In March 2013 when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published ‘Lean In’, the book went on to become an immediate bestseller and opened up valuable channels of conversation about women in the workplace in the 21st century. In July of that same year, Apurva Purohit, CEO of FM network Radio City 91.1, published ‘Lady You Are Not a Man- the Adventures of a Woman at Work,’ which went on to become a national bestseller. Though both books are seminal landmarks, their close publication is a sheer coincidence. And though Sandberg’s book is invaluable, Indian women tend to identify much more with Purohit’s work simply because the book is more contextual to the battles being fought here.
Apurva Purohit does not like to be called a feminist because she hates labels. “Labels are restrictive and limit your notions of what you think you can achieve,” she says. But she has been fighting to right skewed workplace gender balance ever since she started working herself. Today she is a CEO, one of the very few women CEO’s not only in the media industry but in the country, and her voice is a powerful champion of these issues. In a freewheeling chat with HerStory, she discusses how chance and evolution have an important role in one’s success, why glorifying womanhood is as bad as being ashamed of it and why it is women-and not men-who have it all.Describe your path to what you are doing now.
Does serendipity make for a good story? Because my life is all about jumping at chances and making connections. I was studying physics in my undergrad when my mother started egging me on to do my masters in management. She had heard about a cousin who, after studying management, landed a plum job with Citi Bank and began to harbour similar dreams for me. She is a formidable woman, my mother. She’s been a teacher, has a PhD in psychology and never treated me any differently from my brother. I don’t ever remember thinking woman-therefore different. We were just children. Then we grew up with exactly the same ambitious push behind us that you have to do well in life and education is your route to doing that.
So I duly sat for my CAT exams and, post the written round, got through all the IIM’s. After the interview round however, I only made it to IIM Bangalore. For a student whose always been a topper, the realization that I can’t do everything hit home hard.
Those two years went by in a breeze. We were not as evolved as the people of today. There was no internet. You just had to figure out different career options by talking to different people. Over a dinner meeting someone mentioned they were working with HTA (one of the biggest advertising companies in the country at the time). I thought it sounded exciting and went along for a summer training. I enjoyed those two months immensely and realized I have a calling for brands, creativity and storytelling.
HTA had made me a pre placement offer. After working there for two years, the head of HTA moved to Rediffusion. He asked me to come along and I did. Down the line, again, one of my ex bosses called me to run Zee TV. That was an interesting change for me- from being in advertising to managing the business of creativity. From Zee, an ex colleague called me to run Times of India’s television segment. That was a startup at the time.
When Radio City was taken over by a private equity fund, someone familiar with my work, asked me to come run the show. This was an entrepreneurial role- that was my incentive to move. While life has been a series of happy accidents, I have never made a CV or resume in my life. Each job I have ever landed has been based on people who knew me calling me to take up a role. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.
While none of us can really plan out life, (yes we must have goals and work hard to achieve those goals, but we can’t predict what life will turn out to be like) what we can do is live each day of our lives keeping in mind that we are building a reputation for ourselves. The boss who changed my career around- taking me from advertising and appointing me the president of Zee TV, he bet on me big time with that move. But he did that because he had seen how I work. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, as the saying goes. Did I work hard knowing that one day I would end up the president at Zee- no, definitely not. But I knew working hard, sincerely and intelligently will pay off and it did. We need to focus on building a stellar reputation because we have no idea when someone is watching us and will change our life around.
You once said, “Never make a career decision based on what you are good at.” How does one go about it then?
I think that what we are good at we take a long time to figure out, especially early on in our lives and careers. Most of the time we tend to make career choices based on academic achievements, peer pressure, the lure of a good salary or what we consider cool or are too idealistic about. These are rarely reliable factors. It is only when we begin to navigate life- exploring opportunities and probing ideas- that we figure out where our true passions life. If you decide you are good at something and follow that with a single minded dedication, you are closing off all other opportunities that would take you on paths you never thought possible. I have seen this happen with many people.
It’s about your evolution as a person, not the subject strength that you have. Instead of narrowing in on career choices, focus on the things that really matter- the attitudes that shape your philosophy on life and work, your core strengths and your growth as a person. Life is all about your attitude and what gives you a kick. Follow your instincts keeping these in mind and you will land up where you are supposed to be.
Given your long career trajectory, this book must have been brewing in your mind for a while. But was there any particular incident that pushed you to out pen to paper?
My method of working with my team, of teaching or brainstorming, is through storytelling. Stories have been an inherent part of my job as a leader. During an interview for the book, when I mentioned that I wrote it over a three month period, a colleague sitting in the audience blurted out, “It didn’t take her three months to write the book. She has been telling us these stories for the past fifteen years.”
