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The new entrants

By Anand Adhikari     September 24, 2007

Destiny’s Child

For a woman who never planned her career moves, Roopa Kudva has done exceedingly well.

Roopa Kudva
44/ MD & CEO/ CRISIL
Education: Degree in Statistics and MBA from IIM-A
Work Experience: 21 years
Career High: Becoming Executive Director of CRISIL in 2002
Hobbies: Reading biographies
Success Mantra: Be focussed whether at work or at home

Roopa Kudva
 

It was October 1992, and Roopa Kudva had just finished a consortium meeting at IDBI when, on an impulse, she decided to cold call Pradeep Shah. Just days before she had read an interview of his in a business magazine where the Founder-Director of the up-and-coming rating agency, CRISIL, had talked about opening offices in cities such as Bangalore. And Kudva, who was a management trainee with the development finance institution IDBI, was looking to move to the Garden City because her husband (Vivek Kudva, President at Franklin Templeton Asset Management, India) had got a job there. Shah may have been surprised by the gate crasher, but he was not unimpressed. He ended up offering her a job as CRISIL’s Senior Rating Analyst in Bangalore.

Fifteen years on, Kudva, an IIM-A alumna, is CRISIL’s Managing Director and CEO and leads a team of 1,500 people, of whom almost 30 per cent are women. Her goal now is to sustain CRISIL’s market leadership in ratings, research and offshoring businesses. “We will continue to focus on offering innovative and high quality services to our customers,” says Kudva. A fitness freak, she works 10 hours a day but never fails to hit the gym, even if it means doing so at two in the afternoon. Kudva says that she makes it a point to manage her time well so that neither her work nor home suffers. And that’s her advice to her colleagues as well.

The $19-bn Woman

Meet the woman who’s kept capitalcoming for ICICI’s furious growth.

Vishakha Mulye
38/ Group CFO and Treasurer/ ICICI Bank
Education: B.Com & Chartered Accountant
Work Experience: 16 years
Career High: Elevated as ICICI Bank’s CFO in 2005
Hobbies: Work-related stuff
Success Mantra: Dedication and hard work

How long does it take to go from management trainee to Group CFO at what is now India’s second-largest bank? If you are Vishakha Mulye, then about just a dozen years. Just like the financial services giant that she works for, Mulye, 38, has blazed through the ranks to occupy one of the most important jobs in ICICI.

Vishakha Mulye

Ever since Mulye, who was born and brought up in Maharashtra, took over as ICICI Bank’s CFO and Treasurer in August 2005, she has raised nearly $7 billion in equity—via two public offerings of $1.8 billion and $5 billion—and another $12 billion from international markets. That makes this chartered accountant the only woman CFO to have raised so much money in a matter of two years. “ICICI Bank has been growing at a scorching pace and needs capital to support the high growth,” says Mulye as a matter of fact.

A commerce graduate from Mumbai’s H.R. College, Vishakha always wanted to be a chartered accountant. In fact, she cut her teeth in accounting and finance at her dad’s books business. After finishing her chartered accountancy, Mulye joined ANZ Grindlays Bank in 1991 in the merchant banking division—an experience that completely changed her outlook towards finance, she says. A year later, Mulye got an offer from Hindustan Lever and Deutsche Bank. She chose the German bank and joined its corporate finance team. That was also the time when the Harshad Mehta scam had broken out and there was little happening in merchant banking.

But her stint at DB proved to be short-lived; she worked for less than three months before accepting an offer from her ‘dream employer’, ICICI. The turning point in her career at ICICI, says Mulye, came when K.V. Kamath returned from the Asian Development Bank to ICICI in 1996 as the Managing Director. “There was a lot of activity following Kamath’s return,’ says Mulye, who loves trekking and travelling.

Her biggest challenge now, she says, is to keep raising capital to fuel ICICI’s growth. Going by her recent performance, she isn’t doing too badly.

HR High Priestess

FMCG giant Hindustan Unilever’s first, and youngest, woman Executive Director is an HR ace.

Leena Nair
37/ Executive Director (HR), Hindustan Unilever
Education: BE Electronics and MBA from XLRI
Work Experience: 15 years
Career High: First woman ED at HUL
Hobbies: Bollywood movies, reading, outdoor sports and travelling
Success Mantra: Look for a win-win in every situation

It’s a hat trick, in some sense. Leena Nair isn’t just the first woman to make it to Hindustan Unilever’s Management Committee (MC), but also the youngest Executive Director (ED) and that too one in charge of not a profit centre, but human resources. As the HR boss, Nair heads a team of 250 people who look into the well-being of about 15,000 employees across 70 different locations in the country, including 45 factories and four regional offices.

