Honor and transparency have always stood by your side. Where did they come from?
Let’s go back to my childhood in Darjeeling. My father was a scrupulously honest bureaucrat. There wasn’t much money but he wielded a lot of power. My life was that of high thinking, poor living. I remember… we had several government cars parked in front of our house but I was made to walk six kilometers to school every day. Those cars were meant for the country, not for us. My dad’s secretary’s daughter was my best friend and she would come in a car.
Then there was the time when I scored 99% in English Literature in my Senior Cambridge exams. My dad wrote to Cambridge to ask whether they had made a mistake. Those days I just couldn’t understand the rationale! But my dad instilled a sense of honor in me. He taught me the boundaries between what belongs to you and what does not. Today, I have such admiration for him.
How did your path lead to volunteering with Mother Teresa?
Because of my grounded background and my focus on intellectual stimulation, I often did very well. When I got out of school, I received a national scholarship and went to a college which my father couldn’t have otherwise afforded. This created a certain amount of conflict within me because I was hobnobbing with elite classmates with different priorities.
"I needed to find some sanity so I volunteered with Mother Teresa. Twice a week for seven years, I spent my day at the Missionaries of Charity. This gave me a sense of wellbeing. It left an indelible impression on me."
What kind of student were you?
I was a fairly good student but I was hidden in the woodwork. If you were to talk to my classmates, they would express surprise at my becoming a CEO running a business in multiple countries. I was quiet and mousy. My hobby was immersing myself in the library. So I did my MBA and specialized in marketing. I was the only girl in my class. Those days we had to really trudge along. I was hard working, not exceptional, not really that talented.
You are more talented than you give yourself credit for.
Talent is a natural flair and something that you are born with. I am extremely tenacious. I don’t let go or give up. You know, they say all Bengalis are meant to sing. So my mother would send me to singing classes. I didn’t have a talent for singing but I would out-study the theory and practice hard. I would always win a prize. That seems to be my personality profile. I’m not exceptionally good at anything. There are many who are far more talented but I make up through sheer hard work, by not losing sight of the horizon and by taking life seriously.
Isn’t it hard to take life so seriously?
I know no other way. The other day, my daughter gave me a lecture. She said, “Your problem is that you’re too hands-on, Ma. The whole world is not your responsibility.” Sure, maybe it isn’t.
"But if there is an opportunity to help others and I don’t do so, how can I face myself in the mirror and say that this day has been a good one? This need has prevailed in my life across all my decisions."
Your hard work has paid off. How did you go up the corporate ladder faster than others?
I got into corporate life with the same principle - whatever you do, do it well or don’t do it at all. I joined the Oberoi Group and created a genre of professional women who were not exceptionally glamorous. In the leisure industry, that was a new trend. I tried to create a positioning where my opinion was valued. I then became a managing director of a multinational company and looked after India and Southeast Asia. Every time I felt a little fatigued, my boss would give me a new country to look after. It was very flattering. There were not many Indian women looking after international countries in those days. Having lots of others reporting to me gave me a bit of a high. But it was only a temporary high.
Would you describe yourself as ambitious?
What is ambition and who are ambitious people? I was driven by the need to do well. It was not like ambition for acquisition, for position or even for recognition. It was for the satisfaction. I would drive myself, and then drive my team, and then drive my company.
How did you balance being a global CEO and having a family?
It was interesting to me that I could pursue whatever I wanted and keep my family together. When I was posted abroad, I was able to take my family and manage my motherhood. I’m not saying that it is a straightforward, cushy journey. There are ups and downs but I tell women that it is extremely possible. If you and your family really value each other’s opinions and sense of wellbeing, you will work it out. I held on to what was valuable. Whatever I gave up was not valuable to me. I have to give credit to my husband and now my daughter. We do the same thing for one another. I’m not saying we’re the best family, but we are the “together family.”
What made you decide to give up your corporate career?
My upbringing taught me to recognize the huge disconnect between the privileged and the larger part of the population. This disconnect is something that I find very difficult to deal with even today. It’s slightly bizarre, but at the turning point, I got interested in obituaries. I wrote my own and found that I had very little to write. Yes, I was Woman of the Year. I got this medal and that medal.
"Who writes that in an obituary? What you write about is the impact your life has had on others. I felt that I had a long way to go."
