Chitra Subramaniam| The News Minute| October 16, 2014| 8.30 pm IST
Her school friends in Bihar will tell you she was among the best, focused and committed. So it came as no surprise to anyone when Revathy Ashok went on to take a gold medal from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore at a time when few women joined the management school.
Then there was no stopping her and her visiting card included many top jobs in India and abroad including being the first group CFO of Syntel, an American IT company listed in Nasdaq. Ashok, who now spends her time between making Bangalore a better place to live and advising companies on how to start-up and scale, has just returned from Australia where she represented Indian business at a major ocean rim conference. She spoke to Chitra Subramaniam, Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute (TNM) on what the world expects from India, what it was to work in an all-male environment and what young women entering the job-market should do and not do. Excerpts:
You have just returned from the Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers Summit in Australia. What are some of your take-aways?
I felt very proud and privileged to have been invited to represent India from the business side. India was the previous Chair of the Association and Australia the current Chair. It is the 3rd largest Ocean in the world, accounts for 30% of the world’s population, 29% of world trade going through this region and growing at 14% p.a since the year 2000. It has 2/3rds of the world oil resources, 40% of world gold deposits, 90% of diamond deposits and 60% of Uranium deposits.
It is a region of great strategic importance and potential which has not been exploited.
The region has enormous diversity, and hence enormous potential for trade, investment and cultural exchange provided we have a comprehensive program to leverage this potential with clear targets. There is also great opportunity for carrying forward the agenda of women’s economic empowerment which is one of the agendas of the Association.
It has countries with a GDP per capita of USD 60,000 p.a to countries with GDP per capita of USD 467 p.a …..Hence, the opportunity to build nations by building their infrastructure backbone, manufacture goods and provide services to the aspirational citizens of these countries.
But in order to realize this potential, there also needs to be sharp focus on maritime safety along this region.
There is a lot of interest in India as a potential market – what were some of the echoes around this in our neighbourhood?
Yes, people are excited about the Indian market, they were very eager to know about the Modi Government’s new “Make in India” thrust , the regulatory environment, India’s infrastructure challenge and what we as business people thought of the investment climate. There was also a lot of focus on sustainable development in the region and protecting some of the very vulnerable ecological systems in the region .
You were the first India CFO of a Nasdaq-listed IT company? How was it then? What has changed?
Yes, that was an interesting experience with many firsts. I was India’s only CFO heading a US based Nasdaq-listed IT company out of India. Others were Indian companies listed in the Indian markets as well as the Nasdaq. My team was based in India and I shuttled between India and the US because our investors were all in the US. Even today there are very few women CFO’s in our country.
Banking and financial services was a very male dominated sector – share some of your experiences for our readers?
Another interesting experience was when I was the Managing Director of a large Global Real Estate Private Equity Firm, one among 100 global partners. My international colleagues would always wonder how India had produced so many top notch women professionals in the banking world. We have seven women CEOs heading Indian Banks globally or as heads of International Banks in India. This phenomenon is unique to our country and has not happened anywhere else in the world. It demonstrates that meritocracy prevails and that our institutions are able to accept women in top leadership positions.
Is India ready for women entrepreneurs without any family background of business?
Scaleable entrepreneurship itself is a relatively recent phenomenon in India. We have some women entrepreneurs who have made their mark Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms, Vandana Luthra of VLCC, Shanaz Hussain etc…. But now we are seeing a younger breed of young tech savvy entrepreneurs who are either creating technology products or are using technology to power their business. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of Biocon, Meena Ganesh , serial entrepreneur now running Portea Medical, Dr. Sunita Maheshwari of Telerad RxDx, Aruna Schwarz of Khemeia Technologies and Dr. Villoo Patell of Avesthagen are some examples of women who have been trail blazing in their respective fields.
How difficult was it for women in your time to manage work and home – has it become better or worse?
