Saumya Sindhwani: You have been called the tractor queen of India and rightfully so because Tractors and Farm Equipment Limited (TAFE) has achieved so much under your leadership. The tractor industry is not traditionally an industry for women. What were the challenges that you faced?
Mallika Srinivasan: I don’t think I was particularly passionate about wanting to be in the family business. But growing up, I met inspirational business leaders such as JRD Tata. My father was a great mentor and my mother was supportive. That inspired me to join the business. Having said that, I don’t think I particularly had a choice about which part of the family business I was going to be in. That was my father’s choice.
Once I did ask my father about that. There were so many other units in the group. Could he give me one of the units to run on my own? Very interestingly, he answered that as the head of the business, it was his responsibility to match his view of the person’s capability with the type of business. He said the company was a very large canvas. By painting on that much larger canvas, my perspective will be larger.
In hindsight, that was the best decision that he took for me. I argued [with him] in the first few years. Over time, I realized that maybe if I had gone into one of the smaller businesses, my thought process would have been very different. People are fashioned by the environment in their mind.
The challenges of this business are no different from the challenges of any other business. The skill sets that one needs to run a business are two-fold. First, basic interest in the product and second, the vision to make a difference. In terms of the nitty-gritty, I don’t think the skill sets or the competencies in this business are that different, besides those dealing with the product.
Would you like to share any one challenge that shaped you as you were stepping into the business?
There is a challenge in every phase. It never stops. But, gender was the least of my challenges.
Gender was the least of my challenges.
How was your decision to join your father’s business accepted? Was it difficult to win over the confidence of the people you were working with?
Fortunately, my family is progressive. I was young when I entered this environment, which already had industry doyens at that time. Many of them were pioneers and competitors but they accepted me. I always recall the days when I walked into a government office and there was a little bit of inquisitiveness to know more about this person from the automotive industry. For an American-educated woman in the automotive industry, doors would open out of that curiosity. I found that to be quite nice and not something to get worried about. That helped.
I always tell people that if you are a woman, you have to be a couple of notches better in terms of content than the equivalent guy. Then a woman can get a lot of respect. One can make an impact by making a contribution, by being rational in one’s thought process and by bringing in a slightly different point of view. When it is evident that you have depth and content, then you don’t have to worry about acceptance.
In the early to mid-1980s, you pursued an MBA after marriage and motherhood. This was quite unusual at that time. What prompted that decision and how was the experience? Would you do it again?
Let me start by saying that I could not do it again. I was quite passionate about going [for the MBA]. My husband is a fantastic guy. He and my mother were very encouraging. I had to defer my admission twice as I was getting married and my daughter was very young. My little girl was only nine months old when I went to business school. So, I certainly needed the encouragement from my husband and the support from my mother.
Once we moved there, we did witness ups and downs but we coped with things like day-care and the harsh winters. I often had to go down to the laundry room to work because that was a less noisy place than the apartment. It was fun. When you are young, you have a spirit of enterprise and daring, which keeps you going. I think that is the spirit of youth that is so fantastic.
You and your husband are a power couple. Both of you are running successful enterprises. How did you manage to strike a balance between work, life and family? That is a common challenge that women face and usually results in women shying away from taking on new assignments.
You have to be very adaptable and flexible. Sometimes the path meanders but go with the flow. I think it is a question of having the right attitude. Physically, I was stretched. Sometimes, you have to cope with multiple things, but women are good at multi-tasking. The key is having a good positive attitude and enjoying the multi-tasking. You live more holistically.
Many Indian women perhaps do not want to sacrifice family, social life, relationships or little outings. So, we try and fill in as much as we can into our day. But one has to have the mindset to go with the flow and enjoy it. Women can have it all if they just make the effort.
Forbes says that you have a distinctive leadership style. What is that leadership trait or style that defines you?
I think I am very passionate about what I do. I like to lead with an example in that sense.
What advice would you give to young women in the workforce?
Choose what you really love to do and you enjoy doing. There is no standard model. Don’t seek to imitate anybody. You can only look at someone for inspiration but women have to see their own circumstances, interests, strengths and limitations. Within that framework, come up with something that you are comfortable with but a little bit of a stretch. Too much comfort is not good. Find something that gives you the satisfaction of accomplishment.
Too much comfort is not good. Find something that gives you the satisfaction of accomplishment.
