Combining a corporate career with numerous social causes, Meera J Menon is touching lives in many aspects.
There is little that she has not done. She’s been a part of uber corporate India, helped the country’s largest life insurer to design its insurance policies, and even started an NGO to help children with financial constraints to complete their studies.
She continues to balance her corporate life with her social commitments and has slipped into her new role with ease – signs of a dependable leader.
Meera J Menon, the newly appointed Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Ampere Vehicles Pvt. Ltd., a leading player in the Electric Vehicle (EV) industry, has, throughout her career, busted the myth that women cannot excel in leadership roles.
Growing up in Chennai, Meera became a chartered accountant only because there were limited options in Astrophysics, a subject she was interested in. Beginning her career with LIC in Corporate Finance and later moving onto IT, she realised that IT was her calling. She joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), worked in different roles of Consultant, Training Head, finally becoming Global Head of Life and Pensions, and globe-trotting all the time.
But the itch to do something different caused Meera to pause and question herself.
“A chance question on building up my case to become vice-president at TCS opened my eyes to the fact that I had achieved a lot professionally but didn’t have an equivalent societal contribution. I moved from a full-time employee of TCS into a retainer ship role, while launching into different NGOs in different roles. I was on the management committee of (all-women) ANEW, which looked at developing skills of poor girls/young women to be able to take up non-traditional employment like home nursing, car/auto drivers, and DTP professionals. Being part of the growth of ANEW too gave me a high. I also took up volunteering at CANSTOP, doing play therapy for cancer children, at the Institute of Child Health, Chennai,” she recalls.
Exposure to the health sector made her want to do more, so she joined a paediatrician with a cause, Sailakshmi Balijepalli, and became a founder-trustee of Ekam Foundation, which looked at Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in the health sector, working with government hospitals across Tamil Nadu.
A move to Coimbatore meant some of Meera’s social commitments reduced in intensity, and so did her corporate assignments. “I launched INTRUST, an NGO looking at helping children from families with financial constraints achieve their dream of education, by filling their gap in paying fees or getting medically fit. Every time INTRUST helps a child complete his/ her studies, get a job and help the family move up a notch in society a sense of pride would envelop me,” she says.
Meera also started the Coimbatore chapter of the Thalassemia Welfare Society. “We helped children in the region get the right treatment through a tie-up with a local hospital, and through continuous follow-up, funding and guidance (ample support provided by doctors from Chennai), made sure that the children affected by thalassemia resumed a near-to-normal life,” she adds.
A chance meeting with Hemalatha Annamalai, founder-CEO of Ampere, and a visit to their factory made Meera realise that her latest passion on saving the planet for future generations, starting with the environment, could also be fulfilled. And thus she began a new role as COO in Ampere.
“Ampere has a lot of things going for it – new technology, new products and challenges of an evolving industry, a huge marketplace, and healthy competition. I have started off on processes- creating, documenting, improving, while at the same time making them repeatable and predictable.”
With the government giving a major thrust to EVs, all the leading automotive manufacturers are getting into this space.
“We need to grow to be able to sustain ourselves, so ramping up production, improving research facilities and realising the Make-in India dream are my focus areas. The ease with which women get into manufacturing is also an eye-opener, and I am hoping to capitalise on that find,” she says.
With the aim of empowering young girls and women, especially in the rural setting Ampere works in, Meera is involved in the establishment of an all-woman e-cycle production unit in Coimbatore.
“It has been interesting to observe that though the women in the factory are diffident, they are strong and very perfection-driven. Last-mile connectivity is also a challenge in these areas, and electric scooters are a blessing here. I am hoping to combine the power of women with the market for cycles, to create a production unit that will cater to the Coimbatore market. I am my first customer, and all our experiments are being done on a cycle that I drive over the weekends. We are also discussing partnerships with different component manufacturers,” she informs.
Elaborating further on her role at Ampere, Meera is emphatic that men-centric organisations are a thing of the past. “We are keen on making our policies women-centric, some of which are: flexi-working, opportunity to learn and develop lateral skills, convenient dress code in the factory, roles that require less weight to be carried, among others.”
Meera feels women’s leadership styles are different, and therefore they are often perceived as being more family-oriented and less-ambitious. In reality, she says, women have better people skills, are better managers, are willing to experiment and don't get dissuaded by failures. Multi-tasking is an inborn skill and donning multiple roles can be done with ease.
“It is hardly news that women have historically grappled with situations to be in positions of power – in society, politics, and business – far more than men have. This is a global phenomenon. – that women are great for business. But the good news is that large democracies and economies like India and the US are sitting up and taking notice of this disparity, at least on paper.”
As COO, Meera is working towards taking Ampere through its growth phase. “I am also working on a project to make Coimbatore city first and the region next, free of thalassemia births – hopefully by the end of next year,” she concludes.