Late Parmeshwar Godrej
When one is preparing to meet one of the most powerful women in the country – massively influential, a devout philanthropist, visionary and the ultimate style icon – one prepares for many things. But nothing quite readies you for the sheer humility that Parmeshwar Godrej carries about her. She has dedicated most of her life to better that of others – her staggering efforts have won her recognition and awards the world over – and yet she genuinely feels they have been but a drop in the ocean.
GJ: Parmeshwar Godrej is a name that is synonymous to being a style czarina, an influential arbiter, philanthropist, a visionary and one of the most powerful women in India. Of all the various roles you play, which one holds the most significance for you?
PG: It It's the combination of different roles that one plays that contributes to a productive, fulfilling, and happy life. Having said that, the one role that has for me held an edge over all the others and the one that I'm the proudest of has been that of being a mother to my three children Tanya, Nisa, and Pirojsha. It's been an unconditional joy and has been the most significant and rewarding role of all.
GJ: Journals, newspaper, and magazines rate you as the Icon of the city’s eminent circuit – How does it feel to be at the top. Are there any pressures to being an influential arbiter?
PG: I don’t think anyone is at the top or at the bottom. I have been given a lot in life for which I am grateful and I hope I’ve been able to use that to bring about something positive.
GJ: Mrs. Godrej you are a versatile personality and are doing much to further economic and & social empowerment in India. What makes you so socially committed and inspired to reach out to the poor? Is it an inner calling to work for the welfare of your fellow humans?
PG: It gives me tremendous emotional satisfaction to be able to bring about positive changes in the lives of others. In addition, when one is fortunate enough to be in a position to help others, I believe it is a responsibility to do so.
GJ: About the Heroes project - It has been reported that the project uses the strategy of ‘educational entertainment’ to communicate to the masses the change that it inspires to instil in the Indian society. How successful have you been in achieving this goal? What response have you got from the masses? What makes the Heroes Project unique?
PG: Ever since its inception well over a decade ago, Heroes Project has used the platform of “education entertainment” for advocacy and communications programs in the realm of HIV awareness, prevention and access to services, for both the general population as a whole, and vulnerable populations that are at the heart of the epidemic in our country. We have used societal leaders, ranging from top film stars in Bollywood and regional cinema, as well as partnerships with top media channels, to devise messaging and programming including soap operas, talk shows and live events where key information is disseminated in a non-lecturing, inclusive way, so as to ensure maximum impact on the target audience.
It is not surprising that people listen better, absorb messaging better, and ultimately are more motivated to act when the messaging is delivered in a palatable, interesting and, yes, enjoyable way, rather than being made fearful or lecturing. We have worked with over 200 societal leaders, including movie stars, corporate leaders, faith leaders, politicians and civil society and community leaders as well. Our belief is that anyone who commands a significant audience can be an advocate for change, a hero, if you will.
We are not content with simply reaching millions of people via the media and other vehicles; yes, having such a reach is wonderful, but we want to really find out whether our messaging, our social marketing campaigns, actually bring about attitude and behaviour change, and motivate health-seeking behaviour at an individual and societal level. To that end, we have carefully evaluated many of our prominent and significant campaigns, using research agencies and appropriate instruments. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, our HIV testing campaign titled “Mr Doubt”, in which a character symbolizing the voice of the conscience motivates people to get tested by overcoming stigma and fear, has succeeded in motivating significant numbers of people to act. A wide-ranging survey carried out statewide showed that almost 50 percent of adults who watched the Mr Doubt public service announcements in cinemas and on TV said they would get tested, which is a truly staggering response to an issue that usually is ignored and swept under the carpet by the wider population. The success of that campaign has led to it being replicated in other states that we operate in. Similarly, we have evaluated the various information/education/communication (IEC) campaigns we’ve conducted in Maharashtra and other states, on issues ranging from the reduction of HIV-related stigma and discrimination to the empowerment of marginalized communities – and the studies have yielded very encouraging results, validating our societal leader and media partnership strategy
Our approach has been recognized not only by key funders and partners, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Google Trust, but by academic and scientific organisations and institutions that have invited us to share and present our work at various national, regional and global forums, including the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington.
