Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Monday, March 17, 2008

India Inc's CEO wives head independent firms & trusts

In a recent interview, Nita Ambani made her point: the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, her pet project, has become an institution by itself, and would not need to piggyback on the Reliance name. She’s been an energetic president of the Dhirubhai Ambani Foundation and has indicated her next big initiative will be in healthcare. Her attendance at events and parties is just as sought after as husband and world’s richest Indian Mukesh Ambani. Still, India Inc first lady says, “There is no power play between the two of us.”

There was a time when CEO wives used to be cast from the same mould. Typically non-working , they reared families with exacting standards, entertained with flawless perfection and maintained homes that could grace the pages of Architectural Digest. Today, their professional accomplishments are often entirely separate from, and match those of, their spouses.

The other Ambani wife, Tina is known to have said, “Why is it that, just because I am an industrialist’s wife, people think I don’t work?” She not only revived the premium fabric brand Harmony for Reliance, she extended its brand to India’s largest private contemporary art event and a senior citizen forum.

Many CEO wives don’t even want the credit for being the “power behind the power” and stake no claim in their husband’s achievements. Like Rohini Nilekani, wife of Infosys managing director Nandan Nilekani, says, “I cannot claim to have played any great role in shaping his career at Infosys. He has always been meticulous about keeping his office and personal life separate.” She has had her own professional course to chart out - the roster of non-profit organisations that she chairs is exhaustive and after her journalistic career tapered off she took to authoring fiction.

The life as a CEO wife is far from easy. Being the ceremonial fixture at company events, engaging in ‘first lady’ diplomacy with employee families, not to mention their husbands’ punishing schedules that always intrude on family time. Trotting the globe as travelling companions might be a perk but can be exhausting. Mala Ramadorai has just returned from a trip to Japan; travelling with husband and TCS chief S Ramadorai - who she says is “married to TCS first” - is her way of getting time with him.

Rohini Nilekani says the same of her husband, who is known to work 14 hour days. “Infosys always came first; it is only over the past five years that Nandan has been able to balance his work and family life,” she says.
Sometimes, the solution lies in working alongside their husbands in company CSR (Corporate Social responsibility) projects.

Ramadorai, a PhD in music and a Hindustani classical singer, gave up a full-time career some years ago, to focus her time on the CSR projects at TCS. “I decided that if he was putting so much of his energy into something, the best thing I could do as a wife was enhance his role.” It started with her brainchild Maitree, meant to provide TCS wives with a forum to interact and to build a sense of an extended family among employees. By finding ways for the wives of employees to contribute , she in a sense was encouraging them to step out from under their husbands’ shadows. “If their time is spent productively, there is less time to crib about husbands coming home late,” she laughs.

Her counterpart in Bangalore, Sudha Murty, is similarly, the powerhouse behind the work of Infosys Foundation, a public charitable trust. She was writing software code in the modest early days of Infosys and there are many who would credit her with being the silent force behind the rise of the IT giant.

Clearly, there are some CEO couples, like Narayana and Sudha Murthy that naturally create a public perception of a powerful partnership. When the former General Electric chief executive Jack Welsh left his second wife to marry writer and leadership coach Suzy Wetlaufer, few realised that out of their union would emerge a brand with a combined equity greater, as they say, than the sum of its parts. They now write columns and author books together and it is said Suzy does most of the writing.

Similarly, Bill and Melinda Gates, as the name of their Foundation suggests, are an inseparable his-and-hers operation. Thrust into a very public role as the world’s most powerful philanthropist (she is said to wield greater influence when it comes to funds allocation ) might mean that Melinda is a regular feature on the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women, but it isn’t without a downside. She has to endure digs made at her for being powerful only by marriage.

“There are enough people who will make hurtful remarks about me deriving public attention by virtue of my husband,” says Mala Ramadorai. “I make it clear that I am not a TCS employee and will never command a salary from the company for the work I do.”

It is this public scrutiny that makes some wives want to retreat their relationship from public view. Like Anuradha Mahindra, publisher of magazines like Verve and the wife of Anand Mahindra , vice-chairman and managing director, Mahindra and Mahindra says, “We don’t like our professional lives to overlap , and I certainly don’t like to talk about our relationship too much.” At the recent launch of the India edition of the iconic Rolling Stones magazine, publisher Mahindra was photographed in her professional capacity alone, despite her husband’s appearance . Similarly, marketing consultant Kamini Banga, the coauthor of The 86% Solution and the wife of Unilever’s HPC division chief Vindi Banga always made took care to consult neither HUL brands nor competing brands.

Still, there are some spouses who choose to be identified first as wives to their CEO husbands. Neerja Birla, wife of Kumar Mangalam Birla, makes it clear that her family comes first; few know she serves on the board of some of the Birla companies. Her mother-in-law Rajashree raves about her unstinting support to the family. In fact, the women in the Birla family take pride in playing a pivotal role in the success of the group’s endeavours by being the pillars of their strength.

“It is certainly important to me that I create a happy and positive environment at home so he (Mukesh) can do his best at work,” says Nita Ambani. While in most cases these CEO wives are happy to play principal home-maker , they agree that once home, their husbands need to forget they’re hot-shot CEOs. “We are just husband and wife at home. For me, it is that relationship that matters the most,” says Murty.

The family’s role, according to Nilekani, is very clear, and that is to always to make sure that Nandan does not get too sure of himself. “I’m afraid the kids and I bring him back to earth quite resoundingly rather often,” she says.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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