Industry POV

Women's Day Special: The women behind India's leading business honchos

08 Mar 2017

Do we really need a special day to celebrate woman power? Not really. Because every single day we see women around us making a difference in their own special way – in the way they manage their families, take care of businesses, manage finances, fight off gender inequalities – Protector, Nurturer, the glue that holds families together. 

This International Women’s Day, Adgully got in touch with India’s top most business leaders from advertising, media, marketing to find out the woman/ women who have inspired and influenced to become the business leaders that they are today. Not surprisingly, most consider their mothers to be that one person who taught them valuable lessons of life, leading by example and with immense grace, poise, patience and fortitude. A few named PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw as the woman leader who has had tremendous influence on their own leadership styles. 

The views expressed are as much emotional as they are frank and inspirational... 

Vivek Bhargava, CEO, DAN Performance Group:
“My mother introduced me to table tennis. She would take me for early morning coaching and to play tournaments – she inspired me to be a better sportsman. Ironically, that has made me the business person I am today. Table tennis taught me two things – firstly, if you want to become better at something, then you have to work harder at it, and secondly, if you lose today, it’s not the end of the world – there is always tomorrow. The never-say-die attitude of my mom has had a role in making me what I am today.” 

Sam Balsara, Chairman, Madison World:
“The person who inspires me the most is my daughter Tanya. Why? Because she does not allow her serious disability to come in the way of either enjoying life to the fullest or playing her role in the society and contributing to it by starting and herself running the Tanya Computer Centre. When faced with a challenge, I think of her and my problem pales in comparison.” 

#Anita Nayyar, CEO, Havas Media Group, India and South Asia:
“The woman who inspired me most and no guesses, it is my mom! A rock solid person who stood by me through thick and thin. Someone who taught me the art of hard work and of being patient. She always says whatever happens, it is only for one’s good, though we may not see it that way at that particular moment. Can’t thank her enough for bringing me into this world and making me the person I am.” 

Praful Akali, Founder and Managing Director, Medulla Healthcare Communications:
“A number of them – my mother, my wife, my sisters-in-law, my women colleagues… They all surprise me with their inner strength, patience, observation, multi-tasking capabilities and caring on a daily basis.” 


Ramesh Narayan, Founder, Canco Advertising:
“I founded Canco Advertising, the only job I ever held. When I look back, if there was a woman who unconsciously shaped the way I have become, it would have to be Seetha Narayan, my mother. She was very hard working and very understated. She let others hog the limelight, happy to get the work done. And she was warm, friendly, outgoing and always willing to help. Over and above all this, she never expected anything from me. I really wish I have imbibed some of those rare qualities.” 

Vandana Das, President and Managing Partner, DDB Mudra North:
“The inspiration behind me becoming a business leader is none other than my mother, Manju Kumar. Always a guiding light, always a pillar of strength, always supportive. She has been a cancer survivor and despite all her suffering through her aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, she continued with her work with the same zeal. Very passionate. Very spirited. Eternal optimist. She has taught us that when something bad happens, you have three choices – You can either let it define you; let it destroy you; or you can let it strengthen you. My Mommy Strongest! I am what I am today because I imbibed her teachings.” 

Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, CCO, Cheil India:
“Inspiration, Motivator and Hope – my mother, who has inspired me, while my wife has always motivated me! My mom Nayna Prabhakar Mahabaleshwarkar, whom I fondly call ‘Aai’ – one-man army – has been my pillar of strength since our childhood. An artist herself, she always knew I would take up a creative stream. Coming from a small town, she worked hard to ensure both her children explored and made a mark in the outside world. I can’t thank her enough for recognising, appreciating and encouraging me to follow my creative instincts. My wife, Hemangi Mahabaleshwarkar, has been equally instrumental in my success. With my kind of work, I always need my space to think and ideate. I also travel a lot, but she has continuously understood my work needs. My wife of 16 years, I can confidently say she is my biggest support. Today, I am what I am because I was led by my mother and backed by my wife! Sana Mahabaleshwarkar, my daughter, considers me as her inspiration and motivation, while she is actually my Hope!” 

