a job that's harder than the CEO's? Try being his wife. Here's how
the typical job description reads. Wanted: Girl with above-average
looks and IQ. Must be able to cope with pressures of the husband's
job, put his interests above her own, manage the household independently
even as the husband travels 20 days a month. Must raise children
to the exacting standards of the husband. In case of joint families,
must take care of the in-laws as well. And, oh, must absolutely
make a charming host.
Now, on top of this, try becoming a record-setting
insurance agent, a successful entrepreneur, an innovative educationist,
a hot-shot professional, an acclaimed business historian, or simply
a symbol of hope for the wretched. Difficult? You bet. Impossible?
Not quite. Take a look at our list of First Wives of India Inc.-25
of them to be precise. Unlike their famous husbands, our ladies
don't make the stuff of pink dailies and business magazines. Yet,
despite living in the overwhelming shadow of their famous husbands,
they have managed to carve out a meaningful life for themselves.
A life that, despite its mundane familial demands, touches numerous
others in a variety of ways.
So what makes these privileged women leave
the relative comfort of their homes to try and fulfill a myriad
difficult roles? The answer ranges from a "if we don't, who
will?" of Geetanjali Kirloskar to "it's my way of flirting
with my husband" (Ritu Nanda) to "to me money is not a
means of pleasure, but a tool to heal" (Sudha Murthy). Whatever
be the answer, the underlying thread is the same. These are women
with great passion, boundless energy, and plenty of creativity.
Still, they'll be the first to admit that when
you are a CEO's wife, your husband and your family take precedence.
Got a late evening meeting that clashes with the dinner your husband
is hosting for a foreign partner? Better reschedule your meeting.
Planning a business tour? Go ahead, but make sure it doesn't clash
with your children's exams. The point: While these women are ambitious
personally, they are not crusaders out to change the world. Instead
they are very smart and very fortunate women, who, in their different
and limited ways, are living out what they passionately believe
Ladies and gentlemen, allow us to introduce
to you, in alphabetical order, the Amazing First Wives of India
Two days after
an earthquake struck Gujarat in January 2001, Nita Ambani flew into
Anjar armed with relief supplies and words of encouragement. While
the devastation moved her, it didn't petrify her. How? Only three
years ago, she had helped her husband and Reliance Industries Chairman
Mukesh Ambani, get the Jamnagar plant-devastated by a cyclone-up
and running in a mere 14 days. But hers was more than just an extra
pair of hands; Ambani had actually conceived the school, medical
centre, and the market that the world's largest grassroots refinery
built as part of its township. Apparently, that hard work has become
addictive. These days, the 40-year-old trained dancer is up to her
neck in work at the Dhirubhai Ambani International School that she
opened in Bandra-Kurla Complex in November last year. The 1,30,000
sq ft school, which already has well-heeled parents queuing up,
plans to keep children "rooted locally and yet build them into
future global citizens". The school's hand-picked faculty includes
PhDs and foreign-educated teachers. But then you wouldn't expect
anything but world class from an Ambani.
Spreading Colours of Joy
Whenever Tina Ambani
drops by at the R&D department of Reliance Industries' textiles
division, she gets listened to. Not because she's the Vice Chairman
and Managing Director Anil Ambani's missus, but also because she's
its proven muse. Twelve years ago, the Institute of Interior Designers
(Los Angeles)-trained designer helped Reliance rejuvenate a brand
of premium fabric called Harmony. And for the last four years, the
former Bollywood star has been the division's ambassador to the
annual Heimtextil exhibition in Germany.
But since 1996, Harmony has come to mean more
than just premium fabric to Ambani and hundreds of others. Every
year, she organises a Harmony Show that serves as a springboard
to promising artists. That's a few hundred artists who've benefited
in the last eight years. Last year's show marked another turning
point for Harmony. It offered the forum to Aseema, a Mumbai-based
NGO that rehabilitates street children. Thanks to Harmony's support,
children of the municipal school run by Aseema soon had their school
building renovated. "It is Harmony for a social cause. We are
able to reach out to other areas as well," says Ambani, who
has two sons of her own, Jai Anmol, 11, and Jai Anshul, 7.