GJ: Future plans for the Heroes Project?
PG: By working on HIV/AIDS issues, we have also worked extensively with women’s and children’s issues, as well as other sectors where health cuts across so many facets – economic, cultural, social. We are very keen to take our expertise in behaviour change communications and social marketing to other parts of India where there is a strong need for our approach, and to focus on issues that are of prime importance, such as birth spacing and age of marriage in the northern states, for example, where development must go hand in hand with social and cultural changes. Heroes Project is perfectly poised to do so, and we are keen to partner with a range of stakeholders, from government to civil society, to achieve this and be of support to our nation as a whole. Indeed, I invite potential partners to talk to us to see how we can work together to use our successful and proven societal leaders and media partnership approach on a range of issues of regional and national importance.
GJ: You have declined many awards presented to you for your philanthropic works. Why is that so?
PG: I'm deeply grateful and humbled by being offered these awards but sincerely feel my accomplishments are slight & undeserving of such honours
GJ: You have served as a Non- executive director of Godrej Properties Limited since 1989 – how challenging an assignment has it been to handle the functions of such a large empire? What was your role in marketing the company and how did you go about doing it?
PG: I made a conscious effort to focus my energies on the design innovation aspect of the business as I wanted to see design embedded in the DNA of Godrej Properties. My goal has been to ensure that Godrej Properties integrated the use of design to improve the quality of people’s lives, create economic value for the business, and make work more interesting for it’s employees. When exploited to it’s fullest potential and used responsibly, design can contribute considerably towards creating a better society and be a great enabler of value creation.
GJ: You are a Director of Godrej Properties Limited and of Indian Hotels and Health Resorts Private Limited; you are on the boards of Gates Foundation, The Gere Foundation, JCB Cine Blitz Publications and The Palace School, Jaipur, The IPF Board in San Francisco and many more. Now that is quite a lot! Can you please tell us how do you manage time?
PG: Making " To do lists” for time management helps me in not wasting time trying to remember or recall the tasks at hand. Staying focused on one job at time often yields better results. Setting reasonable goals and targets for both home and work. I try to work smarter not necessarily harder.
GJ: What is that one quality in you that helps you balance home and work with such finesse?
PG: Dedication and attention to detail.
GJ: You recently hosted American talk-show goddess Oprah Winfrey's grand welcome soiree in Mumbai. The party, graced by top industrialists and almost the entire Hindi film industry, once again established you as the one to wield the almighty wand in the upper echelons of the Indian society. How does that make you feel? Can you please tell us a little bit about your experience?
PG: It feels good to be appreciated. I try to anticipate my friends’ needs in an attempt to make their time at my home memorable
GJ: You stand at the pinnacle of glamour, poise, and charisma. How do you manage to look so eclectic always?
PG: To quote Dianne Vreerland, the only real elegance is in the mind; if you've got that, the rest really comes from it.
GJ: How would you describe fashion and style?
PG: Fashion is big business with its fluctuating hemlines! Down one season and up the next. Fashion is a state of mind. A spirit, an extension of one's self. Style is much more than what you wear, it's the total combination of the way you dress, talk, move or do anything for that matter. Fashion is just one part of your style. Style is individualistic. It means so many things to different people...to me it means being creative and confident.
GJ: You have been labelled as one of India’s ‘notable persons’. Do you think the term is somewhat limiting?
PG: I don't think so. I think it is a positive term that means you are worthy of notice in whatever you do.
GJ: Over the years, you have significantly reduced your media exposure and become comparatively low profile. Can you tell us why?
PG: On the personal front, I’ve come to feel that the media can be an unwanted invasion into ones privacy, particularly when many parts of the media are not beyond stretching or inventing facts to make a better story.
On the other hand, the responsible media are of course brilliant at bringing attention to current issues and educating the public about important issues and have been a great a support and indeed partners to the Heroes Project. I compliment and thank them for that.
GJ: Your son Pirojsha joined the company when he was 23 and I remember Mr.Adi Godrej had said at that time that Pirojsha would be promoted based on his performance. The usual norm in Indian businesses is nepotism; however in your son’s case it was different. Would you say your three childhood had to always earn their reward? Have they fulfilled the responsibilities you entrusted upon them?
