First-time women directors deepen talent pool

Tasneem Vikram Singh Mehta is no stranger to challenges. She is credited with transforming Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum from a crumbling liability to a preserved heritage as a managing trustee and honorary director.

She is no stranger to corporate world either, courtesy her husband Vikram Singh Mehta, executive chairman at Brookings India and former chairman of Shell in India. She is also on the board of National Institute of Design.

Mehta is now “putting in extra efforts” to succeed in a new chapter in her life as a director on the board of Mumbai-based pharma company Wockhardt. “One should not be afraid of speaking one’s mind,” and avoid getting into the trap of “thinking that you are not as good and experienced as others,” she says emphasising her interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR), especially through the chain of hospitals that Wockhardt runs.

Rekha Sethi is also determined to bring in the same sense of enthusiasm to her new role. The director general of the All India Management Association (AIMA) is yet another first-timer in India Inc’s boardrooms following the Securities and Exchange Board of India’s (Sebi) directive that every company must have at least one woman director. Sethi had prior experience of being a board member of only non-profit organisations’ till she joined the boards of Sun Pharmaceutical and CESC.

“I had a lot of doubt initially whether I will be able to perform, so my strategy was to be quiet, sit and learn,” she says, highlighting the effort she is putting in on the homework before these meetings. “It has raised my level of learning – it is a step up for me,” she says.

The story of first-time women directors on company boards is not just that of grit and passion but also that of a large talent pool being noticed for the first time. Consider Rita Bhagwati who has joined the board of GE Shipping. She is Indian advisor on economic and finance for Washington based Bower Group Asia. Prior to BGA, Bhagwati earlier served as the regional economist for South Asia at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank.

“I wish these appointments for increasing diversity on boards were done without any external pressure and it’s unfortunate that it has happened only after Sebi started cracking the whip,” says Bhagwati who counts attention to details and greater due diligence as the traits that women bring to companies’ boards.

She has identified areas such as currency hedging strategy for her contribution to the GE Shipping board. Since the Sebi directive, she has been approached by many companies to join their boards and she is currently considering to join board of two more large listed companies. She has also joined the board of unlisted telecom tower company Indus Towers.

Bhagwati is also pleased to find her former boss at the IFC, Farida Khambata joining an Indian company’s board for the first time. Khambata has spent many years in emerging markets with the IFC and is global strategist and partner at the US based Cartica Management. She has joined the board of Kotak Mahindra Bank.

“What I bring to the table is my perspective on individual emerging markets and the issues they face,” Khambata says counting the number of boards she has represented internationally including commercial banks in Czech Republic, Philippines and Oman.

She has also been on the board of an asset management company in Vietnam and advisory boards of different funds. “Emerging markets are not homogeneous and the issues faced vary from one country to another,” she says. Khambata has also joined the board of Tata Sons, the unlisted holding company for $ 104 billion turnover Tata Group.

The list of BSE 200 companies shows that 96 companies already had woman directors on their board before Sebi’s directive last year in February. Since then 80 companies made fresh appointments out of which 50 women have become director on a company’s board for the first time.

Ironically the call for joining a company’s board was especially long for Sebi’s former executive director Dharmishta N Rawal who left her job in the regulatory organisation about a decade back to concentrate on her legal practice in the High Court of Gujarat. She finally joined the board of Ahmedabad based Cadila Healthcare followed with Adani Enterprises.

“Woman work as a team and have an eye for details, but how much difference can a single woman make on a company’s board is not really clear,” says Rawal who desires greater gender diversity.