When Vinita Bali, CEO and MD of Britannia Industries, was on the threshold of career in marketing many years ago, she was rejected by an interview panel on the grounds that she, being a woman, would not be able to travel. Years later, the same firm offered her a very senior role, which she rejected this time around!
For the record, she now travels and works across 50 countries and five continents. “I am glad that I was challenged early in my life about not being able to travel. For decades, I have lived out of suitcases. I have been travelling through out my career and I have never felt fatigued,” she said at the launch of ‘Leading Ladies’, a book on the transformational women leaders of India.
Vinita Bali earned her MBA from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management in Mumbai and pursued her postgraduate studies in Business and Economics at Michigan State University on a Rotary scholarship.
“I left home when I was all of eighteen, for a two-year course, and I never did return. I’ve worked in Johannesburg, Nigeria and Santiago among other places and I’ve enjoyed every bit of my journey. A few years ago, when my mother had a heart attack, I made a promise to myself to be closer home so that I could spend quality time with my parents. Once you make a decision, then everything else falls in place. That is how I returned to India,” she said.
Describing her father as a ‘Renaissance Man’, who encouraged her and stood by her when she set out to follow her dreams, she said: “A large part of what I have achieved is due to the encouragement given to me by my parents. And I’m sure there are scores of women like me around the world.”
To her, success and achievement are about belief, passion and the way we take ownership and accountability. Recalling her meeting with the legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali, she said, “He told me that the only driving force for him to go out and play was passion. It wasn’t about how many tournaments he had won or how many opponents he had defeated.”
“We only see a successful person, not the struggles behind the success. I always told myself that I would follow my dreams. Never underestimate the power of optimism and positive thinking,” she added. “Just look at the recent Common Wealth Games. The girls who won medals hailed from rural pockets of India. Many of them had to fight their fathers to follow their dreams. Today, their fathers are proud of them.”
From Bharat to India, women face the challenge of acceptance, so where does the solution lie? “We need to sensitise men more than women about gender issues. Diversity is not only about gender diversity; it is also about ‘experience diversity’. If a person has a background of seven different industries, then that experience adds value to his/her current job situation,” she replied.
When asked about the challenges that women who multi-task face as they struggle to achieve work-life balance, she said: “Too much of made of work-life balance. Once you enjoy what you do, then nothing is boring. I use travelling/ commuting time to answer important mail, and I use it to listen to music as well. You need to prioritise what is important for you.”
She recalled an “eye-opening experience” that happened to her when she visited a village in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra. “The gender ratio in this village was skewed: 880 females to 1,000 males. There was a government scheme, which gave Rs 5,000 each to women who delivered a baby girl. There were two such women in that village. The evening I was there, the women were given the cash prize by the District Collector (DC) at the local Public Health Centre. The DC had also invited the mothers-in-law of these women and felicitated them. There was a session on how mothers-in-law can play a crucial role in protecting their daughters-in-law from their drunken and abusive sons. I learnt that if change must come, it should come from the grass roots,” she said.