Harmony, it seems, finds its own natural flow.
Earlier, in November 1999, Ambani organised an art auction and contributed
to the restoration of Elephanta Island, a world heritage site near
Mumbai. She also set up the Elephanta site museum in association
with the Archaeological Survey of India, Unesco, INTACH and the
Maharashtra government. In days to come, Ambani plans to do something
for the elderly, although she hasn't finalised the scope or nature
of the work. Says she: "At the end of the day, you feel good
that you have done something meaningful and helped others."
And as the gracious lady is proving, it's a wide canvas that she
is working with.
When your husband
heads the largest FMCG company in India and you are a brand consultant
yourself, there are some simple rules you need to follow. For one,
no consulting for brands that conflict with those of your hubby's
company. And at the Banga household, that rule is followed to the
T. "For the last three years, I have not worked on brands that
could conflict with Hindustan Lever's," reveals Kamini Banga,
better half of HLL CEO, M.S. "Vindi" Banga. That's just
as well. After all, Banga-an IIM-A grad-has been a top consultant
since 1996, when she set up Dimensions Consultancy, with clients
including Cadbury, Knoll Pharma, even HLL. The 48-year-old Banga
has also consulted on ethnic issues for a clutch of British organisations
including British Airways and the BBC. Currently, Banga-she is recovering
from a surgery- is working on two books: One on leadership, and
the other, a collaboration with Jerry Wind of Wharton on marketing.
Also coming up is a book of poems. "It's about people like
me who go through traumatic experiences. When I fell ill and realised
I had malignancy, I was traumatised," says Banga. Watch out
for the comeback of brand Banga.
|Sukanya Bharat Ram (fourth from right) with
Indi Brar (second from right) at the trust campus: Making
SUKANYA BHARAT RAM &
A Friendly Act
To the casual visitor,
the Kasturba Trust in Delhi's Bakhtawarpur Village looks like a
desultory collection of hutments. But ask the 50-odd abandoned girls
who live inside this modest enclave, and they'll tell you that it
means the world to them. And if these girls now have a future to
look forward to, it's part courtesy two friends: Sukanya Bharat
Ram and Indi Brar, who've been marshalling resources to support
these unfortunate girls. While Bharat Ram-wife of DCM Benetton's
Vivek Bharat Ram and great grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi (her
mother's father was Devdas Gandhi)-has been associated with the
trust for the last 10 years and is now head of the Delhi chapter.
Brar, wife of Ranbaxy CEO D.S. Brar, is a relatively new crusader,
having been roped in by Bharat Ram about six years ago. The Bakhtawarpur
trust, founded in 1945 to improve the lot of rural women, not just
offers a home and vocational training courses to abandoned girls,
but also operates creches for pre-school children. In some cases,
it has even helped the girls wed. Says Bharat Ram, who grew up in
Italy: "It's been a tremendous experience. That way, the trust
has given more to me than I have to it." Adds Brar, who's a
hobby interior designer and a volunteer teacher at a Delhi slum:
"I saw my mother do a lot of social work when I was growing
up. And I know how much a little help can mean to somebody who is
desperate." The girls of Bakhtawarpur couldn't agree more.
Lesson Well Learnt
She must be every
kid's dream mom. When her teenage daughter complained about the
quality of education in her school, Manju Bharat Ram addressed the
problem by opening a school of her own-The Shriram School. Save
for the fact that it didn't have senior classes, Bharat Ram's daughter
would have been the school's first student. But there are other
children that the 57-year-old mother of three, and wife of SRF's
Arun Bharat Ram, is making happy through her school, which, like
some other progressive schools, focuses more on learning than teaching.
Says Bharat Ram, who's also worked to promote the cause of rural
craftsmen and the blind: "The idea is simple. To help every
child realise its full potential not only in academics, but as a
human being." Truly, a lesson for all.
For somebody with
(self-admittedly) no head for numbers, Avanti Birla hasn't done
too badly. Two years ago, when her global search for designer furniture
yielded little that she liked, Birla-Yash Birla's better half-set
up a store of her own, called Yantra. Then came Birla Lifestyle,
which operates Coffee Mantra (a coffee shop), Image Inc. (a personal
grooming advisory) and riah (that's hair spelt backwards), a hair
salon. Says Birla: "My businesses are a desire fulfilled."
