Author and investment banker, Naina Lal Kidwai speaks to Bhumika Popli about her rise to prominence in the corporate world, and about her recent book on sustainable living.


Naina Lal Kidwai is known as the first woman to head an investment bank and the first Indian woman to graduate from the Harvard Business School. She was also the first woman to chair the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. As of now, she is the chairman of Max Financial Services, along with being on the board of several other companies. Besides all this, Kidwai is a writer. Her third book, Survive or Sink: An Action Agenda for Sanitation, Water, Pollution and Green Finance, published by Rupa Publications, lays out a holistic plan addressing the challenges of sustainable development in India. In this interview with Guardian 20, she talks about this book, as well as about life in the corporate realm.

Q. It is a well-known fact that since childhood, you have been very clear about your goals. What has kept you motivated all this while?

A. I think the only motivation that keeps us all going is that we enjoy what we do. So, for me, it was the fact that I was in the world of finance. I enjoyed the work environment. I enjoyed what I was achieving. I was competitive in improving my own self, in terms of where I was and what I was doing, which continues to be a driver, no matter what one does. There was always this desire to excel, the desire to make a difference, the desire to deliver.

Q. Could you talk about the kinds of prejudices women face at the workplace, drawing on your own experience?

A. I can’t say that I faced any situations which were of any concern. I think in my early stages of work, I joined the ANZ Grindlays Bank, which followed a very hierarchal system. The organisation, while I was there, began to change much more into a meritocracy system for growth. So the advantage that I got and had was being able to deliver and perform. I could move faster than the traditional hierarchical method of progressing. But, the organisation was still in a state of change. Being young was probably more of a deterrent than my gender. The organisation was itself very diverse in terms of people from all over India. There were very few of us women and because of our small number they didn’t know how to handle us differently, so we were handled like everyone else. And I always got respect because of the work I was doing in investment banking. I think women rose much faster in investment banking then in banking. It happened because in investment banking you have to deliver. It’s all about deal-making skills. So if you are bad, it will show up and if you are good, it shows as well. I must say that I was very fortunate to have been in an organisation that did not have such [gender bias] problems. But did I have to fight for my rights? Yes. Did I have to fight to be noticed? Yes I did.

Q. What can corporate firms do to promote the ideas of sustainable living among people?

A. In my book, I have covered many examples of how corporate firms are working in areas like water and sanitation. The whole area of water is critical under this new banner called “water stewardship”. It looks at how organistions are maintaining water efficiency, inside the organisation and equally outside of it. How can you, as a corporate entity, address the water crisis around you? There is a water stewardship alliance now globally. Indian companies are signing for it but we need more companies to do so. Any company, in its own self-interest, needs water. At one level, it needs the water to run its own plant. And if a company cannot demonstrate to the community around that the company is responsible for water, then it becomes a conflict between a community and a company. So working together with the community is important, and corporate firms are recognising it. Banks are recognising it. In terms of the risk committees of banks, they should be asking about the things that can ruin their companies’ performance. And one of them has to be how it engages with water.

Corporate firms also have a huge role to play in sanitation. The critical phase now is to make sure that people use toilets. Many companies are working on it. The next phase which we are embarking on now is called “Open Defecation Free”, popularly known as ODF plus, which looks at the treatment of faecal sludge.

Q. In India, sustainability is a bigger challenge than in many other countries, because of our huge and growing population. What are the keys to healthy living in such a scenario?

A. The biggest challenge we have is our huge population. But too many people are also talked about as a demographic dividend. The three areas—hygiene, pollution and sanitation—are key to ensuring that we have a healthy nation. If people are not healthy, they become unproductive, and a huge part of the government’s budget goes towards keeping people healthy. So, isn’t it better that we prevent the problem before we head there? The fact that we have too many people in itself means that we have a
bigger problem. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. Often it is about finding the solutions and applying them, and having access to the right technology and contributing together as Simple mechanisms, like rain-water harvesting, treatment of sewage, twin-post technology and so on, can also work.

Q. In your previous book, 30 Women in Power, you interviewed Indian women from various walks of life. Do you think an engagement with their life stories was inspirational for someone like you, who was already quite clear about your life goals?

A. Yes, always. One of the big lessons for me was about the real issues in other sectors. I also felt banking was possibly easier than other sectors, probably because it was more urban. But women who entered the media, FMCG etc. these fields have very different and maybe tougher issues.

The other thing I learned was how supportive their parents had been, especially the fathers. In many of these cases, the father was the mentor, the hand-holder. I realised that children need the support of both the parents. For me, this was true as well. I don’t have a brother and I once asked my father, “What if I had a brother, would I be allowed to go to  Harvard and would you still have invested the same time and energy you do with me? And he said, yes.

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