From B town to Boardroom

SIMPLY WOW!

From B town to Boardroom

WOMAN POWER: Dr Reena Ramachandran believes women must consciously evolve a  strategy of success when it comes to their career and their dreams“Women must network. We must use every opportunity, be it a wedding, an office party or a public forum, to make new contacts and revisit old ones because we have to compete with the old boys’ network,” says Dr Reena Ramachandran, winner of the Dewang Mehta Lifetime Achievement Award 2009.

Perhaps one of India’s first women to rise to the post of chairperson & managing director in the public sector, Reena speaks from experience. From Mannargudi, a small town in Tamil Nadu to France and then back to India, where she used her education, her intelligence and her appetite for challenges to shatter the glass ceiling in various government organisations, she is emphatic that career girls should upgrade skills, look for value add in every job and evolve a success strategy. This feisty and focused achiever has no patience with worrywarts or wallflowers. “When you are in the system, don’t crib about it or stew silently. Work around the obstacles or reinvent yourself,” she suggests.

Embracing change
Reinventing herself is something that Reena has been doing ever since her days as a young bride, who followed her engineer husband across the country on job transfers. Each time they moved house, she sought new challenges, be it a PG degree in Organic Chemistry at Jodhpur, a PhD which she completed in just one-and-a-half years at Allahabad, or a teaching stint at Miranda House, Delhi.

Don’t for a moment believe that she “sacrificed” personal relationships at the altar of ambition. With 2 young sons and an awfully busy spouse, Reena says fantastic parental support and careful time management helped her chase her dreams. “My mother had only passed 4th form when she was married. It was my progressive dad who encouraged her to study further. My mom went on to get a post graduate degree in economics and trained in the University of Leeds, UK in English Language teaching. She then taught at the Teachers’ College in Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi in English as well as Central Institute of Education, Delhi University in the Teachers Training College. She was always busy either studying or working during my growing up years. My sisters and I couldn’t have asked for a better role model,” she says.

Talking about her own marriage, Reena recalls the time she left her two sons — a five year-old and a three-month-old —  in India when she went to France on a scholarship for a doctorate in science.

“I immersed myself in research, confident that my sons were well cared for by my husband and my parents. When my professor suggested that I complete my senior doctorate, it was a great feeling because I was the only one in the group of eight to be offered the honour, and I was the only one who returned to India to give back to society.”

Lab to shop floor
A lecture delivered at the India International Centre in New Delhi, shortly after her return, set off a chain of events in Reena’s professional life. AJ Kidwai, secretary, Dept of Science and Technology, Govt of India, who had attended the lecture, invited her to join the Government. “It was a 360 degree career move from research to administration, but the 3-4 years that I spent as Senior Scientific Officer under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was also minister incharge of the dept, were the best years of my life,” she says. From science labs to cement factories, the move may seem extreme. But Reena, who was keen to see how technology transfer could transform industry in India, was consumed by a passion to make real change rather than write research papers. So she joined the Cement Research Institute, under the Ministry of Industry, as Head of the Technology Transfer Group. “We helped build entrepreneurship in the inaccessible North East by using technology developed by our scientists,” she says, counting among her successes the introduction of coal tar-lined cement bags in place of jute bags to prevent wastage of cement during transportation.

Nevertheless, she was soon itching for change.

Bureaucrats, beware!
In 1982, she got just the opportunity she was looking for at Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), where she led the Corporate Management team. “The petroleum industry was in a boom phase. ONGC’s investments in the Cauvery, Godavari and Krishna basins were paying off. We had expanded off shore operations and there were exciting investments in the oil and gas sector,” says Reena, who had worked her way up to General Manager responsible for planning, corporate strategy, media management and audit at ONGC. While on deputation as Executive Director of the Petroleum Conservation Research Institute in 1991-92, she applied for board positions in Central Warehousing Corporation and Hindustan Organic Chemicals Limited (HOCL).

“I was later told that only bureaucrats applied for board positions in the Central Warehousing Corporation. I was the ‘outsider’ but I didn’t let the old boys’ network put me off,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.

Around the same time she was considered to head IIM, Lucknow but she wasn’t tempted. “I wanted to work in industry, not academics. I wanted to translate the results of research into commercial gains for Indian industry, and HOCL beckoned,” she says, explaining that her background in Organic Chemistry helped her tremendously when she took over as Director (Marketing) at HOCL.

Again, it was a time when India was at the crossroads. The liberalisation process had begun and HOCL’s monopoly with regard to the supply of commodity and specialty chemicals was coming to an end. “We were fighting battles on every front. There was intense competition as 3-4 private companies were making the same chemicals on a much larger scale of operations, and there were pricing wars. As Marketing Director, I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting time,” she says.
Hard work and intelligent career moves resulted in Reena becoming the Chairperson and Managing Director of HOCL for two successive terms even as she was nominated to several other prestigious boards of industry and education across India.

Wanted: Women on top
During her climb to the top she realised that very few women were in leadership roles in Indian industry. “Things are looking up now. We have women as CEOs and in board positions, but this critical mass has to increase for women to become decision makers,” says Reena, who was Founder President of the Forum for Women in Public Sector (WIPS), and the first chairperson of the Women in Management Committee of the All India Management Association (AIMA).

Having achieved her dreams and then some more, Reena was looking for a new challenge. Years spent interviewing B-school grads for key management roles had made her curious about “what happens inside B-school classrooms” and she embarked on another voyage of discovery. “I had never been to a B-school myself, so I asked a lot of questions,” she chuckles.

Her first move to management education from HOCL was as Director General, Fortune Institute of International Business (FIIB), Delhi followed by Director General, JK Business School. She also heads JK Padampat  Singhania Institute of Management  & Technology. The Ministry of HRD has appointed her member of the expert committee to develop policy perspectives for management education in India. Truly, it’s been one helluva journey from Mannargudi.

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