It is one thing to be the First Lady of corporate India by title and quite another to become the First Lady in every sense.
Nita Ambani, whose last name has transported her to the upper echelons of the country and the world, truly does own the crown. She is the soft power of Reliance’s business and spearheads its philanthropic initiatives; is the perfect wife and partner to billionaire business magnate Mukesh Ambani; is a devoted and inspiring mother to three children; is an educationist par excellence, hands-on patron of sports, a danseuse and a champion of social causes.
Before my first meeting with Nita, I found myself wondering what it must really mean to belong to a family that constantly makes headlines, to perennially be in the spotlight and have every move scrutinized. To get through every day, juggling so much, must need a special brand of courage and confidence. It is interesting to note that Nita – a very private person – took her time to grow into her public role as the wife of the topmost industrialist in the country. And even as she goes from strength to strength, Nita still remains someone we both know and don’t know; it is true that media attention rarely shifts from her, but, at the same time, she gives her time and resources thoughtfully.
As I reach the venue for our meeting – Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital & Research Centre in Mumbai, a dream project of Nita that has won her much praise – I am aware she has a packed schedule, but she’s right on time. Dressed in a lace and chikankari salwar-kameez with subtle diamonds in her ears and on her fingers, she is the picture of power and grace. I realize that no matter how often you have seen Nita in photographs or on television, nothing really prepares you when you meet her in person. You recognize her, of course, but you’re quite sure you’ve never really met anyone like her before. Her empathy and courteousness hides a steely presence of mind and the ability to cut through clutter and chaos.
‘For me, power means to make the change, to empower people. I think power cannot be brokered. Power is something that you lend to people and motivate them. The biggest thing is to empower people and give it away,’Nita says to me, starting off the interview in a way that means business.
As we talk and Nita offers me a glimpse into all the responsibilities of her very full life, I can tell that each one requires, and is given, her fullest attention. She has the special ability to focus on several realms simultaneously. I cannot label it multi-tasking because it’s more deliberate than that; but it is undeniable that to each of her roles, she brings passion, decisiveness and focus every single day.
Superstar Shah Rukh Khan, a close friend of the Ambanis, says, ‘Nita is now a close friend, but initially when I met her, the first thing that struck me was that when you talk to her, she is not just listening to what you are saying; she is actually concerned about you. She is one of the most caring people I have met. Nita does not talk too much, but she also has a very clear and simple way of putting things in perspective. When I sit down with her and share a particular thought, she invariably comes up with the simplest solution. And it is not a black-and-white solution. It is a well-thought-out solution. We have been working very closely for the last few years and
this is something I have observed about her. She sits through a meeting for five hours, she lets every voice be heard, she will be concerned about what each person has to say and then she will distill a five-hour meeting into two simple, effective lines that will put everything into perspective.’
Daughter Isha shares, ‘What is amazing is her boundless energy and enthusiasm in her work. Ever since I can remember, she comes back home with great, child-like excitement; as if it has been days since we last saw each other. Huge hugs are followed by enthusiastic storytelling. Even as a five year- old I remember her seeking my opinion and consulting me on her work as if I was her most insightful adviser, and I loved it! I felt like I was part of her work. Each day I waited for her to come back – yes, for the hugs, but also to hear about her work.’
Even as Nita was focused on raising her children, she was preparing to step out into the world and craft her own legacy.
In June 2014, Nita became the first woman on the Reliance board of directors. This was three years after she made her business debut when she was nominated to the board of East India Hotels, operator of the Oberoi chain of hotels. Says Swati Piramal, ‘She was actually doing a great deal of work for Reliance Industries. I clearly remember Jamnagar, where the township came up with schools, houses, offices. I don’t think there was a building there that did not have her touch. So I think she really deserved to be there. I am glad that she is now a member of the board; her contribution will be recognized better than before. I think it is underestimated how much of a force she is within the company. The compassion, the positive vibes that the company gives out are due to her.’
But her rise was years in the making. She had been entrusted by Mukesh and his father with important projects all along and delivered impeccably on each one of them. Akash, who learnt the ropes of business from his mother, says, ‘She knows how business works here, who the stakeholders are and how to keep them all happy.’ He believes that the ability to take people along, ‘with a lot of compassion and trust, while remaining a firm leader,’ is one of her most admirable attributes. ‘And her eye for the smallest detail. She also has the will to keep learning and I hope I can maintain that ability too.’
