Life changed dramatically for Anu when her husband, also the then Chairman of Thermax, suffered a stroke. She watched helplessly, as the brilliant man she knew till then, suddenly struggled to speak or even move. If these were trying years for Anu Aga, nothing in the world could have prepared her for what was to follow. She was to lose not just her husband, but also her young son in quick succession. And even while she struggled to make sense of it all, the weight of a dying family business was lodged on her shoulders. Broken and full of self-doubt, yet, taking each blow in her stride, she walked on…crafting an invincible story on resilience and inspiration.
GJ: How would you describe your childhood?
AA: I had a very unusual childhood, though I wouldn’t call it a happy one. My father was very keen on having a boy as his first child. According to his wish, he had two boys and I arrived as his third child. Though my arrival was welcomed, I realized that my acceptance in the family was conditional. My father was very fond of me and very partial towards me, but my brothers meant much more to my mother.
I would say that I had a reasonably good childhood. I did well in studies and was the head girl of my school. I joined St Xavier’s College and studied economics and politics, but I was very interested in social work. I attended camps twice a year and we went to slums to help out. It was because of this interest in social work that I was encouraged to join the Tata Institute of Social Sciences where I studied medical and psychiatric social work. My father had a small business in Mumbai and while my brothers were often encouraged to join his business, I was never asked to do so. I never even expected to join the business. In those days, the only professions open to women were those of a doctor, teacher or nurse. I didn’t see any women in businesses. So, I concluded that women never joined businesses.
GJ: What part of your personality was shaped by your father?
AA: The reader in me and my intellectual side have been influenced by my father. Also, in a sense, the social work, like not indulging in your own wealth. My mother encouraged me to be natural, down-to-earth, and have fun, just like her.
GJ: Before taking up responsibility as the human resources head at Thermax, you were a homemaker. How was the transition from being a full-time homemaker to a professional woman?
AA: After receiving my degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I was accepted as a faculty assistant for the first year. Then, I worked at a child guidance clinic as a psychiatric social worker. But when we moved to Pune, I gave up my full-time job. However, I was always involved in some kind of activity. I studied transactional analysis and became a counsellor in a school. I also worked with social groups and was involved in Mother Teresa’s home. I brought two street boys to my house and took charge of them, and had them admitted to a school. My husband was always supportive of my work. The boys stayed with me for a week, but then they ran away because they preferred their freedom of watching movies and eating good food over leading a regimented life that I was offering them.
GJ: How would you describe the twelve years of working together with your husband?
AA: Working with my husband as him being a boss was difficult in the beginning because I was used to being an equal. I was heading the human resources department, and he would take me for granted and say that we could always discuss issues at home, which I didn’t like. But once I accepted that he is a boss and all bosses have their idiosyncrasies and I have to manage it, we became very close. When I got involved in the work, I understood his passion and I also became like him. His first love was his work.
I thoroughly enjoyed working with my husband. Sometimes there were challenges when I had to juggle between my work and look after my household duties. But it all worked out fine.
GJ: How did you both come to terms with his heart attack and subsequent paralysis?
AA: It was a very difficult time. Initially, I could not understand the medical terminology being used to describe his condition. All I found out was that my husband couldn’t recognize me, was talking gibberish, his right side was paralyzed, and this brilliant man was reduced to being almost a vegetable. We equip our children with education, so that they can take on responsibilities. But in times like these, even a good education does not help. One tiny blood clot took away my husband’s intelligence. Nothing is guaranteed in life: neither intelligence, nor degrees. He had to re-learn everything from scratch. Fortunately, my husband had no depression; rather, he had tremendous anger against the medical world and also towards the family because, I think, he felt that if he didn’t have a family and its responsibility, he wouldn’t have done the bypass operation.