PG: Pirojsha joined the group as a management trainee and after having been exposed to all aspects of the business has evolved to his present position as Managing Director & CEO of Godrej Properties. He is doing a great job in leading the company through this phase of rapid growth.
GJ: How about the two girls? Would you say Tanya & Nisa are better marketeers than you? How far have your children been successful in fulfilling the responsibilities entrusted upon them?
PG: Tanya and Nisa are much better and closer to the marketing scene now than I am. Both of them have done exceedingly well in taking the Godrej brand and businesses to new heights.
GJ: Please tell us a little bit about the parenting mantra you practiced to bring up the three very successful children.
PG: Anecdotes from my own life experience helped. It was an unconditional joy bringing up my children and I absolutely loved spending quality time with them. Love was no doubt an essential part of parenting, but it was judiciously mixed with discipline, knowledge, patience, courage, consistency, and the virtue of learning from ones mistakes.
GJ: Please tell us about your own childhood and thebest moments of your life...
PG: It’s always challenging trying to write about oneself, but as I’ve been asked to recollect highlights of my life to date, I shall look back at the past several decades which, frankly, have gone by so fast I can scarcely believe I’ve actually experienced so many amazing, fulfilling chapters and moments in a life I’m truly grateful for.
I was raised in what you might call a regular middle-class Punjabi household where life was beautifully simple. My father, Rajpal S. Mader, was in the army, and my mother, Tara, had a challenging job as well, raising three children – my older brother Harinder, sister Ishwar, and myself! Thanks to my dad’s various postings, we travelled extensively across our vast country. As you might expect from a military man, my dad was a strict disciplinarian and instilled in us the importance of integrity and self-esteem, as well as a respect for others across all segments of society. My mother was very spiritual, as you may guess from the names she chose for her children! They were both very conservative, even for their time. I miss them both to this day.
The childhood moments I recall with great happiness are our summer holidays in the mountains, especially Kashmir (which was then so untroubled), with my parents and siblings. Then there are the wonderful memories of the Maharaja of Patiala's superb Yadavindra Public School, where I was the favourite of the German principal, Lt. Col. Frankton Von Goldstein, who taught us English Literature and affectionately called me Olivia from the heroine of Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. In school, which was noted for its emphasis on outdoor activities (especially cricket and hockey), I excelled in sports, dramatics, debates, and Indian classical dancing, including the disciplines of Kathak and Bharatanatyam. Years later, when I had my own children, I would similarly emphasise the importance of extra-curricular activities as a key component of their school years for a truly well-rounded education.
Despite my traditional family upbringing, I had a bit of a rebellious streak that my parents attempted to control. For example, an Italian film producer wanted to consider me for a film but my parents said a firm “No”! Other similar offers and opportunities were turned down as well. It wasn’t until I met Adi, my future husband, while I was studying at the J.J. School of Art in Bombay, that I was able to truly spread my wings. It was Adi who encouraged me to join Air India in the 1960s, at a time when flying had a touch of glamour to it, despite my family and friends objecting. It was Adi who brought me to my very first flight and came to the airport to greet me when I returned – and then, ironically, asked me to give up flying almost immediately after I’d started, as he missed me even during my short absences. Eventually, I only flew with Air India for a few months, after doing quite a few modelling assignments for Air India in Geneva, Paris, New York and other cities. Observing a service industry up close was a good learning experience which stood me in good stead later when I became involved in various consumer and marketing projects at Godrej.
Marrying Adi opened up a whole new world to me, one very different in many ways from the one I had been raised in, but one that also emphasised family values, respect and loyalty in much the same way my parents had. When I eventually became a parent myself, my joy knew no bounds – first with my oldest, Tanya, then with Nisa and Pirojsha. Years later, with Tanya’s marriage to Arvind and Pirojsha’s to Karla, I gained an additional son and daughter as well. Then there are my grandchildren – Tanya’s sons Aryaan and Azaar, with whom I spend as much time as possible. And of course, my sister Ishwar – who passed away far too soon from cancer – had a son, Uraaz, who is like a son to Adi and me as well.
