Dr Valli Arunachalam On The Fight For Her Rightful Place In The Murugappa Group

The Murugappa group has kept its doors shut for daughters in the family for 5 generations. Dr Valli Arunachalam is now fighting it legally.

Dr Valli Arunachalam is the eldest daughter of Late Mr. M V Murugappan, former executive chairman of the Murugappa Group of companies. Her credentials speak for themselves. She has a Master’s and an MPhil in Nuclear Physics, a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering.

She pursued a career in the semiconductor industry and has 25 years of work experience. Despite such strong qualifications, she is having to fight against the Murugappa Group for her rightful place on the board of Ambadi Investments.

Speaking of the turn of events after her father’s demise in 2017, Dr Valli Arunachalam says, “After my father’s passing, we approached the family and asked them to honor his last wishes, which was to settle our family’s stake in the business at fair value. For over 2 years, my sister, mother, and I went back and forth with the family trying to bring about an amicable solution.”

“We were very consistent with our efforts and we proposed many ways in which the matter could be settled amicably. The family lured us into thinking they were going to settle, and then they backtracked. I then asked for representation in the holding company, Ambadi Investments Limited.”

“I was asked to apply for the board seat, but the family unanimously voted against my nomination. Being caught in a situation where they would neither settle us nor would they allow us into the business, we resorted to legal measures.”

‘Murugappa group has always kept daughters away from the business’ Dr Valli Arunachalam

She recalls how in her growing years; the company never permitted daughters to set foot in its doors.

“The doors of the Murugappa group have always been shut to the daughters of the family. It’s a sons-only club. It has been that way for 120 years. It is shocking that in this day and age how a well-known industrial conglomerate can be so backward in its thinking when it comes to the inclusiveness of women in the family business.”

Her father was unlike this and progressive in his thinking, she emphasizes.

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“Right from my childhood, he exposed me to a wide variety of amazing learning experiences, and to very inspiring people. He encouraged both me and my sister to follow our dreams and establish ourselves as independent career women in whatever field interested us, which we did.”

“From a very early age, science and math were my favorite subjects. Naturally, that led me to a career in science and technology. I got my Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering and then went on to have an amazing career in the Semiconductor industry, working for fortune 500 companies such as Motorola, AMD, and TI.”

It’s proven – the most inclusive teams are the most successful ones

Quoting from her experience, she mentions the necessity of inclusion in boardrooms, beyond the mandate.

“From my 25 years of experience, what I’ve found is that the most successful teams that I have led have also been the most inclusive ones. And that’s no coincidence. Only because they were inclusive, were they able to draw upon a broader bandwidth of experiences and deliver more robust and sustainable solutions.”

“If you look all over the world, governments, as well as corporates, are taking significant steps towards gender parity in the boardroom. Because they recognize the tremendous socio-economic benefits that are to be gained. The early adopters are already reaping benefits.”

She insists that this is not merely a tall claim.

“Being a scientist, I always back up my statements with data. There’s a lot of data out there proving this, but I’ll just mention one example – a 2019 Bank of America Merrill Lynch study found that there are higher net profit margins and higher dividends for companies with gender diversity in their boards. There are many such studies by reputed companies all over the world that show that the inclusion of women on boards brings significant economic and social benefits to the company.”

Dr Valli Arunachalam is the first daughter in the Murugappa family to take this cause up legally

In 2015, SEBI mandated the inclusion of at least 1 woman independent director in certain classes of companies. Dr Valli says that the Murugappa group has implemented this just as a check in the box, for compliance.

“The lack of female representation in the company’s management has always been obvious even during my growing years. When it comes to the representation of family members in the company’s management, the balance is even more skewed.”

“For over 5 generations, there have been 18 daughters in the Murugappa family. Not even 1 has been able to get a foot in the door of the family’s business. This is utterly shocking, this is after all the 21st century, things like this shouldn’t be happening.”