As any CEO will tell you, get the business right, the numbers will
take care of themselves.
Art For Heart's Sake
Every month, Neerja
Birla takes it upon herself to fulfill the wishes of as many children
as possible. Often, the wish is modest-a Barbie doll, a pc, a music
system or a bicycle. Just the same, Birla takes the requests very
seriously. For they come-through the international Make-A-Wish Foundation-from
children between three and 10 years of age who are terminally ill.
"Children are close to my heart. Anything that will get a smile
on their face means a lot to me," says the 32-year-young and
charming Birla, wife of A.V. Birla Group Chairman, Kumar Mangalam
Birla. That's one reason why she's pushed her husband to set up
a world-class, 67-acre, higher secondary school in Bangalore. Scheduled
to open in June 2004, the school aims to help students reach their
But education is just one of the many things
the multi-faceted Birla does. When she's not busy with her two children
(Ananyashree and Aryaman Vikram), Birla is busy generating ideas
and setting direction for Birla Academy of Art and Culture in Mumbai.
Although she has no formal training in arts, she's picked up enough
on the job and today is an avid enthusiast along with her husband.
The family often visits the academy on Sundays, and at other times
hops galleries across the city whenever exhibitions are on. "To
me art should be visually attractive," says Birla. Like the
hugely successful Art Access Week that she organises annually to
showcase a wide range of creative expressions in every medium and
In between all this, Birla-to whom family always
comes first--also finds time to help out the Cancer Patients Aid
Association and The Akansha Foundation, an NGO that cares for slum
children. Still, Birla has many more plans that she says are still
It's been a few
years since Parmeshwar Godrej gave up interior designing as a business.
Not surprised? Try this: Did you know that for the last 13 years
the wife of Godrej Group Chairman Adi Godrej has been supporting
a street kid named Sanjay. Or that she's helping friend Michael
Kadoorie to get the Sir Elly Kadoorie School for the poor in Mazgaon,
Mumbai, going? Or that she is on Richard Gere's foundation to combat
Aids. No? Now you do.
Fancy carved neem
(azadirachta indica) pencils? Head for Priti Hiranandani's The Culture
Shop in Powai's tony Galleria. And that's just one of the many curios
that the 40-year-old's ethnic warehouse stocks. But how does real
estate-her husband Surendra is part of the realty Hiranandani family-mix
with Indian handicraft? "It started as a hobby," reveals
Hiranandani, "and it was my husband who encouraged me to convert
my hobby into a business."
Although the shop has an upmarket address,
it is targeted at all and sports items priced from Rs 40 to Rs 4
lakh. "It's a myth that art is elitist," says the mother
of three. The shop has its own vendors (20 at last count), but Hiranandani
and three of her colleagues travel to different parts of the country
to find "artifacts that are not very commonly found".
Hiranandani's favourite hunting ground? Rajasthan. Having found
a niche, Hiranandani now plans to open two more outlets in Mumbai
and then move out to other places such as Delhi and Hyderabad. Popular
culture? You bet.
Steeled For A Cause
She set up the
Jindal Design Centre two-and-a-half years ago because, well, nobody
else seemed to be doing anything to promote-yes-stainless steel.
And husband Ratan Jindal, who heads a large integrated stainless
steel company in India, didn't want to get into downstream products
because of related headaches. So the wife came up with an idea:
set up a design centre that won't just promote consumer products
made of stainless steel, but actually build intellectual capital
by conducting workshops for designers. In September last year, Jindal
even set up a factory in Bahadurgarh (Haryana) to manufacture her
range of "Art D-inox" stainless ware, which retails through
a few upmarket stores in Delhi. That apart, the mother of two helps
run Jindals' two schools and a hospital in Haryana. "It doesn't
matter whether I succeed or fail in my venture," says the 38-year-old
of her design centre, "but what does is that I tried."
