and by the time I turned 16, I had
become a mother," says Husain. "That's when the mental
upheaval began and I began getting bored with the
drudgery of endless routine." When her husband was
posted to Teheran, she started keeping herself occupied
by studying cosmetology. Later, for about a decade, she
studied cosmetic therapy and cosmetic chemistry at
leading institutions of the West, like Helena
Rubinstein, Arnould Taylor, Christine Valmy and Lancome.
Husain then returned to her roots and studied ayurveda.
She set up her first herbal clinic in her own
home in Delhi, in a very small way rejecting the
existing salon treatment methods and devised her own
herbal treatments. Husain, who is partial to yogurt,
salads and sprouts, also began to formulate her own
In 1980 she entered the
international market for the first time by participating
in the Festival of India in Britain. Husain Herbals was
given a counter in the perfumery section of Selfridges,
the departmental store in London. Her entire consignment
sold out in three days. The result: Husain Herbals was
offered a permanent counter at Selfridges.
Today, the company also has sales shops within
other prestigious stores like Harrods in London,
Galleries Lafayette in Paris, Bloomindales in New York,
the Seibu chain in Japan and the Sultan stores in
Kuwait. In addition, it has exclusive outlets in Europe,
the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and Australia.
Husain now heads a chain of over 400 franchises
in India and abroad. Her franchise-based enterprise has
helped in the worldwide extension of the Shahnaz Herbal
clinics, popularizing her formidable range of nearly 350
Keats-spouting Husain realized early
on the power of branding a persona, in this case, her
own. India's leading manufacturer of ayurvedic potions
has named her company as well as each of her products
after herself. Unlike many other celebrities, she's
always game for a photo session. Her company's press
releases always refer to her in the third person -
"Shahnaz loves beauty and fragrance and loves to
surround herself with beautiful things" or "Shahnaz
believes that a beautiful woman is one who values
herself physically, mentally, emotionally and even
spiritually". Numerous Indian magazines carry a Shahnaz
Husain column where the self-styled "beauty czarina"
consoles teenagers worried about pimples and facial hair
and recommends, understandably, products from the
Shahnaz Husain basket.
In Kidwai's case,
self-promotion is more subtle and takes the form of
never turning down an opportunity to talk at colleges
and business forums. This serves two purposes: it helps
plug the financial institution she is working for and
also helps spread the legend of "finance superwoman"
Kidwai. "I like to be a very cool person. I don't get
stressed out easily," she recently told a gathering of
wide-eyed management graduates. "I'm not into yoga, but
I do have the ability to switch off completely. If there
is a problem, I don't go on and on worrying. I find work
Her brilliance at work was first
noticed in the merchant banking division of ANZ
Grindlays Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank). In 1994,
she switched over to J M Morgan Stanley and rose to the
level of vice chairman. India's best-known dealmaker
aggressively pursued opportunities in technology,
nabbing the accounts of Wipro Ltd and Infosys
Technologies, among others. In addition, she brokered a
joint venture between AT&T and two conglomerates,
owned by the Birla and Tata families, to create Idea, a
telecom company offering cellular service throughout
During her tenure, word leaked out in the
mid-1990s that she was taking home around Rs 7.5 million
every year. She instantly became the envy of many a
professional in India, men included. Her husband was
overheard joking at a business party: "Now I can retire
and sit at home." When HSBC decided to expand its
investment banking presence in India two years ago, it
chose Kidwai. By then, she had established herself as
one of India's best bankers and a shrewd negotiator with
a talent for anticipating new sectors of growth.
More recently, when aggressive TV journalist Tim
Sebastian of BBC World interviewed a spectrum of Indian
business personalities for his "Hard Talk" program, he
chose Kidwai from the banking world. Sebastian often
gets away by asking tough questions and making his
subjects squirm in their seats. But when he asked
Kidwai, "India has a fast developing business community.
However, it also has 430 million people living on a
dollar a day or less. Do you rich bankers care and will
you help?" the Indian media collectively lashed out at
him. "Naina's job is to facilitate business deals and
she is not responsible for the poverty in this country,"
wrote Malavika Sanghvi, editor of the Bombay Times, a
supplement distributed with the Times of India, one of
the leading dailies of the country.
media are not known to be overly fond of the business
community, but there was another occasion when they rose
to the defense of a business person. In February last
year, Gujarat, one of the most industrialized states in
India, was rocked by a communal carnage as rampaging
Hindu mobs killed over 2,000 Muslims. No business group
protested against the perceived complicity of the right
wing Bhartiya Janata Party party that was in power in
the state (and still is). That was mainly because the
Gujarat government has always had a soft corner for the
business community and has doled out various incentives
and tax concessions to it over the years.
the flames of the riots had been doused, the Indian
media noted that only three Indian business people had
protested against the inaction of the Gujarat government
in controlling the riots: Rahul Bajaj, chairman of
two-wheeler giant Bajaj Auto; Deepak Parekh, chief of
housing finance company HDFC, who, incidentally, hails
from Gujarat, and Aga.
"As Indians we have
condoned through our passive stance rape, murder and
slaughter of innocent victims in Gujarat," she declared
at the annual conference session of leading trade body
Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) on April 27,
2002. "When we see violence in Gujarat we either justify
it or smugly tell ourselves that things like that could
never happen in our part of the country. Are we being
ostriches and burying our heads in sand and not
confronting the growing prejudices that are very
pronounced in our society? We need to be aware that
today we may justify the violence in Gujarat, but
tomorrow it would spread to our state, our city, our
locality and kill someone we love very dearly."
An economics graduate with a masters in medical
and psychiatric social work, Aga started working in 1985
at Thermax, set up by her husband Rohinton as a small
boiler company in the 1980s. She began as an executive
in the human resources department and later took over
the functioning of this department. In the wee hours of
the morning of February 16, 1996, Rohinton Aga succumbed
to a massive heart attack at the Thermax guest house in
Mumbai. Anu Aga was catapulted to the post of
chairperson of the company. In April the following year,
tragedy struck once again when her 25-year-old son was
killed in a car accident.
The picture was not
rosy on the business front either. Aga took over at a
difficult time, just as an economic slowdown was
beginning to set in. Sales as well as profits started
dipping at Thermax. This meant taking tough decisions.
Thermax exited non-core businesses like bottled water,
transmitters, painting systems, electronic components,
fans, software and lease financing. Simultaneously, it
started laying off employees - something unheard of
during Rohinton Aga's paternalistic days. The
initiatives slowly started paying off pay off and by
September 2001, Thermax had turned around.
self-effacing, Aga attributes the successful turnaround
at Thermax to "team work" and the "unstinted support I
received from all levels of staff at Thermax". Kidwai
does not admit it, but her success has often been
credited to her skills at networking with the Indian
bureaucracy and the corporate world.
true to style, is more forthcoming. "One should be
innovative, dynamic and willing to try every avenue
towards success. Above all, the desire to excel, sheer
hard work and relentless determination matter," she
says. "I never give up and never stop trying. If you
never stop trying, you cannot fail. I always feel I have
another mountain to climb and another frontier to cross.
I never rest on my laurels."
you do your best. Even if you face a disappointment, you
know you gave it your best; so losing is easier," is
Kidwai's philosophy of success.
The other two
billionaires will agree with her.
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