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My three-year journey with SWSL

by Gunjan Jain on October 12, 2017

I am often asked to share my journey as an author, the move from idea to expression and execution. A number of readers are very interested in how the idea for the book came to me and how I went about executing that vision. And so, I am delighted to share an excerpt from a speech I gave at IIT Chennai in January 2017 talking about my experiences of becoming an author.

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My first book, She Walks, She Leads, was published by Penguin Random House India in 2016. The book is an anthology of the life stories of twenty-four dynamic women leaders from a wide range of professions—from business and industry to media and entertainment, the arts and sports. It’s been one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences to bring my big idea to life and without wasting any time, let me plunge straight into the genesis of this book.

 

It all began one morning, about two years ago, when I sat at my desk looking out of the window. The New Year was just round the corner and everyone had already slipped into holiday mode. For me, it was a time of fresh new beginnings. I had just returned from an exciting and long stint abroad: the US, England, Switzerland—first finishing off my education and then working. Back in India, my mind was now brimming with possibilities about what I could do next. There were a number of options and many ideas in front of me but nothing that captivated me, nothing that held me in its grip! I spent some time working, reading, trying to search for my big idea.

The one thing which struck me in all my journeys across the globe was the independent, feisty lives women led in these societies. They were educated, articulate, and importantly, financially secure. Raising families, maintaining fulfilling personal relationships and contributing to society—they were leading accomplished and fulfilled lives. Or in short: they worked hard . . . and they partied harder.

Back in India, it seemed to me that the gender divide was still a long way from being bridged. Large blocks of our female population, especially in villages and rural pockets, are yet to break out of their traditional roles. Though the world had moved on, Indian women are still stuck leading lives which are not very different the lives their mothers and grandmothers have led through generations. The story in towns and cities though was more encouraging. Over the last twenty-five years, urban Indian women have made tremendous progress. They now hold high-profile jobs, run successful industries and institutions, reign at the top of creative vocations and are, in most circumstances, proving to be more than a match for their male colleagues.

What struck me, especially, was the way in which every brave and adventurous woman who has bucked the trend and carved out a path for herself can and has also inspired so many to follow suit. And it occurred to me how important it was to bring the journeys of these iconic Indian women to light. I mean not to just to extol the achievements of these exemplary achievers but also to inspire others walk on that path. I wanted to present their journeys complete with the obstacles that they encountered so as to inspire those who walk the path to not give up in the face of any challenge. And at the heart of it, this is what the 24 stories featured in She Walks, She Leads are about. They are a celebration that is meant to glow like a beacon and be a lighthouse for the thousands of women striving across the corners of our country.

The stories will be a constant exhortation to keep going till the job is done, every obstacle overcome and the goal is achieved. My own journey as an author has been inspired by this. In fact, when I started out writing this book, I called it Mission Impossible. You see, I started out with a list of over 200 women achievers. Media, banking and finance, philanthropy, corporate India, law, spirituality, art and sport . . . no domain was left unrepresented. Just a few weeks into this project, the real scope and breadth of the project struck me but I decided to stick on and see where this journey would lead me.

And it was to a place of wonder and new discoveries. I had started off with some preconceived notions, and these were rapidly shattered. The more I learnt, the more I was humbled. These women, having reached the heights and achievements that they had, especially in a patriarchal and often outrightly misogynistic country like India, humbled me. The odds they had to surmount made me realize that each woman was like a shooting star, blazing her unique path across life’s dark firmament.

I based each story on in-depth research and extensive interviews with these extraordinary women and enriched with the views of their family, friends, and professional associates. Every interview was a revelation not just about the person but also about the philosophy they had lived their lives by. From Indu Jain, I learnt about the power of spiritual practice. From Anu Aga and Rajashree Birla I understood the importance of courage and fortitude. For example, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw has walked a path , so courageously , that few women in India have dared. It was the obstacles that egged her on and made her determined to convert her dream into reality.

 

My interactions with Yasmeen Premji taught me that success is not measured by one’s achievements alone; it is also defined by how one channels that success for the greater good of others. From Anamika Khanna, I learnt the importance of believing in oneself and in one’s abilities, because that is something no degree can teach you. Nita Ambani humbled me and taught me that that irrespective of one’s own stature, one could always find it within themselves to be sensitive to the plight of others. The lives of Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza and Mary Kom, who are closest to me in age, have taught me the power of mental strength and courage – with the help of which, every dream is possible.

I spent two and half years working on this book and learned some invaluable lessons what leadership really means and how women do it differently. They showed me how women, who have traditionally lacked actual tangible authority in workplaces learned how to get their work done no matter what. They showed me how women leaders have and continue to use their natural social behaviors to achieve the very pinnacles of success. Today when I think about all I have learnt and experienced in the last two years I feel positive and optimistic—undoubtedly more so than when I began this project. Slowly but steadily Indian women are making their presence felt. Change may be slow in coming and the challenges many, but things are changing. For the better.

This book is a testament to that change.

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