Carrying forward a legacy is never easy, especially when you are expected to fill as large a pair of shoes as KK Birla’s. If the experience left her enriched, it also proved to be daunting, as Shobhana Bhartia candidly confesses. But once she had proved her place in the organization, nothing could stop her. Silencing critics, turning over age-old customs into new and relevant practices, she has singularly driven the Hindustan Times transformational story and taken it to a whole new league.
GJ: You joined Hindustan Times in an era when it was unprecedented for women to lead corporate houses. Did you feel the need to prove yourself?
SB: Yes, and no. My father was very hands-on in the business, so to that extent it wasn’t an entity that was given to me solely for me to try and prove myself, but I definitely wanted to establish a position for myself and garner some relevance in what I was doing. Being a woman in a corporate world at a time when society was quite conservative, required me to do more. So, it was challenging. Initially, people felt that maybe I was going to office only to pass my time and that I would eventually get bored of it in a year or two and pack my bags and leave or start doing something else. But when you stick it out, they know that you’re here to stay, and then after a couple of years, they start taking you a little more seriously. I think, it’s challenging for every woman who enters the world of business. Even today, though the challenges are fewer, it’s still difficult because every woman has many other responsibilities apart from her professional life. At the end of the day, she doesn’t cease to be a homemaker, she doesn’t stop doing domestic chores, and she doesn’t stop being a wife, a mother, a sister, or a daughter. A man, on the other hand, can pretty much ignore everything at home and focus on work. It’s even more difficult for women who want to have children. They have a right to start a family, but they don’t get enough maternity leave, they don’t have the facilities, and they don’t have domestic help at home where they can leave the child. I have met with many people in order to understand their challenges, and I had even taken up the cause of women in the Parliament.
The truth is that it is a very challenging thing to be a professional and to be a woman in this country. What should a young professional couple who has a child do? Where can they leave their child if both of them want to work? Should the mother give up her career? You don’t have crèches in every neighborhood, and even if you find a crèche, it may or may not be a quality crèche. So, if there’s nowhere to leave the child, where s/he will be well fed and taken care of, what do they do? Most women give up their job, and we lose out on the large chunk of our population that can’t work because the infrastructure support is just not there. Most of these women want to work, but they need to have a support system that society has to provide them with to be able to actually unleash their potential.
GJ: You were born in the Birla family, and then you married Mr. Bhartia, a business tycoon in his own right. How has the journey been for you thus far?
SB: It’s been very rewarding and challenging, at the same time. It’s an ongoing journey, and there’s never been a time when I’ve felt that the organization has reached its peak and it can go no further. I’m always striving to do more and more, looking at newer opportunities, newer options, and each time I reach a milestone, there is a sense of satisfaction, but it has also been a challenging journey getting there. Also, gender does play a part, and in the initial years, it was a little tough. But when you achieve something you had set out to do, it’s very rewarding.
GJ: You have been bestowed with a remarkable legacy. What was it like for you to spend time with powerful personalities such as your grandfather, the late GD Birla, and your father, the late Dr. KK Birla?
SB: They were, as you rightly said, powerful personalities, and therefore, there was always a slight amount of intimidation that I felt, despite the fact that they were my father and my grandfather. I think it’s because I knew what they had gone through, the trying times through India’s freedom movement, and also their association with Gandhiji and Nehru. You hear from them firsthand all the stories of the struggle that they went through at an individual level, and also about what the country had to go through before we achieved what we did. It’s sometimes a little daunting, but it was also very enriching, because it gave me a good perspective on what had passed. Since I was not privy to those times, because I am a post-independence person, it was fascinating to hear from them the challenges and the simplicity with which they had to lead their lives. Of course, my father was also always very indulgent. Despite being a towering personality, it was my father who we turned to every time we needed a little bit of indulgence. I guess when you have two parents, one has to be the task master and the other has to be a little lenient, because you can’t have both parents trying to constantly discipline you. For us, our father was always the lenient figure at home. So, it was a kind of mixed bag: very interesting and very enriching, with all kinds of anecdotes and perspectives about days that we had not witnessed but were crucial to our history, and also very indulgent. He was also very meticulous when it came to our studies, and he would plan out in detail how we spent our time. We had a good mix of doing what we wanted to and pursuing whatever we were fond of, but at the same time, there was enough time spent on academics.