You must have taken the world by surprise…
A lot of people said, “Oh, it was easy for you to leave because you were one of the highest earning women CEOs in the country.” I don’t know whether I earned the highest or not. But I do know that I led a very comfortable life. I traveled first class, had a Mercedes, stayed in luxury hotels, and had an entertainment budget. Truth is, the more you get, the harder it is to give it up. I see that in the kaleidoscope of what’s happening around. You’re stuck and too dependent.
That must have been an incredibly difficult decision to make.
Well-known business magazines wrote that I was taking a sabbatical. But the best way to move ahead is to burn the bridges behind you. I decided that enough is enough. I’m going to quit. I was very clear that I would not ask anyone for money until I had something to show. That meant I had to use my own personal savings. It was important to play with high stakes. To succeed, you have to show some kind of impact. I wasn’t going to do a business plan, get funded and then have to change the module to suit the donors. I wanted to have a constructive, consolidated program which would get support.
That is a bold decision.
The world that I was getting into was not totally unknown. It was daunting but I was not overwhelmed because of my experience in volunteering. You don’t need to be Bill Gates, Azim Premji, or Narayana Murthy to contribute to the world. You don’t have to wait until you become old or accumulate a lot of wealth. Doing good has to be a part of your life. I decided to begin small, doing whatever I could do rather than trying to change the world.
So the secret is in starting small?
"The question is, do you want to make a change in the world or do you want the world changed? I’m very happy just making a small difference."
After leaving my corporate life, I worked with a multinational non-profit organization for three and a half years to understand what it was like in the board room. I found that what works in a for-profit, doesn’t always work in a non-profit. One size does not fit all when you are dealing with lives. I felt that I had to change the model. I said, “I think I know the way I have to do this.”
So how was your way different?
NGOs are riddled with three issues. One, how do you make the model sustainable? Next, how do you scale? Very few actually ask for how you can have impact. I decided to begin with impact, even a one-person impact. Then you sustain and then comes scale. We began with the idea that even if we could change one child’s life, it was a big change. The scale just happened.
What does it mean to have a one-person impact?
We cannot approach change by saying, “I know what you need and this is what will change you.” It’s important not to play god. The stories of the poor have not been written by the poor. They’ve been written by the privileged, the more educated. You need to hear their real life stories first. 98% of their fathers are alcoholics, 92% of their families have someone in jail. You have to deal with this sensitively, with a great amount of patience and understanding. You have to learn to let go because you can’t own anything. I have been working with them for the past eighteen years but even today, I don’t really understand what causes people in these communities to take decisions. I don’t really understand the trauma. It still feels unreal.
How do you manage to change these children and their families?
Parikrma is more than a school. We provide three meals, healthcare, hospitalization, immunization. We look at a very high level of education and all the things that we can do for our families. There are kids whom we picked up from the streets thirteen or fourteen years ago. One boy, Shiva, who is now working at Cisco, completed his computer engineering. His mother is a maidservant and his grandmother sells flowers at the temple. Today, he has moved his family from the slums and has bought his mother a little shop. His grandmother, however, refuses to change. She goes in front of the temple every day to sell her flowers. I told him to admire the quality that she does not want to depend on him. This is a household where the total income has suddenly gone from Rs. 4,500 to Rs. 42,000. It’s not just the economic condition alone that has changed. It’s the mindset.
Are there any risks to such sea changes?
One of our girl students, an orphan from Manipur, is now a dentist. We have helped set her up and to understand what it means to make a commitment to treating the poor with subsidized rates if not for free. These are changes in the value system. Since our children come from such economically deprived homes, the risk is that they will give earning money maximum priority. It’s very important for us to understand that need and not look down on it. To say, “Sure, you must make money because it will change your life. But that’s not the end of it. There’s more that you have to do.”
How do you guide your student’s career choices?
"I have a sense of wonder about how things evolve. About nature, patterns and balance. The extraordinariness that exists in the common has always appealed to me."
Each one of us has a great deal of exceptional qualities that either have not been unleashed or are slowly blossoming. To recognize that is where the real challenge and excitement is. I think my real talent is to be able to identify young potential and to create an opportunity for them to blossom. This I will even admit to myself.