Dr Valli Arunachalam says she is the first among all the daughters to spearhead the fight against this patriarchal attitude of the company.

“There have been many ups and downs in this journey, with more downs than ups until now. It’s been a lonely battle and it gets extremely tough and frustrating at times. But the hardships that I’ve faced along the way have only made me stronger, more resilient, and more determined than ever. We can’t let this gender injustice continue. I intend to win this battle for half a billion Indian women because they deserve it.”

In the battle against patriarchy, support system is key

When asked about her support system, she says, “It is the strong and unwavering love, support, and encouragement from my immediate family and friends that sustains me. I’m also extremely grateful and humbled by the very broad base support that I’ve received from the public, women’s empowerment organizations, educational institutions, and last but not the least, the media.”

She is determined to pursue this matter and says she has complete faith in the legal system.

“I believe that eventually justice will be delivered. However, it requires patience, financial resources, and a large dose of P.H.D – what I call Persistence, Hard Work, and Determination.”

Many Indian women have had to forego their rightful share of property and inheritance, not having access to the means to fight the system. For those who are still trying their best to stand up against patriarchal attitudes toward inheritance by daughters, her message is to never give up.

“We need to build a support system and must leverage all the resources that are available to us. I believe that by winning my battle, I can bring about the legal and legislative changes that will somewhat level the playing field for women. My goal is that future generations of women should not have to face such an uphill battle as I have.”

Gender equality requires collective efforts at all levels

But is it as simple as that? Doesn’t it require a complete change in mindset? What do we need to change so that this horrendous discrimination against women doesn’t continue?

“I think it must begin at home, with parents treating daughters and sons equally. But then it must continue through all levels – from kindergarten to the boardroom, you must have the checks and balances which keep nipping these patriarchal mindsets in the bud. It requires the collective and consistent efforts of many organizations.”

“Grassroots organizations are key in bringing about socioeconomic changes and changing mindsets. This must cascade up the chain to educational institutions and companies. These efforts should include key aspects like empowerment of women and girls, and gender sensitivity training, to name a few. Implementation is key here, and this can be done by picking best practices. And last but not least, these efforts must be supported by legislative and legal reforms.”

Educating a girl child enables the entire family unit to prosper

She says she is strongly committed to gender equality and talks of how her family’s philanthropic trust aims to work on grassroots levels.

“I think we need a strong movement to advance the cause of women in India. Of course, my focus is on women in corporate India. But through my family’s philanthropic trust, I’m also doing a lot of work at the grassroots level.”

“For example, what I have found is that in lower-income families, the parents often might want to educate both the girl and the boy child, but they don’t have the means to do it. And when it comes to choosing, they always choose the son over the daughter. So now my family’s charitable trust focuses on educating the girl child in low-income families.”

“Because what happens then is if you educate the girl child, there is a multiplicative effect. In the future, she will support the education of both her sons and daughters instead of choosing. You have both the father and the mother educated, empowered, and taking care of the children. So, the family unit as a whole prospers.”

What changes would Dr Valli Arunachalam make if she gets access to the boardroom?

As we wish her luck in her battle, we ask her the inevitable question. What changes does she envision for the company’s policies if she finds herself on the board?

“In about everything that I choose to do; I commit myself to 100%. If I were to be inducted to the board, I will draw upon all my experiences to work collaboratively with board members to identify issues, formulate solutions and deliver the best outcome for both shareholders as well as employees.”

“Given my passion and commitment to gender equality, I will do everything in my power to ensure a level playing field for women at all levels of the company. Most importantly, I will fortify the pipeline for the advancement of women to the very top echelons of the company. Right now, that pipeline is broken. That’s why you have so few women in leadership positions. I will let my actions speak louder than my words.”

Image source: Dr Valli Arunachalam

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About the Author

Jayashree Ravi

An engineer turned SAHM of two who wants to be known beyond that. Passionate about words, parenting, making eco-friendly choices, feminism and lifelong learning. read more...

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