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A talk with Sujatha V.Hari on her free-wheeling career and current avatar as an Entrepreneur in the Security & Investigative services industry.
Interview by Aparna V. Singh
Sujatha is a woman who’s been there, done that. Worked in administrative roles, followed it up with a stint in financial services, put herself through an MBA, run her own advertising agency and finally partnered her husband, Haridass Menon in running Vigil Security Bureau, a Security and Investigation Services firm.
Based out of Chennai, Sujatha was at Vigil’s Bangalore office for a few days, where I caught up with her for an interesting chat on the many things she’s done and on being a woman in the growing, but still male-dominated security industry. (This interview was originally conducted in November 2009)
Aparna V. Singh (AVS): Tell us a little about how you started your career.
Sujatha (S): Early on in my career, I worked with companies such as Madura Coates and Flakt India in administrative roles. Then, in the early 80s, I began working with a financial consultancy, and soon realized that I needed to improve my qualifications. A graduation was just not enough. That’s when I went in for an MBA. By then I was married and had 2 small children. My husband was abroad, so my parents were helping me out. I would work from 9 to 6, then get home and spend time with the children, and then work for an hour or more every day on my MBA course, late at night.
AVS: Did you ever find it difficult or need to take a break from your career?
S: No. I knew that I needed additional qualifications to move on in my career. Luckily, I had plenty of support from my parents and also from the consulting firm where I was working. So I managed, although my elder son was 3 at the time, and my younger one only 6 months old. Both times, I returned to work 2-3 months after the delivery.
AVS: How did you get involved with Vigil?
S: Actually, I had quit the financial sector to start my own advertising agency, ‘Strange Brew’. It was doing quite well until the early 90s when we started having trouble due to the slump, and ran into major payment problems with clients. I decided that it would be better to shut it down. By then, my husband had returned from abroad and already started up Vigil, so I joined him.
AVS: What is your role at Vigil?
S: I am closely involved in the client liaison, and in the day to day interaction with our General Managers and Area Managers who are on the job. Besides, I handle the financial aspects of the business. (Vigil offers clients services such as security, investigation and mediation as well as consultancy to determine security needs).
AVS: Do you feel being a woman ever hinders or helps you when working in the investigative industry?
S: This is still a very male dominated industry. There are very few women at managerial and functional levels. In the South, I can think of very few women at senior levels in this business. Some clients still find it difficult to accept that they have to deal with a woman. Even today, many shy away from talking to me. But, over time, they get used to it.
On the other hand, we employ a lot of lady security guards, especially for industries such as garment manufacturing which have many women employees. We meet them together, once in 3 months, and at these meetings, we talk about the difficulties they may face, such as harassment at the field level or even abusive situations where the husband waits outside on salary day to take their money. They find it much easier to talk to me, knowing that as a woman, I would understand their problems.
With individuals, we get a lot of cases where one spouse wants us to collect information on another. Sometimes, we find that the issues are really emotional and there is no objective person to talk to them. In such cases, we try to counsel them. I think of this as ‘giving back to society’, even though it may not be our job.
In general, there is nothing one cannot do as a woman. For example, we sometimes do spot checks at midnight, just to see if a site that we’re covering is functioning properly. I have done this as well.
AVS: Do you get a lot of investigation cases from individuals? What sort are these?
S: Well, most are to do with family problems, for example, when the wife suspects the husband of cheating on her or parents want to find out what their children are up to. Once, we had this case with a very well-off family that reported thefts, and we discovered that it was the son who was actually stealing! When we showed them the findings, they would not believe it, but that was what was happening. In most of these cases, people really need emotional support more than anything else.
AVS: Considering the work you do, it must be pretty hectic? What is your schedule like?
S: I start very early, by 7.30 in the morning. If there has been any trouble overnight at any of our sites, we want to hear it before our clients. It also helps us to do the planning and scheduling for the day or arrange for reinforcements, since this is an industry where guards tend to take leave without prior notice. The AMs and GMs ensure that the shift is manned, but at the head office, we are there to support them.
AVS: So, how do you relax?
S: I’m the kind of person who cannot stay at home for more than a few hours; I would go crazy. I like cooking and listening to music, but above all, socializing – I love meeting new people. So I’m very active with the Chennai Rotary Club and with Inner Wheel, its sister organization for women. We have adopted 4 balwadis, and we give them all support in the form of teaching the children hygiene and to take care of themselves, giving them better food and so on. Many of the mothers are single mothers – basically, with abusive or absent husbands. We have been helping them acquire some vocational skills, and also to take their skills to market, which is very important. Being involved in all this and giving back to society is what makes me feel good.
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