Once known as the daughter of Ravindrabhai Dalal, senior executive of the Birla group, and then as wife of the Mukesh Ambani, richest man in the country, now she’s known as Nita Ambani, business woman and philanthropist. A journey that a woman makes to create such identification for herself – despite, or because of, her background – is commendable on its own. She’s now one of the most influential woman business leaders in Asia, as honoured by Forbes.
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Nita Ambani was born in 1963 into a Gujarati family in Mumbai. Her earliest ambition was a simple one – to become a classical dancer. This makes her – forgive the pun – a classic case of the accidental business woman. The closest she came to business in those early days was her Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. Soon after that, 22 years old and still carrying the dream of a dancer, she wed Mukesh Ambani. This, however, was not her direct ticket into the business world as many believe. “…for nearly 17 years, I was Mukesh's wife but chose to stay away,” She remarked in an interview with TOI.
A few years into the marriage, Mukesh Ambani was involved in setting up the Patalganga pipelines to transport petroleum products. Nita suggested they open a school in the rural areas. This led to the establishment of another school in Jamnagar and somewhere along the way, she realised that “teaching was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
It was this realisation that finally led her to envision quality education in India. Giving up her studies in law (for mostly personal reasons), she set up Dhirubhai Ambani International School in 2003. People were looking for quality education in foreign countries and Nita wanted to provide them with just that, right here in India. “No country can grow without it. We need good teaching colleges and teachers.”
In 2010, Ambani was considering extending RIL’s influence into the social sectors. This vision led to the establishment of Reliance Foundations, which he founded in partnership with Nita. Ever since then, she has led the Foundation’s philanthropic endeavours into rural and urban transformation, education, health, culture and art. She is now the chairperson of the Foundation, an empire that she built for herself from the giant, Reliance Industries.
Nita went on to become one of the board members of RIL in 2014. But not before she had already walked the terrain as a director with the Oberoi Hotels and resorts in 2011. Her most famous business undertaking is, of course, the co-ownership of the IPL cricket team Mumbai Indians. Nita’s dedication and love for her cricket team hasn’t gone unnoticed, but this wasn’t the case when Mukesh Ambani first bought ownership in 2008. She had no interest in and knowledge of cricket at the time.
It was only when Mumbai Indians’ performance was consistently and evidently unfortunate that she “decided to take it up seriously.” She recalled, “We were playing the Rajasthan Royals and it was impossible to lose… but we lost! So I said to myself, 'I have to learn this game…For one year, I was breathing cricket…I would watch all matches — county, club, whatever came on TV. My intention was to learn.” It was only then that she began touring with the team, organizing camps and involving herself in this venture. With this new found passion for sports, she founded the Football Sports Development Limited in 2015, an organization that encouraged development of sports in the country through programs involving the masses.
Despite the attention she was now dedicating to business, Nita continued her philanthropic activities. When Mumbai Indians began their winning streak, she started the Education For All (EFA) program as way of repaying the society. She collaborated with the National Association for Blinds and started Project Drishti, which undertook 5,000 keratoplasty surgeries free of cost. She also planned and launched a braille Hindi magazine, Reliance Drishti.
A notable move was her collaboration with Sir Hurkisondas Nurrotumdas Hospital with an aim to restructure, restore and innovate the hospital infrastructure. Remodelling began in 2012, and in two years, she readied the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Center. She has also involved herself in several health initiatives, such as her partnership with UNAIDS.
Now an established business woman, Nita Ambani undoubtedly shows all the remarkable traits of one. “I have a moving office. If I am at the school, then everything moves there. If it's IPL season, then all the work happens from the stadium or the place where the cricketers are staying. If I am at the hospital, then all my meetings happen there. I don't really have one fixed place that I operate out of.” Like any successful business person, she “has the ability to seamlessly integrate all aspects of her work.”
People who have known her never fail to mention another notable trait – her attention to detail. She involves herself in all aspects of all her businesses – building design, patient records, doctors to recruit and technology to invest in. She has her eyes and hands everywhere. “I don't think devil is in the detail. I think God is in the details.”
Looking back on her journey, she says, “I think if you are passionate about what you do, it brings out your best,” and it is admirable that Nita Ambani’s best was being distinctly heard among the echoes of the Ambanis.