Women Leaders

What's Keeping Naina Lal Kidwai Busy Post her Retirement?

From women issues to her banking days, former country head of HSBC speaks her heart out
What's Keeping Naina Lal Kidwai Busy Post her Retirement?
Image credit: Naina Lal Kidwai
Assistant Editor & Senior Copy Editor, Entrepreneur India
7 min read
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When we met Naina Lal Kidwai at her luxuriously done farmhouse in Sultanpur, Delhi, she came across as warm, graceful, yet feisty and unapologetic when it comes to speaking her mind. Much before women empowerment became the buzzword, Kidwai was one of the iconic leaders India ever had. She was the first Indian woman to go to Harvard Business School, head a foreign investment bank and become the president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. At 61, retired from her role as a banker, she spends most of her time advocating for women issues and environmental concerns. We visited her days after the release of her second book ‘Survive or Sink’. During the interaction, she spoke at length about issues which are close to her heart.

Though many women have emerged as achievers in fields like banking, IT and also as CEOs, there are hardly any examples to be cited in entrepreneurship, why is that?
When women like my good friend Kiran (Mazumdar-Shaw) were starting off, they faced problems despite their degrees and calibre. Today, India has come a long way, however, disparity still exists. At times, I get to hear women entrepreneurs complain about not having access to finance, not being taken seriously as investors or entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship should not be gender biased; it should be about the business you have. However, the acceptability is increasing. We just have to ensure that women keep trying and being successful. As we continue to inspire others, our credibility grows.

As a woman, you have achieved many firsts. How difficult was it to dominate an all-men arena?
I never saw myself as a woman leader, I was a leader. Since the time I was heading a bank, the concern was to do it well. I was, however, very conscious of the fact that I was a goldfish in a bowl and everybody was always looking at me with great curiosity. I feel very lucky that I worked in a field like investment banking, where you sink or swim depending on your performance.

Apart from talent and hard work, it takes confidence to achieve such heights. From where did you draw such level of conviction?
It must have come from my family, because my sister too went on to become India’s leading golfer and an Arjuna awardee. I grew up in a very traditional north Indian family and no women (before me) pursued a career. Our parents, however, never held us back.
When few family members reacted negatively it further made me more strong-willed, rather than getting me down. I worked even harder.

Even today, why it is so hard for women to claim something which is rightfully theirs?
Statistics show a man will put up his hand even if he is 60 per cent ready for a job. On the other hand, a woman feels hesitant to approach even when she is 98 per cent ready for the same task. We have to realize, we are more ready than we think we are. Secondly, whether we are entrepreneurs or in the corporate world, it is essential to build a network. We think, if we are doing our job well, eventually, we will get recognized and don’t need to act beyond that. However, life isn’t that simple – we need to create a network for our career, ie, in the office and also outside the office. Thirdly, women should be more ambitious. Lastly, you do have to marry well and be good to your ma-in-law. Even that is a career choice.

The biggest concern still remains - women dropping midway. How critical is this issue or how can they develop a backup plan?
After having a baby coming back to an organization becomes hard. There is a sense of awkwardness, as now you are junior to your batch. The organizations should make it easy for them to come back. On the other hand, these women can also try their hands in entrepreneurship.
Since they are coming from a corporate background, they already have the business training and an existing network, hence, the capability of doing something on their own is huge. We have examples like Falguni Nayaar, who built something so massive at this age.

At Morgan Stanley – was it like running a start-up of your own? What were the perks and the challenges?
I suppose both yes and no. Yes, because I was the first employee in India to get it going. No, because unlike entrepreneurs where they could actually build something, I had to work according to an existing template. To give you another example, I had the credibility because I was representing Morgan Stanley and never had to ask the banks for money.
However, the actual building of the business was not taken care off, like recruiting people. They kept sending people from abroad but I would rather have some local staff.
Secondly, Morgan Stanley did not want to do any deal that was lesser than a billion dollar. Meanwhile, the biggest deal in India, at that time, was of $100 million. So we spent one year doing no deal. Later, I persuaded them to do a joint venture with JM financials, and in one year, we became two topmost investment banks in the country. So those were the strategic issues that I had to fight for.

What about the HSBC tenure? It was a very interesting time for the Indian market, how did you see it evolving?
When I joined HSBC in 2002, entrepreneurship was at its heights. If you look at the IT sector, it evolved through this period. Some of my biggest deals were Wipro being listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Infosys’s IPO and listing of Bharti.

How would you compare the businesses of today to the nature of doing business then?
It was a very different time then, e-commerce was not even born. At my time, I could not have imagined doing an IPO for a company without any substantial profit.
And today, the highest market capitalization firms, whether it’s Alibaba or Amazon, are not the most profitable. So, you have to keep evolving with the market.

With Punjab National Bank (PNB) and Axis Bank controversies, do you think people are losing trust on banks?
I don’t think much has changed for the common man. Did people stop depositing money in PNB after what has happened? No. Did they lose business at the depositor level? No. In banking, these things have happened around the world and will continue to happen. The fraud does not surprise me. It is critical to judge how they are reacting to it, in terms of fixing the weaknesses in the system.
In this case, there was a serious abject failure in the process. Nothing in my book allows a person in a sensitive role to stay for seven years. Where were the auditors and why did not they pick it up? Why did the system fail? These fixings need to be done. I don’t think banking system in India will fail because of one fraud. In a year or two, things are going to continue as before. The banking business is going to continue and the diamond business is going to continue, but with few norms being tightened up.

(This article was first published in the June issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)

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