Leena Nair

The 37-year-old Nair joined Hindustan Lever (as it was known until recently) straight out of XLRI, Jamshedpur, 15 years ago, and has risen quickly through the ranks. From being a factory personnel manager to management development planning manager to HR manager for the detergents business, Nair has been there, done that.

But how does it feel to become the youngest and only woman Executive Director on the MC in HUL’s history? “It is definitely a big honour for me because HUL is not just a big organisation with a great history and heritage, but (my elevation is) also a testimony to how much HR is valued here,” says the tall and trim Nair.

She could say that again. Until recently, in most organisations, HR didn’t get a seat at the high table. For one, HR wasn’t seen as a profit centre and, for another, it was not considered strategic enough. But with talent becoming scarce and the only real differentiator at most companies, boards are waking up to the strategic importance of human resources.

No wonder, Nair says her challenge is straightforward. “We have to do well and excel to make a difference to the organisation. My team must also make a difference to excellence in HR in the company and in the country,” she says.

On staying put at the FMCG giant, Nair says, “When your job is interesting and you are feeling stretched and challenged, and when you have great bosses and you are working with talented people, you don’t want to leave.” HUL must be hoping that she can spread the same kind of enthusiasm around the organisation.

Lifelong Learner

The one-time bank clerk is now the gamekeeper for FIIs and stock market debutants.

Usha Narayanan
55/ Executive Director/ SEBI
Education: MA in Economics & Political Science and Masters in Business Law
Work Experience: 37 years
Career High: Being the first woman from within SEBI to become Executive Director
Hobbies: Reading and Music
Success Mantra: Work hard, but don’t ignore home

Thirty seven years ago, she came to Mumbai to take care of her ailing sister but went on to make history. Usha Narayanan is the only woman from within stock market regulator SEBI’s ranks to have become an Executive Director. Prior to her, Pradip Kar was the only other insider to rise to this post, which has normally gone to outsiders.

Usha Narayanan
 

Today, the 55-year-old Narayanan is in charge of all matters relating to foreign institutional investors (FIIs) and the primary market. What makes her job even more important today is the boom in both FII investments and IPOs. In the last eight months till August 2007, for instance, FIIs have poured in over Rs 35,000 crore in net investment, and companies have raised more than Rs 34,000 crore in IPO. “SEBI is a happening place and there is a lot to learn. The job is demanding and there are challenges, but you have to take it as it comes and not worry about them,” says Narayanan.

Don’t mistake that for fatalism, though. This is a woman who has built her career from scratch. Forced to take up a job as a clerk with the Bank of India soon after she finished school, Narayanan completed her graduation in economics and commerce from Delhi University, and then her post graduation in economics and political science from Mumbai University. Three years ago, she completed her masters in business law from the National Law School in Bangalore, and now plans to pursue a doctorate in law. “My only regret is I didn’t learn to play any musical instrument,” says Narayanan.

Although into her mid-50s, Narayanan still works long hours but makes sure her home doesn’t suffer for it. “I still cook food before I come to office and even after I go home. I have never missed any parentteacher meetings at my son’s school, who is now in the US completing his engineering,” she says. Always a music lover, Narayanan has also been interested in bhajans and satsangs over the last eight years. “Apart from peace of mind, it helps me to understand life better,” she says. When your job involves tracking a stock market roller coaster, it makes sense to stay calm and collected.

The Tax Woman of Mumbai

In India’s business capital, she’s the most important lady bureaucrat.

Mala Ramakrishnan
57/ Chief Commissioner of Income Tax/ Mumbai
Education: Post Graduate in Political Science
Work Experience: 35 years
Career High: Current position CCIT, Mumbai
Hobbies: Listening to Carnatic music and playing with her grandchildren
Success Mantra: Set high targets and systematically achieve them

Unlike most of the women featured in these pages, Mala Ramakrishnan doesn’t run a large business. But you can be sure that should she decide to call any CEO in Mumbai, her call will be answered with alacrity.

That’s because Ramakrishnan, an Indian Revenue Services officer of the 1972 batch, is the Chief Commissioner of Income Tax in a city that’s not just India’s commercial capital but also the one that fetches over a third of the country’s income tax. “The key challenge (in my job) will be to use resources optimally,” says the lady.

