From not getting an interview call to becoming the managing director of Alfa Laval-Tetra Pak India, Lila Poonawala has stepped up the corporate ladder. She talks to Prachi Rege about breaking the glass ceiling and the importance of hard work irrespective of gender
1) Tell us about the Lila Poonawala Foundation. What prompted you to set it up?
Empowering women has been close to my heart and relevant education is the undisputed tool of empowerment. However, importance of educating girls is not recognised in the society, especially in the economically and socially disadvantaged communities. I came from a refugee family who migrated to Pune. Since I had lost my father, my mother had to make ends meet to raise my brothers and me. It was through scholarships that I pursued and successfully compelted my engineering education. It is for this reason that at the first available opportunity I started the Foundation to support wholesome education of underprivileged girls. In the 18 years of being, we have helped 1500 girls, become economically independent.
2) What are the initiatives under its aegis?
We encourage girls to pursue technical education. The unique aspect of our scholarship programme is that the scholarship holders receive not only financial support but also technical guidance from experts in the industry, entrepreneurship training, career counselling, job placement and personality development training to make them well developed individuals. So far we have supported girls from Pune, last year we included Panchgini as well. Since, this is the 19th year of the Foundation we will be awarding more than 300 new graduate scholarships in engineering, pharmacy, agriculture and nursing in two new districts— Wardha and Amravati. As also in our school programme we are adding four new schools from villages located in Kamshet.
3) Do you believe that women have got enough due in the corporate world?
Today, organisations are open to employing women in all kinds of job roles. So, it is upto the women, to rise to the occasion. However, I still see many of them focus more on family life and ignore their career. They expect the organisations to make everything special for them; they do not want to walk that extra mile. During my time, which is almost five decades ago, the only difficulty I faced was to get the first job. No company wanted to employ a lady mechanical engineer and not a single Indian business house was even ready to call me for an interview. Finally, only one multinational organisation thought it was worth giving me a chance.
4) How did you tackle challenges while working in the male domain? Please share an anecdote with this regard.
Thankfully, I never faced discrimination based on my gender. In fact, I believe it was an advantage being a women engineer, especially during my sales stint. In the initial days, I got an opportunity to meet CEOs of our international client companies. Most of them were curious to know who was the Indian lady selling engineering products. It served as a good door opener; of course rest was left to my selling skills and convincing power. Both men and women have their own challenges and opportunities. The focus should be on “Who am I? and what do I want to do with my life?, and not on my gender.”
5) Is there a success mantra to professional life?
My philosophy is to enjoy the journey and not plan for the destination. I always planned only the next step. When I was an apprentice, my sole objective was to work hard and earn my confirmation on the job. Post that it was to become an assistant manager, a manager and then a general manager and so on, until the time I became vice president. It was only then that I dreamt of becoming the president of the company. So I have celebrated all achievements right from a small target of selling a few pumps per month as a sales engineer to becoming a CEO. However, the one mantra is to ensure that your knowledge doesn`t get outdated, you have to keep renewing yourself. Formal education is the beginning of the journey of learning. In the world of tomorrow, only those individuals and organisations will succeed who have mastered the art of rapid and on-going learning. Throughout my career I kept updating my knowledge by attending various short courses including going for studies to Harvard and Stanford in USA, besides IIM-A.
6) How did you manage to strike a work life balance? What is your advice to women?
Excellent planning and time management is the key. I used to plan my whole week in advance. Do all preparatory work for the whole week’s meal and store in the refrigerator. Get up an hour or two before everybody else in the house and get a couple of hours as `me` time. It is your mindset which decides how much sleep you need. If you want to be successful, you have to train your mind. Never think it is a sacrifice that you are doing. Communicate with your partner and family, their support is important. Remember who makes a cup of tea is not important, it is sitting together and enjoying that cup of tea that matters.