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Monday, December 11, 2006

Why finance is no longer male turf

Both of these high profile women bankers came to be where they are, via two very different routes. Deputy MD of ICICI Bank, Kalpana Morparia didn't even want to be there in the first place! She had no great aspirations and just wanted to be married and have kids.

She credits her mother for giving her the impetus to get an education and then take up a job because she wanted her daughter to have an independent income. So she did her BSc in chemistry and microbiology and then did law and in 1975, she found herself working for ICICI Bank.

Since then, she hasn't looked back or regretted her decision. The only regret she has, is of a very personal nature. She says, "One of the biggest disappointments that I had to come to terms with is not having children. Once you get that maturity, to accept such a severe limitation in a woman's life, I felt, if I could do that, I can just about handle any other disappointment."

On the other hand, Morparia's counterpart, Director of Kotak Mahindra Capital, Shanti Ekambaram did her schooling in Ahmedabad and came to Mumbai to attend Sydenham College. She was good at math and wanted to be a chartered accountant. She knew she was destined for a career in finance.

Both of them have given the world of finance, a more humane face. Being women has been an asset rather than a liability, as these two have successfully proved. But they also admit to working in very enabling environments.

Morparia says of her bank, "ICICI is place which gives you a lot of freedom. It really enables you to bring in all your inner creativity. It really inculcates the entrepreneurial spirit in an individual. And an entrepreneurial sprit with the backing of an organization - you can't get any better than that."

"I was also lucky to have good mentors. I have been here for 30 years now. It was a very different style of mentoring but they always created opportunities where l could grow in every opportunity that I was given."

But she does acknowledge that the fame that ICICI Bank has got for giving women such a leg up is now such a cliché! She explains, "I have been making this point at virtually every forum that I get. It's really got to do with the general neutral points. In ICICI, it does not really matter whether you are a male or a female except that we can dress better than men. But there is absolutely no discrimination at the time of recruitment, career progression, assignments or compensation."

Ekambaram agrees, "What is required in your business or your daily decision-making is a certain level of competence and I think if that's given and as long as your committed, I don't think there is too much of a difference. Yes, women do bring a certain amount of emotional quotient, EQ, which may perhaps make them more sensitive to certain situations and they may be able to handle certain situations better."

"But EQ without IQ means nothing. So at an IQ level, if that is a given, the EQ gives you an added advantage of being sensitive in certain situations and may be handling people better, or diffusing a certain situation or bringing a certain sensitivity to certain situations helps, but otherwise I don't really see too much difference."

Morparia feels because of their sensitivity, they make for better mentors as they tend to understand that people do have a life outside of the workplace and hence are more accommodating. But, she's also seen changes taking place. Now, more of her male colleagues can't make it to a meeting on a Saturday because it's their turn to babysit!

However, even if the number of women bankers are on the rise, they don’t have it any easier. They have to live up to expectations as well. Morparia agrees, "This is a world, which is driven purely by performance and no investor of mine is going to say, well you have a large proportion of women in your house. So it's okay if the first quarter numbers are not met."

Her career has thrown up many challenges. Morparia elaborates, "It has been a very varied career. I was a lawyer for 20 years of my career in ICICI. My first real big challenge came in 1996, when Mr Kamath asked me to move to treasury from law and I had never handled treasury and he also put me through corporate communications as part of that. So that was the real challenge - suddenly being thrown into doing something new."

"Another big challenge I faced, was the merger of ICICI and ICICI Bank and another one, which is now almost through, is the Dabhol settlement."

Ekambaram is all proactive and on the go. She says, "I deliver the best when I am pushed into a corner because I hate to lose. When I am pushed into a corner I think it brings out the best in me because it's all systems on wire. Your mind just thinks of 50 different things that you can win and I hate to lose."

She goes onto explain, "I have a favourite theory. I think your best competitor is yourself. You must learn to keep on beating yourself in whatever you do, only then will you excel. But the important thing in our organisation is teamplay. There is no substitute for hard ground execution, dirt under the finger nails work, and that can happen only when you have a team and you have five people in that team working towards one goal and actually delivering it."

Morparia believes, in the future, banking will see a lot of consolidation. She says, "Come 2009, when foreign banks will have an ability to make acquisitions, that's when you’ll see some serious M&A activity. The second trigger could be, if the government decides to privatize some of the public sector banks."

That’s in the future, but what’s in store for both of them, after the hurly-burly of corporate life passes them by? Ekambaram has eclectic plans for after her retirement. She says, "I want to do something different. I want to be a TV anchor. I used to anchor shows for Doordarshan in college and do radio shows for All India Radio But do something different is always that I have said. I dream of getting back to dancing. I almost became a professional dancer, I have done seven years of Bharatnatyam."

Outside work, Morparia unwinds at the movies or could be caught reading Stardust, a film gossip magazine! Sundays are for working out at the gym. Ekambaram is also a Hindi movie buff and loves old Hindi film songs and you would never guess this – cartoon movies! She thrives on Cartoon Network.

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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