GJ: From among you and your two sisters, you were chosen for the media. What was the thought process behind this choice?
SB: I can’t answer that question because I don’t know what the thought processes were. That said; I’ve always been very interested in public life from a very early age, and so, perhaps, one of the factors that might have led him to make this decision was my passion for public life. Media is unlike any other business. It not only needs to be run in a very professional manner with all the other parameters that would apply to any other corporate sector, but it also requires you to have a passion for it and for public life. In that sense, it’s like a cause, where you have the power to mold public opinion and the responsibility of molding it for the betterment of society. Unless you have a certain passion for this cause and unless you feel strongly about society, about the nation, you can’t be in the business of publishing. So perhaps, my early signs that I was very interested in public life may have been one of the factors that made him decide that perhaps Hindustan Times (HT) would be something that I really treasure.
GJ: Your home has been the meeting place for some of the most prominent names and influential personalities. Given your strong background, who would you say are the people who have influenced you the most?
SB: Strangely, I wasn’t really influenced by many people, because though there were many people in and out of the house, they were there to meet my father and we, as children, weren’t really around. My father was very close to Indira Gandhi, so I would hear a lot about her determination and what she stood for. I think, I was really influenced only by my father. I don’t think I was really influenced by any political entity.
GJ: How did you cope with gender issues in the early part of your career?
SB: After a certain stage, you stop thinking of gender. You are a professional, and therefore, if there are publishers who are being called for interactions with public personalities, I don’t think of it as women vs men. We are all people representing the publishing world, for instance, you have the publisher of TOI, publisher of Indian Express, and publisher of Pioneer; so what we have in common is our profession, not our gender. Every platform that I am invited to, I speak on a subject because I feel passionate about it, it doesn’t matter if other three people who feel as passionately about it are men. Nonetheless, gender does play a role when you are initially trying to carve a niche for yourself, but once you’ve taken that quantum lead, gender becomes irrelevant. To be very honest, I speak at and attend multiple meets and events, and I never think about how many women or men are there. We’re all just professionals, with the same thought processes.
GJ: From what I understand, Home TV was a challenging venture for many reasons. Could you share with us about your experience with Home TV and the lessons you learnt from it?
SB: They say that nothing strengthens you more than failure, and that’s very true. Sometimes when you experience a setback early in your professional career, it toughens you up and gives you the ability to take more risks along the way. There’s always that fear of failure, but once you’ve confronted it and experienced it, you have nothing to fear. Home TV was a venture that was perhaps slightly ahead of its time. There were no private channels, only DD 2, and the cost of a satellite transponder was 10 times the cost that it is today. So, it was an expensive proposition, there were many partners involved, and the market was not mature. It’s true that the returns did not come in as quickly as we had expected them to, but I think we should have stuck in there for a couple of years. If we had had staying power, we would have had a great first mover advantage and would have captured a larger chunk of the market. However, two of our international partners, Carlton and Pearson, the two who actually had the expertise, globally decided to exit broadcasting. Pearson had decided to quit television worldwide, so they pulled out, and Carlton were hand-in-hand with Pearson, so they too pulled out. That left us, another Asian partner, and the fund. None of us had the expertise, except the Asian partner, but then we had to recapitalize the company because the losses were mounting and we needed a greater gestation period. When it came to refinancing the company, there was a lot of uncertainty. I was still very new to the company, and as I told you earlier, there were many challenges, so I couldn’t convince the senior management that this was the medium of the future that required investing in for future profits. I was seen as a young person who had just joined the organization, as opposed to the people with 20 to 30 years of experience who felt that this was a money-losing proposition. They suggested cutting our losses and moving out, which is what we did. I didn’t have the years of experience to be able to convince them otherwise. Till today, I feel very sad about it; it was a lost opportunity. But, I have learnt many lessons from it, and maybe we could have done things differently. The problem was that there were many international partners, and every decision was taken jointly by the five of us and at a global level. Also, in India, we can do things in a slightly more cost-efficient manner, but in this venture, everything was done according to global standards, resulting in lots of expenditure.