Mala Ramakrishnan
 

Barely a month into the job, Ramakrishnan comes from an illustrious background. Her husband, S. Ramakrishnan, is the Executive Director of Tata Power; her brother T. K. Balaji is the Managing Director of Lucas-TVS; her two sisters were also distinguished bureaucrats, with one retiring as the Cadre Controlling Chief Commissioner of Income Tax for Karnataka (that means, she was the seniormost CCIT and also the administrative head), and the other as Member, Post & Telegraph Board, in New Delhi. “I owe it to my parents, predominantly my father, for what I am. My siblings, my husband and children, too, have played a huge role,” she says.

Over the last three decades in IRS, Ramakrishnan has handled a variety of assignments. An alumna of Chennai’s prestigious Stella Maris College and Presidency College, where she did her masters in political science, Ramakrishnan was previously Chief Commissioner of Thane and prior to that the Chief Vigilance Officer at Lubrizol India, a state-owned enterprise. “I look at my key strengths as administration, setting targets and finally achieving them,” says Ramakrishnan, who loves carnatic music and spending time with her grandchildren. She has two children, both of whom work in the financial services industry. As for her new role, Ramakrishnan says that she is very proud of her colleagues for their technical knowledge and what she terms “extraordinary skills”. Mumbai had better watch out.

Southern Surprise

She is the only woman CEO in the conservative, Rs 17,220-crore Shriram Group.

Akhila Srinivasan
46/ MD/ Shriram Life Insurance
Education: MPhil in Economics, currently pursuing PhD
Work Experience: 21 years
Career High: Becoming the MD of Shriram Investments
Hobbies: Listening to classical music
Success Mantra: Believe in team power and build winning teams

Akhila Srinivasan
 

Like most girls from traditional Tamil Brahmin families in Chennai, Akhila Srinivasan, 46, did not set out for a career in the hurly-burly world of financial services. It just happened. It was 1986 and Srinivasan had just completed her post graduate degree in economics and was contemplating a career either in the civil services or academia. Instead, she ended up joining the Chennai-based Shriram Group as an executive trainee in marketing, never mind that she had been married for just two years.

By 1993, Srinivasan had become General Manager of the company, President a year later, and MD by 2000. The late ’90s weren’t the easiest of times for nonbanking financial services companies in Chennai; an industry crisis had felled several nidhis and chit funds in the city, but Shriram survived the crisis because of the image it had built up over the years. In a show of confidence, private equity investor ChrysCapital picked up stake in Shriram’s truck financing business for Rs 100 crore in 2005, and a year later Newbridge Capital bought stake for Rs 450 crore.

Srinivasan, who is the only woman executive of her rank in the group, has also been instrumental in striking global alliances for her group companies. Those include Melawar Group of Malaysia for an education venture, Singapore’s Sembawang for a logistics joint venture (subsequently exited), and the Sanlam Group of South Africa for life insurance.

As the Managing Director of the life insurance business for about two years now, Srinivasan says her joint venture has had to face stiff competition due to its late entry into the business. “Managing a start-up has its own challenges,’’ says Srinivasan, whose husband runs a stock-broking firm in Chennai. Nonetheless, the company has managed to mop up a premium of Rs 114 crore in the first year (85,000 policies were sold) and had expenses of Rs 25 crore—the lowest expense ratio in the industry.

Outside of work, Srinivasan is an Honorary Consul of the government of the Netherlands, has been running the Shriram Social Welfare Trust since 1993, and has been solely responsible for the group’s CSR activities. She also believes in daily yoga and meditation to beat stress. Most of all, she believes in doing unto her team members what the group has done for her, and which is to empower and reward people for their hard work.

Toys, Tea and Beyond

She’s at the fulcrum of Tata Tea’s growth into a much broader market.

Sangeeta Talwar
51/ Executive Director/ Tata Tea
Education: Economics Honours; MBA from IIM-C
Work Experience: Nestle, Mattel, Tata Tea
Career High: Being the first woman on Nestle's executive cadre
Hobbies: Sudoku, travelling
Success Mantra: If you want to leave your footprints in the sand, don't drag your feet

On a cloudy monday evening in Bangalore, 51-year-old Sangeeta Talwar, Executive Director, Tata Tea, is glued to her computer as she tries to delicately balance her travel schedule and meetings over the next month. Talwar, who is on the board of Tetley, Oriental Hotels and IIM Calcutta, besides her day-to-day responsibilities at Tata Tea, uses a multicoloured index to track her complex schedule.

Sangeeta Talwar

“I am usually travelling for three days every week for one of my many roles,” laughs Talwar, who has just returned from one such trip and is already getting set to jet off overseas when she squeezes time out for BT. Over the last few months, Talwar has been exceptionally busy as she steers the evolution of Tata Tea from a once frumpy tea maker into a more hip outfit, making and selling a broader range of teas and more recently edging into the beverages market. “We have become the largest company in India by volume and are close behind in value,” she says.

