Ipan, Microsoft, and Amazon; Meenu Handa has seen it all. A PR professional who has worked with top notch companies for over two decades, she is an inspiration to working women everywhere. Why? Because, she has crafted her life in her own way and is a self-made woman.
In her characteristic frank and no-holds barred style, Meenu shares the story of her journey with us. I met Meenu at her home, and had the chance to see the woman behind the professional in her own abode. During a one-hour long chat with YourStory, punctuated by requests from her children and pet, Meenu spoke about the serendipitous nature of her life, and the influences that have shaped her.
I found in her an abundance of chutzpah and grit, and a soul that believes in the things life brings one’s way. I came away with admiration, and a sense of having found a kindred spirit.
Here’s Meenu’s story:
If I were to be an observer of my life, I’d say it has been governed by serendipity. Most of the good things in life have happened to me by accident, including my children (smiles). They were not planned for, they both happened. Obviously it’s been fun and pure joy. Let me tell you why I say this. I actually play basketball. I played basketball for India as well. And how it got to that is an interesting story.
Basketball, my first obsession:
One day in class seven, I just happened to go to the basketball court, for whatever reason (maybe the baddy courts were shut), picked up the ball and bounced it two or three times. And that very day our coach, who came only early in the mornings happened to be there, saw me bounce the ball, and for whatever it’s worth and God bless him, he called me aside and said, ‘Can you bring your mother and come tomorrow morning?’ My mother was always one for trying everything out, she said ‘Okay, let’s go’. He told my mom that I had potential and that he wanted me to be part of the Delhi state team (under 12) for the nationals. So there I was, selected for the state team never having played basketball, nor aware of the rules.
At the nationals, I was made one of the extras. I was very upset that they didn’t let me play. So I cried, I actually cried; an 11-year-old child taken somewhere and not made to play. I guess there was always this spirit of competition within me. So they actually put me in the next match. I didn’t know what I was doing, just running. I was there wherever the ball was. Once I even got the ball in my hand and I was just bouncing it because I didn’t know what to do with it and I just threw it. God know what happened to it. After that they didn’t make me play much, they just put me in once in a while otherwise I’d get upset.
However, after this incident, my commitment to the game became strong. Even though my parents would be asleep, I would wake up early, make my own breakfast and leave for school on a DTC bus at 6 in the morning. I would play till about 8 am, and then attend my classes. In the afternoon we’d have matches with the outside temperature hovering at 42 degrees centigrade, but we never felt it. During the summer vacations too, I would reach school by 6.30 am and play until 10 am. So I guess I was very dedicated to the game. I am sure some kids today are as dedicated, but they have more demands. They want fancier shoes, while we were happy with our Bata shoes (smiles).
Life after basketball:
My parents moved to the UK and I finished three years of college in Delhi at St.Stephens. Now the question was what do I do with my life? I knew there was no future for me in basketball because there is no money there.
My parents were very keen that I move to UK but just then I met my ex-husband. He was my very dear friend’s brother. I told myself there was no way I was going away.
And then it happened again: serendipity. I was spending time with this friend of mine from school, and she was going to meet a friend of hers who was doing an evening course, a post graduate diploma in PR and advertising. I decided to do an evening course so that I would have something on my resume. Towards the end of the course, I happened to read a story on the PR industry and Ipan was quoted there. I was interested in the company. I realized the girl I had spoken to, who was doing the course that I did, was at Ipan.
This was early 1990.
So I approached Ipan. At that time they did not have space in their office, and asked me to come back later. I left it at that and started applying elsewhere but I was keen on Ipan. Somehow you know when you walk into an office that you’re home. Anyway, I never let go of my dream to join Ipan and would keep checking with them. Eventually they relented and said, ‘look there’s no space in the office so you’ll have to sit in the reception.’ So another girl and I, both of us joined together. Our desks were put in the waiting room area. That was really the start of my career.
Moving on from Ipan
I was at Ipan for 15 years; in a way I was married to the profession, to the company. Then for various reasons, the CEO founder left Ipan. That left a big void in the company. I was virtually running it. At that time, I would have expected JWT to handle the situation better but they didn’t. They decided to bring in somebody else as CEO. That was the time when I thought it was time for me to move on. I had barely decided, and Microsoft just came along. Again, it was a friend who introduced me to the Chairman and Vice President of Microsoft since they were looking for someone with my background. I met him, and there was an instant connection.
In the seven-and-a-half years at Microsoft, I had built a team and made myself redundant. I was getting bored. Amazon was looking for somebody, they were nice enough to let me work from Delhi even though their operations were elsewhere.
Genes do make a difference. My mom is a fighter. When she wants something, boy, she gets it. I have to say there’s a lot of her in me. We voice our opinions, and do not take anything lying down. We have to react. It can be negative as well. Sometimes, it just requires you to sit quiet and let it pass but we can’t, we just have to react.
You know, my parents started life with just 50 paise in their pockets. They really worked very hard to give us a good education. My mother was very clear that she wanted us to go to a good public school. She told my dad, ‘Whatever it is we should make sure we send them to a good English-medium school.’ We never had luxuries, but there was nothing we lacked. If there was anything we wanted to do, we got to do it.
I saw my mom build her own house from scratch. Dad was the guy who would look at finances. She was a working mom, but she would go to the site every single day and supervise the construction. There was never something that was not a woman’s job.
The other thing that shaped me was the sport I played. Basketball is a team game. Any sport teaches you that there are good days and there are bad days. And you just have to keep going. Being a sport made a big difference and being in a team sport made an even bigger difference.