GJ: Where do you get the strength to bounce back from setbacks? As women, we tend to take things a bit personally; does that hinder your ability to overcome hurdles?
SB: You have to bounce back. Fortunately, God has been kind, and we have excelled in every other venture other than Home TV. You can’t shy away from failure; instead, you learn from failure and you come back stronger and you take that risk again. As they say, if you don’t take risks, you’re never going to grow. I think, you need to get into a business only if you have the stomach for it. Business means ups and downs; it means successes and failures. There is no sure-shot recipe for success. Endless companies wind up, they go belly up, and people go bankrupt, but you have to have the grit to stay in there.
GJ: You started your career with the Sunday Magazine, which was a prominent publication in Indian journalism. Are you planning to revive it?
SB: I am very closely associated with the Sunday section and the whole paper now. The Sunday magazine was never published independently; it was the Sunday section of the HT. So now, part of it is Brunch, and the other part of it has got absorbed in the Sunday paper. Essentially, all those big pages, which were in the long form of journalism, were earlier part of a separate supplement, and are now merged in the main paper. In that sense, HT’s Sunday paper is distinctly different to its weekday paper.
GJ: Some senior journalists and columnists, such as Vir Sanghvi, C Rangaswami, and Rajiv Makhani, have all achieved individual branding through your papers. Was this a business tactic or did it just happen?
SB: I don’t think it just happened. It’s always good to create icons and to create brands, because when you help create a brand, that brand’s success is linked to your success because that brand is associated with you. This is a very common marketing practice across various platforms, for example, Oprah Winfrey was created by a platform, and then the positive rub-off of her brand benefitted the platform. These brands can be products or individual personalities, and in the case of the latter, you provide them a platform to showcase their skills. It’s a win-win situation. If they didn’t have the skills, just giving them the HT platform would not be enough. It’s both their skills and my platform; so creating brands requires working in tandem.
I have always been extremely focused on editorial, and there is a lot of weightage that we give to an individual’s content. It’s about editorial positioning of the product; it’s not simply a marketing platform.
GJ: Could you share with us about the niche positioning that HT has created; what was the business strategy and conceptualization behind that?
SB: The events that you speak about have been consciously created by analyzing certain positioning. For instance, the leadership summit is all about thought leadership, and at the end of the day, newspapers are an intellectual product, and therefore, you want to take ownership of that thought leadership, of being able to mold public opinion, of standing up for a certain viewpoint, and of being able to analyze, deliberate, and debate issues. To this end, the leadership summit allows us to have and to provide a platform where for two days some of the world’s top minds discuss and debate ideas, viewpoints, and socio-economically relevant issues. This gives us the edge, because we ask the important issues and we try and provide solutions and answers to them as well. It’s a very natural extension of what the brand stands for. That said; it is also a business proposition, and there is a positive rub-off for the paper.
Similarly, the luxury summits were started almost five years ago, when luxury markets had not even opened. So again, we wanted to have the first mover advantage, and we organized the first luxury summit in Mumbai. Many people told me that it was a little ahead of its time. I still remember that for the first summit, I went to Paris and London and personally invited international brand owners, such as Louis Vuitton. I tried to sell India to them. Today, the situation is reverse. Everyone wants to enter the Indian market. It’s a new market, and a very interesting market, so everyone wants to get invited to the summit. So again, it was about spotting a trend, identifying it, and knowing that eventually India’s economy would be no different to the West. So, we took the initiative and established the luxury summits. At present, we get enough marketing support, enough sponsors, and enough people who support the brands, making the venture financially viable and profitable.