While Tata Tea has a 20 per cent share in the Indian tea market, Talwar, an economics graduate and IIM-C alum, is at the fulcrum of the company’s growth into a much broader market. “We’ve started with bottled water and we will extend this into more categories in future,” says Talwar, who likes to take a crack at a difficult Sudoku puzzle when she wants to relax from her gruelling schedule. Before joining and revitalising Tata Tea, she held a variety of cross-functional roles during a two-decade-long stint at Nestle, ranging from field sales to overhauling the company’s HR processes, before making an interesting career switch to head toy-maker Mattel’s operations in India.

While working with a young team and fiddling with the latest collection of toys kept Talwar running the place for a couple of years, her daughter’s exams meant she had to step off the gas for a bit and focus on her personal life. “Once my daughter was done with exams and entered St. Stephen’s, I decided to get back to work and eventually Tata Tea,” she says.

Being a career woman has meant that she has leant heavily on her family, when she has had to undertake new assignments and push herself to the limit. For example, the opportunity to work with Nestle (where she was the first woman in the company’s executive cadre) in Switzerland came with its own set of issues; Talwar had to take her young daughter with her and her in-laws took turns flying in from India to look after her. In another instance, when Talwar’s husband was admitted to hospital, she literally worked on the floor of his ward and had a colleague pick up her work once she was done. “I have worked with a European and an American company and there has been no glass ceiling in any of them,” she says.

The Inclusive Banker

As RBI’s Deputy Governor, Usha Thorat drives financial inclusion of the unbanked.

Usha Thorat
57/ Deputy Governor/ Reserve Bank of India
Education: MA (Economics), Delhi School of Economics
Work Experience: 35 years
Career High: Becoming Executive Director in 2003
Hobbies: Bird watching & yoga

How’s this for market opportunity? OUT of the 203 million households in the country, more than 45 million have no access to credit, while 65 million households have no access to formal sources of credit.

Usha Thorat
 

One would think that should be enough to have the bankers in India licking their chops. But the fact is, that’s far from the case. Most of such households in the country are unbanked for one simple reason: they are poor. Therefore, the government must push the banks to lend to such customers. And as the Reserve Bank of India’s Deputy Governor in charge of credit guarantee and rural planning, among others, it often comes down to Usha Thorat to crack the whip on the reluctant banks.

One of the things that the central bank has done since November 2005 (Thorat was appointed as Deputy Governor in the same month) is to ask banks to make available “no-frills” savings account for anyone who wants one. Result: Some 6 million no-frills accounts were opened between March 2006 and 2007. “Financial inclusion is being viewed by these banks as a huge business opportunity (by India’s public sector banks),” Thorat, 57, told audience at a UK Treasury conference in June this year. Incidentally, Thorat’s husband, Y. S. P. Thorat, is the Chairman of NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), another institution that makes credit available to poor and needy customers like farmers.

In some sense, Thorat is the government’s ambassador for inclusive banking, and that’s what makes her more powerful than the other lady Deputy Governor, Shyamala Gopinath, who looks after expenditure and budgetary control, non-banking supervision and the legal department. When floods ravaged large parts of Bihar and Orissa recently, she made a strong pitch to bankers to mitigate the plight of flood victims by offering them loans, since the rabi season was round the corner.

It is such earnestness that has ensured Thorat’s steady climb within the central bank over the years. After completing her master’s degree in economics from the Delhi School of Economics, Thorat joined RBI in 1972. She became the bank’s Executive Director in 2004 and a year later when the then Deputy Governor (RBI has four deputy governors) K.J. Uddeshi retired. Well known for her powerful and lucid presentations, Thorat is one of the few RBI honchos who speak on behalf of the central bank.

A yoga enthusiast, Thorat, who wasn’t available to speak with BT for this profile, also looks after currency management—an issue that has become extremely important both due to India’s rising pile of foreign exchange and a stronger rupee. Meanwhile, it’s financial inclusion where the action seems to be. RBI is setting up financial literacy centres and credit counselling on a pilot basis, tapping informal credit sources to spread its reach, and even using IT solutions to facilitate low-cost banking. Thorat has another three years to go before she retires. Hopefully, by then, she would have helped spread banking to millions more.

(With Anusha Subramanian, Mahesh Nayak, Krishna Gopalan, Nitya Varadarajan, Rahul Sachitanand and Anand Adhikari)


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