Activist Art Lover
When the Jindals
fly into the JVSL plant in Vijayanagar, husband Sajjan looks right
to the plant and his better half to the left towards the township-her
brainchild. The township, which has adopted 19 villages around the
plant, received the PM's trophy this year. Says the 41-year-old
mother of three: "I was always impressed by the townships and
social work of the Tata and Godrej groups." In 1983, she started
a school out of a flat in Vasind (near Mumbai) that now has grown
into a 1,000-children-strong institution. That apart, Jindal is
the President of Art India, a magazine she founded eight years ago,
and a part-time activist against illegal hoardings. Incredibly,
she's even found time to help a Japanese traveller launch his book
on India's heritage sites.
Some people think
Kalpana Kar is crazy. Can't blame them. For, every day, six days
a week, Kar puts in a punishing 12 hours at the Bangalore Agenda
Task Force (BATF) office in upmarket Richmond Town. In return she
gets zilch. Monetarily, that is. Otherwise batf-an initiative of
concerned citizens to address civic problems of the city-is almost
everything that Kar, wife of Microland's Pradeep Kar, ever wanted
to do. "I had achieved career and monetary success. It was
time to payback my dues to the society," says the feisty 44-year-old.
An M.Phil from Oxford, Kar joined the Tata Administrative Services
(TAS) in 1984, and went on to work with Tata Unisys and Titan Industries.
She even helped hubby set up Microland, one of the biggest networking
solutions companies in the country. "I feel that competent
corporate people should bring systems and processes to government
machinery so that it starts delivering effectively," says Kar.
Besides solving civic problems, she crusades for cancer awareness
as the Director of Cancer Patients Aid Association. If making the
society better is a mad venture, then Kar doesn't mind being its
When she was seven
months pregnant, Geetanjali Kirloskar rode a rickety bus to Coimbatore
for a 4:00 pm presentation. Reckless? May be. But that's classic
Kirloskar: Ambitious, dogged, and fearless. Today, the 36-year-old
wife of Toyota Kirloskar Motor Vice Chairman Vikram Kirloskar, is
the President of Lintertainment, which focuses on marketing and
promotion of Hindi movies.
But it's been anything but smooth sailing for
Kirloskar. Immediately after she got married at the age of 19, she
left for the small town of Harihar (Karnataka), where the family
had a machine tool factory. To be able to relate better to her engineer
husband, she even spent seven months working on the shopfloor. Later,
she signed up as a trainee at the family-owned advertising agency
Pratibha, where the challenge was of a different sort. "One
of my biggest challenges at Pratibha," says the fast-talking
Kirloskar, "was to prove myself as a professional. And since
it was a family-owned agency, I had to work doubly hard." If
that meant burning the midnight oil with the others on an important
sales pitch, so be it.
By late 90s, Pratibha was in trouble, and despite
Kirloskar's stint as the CEO, it was apparent that its future lay
in being part of a larger group. IPG bought into Pratibha spin-off
Quadrant and asked Kirloskar to head it. But she quit early last
year, when she found that 14 years of working had left her with
little time for herself or her family. A vacation to Italy later,
Kirloskar-who's also acted in a Girish Karnad movie and is shooting
for a Tamil movie-returned with the idea of a Lintertainment buzzing
in her head. Like they say, you just can't keep a good woman down.
Woman of Verve
In 2000, when India
entered its 53rd year of independence, Anuradha Mahindra didn't
go dizzy with patriotic pride. Instead, the Publisher and Editor
of women's magazine Verve had the quarterly adopt six girls and
sponsor their education. To those who knew the 41-year-old Mahindra,
it came as no surprise. And not just because the wife of M&M
Vice Chairman and Managing Director Anand Mahindra has two girls
(17 and 14) of her own. Like the magazine she runs (it's aimed at
the fashion-conscious but intelligent woman), Mahindra likes to
keep the big picture in mind. The jet-setter socialite, whose interest
in writing developed early, also manages two other publications:
Interiors And Lifestyle India and Man's World. And what does she
like most about her work? The range of issues she gets to straddle-from
the catwalks of Paris to the streets of Mumbai.