GJ: Dr. KK Birla was very involved in your business, and I assume that any father would be very proud of his daughter becoming such a prominent figure and changing the history of the industry. Did your father ever tell you that he’s proud of you?
SB: He was very much involved in the business. He died two months before he turned 90, and he was working right till the end. And yes, he did sometimes mention how proud he was of me, and he also said so in his autobiography. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than trying to meet his expectations.
GJ: Some people believe that a lot of your success can be attributed to your closeness with the Indian National Congress. Do you feel you are often misunderstood on this front?
SB: My family has typically been a very staunch Congress supporter, because the Congress was the only significant party pre-independence, and it basically led the Indian independence movement. My grandfather was Gandhiji’s close associate, as you know he lived in our house, and my father was very closely associated with all the leaders of the freedom struggle. So, that affiliation with the Congress or our identification with the Congress is not something that has been kept hidden, it’s always been out in the open. In the post-independence era, there were multiple parties that made an appearance, but for a long time, the Congress retained its dominance, and my family, because of its own historical connections with the Congress, retained the same linkages with it. I was nominated by the UPA government—you are given the opportunity to join a political party of your choice within six months of your nomination—but I decided not to join any political party and retain my independence because I also happen to be the Editorial Director of the HT. But my father was a member of the Congress party, so under these circumstances, it is natural for people to associate the family with the Congress.
From the viewpoint of the paper, we do not take a pro or an anti-Congress stand or a pro or an anti-BJP stand; our support and criticism is on the basis of issues. For instance, when it came to inflation or the depreciation of the rupee, we’ve been critical of the government, even if it happens to be led by the Congress. My grandfather and my father were fully with the Congress, and so, since I am the first generation that has not been with the party, that rub-off is there. For example, the son of a senior leader in the BJP like LK Advani is going to be perceived as close to BJP, or Arun Jaitley’s children will be perceived as being close to the BJP, whether or not they are. I am often told that I am a Congress sympathizer, and I guess that’s natural, but I have tried to retain full editorial independence as far as HT is concerned, because for me, my constituency is my readers, and I need to be as objective as possible for them, and in being as objective as possible, if it means that there are issues that need to be commented on, we comment on them, even if it involves criticizing the Congress.
GJ: Over the years, you’ve received various awards and accolades, including the prestigious Padma Shri. Which achievement or award has been closest to you?
SB: I wouldn’t say any award or achievement has been close to me. I received the awards and recognitions based on my work, and though they don’t matter that much to me, I still think they are important because they help motivate the entire organization. When the Chairperson of an organization or the Vice-chairperson, as I was when I got many of these awards, receives recognition, it’s a matter of pride for the entire organization. To that extent, I am happy about the awards, because of the impact they have had on the organization in terms of the various positions that I have held on several boards or as head of ABC. The two positions that I have enjoyed much more than the others have been my association with Doon School and my association with BITS Pilani. The satisfaction associated with educational institutions is far more than being on corporate boards or chairing the ABC. These are just an extension of my work, but when I was on the board of Doon School, it was a boy’s club, and I was the first and only woman to be on the board. Of course, after me, they have decided to induct more women. But, it was a very rewarding experience, and the fact that it was already such a great institution, so determining what one can do to improve the quality and standard was something I enjoyed doing. My association with BITS, with which I am still associated, has also given me a great deal of satisfaction. Apart from that, when the late Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, he had decided to experiment with non-academicians being involved with colleges, and so I was on the board of one of the colleges of Delhi University, and later, I chaired one of the colleges. So, these were some of the experiences that I actually enjoyed, even though they were not directly related to the work I do.
