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India's most powerful businesswomen

Last updated on: September 01, 2006 14:30 IST

Social conformity. Traditional family roles. Sounds like the US at the height of the feminist revolution in the early '70s.

But this is India today, a country where women are becoming more prominent. Not just in politics--the country's dominant political party, the National Congress Party, is, after all, headed by Sonia Gandhi, a woman who made Forbes ranking of the World's Most Powerful Women--but in big business, too.

In increasing numbers, women are fighting long-standing prejudices and are working their way to the top of companies or starting their own businesses.

However, women in India, a country that prides itself on being a traditional society, still face enormous pressure to conform to social mores. More often than not, the hurdle of conforming to traditional roles within families poses as much of a barrier to businesswomen in India as the still-too-thick glass ceiling at companies.

Though women have made great strides in the corporate world in the last three decades, women from all income classes are still too often discouraged by family members from having careers that infringe too much on family life.

However, in the last 30 years, a handful of businesswomen in India, including Lalita Gupte, Kalpana Morparia, Anu Aga, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Simone Tata, have quietly broken through the barriers of social conformity--both at home and in the workplace--to become successful entrepreneurs and professionals.

A few, like Indu Jain of privately held Bennett Coleman, India's biggest media house, have even reached billionaire status. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw started one of India's first biotech companies, Biocon. Lalita Gupte and Kalpana Morparia (both were the only businesswomen in India who made our list of the World's Most Powerful Women), run India's second-largest bank, ICICI Bank, and are both joint managing directors.

Simone Tata built one of the first indigenous cosmetic brands, Lakme, now a unit of Hindustan Lever, which is owned by Unilever. And Anu Aga turned around an ailing company, the engineering firm Thermax Group.

Then there are two women who have had to display their leadership skills at a young age. Priya Paul became the president of Apeejay Surrendra Group at the age of 24 when her father was assassinated in 1990.

Sulajja Firodia Motwani, managing director of Kinetic Motor, has ensured that in the past six years her company has collaborated with firms in Korea, Italy and Taiwan and has helped it grow from a niche moped maker to a manufacturer of a full range of two wheelers and auto components.

Another sector in today's India that can boast of female leadership is technology. Since joining Microsoft India as its managing director in 2005, Neelam Dhawan has helped it grow 35 per cent.

Why are women doing so well in India? One reason: the country's long history of valuing education, so women who achieve academically are seen as smart and savvy. And it ordinarily doesn't hurt to come from money or an entrepreneurial family either, especially when you're trying to start a business.

But three decades ago, when India's top women were just out in business, women were discouraged by society from pursuing careers. "In the 1970s, the odds were against them," says Bakul Dholakia, director of Asia's premier business school, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

"What really made them successful was their sheer determination to break through," adds Indira Parikh, a former dean at the Institute of Management and president of the Foundation for Liberal and Management Education in Pune.
Megha Bahree, Forbes