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Women In Family Businesses In India

Posted: August 13, 2010

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Women in business reveal the joys and challenges of busting another male bastion – family businesses in India.

 By Debjani Talapatra

For generations, the onus of taking forward the family business fell squarely on the shoulders of the men in the family. A patriarchal society like India was naturally, no exception to this rule. The last decade has however seen a marked deviation from this trend, with women from well-known Indian business families making their entry.

Some notable examples include the Chauhan sisters– Schauna, Alisha and Nadia of Parle Agro Ltd. and the Reddy sisters of Apollo Hospitals (Preetha, Sangita, Sunita Reddy and Shobana Kamineni) who all play active roles in the business.

Joining family businesses in India

Women from families owning small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are not behind. Disha J. Shah, 30, from Mumbai, has been actively involved in her family’s five generations old diamond business. Disha says, “Being interested in the business, growing up, I spent every Saturday in the office learning from my dad and uncles. After completing my education, I joined them full-time and have never looked back!” 

Today, Disha is involved in every aspect of the business from meeting international partners in Antwerp and Johannesburg to labour relations and HR. She is the first woman from the Shah clan to play a crucial role in the business. She adds, “My aunts, mother and grandmother are very proud of my accomplishments and say that I am a great role model for the other girls in the family.” 

While some women take to the family business like a fish to water, others, like Sonali Dawda, 32, find themselves thrown in the deep end when they least expect it. An only child, she was forced by circumstances to join her father’s business at the age of 26. Says Sonali, “I was happily married and a new mother when my dad suffered from a heart attack and there was no one to step in and manage things.” She had a hard choice to make. “Everyone kept saying that we should sell our highly profitable auto components manufacturing business and live off that amount. However, this business is my father’s legacy and I just could not do this to him. So, even though I knew nothing about this line of work, I worked hard, learnt via trial and error and with my husband’s support, managed to stay afloat.” Today, this mother of two loves her work and working alongside her father.

While Disha and Sonali have had the support of their families, which they both reiterate was the single most important motivator and source of strength, some women have to fight tooth and nail to make things work.

My own family tried to keep me out saying that it was inappropriate for a woman to visit a factory and have conversations with the blue-collared staff. 

Pranali Deshmukh*,36, whose family has a ball bearings manufacturing business, faced stiff opposition from her uncles, male cousins and even her in-laws, when she wanted to join her father’s firm. “Some days felt like a struggle! My own family tried to keep me out saying that it was inappropriate for a woman to visit a factory and have conversations with the blue-collared staff. I was disrespected and treated as a child. It took a lot of patience and effort to, finally, prove myself.” Pranali now works alongside the men of her family, somewhat peacefully, managing their supply chain.

Tips from the women in business

Create space. Endeavour to create clear demarcations between personal and professional interactions and relationships; this will foster peace and professionalism. Pranali has to constantly remind herself to leave family equations at home. “I’ve never seen eye to eye with my cousins but if I let that play on my mind while at work, I would not get very far. So I try to keep things professional at all times.” 

Work your way up. You may encounter staff members who resent your presence because they don’t think you’ve earned your position. Try not to get defensive; instead, let your work speak for itself. Kanika Ahuja*, 24 from Pune who has just joined her family owned law practice faces such opposition. “I am younger than most people there and I sense that people have this feeling that the only reason I was hired was because I am the boss’s daughter. I hope someday they can see me for me.”

A good way to assimilate in the workplace is to start at the bottom rather than the top. This will help not only in learning all the aspects of the business but will also win you credibility. Learn as much about the business before you step in. (Read, Help for the First-Time Manager)

Go slow. Most family businesses have their own way of doing things. Ensure that you present new ideas in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Pranali had to learn this the hard way. “I wanted to do things my way but I was too forceful and came across as brash. With time I’ve learnt to be more thoughtful.”  

 Most family businesses have their own way of doing things. Ensure that you present new ideas in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

Be polite, but firm. Some old timers at work, who knew you as a child, will tend to treat you as such. In these situations it is best to be polite, but firm while explaining your ideas and positions. Over time, this will help them see you differently. Disha, who was a regular fixture in her father’s office as a child faced this problem in the first year of work. “They kept calling me ‘beta’ and second guessing all my decisions; though their behaviour came out of a good place it sometimes annoyed me no end.”

Working with family is no cakewalk, but it does bring rich compensation in the form of satisfaction; the satisfaction of taking forward a family legacy and working for a business that one is passionate about.

*These names have been changed to protect the identity of the individual. 

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