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Wisdom Of Pearls

Money don't matter. After all, where's the time to spend it...

Wisdom Of Pearls
Atul Loke
Wisdom Of Pearls
Rich as silk. Smooth as satin. Yet as hard as steel and as brilliant as sapphires. These women are some of India's best and brightest, and wealthiest to boot. Some of them workhorsed their way to the top, some started out by default-inheritance or family connections—but all made it a worthwhile journey, picking up extraordinary strength and skills along the way.

Yet, the most important thing about India's billionairesses is how lightly they wear their billions. Some protest, genuinely puzzled: "But I'm not on that list!" Yet others are downright uncomfortable with the B-word, as compared to less wealthy men who unabashedly flaunt and upgrade their possessions. In contrast to so many rich Indian men who nurse their love for the good life like a good old glass of w and s, these extraordinary women are refreshingly down-to-earth and clearly beyond baubles.

"After a point," says Shobhana Bhartia, vice-chairperson and editorial director, HT Media Ltd, "wealth doesn't make a difference to your personal lifestyle." I look hard for diamonds on her person, but fail to spot any. Of course, I've caught her on a bad day; Shobhana is suffering from a viral attack and is extremely busy with the Leadership Summit beginning the next day. Soft-voiced and slender, red-nosed with a cold, she looks quite vulnerable—definitely not like someone who reigns over a Rs 700-crore media empire, takes home an annual net salary of Rs 42 lakh and, as a scion of the K.K. Birla empire, has other kinds of paper worth crores in her lockers.

Shobhana Bhartia: The media heiress reigns over a Rs 700 crore empire but disdains diamonds

You wonder if humble beginnings could have something to do with her modest persona. Shobhana became editorial director of the Hindustan Times only after 17 years in the company, starting off as a journalist. Even Fortune's favourite Indian lady, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CMD of Biocon, always elegant in her suits, scarves and pearls, feels that "money has never defined my goals". Her pleasure comes from her "organisation", "a 100 per cent Indian effort", which went from the garage to the global arena in less than two decades, and definitely not from her personal wealth of Rs 18 billion (Fortune estimate: $440 million).

Apart from Kiran, another woman who is regularly featured on the Fortune list of the most powerful women in the world has been Vidya Chhabria, widow of Manu Chhabria and chairperson of the $2-billion Jumbo group, who divides her time between Dubai and India. She sold off a 55 per cent stake in Shaw Wallace, India's premier liquor company, settled one of the largest corporate disputes (with the UB group) this year, and raised her worth substantially to Rs 8.94 billion.

Anuradha Desai: The chickens, and the responsibilities, have come home to roost for Venky’s girl

For some, wealth is also a great responsibility. Like Anuradha Desai, chairperson of the Rs 13-billion Venkateswara Hatcheries Group, who succeeded her father, the formidable B.V. Rao, known as the father of the modern Indian poultry industry—their wealth is estimated at Rs 1 billion. "Being among the wealthiest women in India," she says, "doesn't bother me at all. On the other hand, it makes me feel responsible towards society and to the people who depend on our organisation—be it poultry farmers, shareholders or our employees." For Anuradha, it has been as tough to live up to her father's great reputation as it has been pleasant to get the road smoothened by the immense goodwill he enjoyed.

On the other hand, Sailoja Kiran, MD of the Rs 30-billion, Hyderabad-based Margadarsi Chit Funds winces if she's called a billionairess. She can hardly escape the glory though, being the daughter-in-law of media baron Ramoji Rao and part of the family business since 1990. Finance is an area she chose herself, working hard to rise to the position of MD in 1995. Since then, Sailoja has managed to raise the turnover of the company by almost ten times in as many years, and help it spread its reach to 60 branches in three states. Sailoja's golden rule is: work hard and respect the elders in the profession. It's a formula that has brought rich dividends to this very traditional South Indian bahu.