What was the toughest choice that you have had to make for Parikrma?
I’ve made tough choices in order to hold on to our principles. In the early days, when I had run out of personal funds and had to raise money, a group promised a very large sum to us. It was too good to be true but we lapped it up. When we were signing the memorandum of understanding, certain stipulated conditions affected our philosophy to keep our schools secular. I had to walk away from funds that were absolutely essential. We had already decided to start another school. It was heart wrenching but I knew that if I had compromised, we would be unable to say no to other things asked of us later. Sometimes I wonder whether I am too obstinate and that I put lives at risk. That is very scary.
Those were very tough circumstances.
There was another situation when getting building permission required a large bribe and I refused to pay. Permissions were held back for seven years. They’d say, “This classroom is illegal because you’re one foot short in space.” We divided our small classrooms into two. It was inconvenient for my teachers and heads of school but they pitched in because they understood. We’re doing society a service. We are keeping these children safe, with something to look forward to so that they become contributors to society.
What inspires you?
"The understanding that each of us is so powerful and that the only thing you don’t have control over is where you are born. You have control over the way you live and the way you die. I wish we would acknowledge that."
I know people who say “I’m just not lucky.” Yes, I have been very fortunate to have worked with people who have invested in me. I was fortunate that I got an opportunity to work hard and be recognized. But was I lucky? I don’t think so. I played a role in making things happen the way they did. I think that is what inspires me. That inherent control of destiny that we have.
How would you characterize your leadership style?
I have to exercise a different kind of leadership skill. It is more transformational than operational. I have to carry people along with a goal that has meaning for them, not just for me. To be able to provide universal meaning is a skill which takes a long time to develop. My challenge has been how to evolve my leadership style so that I attract talent without the kind of salary that they would have otherwise gotten. It’s not about me, it’s about their passion for our cause. And the cause alone isn’t faceless. It’s little children’s faces.
What keeps you going strong?
I get emotional support from the friends, family and colleagues who believe in what we are doing. My children are my vitamin pills. I am sixty-one years old but I have the energy of a thirty year old. This is because I have a reason to come to school. I have a purpose. When I see children making their turnaround, I see transformation happening even in their family. We’ve opened bank accounts for mothers. They are earning better and moving out of the slums. This encourages me. The support comes from seeing the fruits of your work.
I wish all energy sources felt as renewable as yours!
When I was a CEO, I took one of my colleagues from Copenhagen to meet Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa’s reaction, an absolutely honest one, was to ask why this lady had come from so far just to meet her. I would give my arm and leg for that kind of humility and simplicity. I really strive to make life simple for myself and my organization. I don’t believe in delivering really earth shattering news but rather, in being consistent. My young colleagues are bright and they really want to do great things. I tell them that I don’t want them to fatigue after one big flash.
"We have taken responsibility for children and we have to take care of them for eighteen years if not more. I want their energy to last. That’s what I call sustainable energy."
How would you describe the Parikrma dream?
The Parikrma dream is for a college to choose our graduates because of the value they will add to the college ethos. The Parikrma dream is for an employer to review our students’ resumes and know what kind of person they are hiring. The dream is less about getting students jobs at IBM and more about the value that they will add to IBM. Parikrma is about social reengineering - changing the mindset of the poor and changing the mindset of the rich who look at the poor. That’s the ultimate objective. School is just a medium.
Your dream is truly blossoming.
This June, we began with 1,920 children - 99 slums and 4 orphanages, impacting at least about 22,000 people. That’s one segment. The other segment is a teacher training center, where we are training teachers of government schools. What we are doing is resurrecting pride in the teaching profession. Through that we will be impacting abut 63,000 children. So you see, scale was not what we began with, scale was never a part of our plan but scale automatically happened.
Where do you see yourself when you’re 80?
One of the things that I have announced very publicly is that I want to hand over Parikrma to the students. I’ve selected a few kids whom we are developing as trustees. We hold a little school after school hours where the kids are learning to take Parikrma forward.
"When I’m 80 years old, I see myself in a wheelchair being wheeled into the morning assembly of a Parikrma school that has been started by a Parikrma student. That’s what I mean by circle of life. That is my story."