To me, though, it is significant that her first responsibility of creating a home for the family – Sea Wind, the Ambani residence in Bombay’s tony Cuffe Parade – was her first success. Again, in 1992, Nita helped set up a school at the Reliance unit in Patalganga, stepping into projects for the family business, and she did it quietly and efficiently.
The next project truly shone the spotlight on her. Mukesh asked her to develop the arid land in Jamnagar into ‘an oasis,’ and she took it literally. None of this was easy to achieve. The people on the ground assumed Nita would stop visiting after a few weeks. But she was there – with her sleeves rolled up and a hard hat on –twice a week for three years. Her children were young at the time – the twins were five and Anant was two. She would wake up at the crack of dawn to make the one-hour journey by flight to Jamnagar, stay on-site all day in the arid climate with temperatures as high as 42 degrees, and return to Bombay in time for dinner with the family. Swati Piramal, who remembers Nita ‘wearing her heels and delicately stomping over construction sites,’ says, ‘It is extraordinary how much she has achieved. People think it’s all been easy for her, but she works very hard.’ More than a decade ago, she planted 3.4 million trees over 2500 acres and changed the landscape from brown to green. The changed landscape has resulted in doubling the rainfall, and attracting resident and migratory birds and animals.
She also led the development of ‘Dhirubhai Ambani Lakhibaugh,’ a mango orchard of world-class standards in Jamnagar. With 1.38 lakh mango trees producing over 130 varieties of mangoes, it stands out as Asia’s largest mango plantation at a single location.
The next one, the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City, was almost as complex as the Jamnagar project and she worked out the nitty-gritty of a high-tech business campus, housing information and communication facilities of Reliance Infocomm. Her passion for building world-class facilities wrought a 125-acre technology-enabled campus within fourteen months and on a limited budget.
Subsequently, Nita played a pivotal role in the design and completion of the ultra-modern and high-tech Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai. This state-of-the-art facility houses the various offices of Reliance Industries and has emerged as the hub of the company’s operations. Nita was also personally involved in the construction of their new home at Altamount Road in Mumbai.
Of all the things she has built, the one closest to Nita’s heart is the Dhirubhai Ambani International School (DAIS). Education is her passion and she is firm in her conviction that it holds the key to real progress and change. This is why, after she got married, she decided to work as a teacher. ‘Just the feeling of entering a classroom, seeing a blackboard and looking into those young eyes seeking knowledge – to see the innocence, to see them enjoy learning – is something that drives me, something I am very passionate about,’ she says.
After the Jamnagar project where she also built a school, Nita realized that ‘in a city like Mumbai, most parents had to send their children abroad if they wanted them to get an education of international standards.’ She says, ‘I felt now that I have enough experience in setting up schools, I would like to set up an international school in Mumbai. When I spoke to Mukesh and Papa they said if I am committed and have the confidence, they would gladly support me. But they also cautioned me that it would take some time to succeed. And that’s how my story with the Dhirubhai Ambani International School started thirteen years ago.’
Shobhana Bhartia, chairperson and editorial director of the Hindustan Times Group, tells me, ‘The first public profile of Nita was evident when she pursued her passion for education and started a school, which is today rated as one of the finest, not only in Mumbai but in all of India. Everybody knows that DAIS has been Nita’s passion and whatever it is today is largely because of her personal involvement. In my understanding, Nita reflects an iconoclastic journey. It is remarkable because women who aren’t professionals right at the beginning or after completing their education and get into it much later – it is much more difficult for them. But Nita has done it after being a homemaker for many years.’
Says Shah Rukh Khan, ‘My son is from the very first batch of Dhirubhai Ambani International School and I have no qualms in admitting that most of the credit for my children’s upbringing goes to its education system. Now they are studying in London and wherever they go, I have faith that they will be alright because of the education that Nita has imparted to them through her school and through herself.’
DAIS has been ranked the top international school in India in the Education World India School Rankings in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and its alumni are accepted in top-ranking universities in the US and elsewhere across the globe. Sachin Tendulkar, whose kids Sara and Arjun have been students of DAIS, says, ‘Without doubt, it is India’s leading school and probably one of the best in the world, especially given the way they have taken care of our kids. A school forms the foundation for a child’s life and Nita bhabhi has played an active role in making this foundation strong. Whenever I meet her in school, I particularly notice that she addresses the children by name . . . each child, not just the children of well-known personalities. It is a clear reflection of her involvement and commitment to the school.’ Today through a network of thirteen schools, Nita provides quality education to over 15,000 children.