Do up your home
best, and win a company. No, that's not a zany marketing scheme,
but the story in short of how Sheetal Mafatlal ended up in charge
of an also-ran home products company. And under her stewardship,
Mafatlal Home Products has transformed from a manufacturer of modular
kitchens to a full-fledged modular home furniture company, with
both retail and institutional customers. The company is also the
only one to have its own manufacturing unit that uses only imported
raw materials. Says travel-buff Mafatlal, whose husband Atulya is
the Vice Chairman of Indian Dyestuff Limited: ''I love to do home
interiors, therefore, it was easy to turn things around at MHP.''
Talk about synergies.
Her eyes closed,
Sudha Murthy is speaking into the phone to somebody in Bhubaneshwar.
"Money is not a problem, it will be released as per schedule."
Dressed in a starched black cotton saree with yellow border (a hand-me-down
from her daughter, because it's been five years since she last bought
a saree), Murthy is taking stock of a hospital that her Infosys
Foundation is helping build in Bhubaneshwar. The spartan room that
the Foundation's Trustee, and wife of Infosys Chairman and Chief
Mentor, N. R. Narayana Murthy, occupies is barely 10x8. Her staff:
all of two, comprising a personal assistant and an office boy.
But obviously, the size of her office is no
measure of the work the 52-year-old mother of two does. In the seven
years since the Foundation was set up, Murthy has helped build orphanages,
a rehabilitation centre in Chennai for mentally retarded women,
dharamshalas in various hospitals, more than 10,000 small libraries
in schools of rural Karnataka, and a girls' hostel in Pune. It's
the misery of the under-privileged that moves her. "For many
people, money is a means of pleasure. But to me it's a tool to heal,"
says Murthy, who doled out Rs 8 crore from her own account last
year to help Bangalore municipality build public rest rooms. Says
the lady, who speaks of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata and J.R.D. Tata
as her inspiration (she once worked for Tata Engineering): "I
am not the owner, but merely a trustee of god's money." Looking
at her, you know that she means it.
I never thought
I would be an entrepreneur, and certainly not at 47," says
Gita Piramal jokingly, referring to her 15-month-old management
journal, The Smart Manager. But that's not the only thing Piramal,
wife of Blow Plast's Chairman Dilip Piramal, didn't think of in
her life. She never thought she'd ever be a journalist (for FT,
among others), or write books (seven, including the best-seller
Business Maharajas), or even get a PhD in business history from
Bombay University. "There's no particular ambition in me. I
am a drifter," states Piramal, poker-faced. If only all drifters
could be as successful.
She's sold more
insurance policies than anyone else in the country, and she was
also the one to get LIC its first eight-digit policy. Yet, Nanda,
better half of Escorts Group Chairman Rajan Nanda, never set out
to be an insurance agent. Her first attempt at business was Nikitasha,
a cooking appliances company named after her children Nikhil and
Nitasha, which died a quick death. A dejected Nanda-who recently
wrote her father's biography-became a homebody, until a friend suggested
15 years ago that she become an insurance agent. "People laughed
when I said I was going to be an insurance agent," recalls
Nanda. Today, she also runs the RNIS College, with 64 licensed branches
in seven locations. And nobody is laughing now.
At Alambana's office-cum-training
centre in Secunderabad's Marredpally, about 30 children are getting
their first feel of a computer. But these aren't school kids on
summer vacation. Rather, they are the children of drivers, rickshaw
pullers and other illiterate parents. The three-month course will
train them in ms Word and the English language. And hopefully, at
least some of them will do other than pull rickshaws or drive trucks
and buses. Or at least that's what Nandini Raju hopes. And she may
be right. Since July 2001, Alambana-it means "support"
in Sanskrit, and is a trust run by spouses of Satyam Computer employees,
a company headed by Raju's husband, B. Ramalinga Raju-already has
"graduated" eight batches, and some of the students have
actually found jobs in small companies or have chosen to pursue
higher studies. Says 43-year-old Raju, a brand new mother-in-law:
"We are trying to help redistribute intellectual and economic
capital especially among the urban poor to achieve a more balanced
society." Apart from Alambana, Raju is involved in health and
environmental projects, and in guiding a school that Satyam has
adopted. She set up screen-printing units in August 2001 for women
to make paper bags and greeting cards, among others. Despite her
son's recent marriage, Raju has no plans of letting up on her work.