I also value my many friends both in India and globally, who have been a great source of friendship, learning, and fun through my life.
Speaking of business, I have always combined my professional, social, and family responsibilities by paying attention in equal measures to all three. I was never content with the idea of being a stay-at-home wife, and always wanted to run my own business, or at times more than one!
With Adi’s encouragement – and a modest loan from him – I started my first independent venture in fashion by establishing “Dancing Silks”, which turned out to be hugely successful. I exported to the designer floor at the legendary Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, as well as to outlets in Paris and Australia, besides designing for the domestic market as well as for the film industry. I used to go regularly to the prêt-a-porter in Paris with my buyers to observe the latest trends for upcoming seasons, and established my brand very quickly both here and overseas. (I should note that I paid Adi’s loan back in full – plus interest!)
Branching out into a different avenue of design, I ran a successful interior design business here in India and abroad, both on my own and occasionally in collaboration with others such as SunitaPitamber.
Then there was my involvement in advertising and marketing at Godrej itself, partnering with others on memorable ads and campaigns. One success story that truly stands out from my perspective is the launch of Ganga, the bath soap that our initial market research indicated should be scrubbed entirely as the name was deemed too controversial or sensitive for various sensibilities. But I persisted, and Ganga became one of our strongest selling consumer products ever, part of the profits from which were used in an early initiative to help clean the Ganges River itself.
And, of course, it’s no secret that I’m besotted with the realm of cinema – I’ve always been fascinated by this art form (and for me, cinema is art) – and so it was no surprise that when the opportunity presented itself in 1990, through my good friends James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, I helped co-produce one of their most offbeat films ever, The Perfect Murder, which I accompanied to several film festivals where it won accolades from many critics. In the same vein, I formed a company in 2000 with ShekharKapur, called Starlight, with the intention of producing commercial and ad films. Just a year earlier, Shekhar produced a Ganga soap ad film for me, with Govinda and his then three-year-old son, Yash, as our models.
Another passion of mine is art – I was an art and design student myself, and I’ve always appreciated and sought out the finest art in the world. One of my closest, dearest friends was our great master M.F. Hussain himself, with whom I co-founded a museum in Hyderabad in 2005 which was intended to showcase both art and cinema.
Despite all these achievements, the one I’m perhaps the proudest of is the establishment of the Heroes Project, the HIV/AIDS communications and advocacy NGO that I co-founded with Richard Gere to bring attention to the pandemic in India, educate the wider public, empower the most vulnerable populations to access health and social services, and remove the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV.
I have been fortunate that my husband has always considered me an equal in every way. From the very beginning Adi has discussed business matters with me at home, and has sought my advice on several fronts. I'm currently on the board of Godrej Properties, which is truly making a significant mark in its sector, and work closely with our design and marketing teams there. I’m a strong believer that property development can and should be environmentally friendly and aesthetic, and am gratified that we are being recognized for these attributes.
In sum, I’ve had a fulfilling life full of amazing experiences both professional and personal – a life I could never have imagined all those years back when I was a young girl. Yes, there have been challenges on many fronts as well, as there are in any and every life, but I am fortunate that I’ve always had the support and love of family and friends to help me surmount these. I am singularly blessed and give thanks to God for all that I have – my husband, children and grandchildren above all.
GJ: Your idea of a quintessential woman.
PG: A quintessential woman lives striving to become the best version of herself. She is a woman who has realised her strengths, lived authentically through triumph and tragedy and has committed herself to try to better the lives of others.
GJ: Your definition of a perfect evening?
PG: It varies: watching a movie; reading; or being with family and friends whose company I enjoy
GJ: If you had three days off, how would you ideally spend it?
PG: To go on a relaxed holiday with the family in the mountains.
GJ: If you met God, what is the one question that you would like to ask Him?
PG: Why is there so much suffering, starvation, poverty and inequality in this world. Why so much unequal opportunity?
GJ: Your advice to our young women readers, who wish to be you.
PG: That life is beautiful and that there's deep meaning and purpose in it and it's not only for a select fortunate few. It's for every girl who believes in herself. So pursue your dreams and be passionate, committed, and motivated in what you love.