When I met Nita, in 2015, to interview her for this book, she was working on the planning of the very ambitious Reliance University in the outskirts of Mumbai. ‘This is something I want to do – schools for journalism, theater, performing arts, engineering and medicine. Children need to be given a real choice and all-round development. So hopefully, in a few years from now, that dream will take shape,’ she says.
The steadfastness of focusing on the smallest and largest detail, and being fully immersed in the ins and outs of a project are essential to Nita’s work ethic. ‘She brings amazing passion to everything she does. She has spelled out the causes that she would like to support very clearly. She goes about it with single-minded purpose,’ says banking legend K.V. Kamath.
This habit steadies her, even as her next challenge may lie in a completely new and, possibly, daunting field. As it often does.
A SPORTING WOMAN
At the final game of the Indian Premier League in May 2015, the camera panned out from the men in blue celebrating on the field and zoomed in on Nita’s face in the stands. Her normally calm features were animated as she whooped in delight. The Mumbai Indians had won the IPL, for the second time in eight seasons. Within minutes Nita was on the field exchanging high-fives and hugs with the team members.
Sachin Tendulkar has seen Nita evolve with every season of the IPL and he tells me how hard she has worked at it. ‘I first met her when the Ambanis bought the Mumbai Indians IPL franchise. To be honest, Nita bhabhi did not know much about cricket at the time, but she took it up as a challenge. She started learning more about the game – educating herself about players, whether they were Indian or foreign; and even those who played county or shield cricket in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. She was soon able to discuss their games and began to be more involved. She would attend meetings, want to know what we were planning and understand the intricacies of the game. So, there was a huge transformation in her involvement in the IPL ever since she took over the reins.’
When Mukesh purchased the Mumbai Indians franchise in 2008, Nita was doubtful and displeased. They had their plates full with business, education, health and philanthropic commitments, but she tells me what made her change her mind – ‘We [Mumbai Indians] were at the bottom of the table for the first two years. And then I got involved and quickly realized we needed to bond as a team – the players and us. For one year, before the season started in 2010, I used to watch cricket for two hours every day only to understand the game. Then, I started interacting with the team – sitting and talking to them, trying to understand what makes them tick. I learnt it all on the job. We reached the finals.’
The day she decided to be more than the wife of the owner of the Mumbai Indians, Nita brought to the table her unwavering commitment and enthusiasm that has marked every project she’s taken up. Her team was down in the dumps at the tail-end of the second season in South Africa when Nita decided one morning that they needed cheering up and left for South Africa the same evening. Since that day, for her, cricket is part of her work; she travels with the team for up to two months every season, wherever they may be; she regularly visits the shrines she venerates – from Tirumala and Sri Kalahasti to Srisailam and Yellamma temples – to seek blessings. With her innate team spirit and passion for actual fieldwork, perhaps cricket had always been the perfect fit for her. And the hallowed ground of Eden Gardens is a partner in her stupendous success – it is here that the Mumbai Indians lifted their first IPL Cup in 2013 and then again in 2015.
K.V. Kamath tells me how Nita has evolved from being a supportive wife to establishing her own individuality, ‘From lending support to Mukesh early on, to someone who is now an anchor to him in all he does, this is a journey Nita has seamlessly traversed over the years. And with her assuming leadership of the Mumbai Indians, she has shown a completely different side of her personality – the ability to plan, drive and execute something completely new and different.’
Son Akash reveals her conflict over her passion for cricket versus her love for the family poignantly. ‘The day of my graduation was also the day of the final match of IPL season six. Everyone knows how much Mumbai Indians means to my mother, but she was there at my graduation and I have a wonderful photograph with her. Incidentally, my graduation and the match started at the same time, so she even missed watching it!’
When I ask Nita what she has learnt most from being a part of the Mumbai Indians, she points out that sport teaches you the importance of winning and losing gracefully. From Sachin Tendulkar, she says, she learnt how to respect not just the team but also each individual, because victory is never the work of just one person.
Sachin Tendulkar tells me about the transition she made in this journey. ‘When someone is new to the sport, watching the match being lost can feel like the end of the world. I used to explain to Nita bhabhi that such losses were bound to happen, now and then. It hurts to lose and takes time to recover, but if we don’t recover, we cannot play well in the next game. Hence we have to learn to leave our disappointments behind while starting a new game. I used to speak to her about the importance of pre-match preparations. The post-mortem is important as long as it contributes to improving us for the next game.’
