Meet The Extraordinary Naina Lal Kidwai


In December 2007, a tall, striking woman with a shy, endearing smile stepped onto the stage at Rashtrapati Bhavan, leaning forward a bit so that she could receive the nation’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, from the then President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, for her contribution to the field of trade and industry.

Minutes later, an older woman, beaming with obvious joy, also went on the stage to be honoured by the President with the same award, for her sterling contribution to the field of social work. Most of the audience who clapped thunderously for them probably did not know that the two women, so different from each other in age, work and upbringing, shared a strong bond that was forged decades ago, in a quaint little hill town in the lap of the Himalayas. …

The younger woman who accepted the Padma Shri was Naina Lal Kidwai, HSBC’s Group General Manager and Country Head, India, while Sister Cyril Mooney is an Irishwoman who has made India her home and spent the better part of her life educating poor and underprivileged children across eastern India.

When she first met her, Naina, then a student of the Loreto Convent in Shimla, was impressed by the kindness and the empathy that the plump and mother-like woman radiated. Sister Cyril was a teacher at the convent and Naina recalls the irrepressible joy that she seemed to pass on to everybody that she came in touch with. … “She was the life force of the convent. From her, I learnt the art of positivity and got motivated for life by her boundless energy and enthusiasm.”

Such was the power of that one teacher on her young mind, Naina is convinced that a teacher has the power to shape lives, minds and destinies. …

Naina’s life is the saga of a girl who refused to get cowed down by social norms and traditions, a girl who would not take a ‘no’ for an answer, if a ‘yes’ was what seemed like a reasonable response to her.

At 23, fresh out of Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College with a degree in Economics, Naina decided she wanted a degree in business management from a foreign university. It shocked her conservative extended family, but her parents, who brought up their two daughters (sister Nonita Lal Qureshi is an ace golfer) with a more liberal outlook, decided she could have a go at it, provided she got admission into one of the top three colleges in the US. In the interim, she was gently nudged by her father into doing chartered accountancy and Naina decided to approach PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which already had a large presence in the country.

If the teenager had any illusions that her sterling grades from college would get her the opportunity at PwC, she was in for a rude shock because the interview ended with her being categorically told that as a matter of policy they did not employ women. All her reasoning and her requests for at least a chance to prove her capabilities drew a blank.

A dejected Naina was still hopeful for a change of mind but when she did not hear from PwC for more than a month, she nagged her father, a respected name in business circles, to follow up her case with them. Months later, PwC recruited Naina, its first female employee, who later paved the way for three others to walk into the establishment, that very year.

Her restless nature found the work boring and repetitive and she was soon applying to various foreign universities to follow her dream of a business management degree. Two years later, out of the blue, she received confirmation of her admission into Harvard. …

Harvard changed her life in many ways, giving her a new outlook on people and situations, opening her mind to the culture and lifestyles of other people and shaping her into a global citizen. To this day, Naina is nostalgic about queuing up for cheap US$6 tickets that would allow her to stand behind the last row at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and being awed by the magic of its illustrious Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa. She still harbours a soft corner in her heart for the university town. “Harvard gave me a global perspective. I suspect my canvas would have been much smaller, my perspective much more parochial, if I had not had my stint there.” …

Naina is convinced that the direction a woman’s career takes depends a lot on the organisation she is working for. At a women’s networking lunch with other senior women professionals, the topic of discussion kept coming back to women’s toilets and their location at the workplace.

“Most of the women said that the location of the women’s toilet is a great initial way to judge how an organisation treats its women staff. They said that if it is a shabby little room located behind the copier machine or, worse still, on another floor, it is very likely that they treat their women staff in the same second rate manner.”

Back from the lunch, Naina lost no time shooting off a mail to the concerned departments at HSBC, requesting them to ensure that they check the ladies toilets and make sure that not only were they in the right location but also that they had every amenity that would make women comfortable. “Women are crucial assets and the quicker organisations realise this, the better for them.” …

Naina is amazed by the social transformation taking place in the smaller towns of India where fathers of little girls stop her at airports and hotel lobbies, seeking advice on how to guide their daughters into a successful banking career. “A generation that is older than me is envisioning this for their daughters or granddaughters and that is a significant social change.” …

“Every time I see a group of women going door to door delivering the petticoats that they sewed on machines purchased on credit, or see a woman vegetable vendor use her mobile phone to monitor prices prevailing in the mandi, before she sells her stuff, I know we are headed in the right direction. When I retire, if I ever do, that is what I want to do – give a helping hand to the thousands of women in our villages, who are living on hope and their undying spirit. Did I ever think that I was going to be CEO of a large organisation or end up as one of the senior-most women in the world’s largest international bank? No! I took one step at a time, and at each step I found another avenue opening up. Have I reached where I want to be? No. I am a restless soul and I have lots more to do before I hang up my boots.”

(The writer is a journalist with over two decades of experience in news and feature writing. She has worked in some of India’s prominent newspapers, including ‘The Hindu Business Line’ and ‘Mint’. Sudha lives and works from Pune and Mumbai. She can be reached at [email protected])

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