The article was published in The Leela Collective
For the very first time in Bengaluru, a football championship match will witness not only the best football teams from schools in the city but there will be more - A school from Dubai, one from Sikkim, and Kerala will be battling for the Equality Cup – a Cup that symbolizes the breaking down of social barriers.
After raising the bar for school football sport in the city the last few years, the Parikrma Champions League in association with the All India Football Federation and Karnataka State Football Association, a one-of-a-kind U-16 boys football tournament, is back with the 7th championship tournament, which promises to be bigger and better.
What to expect at PCL 2017?
The Parikrma Champions League has been made possible thanks to the support of the Karnataka State Football Association. Identiti will provide all the clothing for the officials. Manipal Hospital will provide medical support for the tournament, ensuring that a doctor and nurse are present at the stadium on all five days in case of any injuries or medical emergency.
The tournament will be inaugurated at 10am on November 23 at the Bangalore Football Stadium.
Frederick Buechner once said, “The magic of words is that they have power to do more than convey meaning; not only do they have the power to make things clear, they make things happen.” Haven’t we witnessed this true magic all the time, all around us??
On this International Literacy Day, Parikrma in association with British Council organised the Parikrma Words and Voices - a celebration of the “written word”!
How often do we understand what runs in a child’s mind, and what better way to explore the same through stories – stories with messages of value? We witnessed an active participation by students from eight schools in Bengaluru – from both government and international schools. Children submitted stories and performed Radio Plays.
Bengaluru’s renowned theatre actor and director, Ashish Sen and his equally talented son, artiste Mikhail Sen, the judges, “got the opportunity to watch and read a few, interesting and highly engaging 1000 word stories / plays contributed by children,” in their words. “The quality of work that I see here is incredible. I am even considering using a few stories for a professional radio play,” exclaims Ashish Sen.
There were all kinds of stories – touching upon all kinds of issues, some serious, and some not so serious, but every piece of “word” was deliciously and tastefully put together.
Here are the winners:
The first place for the Radio Play Award was given to students from Stonehill International School, followed by runners up, Euro International.
We are thrilled that our 7th grade students bagged the first place for the Best Story Award and Stonehill International won the second.
We are happy to share with you the story that took the first prize – written by students from Parikrma Humanity Foundation.
“It is Sunday!” said Nadia to her sister, “so hurry up and let’s go home, and play the game of future”! Swathi and Nadia were twins, they were close and dedicated to whatever they liked. They played together and slept in the same room.
On a Saturday night they both came home a little late, around 8 o’clock. Their mother asked angrily, “Children why are you so late”! The sisters said that they had special classes. The mother nodded and served them dinner. The final examinations were to start from Monday, so the twins ate their dinner quickly and went to bed.
On Sunday morning, both the twins woke up early and rushed into the garden to play football.“Goal!”rejoiced Swathi. They played for two hours and once they had finished playing football, they decided to go over to their friends’ place and play ‘the game of future’.
Now what you may find interesting in this story is the power our two protagonists have over their male friends. These two sisters were fierce, they were feisty, they had a voice! And this voice is what made them different from the rest! Yet they feared one person in the world, their father. Not feared in a respectful way, but feared in a way that they didn’t know how to react around him.
One evening, both sisters went over to their friend’s place and started playing the very interesting ‘game of future’.
“Hey, heard about the new Blue Whale game?” Sara, one of their overenthusiastic friends asked cheerily!
“Wait, what”? Nadia was confused. “Father has asked us not to even mention those words ever! So there’s no way we are having this discussion here”! The school the girls went to had held a special circle time to discuss Blue Whale amongst the students and the teachers, but when the girls had come home to clarify a few questions with their parents, all their doubts were met with a stern “NO TALKING ABOUT THIS”! Hence, the storm of curiosity that was already triggered in these young minds kept burning and building up, but found no place to explode.
“But my mother always makes sure we discuss these issues you know,” said Sara, feeling sad having been deprived of a constructive debate with her friends. So they continued playing “The Game of Future”. Not very long later, the children had absolutely lost track of time and by the time they wanted to get back home, it was already 6 in the evening.
Nadia and Swathi hurried home and extremely worried, rang the doorbell. Their mother opened the door with a very angry face, and said only one thing, “Let your father get back!”