The Byrraju Foundation, set up by her husband in 2001, in the memory
of his father, has adopted 110 villages with the idea of improving
rural health and education. That should keep Raju busy for a long
time to come.
City of Joy
Does it take a
New York-raised, 11-year-old resident of Hyderabad to make its denizens
feel proud about the historic city? Apparently, it does. Three years
ago, Deepti Reddy-wife of Dr Reddy's MD & coo Satish Reddy-launched
an online city magazine "Wow! Hyderabad" because there
was so much happening in the city. Courtesy the dot-bust, Wow! is
now an offline magazine, but very much "a long-term player,"
says the 28-year-old. Give her five.
For the past one
year, Renuka Raju has been sifting through data on Andhra's birth
rate, migration patterns, existing school curriculum and fee. No,
the Master of Education from American University isn't turning a
demographer. Instead, this is the groundwork for a chain of affordable
schools that she plans to set up. In between, Raju-wife of Nagarjuna
Group supremo K.S. Raju-has found time to help restore an old temple
destroyed in the 16th century. "Besides rehabilitating an important
local deity, the project will spur local tourism and, hence, the
economy," explains Raju, who is also a director of the group-promoted
management academy. Another project on her plate: marketing of Bohemian
crystals, for which she has tied up with manufacturers in Eastern
Europe. "I'd rather spend my time with artisans than at kitty
parties," says Raju. Like the other First Wives must be saying,
join the club.
The menu on Czaee
Shah's four-month-old nosh in south Mumbai is as unconventional
as the restaurant owner. You will find the world's vegetarian food-ranging
from dosas to pastas to Chinese dishes to continental fare-under
the same roof. That's pretty similar to how Shah, wife of Mukand
Ltd's Suketu Shah, describes herself: a woman of varied interests.
From collecting art to running her business to managing her home,
the 45-year-old Shah likes everything and says that all are her
priorities. A bad experience with Comma, a lifestyle store she co-founded,
did not stop Shah from launching Ceezee Foods, which manages Nosh.
Says Shah, who's also been a writer for Marg and The Indian Express:
"If I could not be an art collector, I would have been an art
historian. If I could not open a restaurant, I would have been a
manager at a restaurant." In other words, just do it.
F For Food
At the government-run
primary school in Peenya on the outskirts of Bangalore, enrollment
of students last year jumped from around 500 to 800. Dropout rate,
which used to be 40 per cent, has petered to around 3 per cent.
Credit the change to the shy Geeta Uppal, wife of ABB MD Ravi Uppal.
What did the trick? Hot food, which under an iskon project Akshya
Patra, is supplied to various schools in Bangalore. For the Peenya
school, Uppal cajoled ABB to be the Akshya Patra sponsor. Says Uppal,
a trained child psychologist: "You can't teach to children
on empty stomach." Uppal, whose two children are studying abroad,
has also adopted five children, including two of her maid. Says
the 45-year-old: "I feel blessed that I have an opportunity
to give back to society."
She isn't just
the woman behind Bombay Dyeing's Nusli Wadia, but also the woman
behind a thousand pretty faces-including top-notch models such as
Aishwarya Rai, Lisa Ray and Aditi Govitrikar. Twelve years after
she first launched Gladrags, a bi-monthly lifestyle and fashion
magazine, Maureen Wadia remains a force to reckon with in Mumbai's
beauty industry, even launching a pageant for married men and women.
Although she inhabits the rarified world of glamour, Wadia-Lakme's
first model-is hardly your typical socialite. Party regulars complain
that it's impossible to get her to show up at any do. The only shows
you'll likely find her in are her own. But then that, as Wadia might
explain, is work.
Her public reticence is hardly surprising,
considering that Wadia (of Irish descent) is still the hands-on
editor of Gladrags and also in-charge of two charitable hospitals
that Bombay Dyeing runs. The 57-year-old Wadia, a one-time Air India
hostess, is a relative late-comer to the world of business. She
didn't start working until her two sons (Jeh and Ness) were grown
up. No doubt, she's making up for lost time.