There is opportunity where we don’t see it. My husband moved to Bangalore for work. I grudgingly moved along with him, though my office in in Mumbai. I am in Mumbai two or three times a week, but the rest three or four days I spend here in Bangalore. Initially I was beset by boredom and floundered about looking to do something worthwhile with my time. That’s when I started my blog, ‘Women at Work.’ I was writing it keeping a few close friends in mind. But people seemed to like it. Gradually it amassed a large following and eventually garnered the interest of publishers. When approached with the offer of converting my blog into a book, I was excited but couldn’t fathom writing a whole book. So I flippantly told them to reprint the blog into a book. I was sternly told it doesn’t happen like that. I have to sit and write chapters, one after another. Once I sat down to do it, the stories just flowed and the book was complete within three months. It got published, became a bestseller and now is being translated into different regional languages.
In ‘Lean In,’ Sandberg refers to a Forbes report about women having to desexualise themselves as much as possible in order to fit in with their workplace environment. You are one among a handful of women CEO’s in the country. The book is you wrote is the first of its kind in India. Did you ever feel insecure about jeopardizing your career or making yourself vulnerable to certain kinds of comments and criticism in writing a ‘tell all’?
I don’t think of myself as a woman versus a man. At IIM, with 120 boys and 9 girls, I did get comments like ‘Oh you got good marks because you are a girl.’ Subconsciously sexism is always there. In Mumbai everybody knows me by virtue of my work. When we moved to Bangalore, everybody would inquire my husband about his work. I was asked whether I had managed to find good servants. No one even bothered to check whether I was working or not.
I wrote this book because I felt that organizations are doing their bit to be more inclusive, but women, in general, are not stepping up and embracing their potential. They were running away. I wrote this book because I wanted to tell women there is nothing special about women CEO’s. We are exactly like you and we are exactly like the men who vastly outnumber us. Its just that we work harder and we’ve never given up. So don’t be intimidated. Wholeheartedly pursue the work you do. I want to inspire, excite but also hold up a mirror. If you are doing something wrong today,if you refuse to step up your game now then ten years later, when you don’t have a great career, don’t cry. If you run away today, you can’t get back. I was so passionate about this message that it never occurred to me how I will be seen.
If a man writes the kind of book you wrote, it would be touted as a leadership book for the ages. Your book, though replete with career wisdom for all, is marketed solely for women. Does it not get frustrating?
I have been happy in my life by ignoring battles I can’t win. What can I do if people’s biases reflect biases of centuries? I can’t go and beat everyone up. What I can do is channel my experiences to bring about meaningful change, even if that change is slow to happen. All of us want to make a difference. What matters is that I am here to make a sustained, long term difference. Getting caught in useless battles will get me nowhere.
You one said that earlier women fought for your rights. You are fighting for our rights and so on. Now that we can vote and inherit property, do you think that newer generations take it easier? Are we too busy reaping the benefits of those who’ve come before us, but not doing enough to carry the mantle forward?
I don’t agree with that statement and I’ll tell you why. It may seem that the hardest fights have been won, that equality- at least on paper- is ours. But it is not so. The battle ground itself has shifted. Women today are confronted with an insane amount of expectations and feel that they have to play the different roles they have been thrust with perfectly. People like us, we can only inspire. But everyone has to fight their own individual fights. What counts is not how well you fulfil those expectations but how you defy expectations to become your own person.
Any conversation about women and workplace equality is incomplete without discussing Indra Nooyi’s now infamous comment that women can’t have it all. I felt disappointed that instead of speaking out against the injustice of that ‘having it all’ trope, she reinforced it. What are your thoughts?
I think she was largely misunderstood.
In my opinion, what she was trying to say is that you may be a CEO but you are also a mother and a wife and you have to fulfill those roles as best as you can. In fact what she was trying to say was not unique to women. Be it a man or a woman, you are a CEO only at work.Once you enter the home, you are just another family member. The man also has roles to fulfill-father, son, etc. We all have a multitude of roles to play. Each one is demanding in its own right and our response in dealing with it cannot be based on ego. It is a fact that we have to keep prioritizing.
It’s a fact. But you once said that what happens outside work is men go networking after work-drinking, partying, playing golf, etc. Women, after office, go household shopping and correct their children’s homework. Where is the fairness in that?
Yes women have to work far harder than men do. Men would not be where they are in their career were it not for the silent slave labour of their wives behind them. But do they have it all? I think it is the women who, despite all appearances, have it all-dubious as the term is. Because they can, and are, playing all these roles-wife, mother, sister, daughter, etc. And their lives are more enriched because of it. Men are only playing one role.
Your mantra is, “In the workplace, don’t desexualise yourself. But don’t be overtly feminine.” But long before women get to the workplace, the damage is already done. Years of wrong socialization, schooling, hidden curriculum, etc. normalise sexism to a disturbing degree. How to deal with that?
Again I would say, there are some battles you can fight and some best left for another day. Of course we have to become more self-aware and fight stereotypes. That responsibility is non- negotiable. Every year on your birthday throw out one emotional baggage you are carrying. Never think of that again. Life will become better.
Enjoy the fact that you are a woman. Don’t exploit it.
I read in a book that every day we have to try and become the best version of ourselves. This thought keeps me on my toes.