We hired a speech therapist who taught him to read and write, and he practised for days. My admiration for him went up manifold for the tremendous amount of grit he possessed. The physiotherapist said it would take him a month to tie his shoelace. My husband practiced it all night and was able to do it himself the next day. It took him about two years to get back whatever he had lost. But, my good-natured, lovely husband became a terribly cranky man, yelling and shouting at us all the time, which was very difficult to accept.
GJ: How did you cope with these struggles?
AA: I never expected to see a complete change of personality in my husband. To see a brilliant man learning his alphabets again was very difficult. I even pondered over the idea of divorcing him when confronted with his anger and tantrums, but I realized that I love this man and I am not going to leave him. I confronted him and told him that he cannot take out his anger on our daughter or on me. And I must say that the discipline I put on him helped him, though he continued with his tantrums a bit. I always find that difficult periods bring out the best in you, when you tap the unused resources and find strength to deal with impossible things and situations. I was able to come out stronger and the relationship strengthened.
GJ: A few years later, he passed away. How did you handle this loss?
AA: My husband died ten to fifteen years after his stroke. That was a difficult time again. I had promised my daughter that I would be with her for six months after she delivered her baby. So, I was with her and my husband visited us twice. We celebrated his sixtieth birthday. After six months, when I was returning home, he came to Mumbai to pick me up. But before he could come to the airport, he had a massive heart attack and he died at the guest house.
To soften the blow, one of my employees said that my husband had a massive heart attack, and it was my brother who gave me the news of his death. My son, who was with me and had come back from abroad just a week ago to be close to his father, was very upset that his father died within a week of his coming back. My daughter, son-in-law and grandson came to India to be with me permanently.
GJ: And then you lost your son. How did you cope with the concept of death?
AA: Death is death. Yes, I lost my husband and my son, both. And, of course, there are times when I still miss them very much and I cry. That we will all die, is a certainty. But we don’t accept that certainty because we don’t know when, where and how we are going to die. The sun rises and it sets. You don’t expect the sun to stay throughout the day. Similarly, all of us have to vacate this earth and if we don’t, can you imagine the chaos? So, I would request you for your own sake to not shy away from death. This acceptance will teach you to take out time and do things when people are alive. Neither to postpone, nor to procrastinate. If you want to say ‘sorry’ to someone, say it today; if you want to spend quality time, do it today. I don’t think death is morbid at all. I take it as inevitable, as a reality that we can’t run away from.
GJ: Working at Thermax for twelve years would have given you a strong grounding but when you were requested to chair the company, after your husband’s demise, what was your reaction?
AA: It was terrible. I didn’t want to be in-charge of the company. My husband was an ostrich. We used to say what will happen to the company after you and he would say you wwill know what to do. He had a favourite executer and we all expected him to be the head. But, I think the senior executives were happier with me being in-charge because they thought that this woman could do whatever she wants. I am a tough cookie. Somehow, the board also wanted me to take charge. So, they asked me to be the executive chairperson. I was full of self-doubt and I kept saying it to myself that it’s because we own the majority shares that this has been given to me. I haven’t earned it by my merit and hence, don’t deserve it.
I was in a terrible state of mind and I went to Vipasana in November, nine months after my husband’s death. Those ten days at Vipasana were extremely helpful. I realized that I can give my best, and that it was pointless to keep comparing myself with my husband and feeling inadequate. I also realized that all of us have an ordinary and an extraordinary side, and it is so much easier to define ourselves as ordinary. But to get in touch with our extraordinary side and to give the best at every opportunity is what life is all about.
GJ: How did Vipasana transform you? What was that one thought that changed everything?
AA: It was the inadequateness within me, and yet the faith that I felt in my own capability. I was ready to take over and give out my best. That was a huge change from feeling very inadequate and full of self-doubts to feeling that I could manage this company. Also, I became aware of and accepted that death is inevitable, and we must make the best use of our time because it’s very short and limited. I have uncovered a lot which is very helpful. These are the things people seek to experience in life.