Preeti Mascarenhas, Principal Partner, Strategy, Mindshare:
“My mom has been my greatest inspiration. As a housewife, she did things beyond just home and managed to find time every day to do one act of kindness to make life happen for others and always motivated me go beyond my potential and do more than the usual stuff. As women we are lucky to know, admire, and support an equal beat to make the music complete. Now more than ever as we face new challenges and threats, ambitions beyond just family that make us win every day. Hats off to a common housewife, who made me do things in uncommon fashion and win every day.” 

Ruchi Mathur, Leader – Client Leadership, Mindshare:
“My inspiration and role model is my ex-client and now a dear friend, Punita Lal, ex-CMO, PepsiCo. A true leader, who makes you believe in yourself and provokes you to push your own limits. Her biggest strength is her child-like curiosity and that is what keeps her nimble and agile. Her impatience for perfection and her calm demeanour on a stormy day make you wonder who she really is. Her clarity of thought is contagious and makes decision-making look like a cakewalk. A rare individual who respects your time, as much as she does her own. She is audacious, bold and very brave! But what makes her even more special is that her brilliance is not limited to the board room. She is THE working mother that you always wanted to be. A ‘cool’ friend to her two beautiful children, only because she can swing between being 14 and 40 within seconds. A great balancer of priorities that truly matter. Thank you Punita, for inspiring me every single day for over a decade!” 

Anita Kotwani, Leader, Client Leadership – Mindshare West:
“They say behind every successful man there is a woman. But here is a case where ‘behind my success lies another woman: my mom’. While women empowerment as a subject has come to the forefront in recent times, here was a lady who ensured that she kept the gender biases at bay more than 40 years ago. She ensured that her daughters and sons were given the same dais in all aspects of life. Be it sports, education or in the career choices that they made. She is an inspiration and role model to look up to, she got us to embrace humility, respect individuals and be objective in our decision making. She always asked us to focus on the job/ task at hand and not the individual. ‘Never get personal’ was a lesson that I learnt early on from her and today, I take pride in leading the most amazing team at Mindshare West, where collaboration and team work is a way of life. She is not with me today, I lost her a few years back, yet her presence is felt every time, a protective layer of love that I walk around with always. Miss you Ma.” 

Sejal Shah, Principal Partner, Team Unilever, Mindshare Fulcrum:
“Without doubt, my mother. She is a homemaker who has taken several avatars to support her family and in the process taught me all the fundamentals of leadership. Her strength of character to do the right thing and be honest, the ability to motivate the domestic staff towards being house proud and delivering accordingly, ability to adapt to changing situations life threw at her, solution-minded approach in every crisis are all qualities of a leader, which I learnt from. Her uncanny knack of reading people and situations always helped her in ‘managing’ it right. A homemaker with a modest education, she took to the field and earned more than all of us put together at times of financial distress by converting her sharp observation of opportunities into a flourishing business, creating a financial base that I can now build on. Her mental strength in facing head-on, the stress of losing her second child and later caring for my father through cancer while she dealt with the complications of medical science and fraternity, taught me the importance of leading from the front. As they say, learning starts at home and in my case this is completely true. Thank you, Mom.” 

Nikhil Dey, President – Public Relations & Public Affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller:
“There are many people who have played a role in shaping my professional journey. Two names in particular come to mind at present – my boss Prema Sagar and my wife Deepa Dey. Prema has always pushed me or sometimes nudged me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. One of the reasons for my long innings at Genesis Burson-Marsteller has been that I have been able to find new avenues to keep challenging myself. I credit her with giving me the latitude to explore different aspects of the profession. A recent example of this was when she came up with the idea of creating a newsroom. She had the vision and then entrusted me along with many of our colleagues to bring the idea to life. Prema has built an organisation that has always been pushing the boundaries of what public relations stands for in this country. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be part of that journey. And then there is Deepa, my wife. She is my best friend and biggest critic. She holds the mirror up to me when I need some tough love. Being able to share thoughts and ideas with someone who understand my world and is a well-wisher is wonderful. To give an example of how she helps me cut through the clutter... I came home in a bad mood one evening because a team member who I had nurtured and enjoyed working with had quit. I was venting about how this new generation is thankless and people don’t have loyalty anymore and that from now on I was not going to invest so much of myself in mentoring people. She shut me up with a simple ‘don’t fool yourself. You do it for you, not for them’, which, on reflection, was absolutely true.” 