Who was your role model?
A lot of people have been quite inspiring. There is no one role model because you can learn from everybody. I find inspiration in all the people I meet. For example, I am inspired by the wonderful business leaders with whom I interact but also the women at the JRehab Centre. 1 The handicapped women at the Centre have now made a fantastic life for themselves through their employment. Their earnings have enabled them to have confidence, to invest in themselves, to correct their illness with surgery whenever that was possible, to get married and live and live well. They are dressed so beautifully and they speak with so much confidence, it is really inspiring.
At the other end, I am inspired by those fantastic visionary business leaders. So, one can draw inspiration from various sources, and that serves well in our learning process.
What is the difference between urban and rural women in terms of capabilities and mindset in the workforce?
I am not sure if it is rural and urban in terms of the divide. Sometimes, we get into an intellectual argument with ourselves about the importance of education. Sometimes, you see a group of women who just get out and do it. That is perhaps the difference. If you want education to enable us, then think in a sharper way to take us ahead and not to draw us back.
The popular perception is that rural India is like a blue ocean for a lot of corporates. Would you agree? If so, how has it been a blue ocean for you?
It is a blue ocean for the nation now because there is so much scope for development. And if it is for the nation, then it is for corporate sector, for educationists, for social enterprise, for social workers. There is so much in terms of human development that can happen, that should happen for a nation like ours to unleash its potential.
As an organisation, we do a fair amount of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). We have various focus areas across education, empowerment, rehabilitation and a few others. We have integrated these interventions into our production itself. We also do a fair amount of work in the health space such as eye-care and cancer-care.
We have tea plantations in the Nilgiris, where we do community development, health, education, outreach and welfare programmes. We have also taken up agriculture CSR initiatives to add more value and make a difference to farmers’ occupations as we have benefited a lot from them.
But we want to add even more value. About five decades ago, we started this journey with JFarm India, an adaptive agri-research centre, where we do research and farmer training programmes, essentially to build a sustainable livelihood for farmers. We have now taken that to other parts of the country. In addition, we are working on trying to embed technology across our initiatives.Therefore, a lot of CSR is going towards agriculture to increase farm income. So, we are in agreement with our Prime Minister’s vision of doubling farm income.
We also have colleges, schools, hospitals and a Kalyana mandapam in Tirunelveli district where we have been doing business for five decades.
Do family-run businesses have a longer life-span than other organisations? Why?
The family business is the oldest form of surviving business. It is simply in the ownership, passion and the commitment. There is no holiday.
For example, one time, I went to my father and said, things are really tough. We are not getting credit in the market. He turned around to me and said, “Your family’s net worth is out in the market”. I knew from that one sentence that it was important to get it right, get those receivables back under control and get it al sorted. This is the kind of spirit with which family businesses are run. This makes family businesses long lasting.
You carry a responsibility because you are only a trustee for the family. It is not yours alone. It is something that you have to preserve and keep. The family has put its trust in you. This means that the responsibility that you carry towards all those who are near and dear to you is very high.
You carry a responsibility because you are only a trustee for the family. It is not yours alone. This means that the responsibility that you carry towards all those who are near and dear to you is very high.
The Edelman Trust Barometer that measures which institutions people trust consistently show that people don’t trust commercial organizations as much as they used. There is doubt and lack of faith attached to businesses. Do you think that there is some systemic shift that organisations need to go through in order to get that faith back?
Yes. Fundamentally, if you have to keep the faith of all stakeholders, it is critical to the long-term life, growth and prosperity of an organisation that the organisation is centred on a set of core values. Make sure that culturally, those core values are in place. You have to define them, articulate them, propagate them and institutionalise them. That is the fabric.
Many times, you have to repeat your stories of core values. You keep repeating them because only then do those stories go home. Also, you live by them. If people don’t live by them, then you have to take some corrective action. You have to visibly be seen to be correcting in order to institutionalise the value.
You need sponsors and people to be out there who stand for your core values. Once you do that, then the whole fabric of the organisation is much stronger. That has a way of permeating out in terms of a message to all the stakeholders. They know that this organisation they can trust. That is how it has to work.
And if it fails?
You can build that trust within your society and with your CSR programmes.
What do you think is the future of organisations?