GJ: When you started chairing the company, where did you find your strength? Who were your support systems at that time?
AA: It was my family and my senior team at the company. They are a wonderful set of people and I must say, I experienced the world as very kind. In consideration to the Indian industry, they asked me to join the National Committee and out of 100 members, I was the only woman there and everyone was so kind to me. They wanted to help me in every which way.
GJ: What management practices did you apply?
AA: We hired a consulting company which my executives didn’t want to. Men find it difficult to ask for help while it is easier for women to do so. We had to accept the fact that we weren’t doing well, which people were deluding themselves of. We had walked into many unrelated activities like software, electronics, bottled water and others which were not our core competency. But to be aware of it and to make a tough decision as to come out of this meant asking many people to leave, and this was a tough task. But we had to do it. There were many changes at the top level also. We had to change our managing director’s position, and also bring in the culture of ‘performance’. Every company loves innovation, and that means tolerance: as our tolerance for mistakes went up, the factor of innovation went up, too. If you have no tolerance for mistakes, innovation doesn’t set in. So, we had to bring back the innovative culture and we allowed people to make genuine mistakes. We reconstituted our entire work. I don’t think any company in India has done that.
We had nine executive directors. They are all people who have done very well for the company and as a reward, my husband had asked them to join the board. And as long as we were doing well, it was alright. But for the executive directors to objectively look at their performance and say we haven’t done well was not something they could do, and they kept coming up with excuses. So, we reconstituted the entire board. We now have five non-executive directors and our managing director is the only executive director. Changing the whole board was a tough decision to make, and a very tough thing to do.
GJ: Did you feel the backlash or a strong force coming against you, given the drastic changes you were bringing about?
AA: Not at all. It was done in a caring and humane way. I wasn’t ruthless in executing things and everyone saw how badly we were doing. We had gone public. I explained to my employees and to my executive directors what I was trying to do. In fact, it was one of our non-executive director’s suggestion to change the entire board. So, there was a lot of understanding.
Once I am convinced of something, I can take tough decisions. I have done it all my life: as a mother, as the chair of my company, and whenever there has been such a need. But I have done it with compassion and care. And not a single member of my senior team or my family has deserted me.
GJ: You have a degree in social service, and in psychiatry. Did this influence your leadership style?
AA: I don’t have a technical name for my style of work. You just need to be true to yourself, show your vulnerability, take all the help you need and rely on people. You don’t give up saying whatever is going to happen will happen.Rather than this fatalistic approach, have an active approach where you do your very best, and then leave it to destiny.
GJ: Do you think your ‘dinner table’ conversations with your husband and/ or father shaped your performance at Thermax?
AA: I admire my husband’s style and I am sure it definitely helped me a lot. However, at home, I had my mother-in-law and children who were tired of hearing about Thermax and who very often expressed their displeasure at us talking business at home.
GJ: You strongly believe in education. You have a programme called ‘Teach for India’; you support a cultural foundation; and the Thermax social initiative is also into education. Please elaborate on your contribution to the education sector.
AA: My son was a great believer, and he propagated that a substantial part of our money should go to the social sector. He was always looking out for a credible NGO for the same. At that time, my association with Akanksha, the NGO, happened, and it developed my enthusiasm for the education sector. In 2009, Shaheen Mistri, the face of Akanksha, and I, started ‘Teach for India’ together. Through Akanksha, we ran four municipal schools and Thermax Foundation financially supports three of them. I got very involved in these schools. I have chosen to focus a little more on primary education. I see malnourishment and lack of education as the two greatest problems that India is facing. Unless we deal with these two issues, employment and skill development will not be possible. Our elementary education is a mess and I wish more people would realize how bad it is.
My main focus is working with Akanksha and the schools for ‘Teach for India’. I am on the board of some companies, helping them with their social work. In the next ten years, I hope I can start a teacher training institute, which will be a model institute. I hope to continue with my work in the education sector, rather than focussing on too many things.