But there's one profession where family lineage and connections can only help to a point. Ask Zia Mody, legal luminary Soli Sorabjee's daughter, and founder partner of the Mumbai-based law firm AZB & Partners. One of India's top corporate lawyers listed in the international Legal 500 and winner of many awards like Knowledge Professional of the Year and FE Award for Women Entrepreneurs, Zia handles M&AS, joint ventures, corporate and civil property law and arbitrations. Yet, for her the early years post-1984 in the men-dominated Bombay High Court were tougher than many court battles. "Resistance," she says, "came in tangible and intangible ways. The clients found it difficult to entirely trust a woman's capability. I remember once when my daughter had chicken pox and I asked for an adjournment, the client said it was really my problem. There was a time I'd actually wear zero-power glasses to look serious!"

Ekta Kapoor: The youngest and topmost salary earner has earned her Rs 16.4 million take-home

Not looking the part was also a problem that was faced by chubby, girlish-looking Ekta Kapoor, she of K-serial fame, who single-handedly glamourised the face of Indian TV soaps and certainly deserves (along with her mother) the Rs 16.4-million pay packet that makes her the youngest and topmost woman salary earner (higher than Kiran and Lalita Gupte, JMD of ICICI Bank). Starting out at 24 as creative head, she pulled her family firm Balaji Telefims from a mere TV software maker to the top of the entertainment league, mainly through her hard work, aggression and sheer brazen confidence.

But there's one area where all our billionairesses love to break the stereotype. Not for them the hallowed space around the kitchen stove—why do a job just to prove a point when it can be done so much better by efficient hired help? None of our billionairesses love to cook or have the time to cook, though family, especially children, remain the pivot around which their lives revolve. Sailoja says she is "serious about her work"—her office hours are strictly nine to nine—and doesn't like women who waste their time, or bore her stiff with their mundane tales of domestic hassles.

Sulajja Firodia Motwani: She’s been working non-stop for 13 years with just a 4-day break when her son was born

For all the members of the billionairesses' club, travelling is one good way of getting quality time with family, taking the much-needed power break, winding down, and finally spending some of the money they work so hard for. They find the annual trip, either to a favourite place, or to a new place every year, wonderfully therapeutic. For most of them, it's only the odd day that they take off from work is rare. Thirty-four-year-old Sulajja Firodia Motwani, JMD of Kinetic Engineering, took only four days' leave when her son was born—"I've been working practically non-stop for 13 years and any respect I get has been earned by me by a demonstrated commitment". Kiran finds family support and cooperation crucial to the professional success of a woman.

So do these superwomen find it easy to balance work and family commitments? Far from it. For professionals like Zia, "motherly duty definitely has to be combined with professional integrity. I have three daughters," she says, "and I feel they lost out on mother-daughter conversations". Zia is too overworked, never even finding the time to go to the tailor, so he comes to the office. Even ordinary pleasures that most women take for granted, such as shopping for clothes and gifts are denied them. "My secretary buys my clothes and the jeweller comes home to show his stuff," Zia reveals. Anuradha too finds it tough to take time out for leisure. Nor does she have expensive hobbies—her indulgences are listening to music and watching films.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: She has the odd passion—artwork, horses—but it’s Biocon that really gives her joy

What do our other billionairesses like to splurge on? Kiran's abiding passion, apart from her work, are horses and paintings—she particularly enjoys collecting the works of Yusuf Arakkal and S.G. Vasudev. Sailoja confesses she loves Louis Vuitton purses and diamond and gold jewellery. "But I haven't bought any great jewellery for two years now," she says. Shobhana admits to a weakness for designer watches and bags, as well as light, trendy and stylish fashion jewellery which is not necessarily very expensive. Ekta loves dressing up—but of course her biggest pleasure comes from watching her audience ratings soar.

For most, making billions is not what drives them. Sulajja, who recently sold a 15 per cent stake in her company to Anil Ambani's Reliance Capital, could be speaking for all of them when she sums up: "Neither me nor my family has been about money. That's not how we relate to people either. I appreciate that I have certain comforts and don't have to struggle as much as some for basics, but beyond that we're just simple hard-working people."

By Paromita Shastri with Charubala Annuncio, Archana Rai and Madhavi Tata

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