The way competition is getting more global and the way technology is making business models change so rapidly, organisations that can keep their core values but yet transform and continue the transformation will succeed. It is not about making a transformation at a certain point in time but it is about continuously transforming and adapting, modifying, changing track, changing strategy, reassessing and keeping with it.
This exercise has to be done every five years technology has made a very, very big impact on this. Only organisations that combine adaptability, flexibility and innovation along with a set of core values are going to survive.
What role can women play in the future of organisations?
If you want to deliver on the vision for the organisation, you want the best talent. If you don’t use the best talent, somebody else is going to. You will not have the best talent if you choose to ignore 50% of the talent pool.
You will not get the best talent if you choose to ignore 50% of the talent pool.
Women bring a certain diversity not just in terms of gender, they bring diversity with respect to thought process, emotional quotient and many skills like multi-skilling. They look at things from a different perspective. The kind of contribution or value addition that they can bring is also quite unique.
I think there is enormous potential. We have one of the lowest participation rates for women in the workforce in this part of the world but we have not done too badly at leadership positions.
The government is doing a very good job. In fact, the government and financial services are sectors that have been leaders. But in terms of a general widespread impact, we have a long way to go. Institutions like ISB can play a very big and important role in harnessing the power, the intellectual talent and the drive and commitment that women bring to the table.
What do you think organisations need to do to include more women in business? Do you think that we need more organisations that are at least conscious of the fact that women probably have to multi-task on other priorities as well?
I don’t think our organisation has done well to retain women. Organisations, in general, should do a lot. I don’t believe numbers are the measure of success. Gender diversity in terms of numbers is not a good yardstick. One should delve into how happy your women are, the value addition, the appreciation of their thought process and whether are they seen as successful and respected.
The more we can showcase the success of these women, the more there will be a ripple effect. The movement will spread rather than being merely defined by numbers. I want to see all our women happy and successful. It is the environment that we must create. We can’t do it all alone. We need other stakeholders to help us in the process.
The revised Companies Act in 2013 has made it mandatory to have at least one woman on the Board. However, you say that numbers are not a good yardstick. What is your view on quotas as a means of achieving more women in the boardroom? What would be your advice to women joining boardrooms?
In general, numbers are not the only measure, but numbers are a good start. It is a starting point because it opens doors. First, it was that you must have one woman on the board. This move was welcomed by professional organisations and family-run businesses. It gave an opening to many who were aspiring to get there.
If you look at family businesses, for example, many family members got on the board because they were also shareholders and had an opportunity to contribute. Once you give women an opportunity to contribute, you can’t push them back.
The challenge would be to support the board. Legislation opens doors, but institutions like ISB, where the proportion of women students is the highest among all the management schools, can play an important role. ISB has already got over 3000 women alumni out there. ISB should work with your alumni and other professional women and women in family businesses who are aspiring to excel. Give them continuous encouragement and build an effective network. It is a great support group. ISB can play a very important catalytic role in building and strengthening the pipeline for leadership.
By building more networks, support groups and showcasing successes, we can spread the movement. For example, there are things that can help women join the workforce irrespective of their personal circumstances and contribute, like crèche facilities at the workplace.
There is nothing wrong with women. It is our social system and setup within which we have to make changes. We must build facilities and infrastructure such as support groups that can really aid the process of change.
According to an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) study, which did not include India, women felt singled out in the boardroom. How has your experience been? Any defining trait or traits that women in the boardroom should have?
That is not my experience in the boardroom. I will restrict my comments to India and America. These are the two geographies where I have worked. In these two, I can certainly say women do not hesitate to speak their minds. There is nothing different about women in the boardroom. I am on a board where there are other women as well. I don’t think they hesitate to give their views, because once they have got there, they are very confident. They can actually articulate strongly and politely.
Mallika Srinivasan has led a variety of industry bodies such as the Tractor Manufacturers’ Association of India, the Madras Chamber of Commerce and has also held various positions in industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry and Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. She is a member of the Executive Board of the Indian School of Business and of the Governing Board of the Rural Technology and Business Incubator of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.
Mallika Srinivasan also takes an interest in education and healthcare initiatives in India. A university gold-medalist in Econometrics from the University of Madras, she graduated as a member of the Dean’s Honour List from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.
She was awarded the Woman Leader of the Year by Forbes India, ranked second among India’s Most Powerful Women in Business by Fortune India. In 2016, BBC named Srinivasan as one of 100 influential and inspirational women around the world.