GJ: You have now handed over the reins of the company to your daughter, Meher. How different is yours and Meher’s leadership style?
AA: Meher is a chemical engineer and so, she knows all the technical things. She takes great interest in equipment and likes to go into details, which I don’t. She has imbibed the family values and is caring. In that sense, we are both the same. She is all for reaching out, and spending our profit for social causes. However, she is a little less trusting of people than I am. She would like to know more before she plunges into something while I take the plunge and then find out. I am far more reactive than she is, and she is a better listener than I am.
GJ: Post retirement, how do you spend your day?
AA: I get up early since I need to put in one hour of meditation, forty-five minutes of exercise, and forty-five minutes of breathing exercises, all of which I do before I come to work. Spending time with my family, especially my grandchildren, is also very important. I also have to take care of so many responsibilities. I like reading, I enjoy western classical music, and like to spend time with family and friends. I used to love dancing at parties, but I hardly go to parties now. I don’t like late nights. I used to love going on holidays, but that doesn’t excite me anymore, except going with my grandchildren. We go for a holiday every year.
GJ: How have you changed seeing the various facets of life?
AA: I have become more committed to causes. I work much harder and am more disciplined today. I am losing out on having fun in life as there is little less time to relax. Life is always one thing after another. I like filling up my time because that’s a need in me. I have also become tougher, and people have noticed that. I can be dominating because I don’t need to please others. However, I love pleasing my family and friends but not for the wrong reasons.
GJ: You won the Padma Shri in 2010 for social services. How did that feel?
AA: Though I appreciate external awards, it doesn’t touch me much because that is someone else’s evaluation of my work. What really motivates me are the challenges that I set for myself. They may be simple things like not over-eating, or to do my Vipasana daily, or my daily exercises and walks, and similar things. Walking an extra mile to reach out to people who matter to me is more important and valuable than winning awards.
GJ: Do you think women make better leaders?
AA: No, some women make outstanding leaders, just like some men do. There is no gender bias here, but women tend to balance work life better as they are a little more governance-oriented. Women are considered softer; men take tougher decisions.
GJ: What would your advice be to women on fighting the glass ceiling?
AA: You have to have faith in yourself, continue to invest in yourself and be more competent. The key is to fight it without bitterness, if there is an injustice. Very often, women misuse their position. There is very little room at the top. Many men don’t make it, just as many women also don’t make it. And when they don’t make it, they use their being a woman as an excuse: that is not fair. Sometimes, I also find women do not help other women, which I disapprove of. Also, it is important to remember that a change does not happen overnight; it takes time. Ask for a change, maybe even be a bit impatient. But don’t be bitter and become anti-men.
GJ: Why do you think it’s important for women to have a purpose in life?
AA: It’s very important for both women and men to have a purpose in life beyond getting married and having children, and beyond a career. I don’t consider a career as the final purpose. One should attempt to find out what excites one and what brings out the best in one. Though it is not easy to achieve, one should aim for what one believes in.
GJ: In one of your interviews in the Forbes magazine, you said, ‘Money doesn’t matter to me.’ Please elaborate.
AA: What I mean is that we all require a certain amount of money for our needs, but beyond that, it doesn’t add to our happiness. In fact, it can lead to a lot of disruption in a family. I have seen a lot of rich people spoiling their children by giving them so many options, without disciplining them. So, it has gone against keeping the family together. I think money gives you the options, but the key lies in using those options wisely.
GJ: How do you want to be remembered?
AA: As someone who is authentic, loving and caring. I love these lines which I read sometime back: ‘Our stay on this earth is short, our rules dispensable and nothing but inconsequential.’ This holds such a lot of balance in our life. You think you have done a really big thing but it’s actually nothing. Institutes go on without you, nations go on without leaders. I feel humility is so important to retain in life. Being true to myself rather than making an appearance for the public is also important to me.