Akshaara Lalwani, Founder-CEO, Communicate India:
“Women I have read about while growing up have constantly inspired me to excel in all aspects of my life. Whether it is Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Indra Nooyi, Manisha Girotra – their names were there on the top of the list of women I have written down and pinned up on my board since I was 16 years old. They have been a key inspiration for me to get where I have gotten to. Learning from their stories and the challenges and failures faced by them as well as their resilience have played a pivotal role in my career development.” 

Varun Duggirala, Co-Founder, The Glitch:
“I truly believe that we as men learn/ get inspired by the women in our lives the most. It might sound clichéd, but that’s what truly shapes you as a person. And if we don’t feed into that inspiration, then we become people who lack inspiration in so many ways. I have three such women who have inspired me and continue to inspire me for very specific response. My mother, Laxmi, inspired me to learn to dream... go out and try to achieve those dreams even though I might fail a million times (which I have). My first boss, Zulfia (during my early days at MTV), inspired me to focus on honing my own organisational qualities, because when you combine being organised with a strong gut instinct then everything else adds up most of the time. And then there’s my wife, Pooja, who inspires me (by example) everyday to be a better leader, to balance life and work and most of all to have the grit to always push through and persist no matter what life throws at you…All that with just enough effortless swag!” 

Ambika Sharma, Founder & MD, Pulp Strategy Communications:
“There are several women entrepreneurs in India across different walks of life, each one inspirational in her own right. Amongst the women leaders of today that I admire the most, the one name that stands out is that of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who founded Biocon, one of India’s first biotech companies. Kiran started laying the foundation for Biocon in India in 1978, when women entrepreneurs were seldom heard of in the country. She overcame the challenges posed not just by gender stereotypes, but also those that arose from the fact that she was young and her business model was fairly novel at that point, with considerable élan. At a time when nobody in the country wanted to work for a start-up, Kiran proved that minimal funding sources, inadequate infrastructure and major hurdles in recruitment could be overcome if one simply had enough tenacity and belief in one’s work. In fact, she is a study in success for entrepreneurs across industry segments and genders. She is one of those women whom I thought about whenever I was going through a particularly trying patch in my own career. I always told myself that if she could do it when circumstances were twice as unconducive, so could I. I laud women like Kiran for not only paving a new path for Indian women, but also helping break that age-old, pre-conceived notion popular in India that risk-taking and business aren’t really a woman’s cup of eggnog.” 

Aparna Bhosle, ZEE’s Cluster Head (FTA and Premium Hindi and English channels):
“I believe that everyone must design their own path. Perhaps, the only fictional character who I have looked up to was Dominique Francon from Ayn Rand’s book ‘The Fountainhead’, which I had read when I was 11 years old. Dominique’s character is a thinker and is committed to facts and to the truth. I found these aspects of her character intriguing.” 

Latha Venkatesh, Executive Editor and Anchor, CNBC-TV18:
“Actually one woman and one man. My mother-in-law and my husband. They have always made me feel like the man of the house!” 

Khushnooma Kapadia, Area Director of Marketing – South Asia for Marriott International Inc:
“A large part of my personal and professional development has been largely inspired by Indra Nooyi’s trajectory. She embodies a lot of values and qualities that have inspired me to become a balanced leader. A woman that has had to balance her family responsibilities with such a spike in her career and the way she makes it sound so effortless requires emotional intelligence of a very high level. She once said that being a CEO of any company requires passion. These words have been the root of my belief. Leadership is a commitment – a commitment to your goals, to the future of your company, to the careers of your team and above all, to your family. She has taken PepsiCo to dizzying heights in terms of market share, human and environmental sustainability. If I can reach half way to where she is, I will consider my story to be a success.”