These words were enough to send a chill down Nadia’s spine. She was the more sensitive one amongst the two sisters, and things affected her. Like last month, when the neighbour’s cat escaped during the loud noises of Diwali, Nadia had spent an entire week sulking over the lost cat, probably more than its own owner had. Now the thought of father being disappointed in them again was definitely going to give her a very uncomfortable time.
Soon it was 9 pm, time for father to get back from work. The twins were sick with worry and did not know how to apologize for being late. Nadia needed an escape; father was taking time to return and Nadia HAD to focus on something else. Slowly Sara’s words rang in her ears; flashes from the circle time at school came to her.
“You enter once and you won’t be able to leave”, the teacher had said.
“What’s the big deal in leaving”, though Nadia mockingly, as she switched on her computer. Since we live in 2017 where the concept of privacy and secrecy no longer exists, it was very easy for Nadia to trace the Blue Whale game online. Bit by bit, hesitantly, she started reading the rules. She felt like her childhood hero Alice, as if she was entering Wonderland, just this Wonderland was going to be much darker.
“But I can get out of it any time I want”, thought Nadia, “I’m strong, not weak like these kids”.
We’ll never know what Nadia did for 2 hours with her computer that day but she surely wasn’t very affected by father anymore.
As soon as father entered the house, he was showered with complaints from mother. He was furious. He shouted, “What made you go play and not study for your test tomorrow”! He lost control over himself and hit Nadia in a fit of rage, not noticing the big wooden table behind her. She fell and hit her head against the table and almost immediately started bleeding profusely.
The entire family panicked, Nadia did not. “It’s alright Father, I’m sure you didn’t see the table, I’ll get out of your way now.”. She left the room immediately. Father understood his mistake and started weeping in regret. Mother didn’t know whether to console the father or her child, so she grabbed the phone to call her elder sister who she often took advice from, even though she hadn’t visited home in over 4 years. “
Things were back to normal in the house the next morning, but something inside Nadia had changed. She had become still, indifferent. Teachers were worried about her behaviour, they couldn’t figure out what had happened to the once curious girl. The teachers discussed her in the staff room, but no one thought of telling her parents. They all treated it as a phase of adolescence that would pass.
Four weeks had passed since the incident, Nadia and Swathi were both doing great academically, but Nadia had been skipping football practices of late. Father’s apology didn’t last long, he returned to believing that hitting was the only way to discipline his teenage girls. Mother didn’t dare to go against father.
One evening, when Swathi came back from practice, determined to talk to her sister about her skipping important sessions, she saw something that no sister should ever have to see! Nadia had hung herself! Her head bowed down in shame, the same head that held high against all odds in the past had now given up!
The next few hours were nothing less than a tornado. The sound of ambulance beeping, parents howling, neighbours hushing amongst themselves. Suicide is a scandal in society, especially when not dealt with properly.
Nadia died on her way to the hospital. No one could save her, neither her sister nor her teachers who always “meant to” talk to the parents. The neighbour’s son said he had once seen Nadia attempt a step from the Blue Whale game when he had come to return a bowl, and that one sentence made the newspaper headlines the following morning,
“Another teenager falls prey to Blue Whale, loses life!”
It was never proved if the game really took her life, there was no proof of her ever playing the game as well, but something did go unnoticed- Nadia’s depression. Her constant suppression of her questions, the humiliation from father and inability to settle in with friends. But it was just easy to blame it on an untraceable game and close the case.
We couldn’t save Nadia, but there are millions of others that we can! I want to pass this message to all the parents of students, the teachers and my friends, that PLEASE LISTEN! Pay attention to your child, your student, your friend, because life could get tough, and we all could use a little help getting by.
Hitting is not the solution to all problems, sometimes a small discussion could help! I would also like to tell my friends here that let’s not follow the society blindly and give so much importance to a game that doesn’t even deserve our attention.
At Parikrma, our Alumni are a true representation of our journey and where we stand today. Any achievement of theirs is a huge source of pride to Parikrma. Today is one such joyous occasion - our student Diwakar who joined Parikrma when he was 5 years old is now being promoted to the position of a Team Leader of F&B at The Hilton, Bangalore.
This is not the first and we can’t to wait to witness more... From software engineers to artists and bloggers, Praikrma alumni are testimony to our successful Circle of Life philosophy and efforts. Here’s to more!