Entrechat with Ms. Valli Arunachalam

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Tell me how can one live without daughters. ~ Malala Yousafzai

Founded in 1900, the Murugappa Group is one of India’s leading business conglomerates. The Group has 28 businesses including nine listed Companies traded in NSE & BSE. For generations, the management of the Murugappa Group has been a ‘male- only’ bastion; and it is for the first time, that Valli Arunachalam, a PhD in nuclear engineering with 23 years of work experience and the elder daughter of the late M.V. Murugappan, former Executive Chairman, is fighting for her right to be inducted in Murugappa Group’s board. Her being a daughter is posing as her biggest obstacle, and paradoxically, it is from being a woman that she draws her greatest courage; the courage to object, to face opposition and overcome obstacles to achieve her goals! Sheatwork requests her to share her story to inspire more women to shatter the glass ceiling and look beyond.

Q1. Can you tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur and struggles, especially now, when you are battling the pain of your father’s loss?

Ans – My story is a story about oppression and marginalization of daughters in India. It is a story about their equality and justice. There are millions of such stories in India but they are swept away under the rug. I want these stories including mine, to be heard and addressed – and that is what I am fighting for. The Murugappa family still follows the age old tradition of patriarchy and the inheritance pathway is chalked in sync with this tradition. However, although the other branches of the Murugappa family followed the patriarchal tradition of inheritance, my father, a person with foresight and trust in the abilities of women,  chose the path untread so far. He willed my mother, my sister and me as the legacy bearers of his part in the family business. Today we are demanding only what is rightfully ours, but it is a pity that even in the present age where women entrepreneurship supports any economy in a big way, we still have to ‘ASK’ for what belongs to us! However, inspite of many push-backs, we remained consistent in our efforts and proposed many options of wrapping up the matter amicably; but the family summarily rejected all our proposals. Based on my significant share holding I asked for a board seat in the holding company to protect my family’s significant shareholding in the business – which was denied basis many ‘excuses’. I had hoped to bring fresh ideas to the family business and contribute meaningfully but that was not allowed to happen. Also, it was shocking to witness the induction of an inexperienced member of the family into the Ambadi Board after the demise of his father, but an experienced person like me getting voted out on gender basis.

That was a moment of reckoning for me. I view this as a vote against the values and principles enshrined in the Constitution of India. I felt it was my responsibility to stand up against this discrimination. My struggles are just one of the many struggles which Indian women face today and through my fight I hope to inspire Indian women to stand up for their rights. This is the 21st century and women deserve to be treated equal to men. This forced restructuring exercise at the Murugappa Group is indeed ‘unfortunate’, because it validates the fact that the company has failed to keep pace with time in an era when women are an integral part of the workforce.

Q2. Currently is there a mandate that there should be a woman director in all listed companies?

Ans – Yes, there is a SEBI regulation mandating atleast one independent woman director in the top thousand listed companies; BUT the holding company of the Murugappa Group, although a listed company, does not rank in the top thousand. So here, it is not mandated.

Q3. It is surprising that apart from your late father, none of the other men in your family are progressive when it comes to travelling with the changing times. Have you received any support openly/behind the scenes from the younger generation of men in the family business?

Ans- No, I have not received any support from them either publicly or privately and in this day and age this is incomprehensible.

Q4. Other than your immediate women family members, have the women in your extended family supported you in this fight against inequality?

Ans- Unfortunately, again the answer is ‘No’.

Q5. What is it that still keeps you going and swim against the tide, alone?

Ans – I am a nuclear engineer and I have this store house of nuclear power in me which keeps me going!! Jokes apart, it is my passion and commitment for the greater cause – gender equality, women empowerment – which keeps me going despite all the struggles and setbacks. I have complete faith in the judicial system and I believe that if you fight for what is right, justice will be delivered. I tell myself every night that I have done the best I could today, tomorrow is another day…and I will do better!

Q6. Do you feel your journey would have been easier if other family businesses had allowed more women in leadership roles or if there would be more women entrepreneurs in families?

Ans- Undoubtedly, the answer would be yes!! Women have so much to contribute to the family business and incorporating everyone’s strength, men and women, to develop and grow the family business is the way to go. Today women are educated, aware, digitally equipped and it is time that businesses understood the contributions which women can make. There have been numerous studies vouching for the enormous growth women can bring to businesses and the economy. Many large corporations have moved towards gender equality and have reaped the benefits of it. So, we need to learn from them and strive towards gender equality.

Q7. Somewhere do you feel women themselves are to be blamed for not challenging themselves to move ahead and manage family businesses with intelligence, agility and hard work?

Ans- In a patriarchy, women are suppressed from a very young age. It is very difficult for women to tear out of that. It takes a lot of courage and determination to come out of that mind-set and doubling their troubles is the financial dependency they face. These factors contribute to the fact that women hesitate to take charge. However, I was fortunate because both my parents were forward thinking individuals and they ensured that I had excellent education to be able to pursue my passion. Both, my sister and I , even though we come from a patriarchal family, we made our mark! This independence is what is fueling me in my fight. I would encourage other women who are in patriarchal systems and family businesses, to pursue their dreams.

Q8. How do think a woman can survive and thrive in male dominated industries?

Ans- Let us look around us – despite having the workload of household chores, despite being faced with many hurdles, women multi-task efficiently to excel in both, their jobs on the professional front and chores at home. This, I think is remarkable. Women should become more conscious of their abilities and move ahead. Women should seek help from support groups, visualize their passion and commit to fulfil their dreams. I have received support from men and women from all walks of life- ordinary people to the captains of the industry, both, in India and abroad, and am extremely humbled by the experience.  I wish to tell all aspiring women entrepreneurs that indeed it will be a difficult journey and there will be more downfalls than successes; but remember to stand up every time you fall, learn from your errors and charge ahead.

Q9. What is your advice to society, people in general, on how to embrace gender equality in a better manner both, at home and in the outside world?

Ans-  I think it is important to recognize that the world is changing. We have to be flexible and change with changing times if we wish to be successful anywhere, including businesses. When 50% of your consumers are women, we should realize that unless we revamp the leadership roles, make place for women in other rungs of the business and strive for gender equality, we will not be doing justice to the business and shareholders. We require both, men and women to realize this and work together for the common good of society and the business.

Q10. When you achieve what you are fighting for, what is that one change you would bring about to support women across the country?

Ans- I have been committed to women empowerment, especially women education through my father’s charitable trust for a long time now. It is not something novel I would be doing after a decision has been reached in my favor. I feel, I owe it to society to return what I got from society – a good education, the opportunity to pursue a career and carve out an identity for myself. I want this to be possible for all women and that is what I have been working towards for a long time. 

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