On having the owner of one’s team play such an active part in the game, Sachin Tendulkar says, ‘It does feel nice to have one’s owners in the stand, expressing support. Whatever you do on the field is important, but the way you approach a game is equally important and that happens behind the scenes. During the third season of the IPL, which was when we did really well, we had a lot of very interactive meetings with Nita bhabhi. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest player, was encouraged to speak out, even if only to crack a joke. It kept the team’s spirit high. And I believe that if the team is happy, the performance will be good.’
The affinity and skill that Nita discovered she has for sports have come in handy with her work in football now, as the founding chairperson of the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a joint venture of IMG-Reliance and Star India. Its first venture has been the Indian Super League, a football tournament that kicked off in late 2014.
Sanjiv Goenka, who finds Nita ‘very focused, very clear and yet understated,’ says, ‘she leads from the front, she gets into every detail.’ Talking about the launch of the ISL championship, he says, ‘Nita went through the entire rehearsal of the opening ceremony at 3.00 in the morning, every bit; it was raining, she sat through the rain. She didn’t have dinner; she was making sure everything was perfect. She just had to get it right. I think that is the Nita you know, focused, driven, yet compassionate and very, very humane.’
Sachin Tendulkar, clearly impressed, tells me, ‘Last year, ISL was a huge success and it has grown bigger. The response has been phenomenal. She was again actively involved with the entire ISL team. She tries her best to be at all the venues or once at least at each venue. There has to be a genuine effort in promoting sports and backing what has been initiated. She believes in this and the entire nation has responded.’
Akash tells me that there was an emphasis on sports from the time he was in school. ‘My parents encouraged us to be as involved in extra-curricular activities and games as in our studies. My mother’s desire is to make playing sports an option for everyone at the national level. Of course, cricket is a passion in India and, hopefully, football will be too. One of my mother’s dreams is to have more Indians represent the country in all sports worldwide.’
Reliance Foundation Jr NBA programme, which has reached out to about two million children across India within just three years of its launch, speaks volumes of Nita’s commitment to promote basketball talent. When Satnam Singh Bhamara became the first Indian basketball player to be drafted into the National Basketball Association, Nita was extremely proud of IMG Reliance’s efforts in developing world-class talent.
As we chat, Nita tells me, ‘We need to be a multi-sporting nation, where every child goes out and plays with ability and agility. India deserves to have many more sports – cricket, football, basketball, volleyball, badminton, kabaddi, hockey, tennis, etc. We are over 1.3 billion people and if I can get kids – lakhs and millions of them – to think of sports as a profession, then I would have done my job well. The resounding success of the ISL both in season one and two, proves India’s potential as a footballing nation. Today, ISL stands out as the third most-attended football league in the world.’ She is extremely committed to developing sporting talent at the grass-roots level. She ardently believes that for holistic development children need to enjoy education and sports. She says, ‘I think sport is the greatest unifier and leveler.’
When asked why football? Nita says, ‘Today, children love football, which is the most played and watched game worldwide. I think ISL has been able to ignite passion for the beautiful game. Our grass-roots programme is designed to reach out to millions of young footballers and develop their talents that match international standards. This grassroots movement has already reached out to half a million children and this year we will reach out to another half a million. Going forward, the focus on developing talent at the grass-roots level will be part of the Reliance Foundation’s DNA.’
Sanjiv Goenka analyses the reason behind ISL’s success. ‘To be able to contribute meaningfully you need to understand the domain that you operate in and when I see Nita in cricket and I see her in football – she has extraordinary knowledge of both. She is knowledgeable about the nuances of the game, the players and the business of the sport. ISL is one of the top five most watched sports leagues in the world today because of her. She has supervised every aspect related to the ISL. She is very calm and she treats the mission like she would treat her own baby. The way she is going about the business of football, the way she is supporting them and the grass-roots training programme that she has launched, she is inspiring the younger generation to take up the sport.’
Shobhana Bhartia says sport in India has received a much needed fillip because of Nita. ‘Sports needs a lot of encouragement and corporate backing in the country and it is quite remarkable for her to have identified that.’
Gunjan Jain is the debutante author, of She Walks, She Leads. The book features 24 women who have risen above their genders and carved a niche for themselves and society. She Walks, She Leads: Nita Ambani chapter features the life story of the first lady of corporate India, as she is addressed.
Gunjan is an avid reader who is also a compulsive writer, a thought leader, often sharing her discernment at public forums ... a principled follower of the Bhagvad Gita and the values it upholds, there are several realms that Gunjan Jain draws inspiration from. One of the most compelling, perhaps, is her keen interest in people – to discern, learn from and connect with, universally.