During my early days in manufacturing and general contracting, I was the only woman in the office other than secretaries. Therefore I had no opportunity to give this situation any thought. Today the ecosystem is much better developed to respond to the woman’s work – life -balance needs during the critical years of child rearing. Work from home is a great boon, so is use of technology that can reduce travel to some extent.
The diversity leads in various organisations do a fair bit to support women executives in their journey to leadership though lot more needs to be done. Computer Science degrees attract a lot of women in India almost 50% in some cases… but by the time they get to the work force this drops to 30% and by the time we reach Senior Leadership and Board levels, it drops to a mere 4%. So we have a lot of work to do to stem this leakage.
What is your advice to women entering the job market?
Be bold, and decisive, believe in yourself. Our track record of institutional acceptance of women at the work-place is better than most developed countries, but it is our social institutions that are holding back our women. So be cognizant of the forces that pull you down and work consciously towards overcoming these hurdles and the world is yours to grab.
Safety is a major issue for women in India. What are some of the solutions you propose as the CEO of BPAC
As more women come out of the cloistered confines of their homes to the work place and more visible in public spaces, the menace of sexual abuse and violence against women has grown. It is a shame that we are not in a position to provide a safe environment for our women and children. This is a big agenda for us at B.PAC. We run a B.SAFE program where we are very focused on safety of women and children in public spaces and in the work space and schools. Safety of women has to take center -stage in the minds of citizens, men or women… we plan to have a sustained public awareness campaign on women and child safety much like the anti-tobacco campaign, encourage use of safety apps on the phone and self defense training, awareness sessions in schools and colleges where the children learn to respect each other irrespective of gender, encourage women to report offences promptly and fearlessly, advocacy for timely police and judicial action. Many many things… the list is endless.
BPAC is trying to make an impact on the city of Bangalore – from garbage disposal to safety, traffic regulations to environment. Where are the pain points?
Yes we have an ambitious agenda with a three pronged approach – Advocacy with the political leadership and the bureaucracy, active civic engagement so that a vigilant citizenry becomes a pressure point on the government and grass roots governance where we create proof of concepts around these areas , demonstrate to government and to citizens that change is possible and then encourage various stake holders, Government, citizens , corporates and NGOs to come together and scale these efforts. The biggest pain point is things simply take too long.
Visible change is slow and requires enormous patience and resilience and underlying corruption slow down efforts even furthe. We have chosen the easy way out by privatizing our lives whether it be security, water, mobility… anything… That makes us indifferent to the world around us. We have to drive the change and make it happen. This is not for the fainthearted.
Would you say that living conditions in Bangalore have deteriorated? How can this be turned around?
Yes, they have drastically deteriorated. This city has grown phenomenally from a 2 Mn population to a 10 Mn population in just 10 years - fastest in the world. I have spoken to many civic experts globally and they all say that such an unprecedented growth in such a short time-frame has not been experienced before and is bound to put pressure on the best planned systems. We have to have a big bold audacious vision for a Smart City that is safe, green, clean , a city that is mobile , culturally vibrant, ecologically sustainable and economically viable. This is the framework we have put together for a Smart City and we are all working very hard to realize this vision. Maybe we will succeed in leaving a better Bangalore for our grandchildren. Future will tell.
What would you advise foreign investors seeking to come to India?
Come here with all humility, be engaged, understand the market, visit several times a year… have patience and come for the long haul. There are no quick wins here. India has a very unique price value equation that investors sometimes fail to understand and pay dearly for it.
As we speak, a student from Manipur has been attacked in Bangalore…what has happened to the city?
The incident of attack on the youth was very unfortunate. It does not reflect the sentiment of an average citizen of Karnataka. We are a diverse state, a melting pot of many cultures, India’s only global city in outlook. Yes, there are some extreme elements that try to bring down the success by such untoward incidents. We should take strong action against miscreants, demonstrate that rule of law will prevail and give confidence to citizens that all are welcome. Infact, the migrants from the North East are respected by the common man for their hospitality and graciousness. New York and San Francisco are successful because they attract the best talent globally… Bangalore will be successful when we learn to accept all cultures gracefully and attract the best of the best.