GJ: Indian journalism is now pretty synonymous with paid news. While the media is expected to be neutral and politically unbiased, where do you draw the fine line between revenue and authenticity?
SB: To my mind, there is actually no debate on this issue. I completely abhor paid news, and I think it does a lot of discredit to our industry; it’s like a cancer that’s plaguing the industry. The HT Group does not have any paid news policy whatsoever. If anyone has paid for any content that we publish, then we write the word “advertisement” on top, but there is never any paid news published that masquerades as genuine news. You can buy promotional news in the HT, but you can’t buy a position; no partnerships with companies.
GJ: Stepping aside from the professional and into the personal, if you had three free days, how would you spend them?
SB: I like to holiday. I don’t take too many holidays, but I take frequent short holidays. I just like to spend my time in an unstructured manner, because otherwise, my days are very structured. For me, being able to get up when I want, do what I want, and eat when I want is a luxury. So, I generally only get free time when I travel, never in Delhi. I also love food and I‘m a big foodie; I enjoy choosing good restaurants, planning where to eat, researching restaurants and their chefs, and identifying the good dishes at each place. I also like just walking around. I am also a great spa buff, and I like going the spa. It relaxes me, and I am able to spend time doing nothing, which I love. What I love about these breaks is that I forget what I am supposed to do next, that I don’t have to look at my diary and decide which issue to deal with next. I also like watching television serials and reading books.
GJ: What’s your favorite book?
SB: There is no favourite book as such. The last book I read was Steve Jobs’ biography, which I found very gripping. Most biographies generally undermine a person’s shortcomings, but I found that this actually highlighted a lot of the negatives as well. I think, it’s one of the more candid biographies I’ve read.
GJ: I assume you are very fond of autobiographies and biographies. If you could choose to be one personality, living or dead, besides yourself, who would it be?
SB: It’s a difficult question. I don’t know. I’ve mentioned this before that the people whom I admired the most were my parents. I learnt a lot from my father, but equally from my mother. From her, I learnt the value of life. She was a very strong person, and she kept the family together. Sometimes, we tend to discount the role of a woman who is not working, but my mother played a very quiet and extremely important role. Often, members of a family go their own separate ways, and you need someone to keep them together, my mother did that. She always stood by people, and she accepted you for what you were, not necessarily because you were her role model or because you did what she thought was right, but because she loved and respected people for what they were, regardless of their shortcomings. And all of us have shortcomings, so to be able to accept people without being judgmental even when your own beliefs are different was very inspiring to me. My mother was a conservative person, so her beliefs were very often different from others, and yet, she accepted that society had changed. We all tend to be very judgmental about people in general, and we are quick to judge people based on what is right and wrong. But my mother never did that; she was fiercely loyal when it came to family. So, even if someone in the family had done something that she didn’t think was the best thing to do, she would tell you that she didn’t agree, but her commitment and love would never deter. I think that kept us all together. My father had a very busy life; he never had enough time to be at home, and I started staying a busy life too, but my mother found the time to be that glue. There’s still a lot that I have to learn from her. Though she wasn’t a professional, she was a very strong-willed woman. I look up to her. She is no more, of course.
GJ: If you had to define yourself in one sentence, what would it be?
SB: I’ll leave that to others. But, all the same, I want to be described as a good human being, and that’s it. I don’t want any other accolades, because nothing else matters. If you can’t be a good human being, it doesn’t matter what position you’ve achieved. I want to be fondly remembered, regardless of the position I had or didn’t have. I don’t envy those who have a lot of power, because nobody misses them, nobody gives a damn about them.
GJ: How would you define your quintessential woman?
SB: A woman who knows what her aims and objectives in life are, and who tries to achieve them without losing her softness. I think it is important to remember that at the end of the day women have a softer side, and being a professional shouldn’t have to mean discarding that aspect completely. I think it’s nice to be able to be sensitive and relate to family and friends, and yet have a clear vision of what you want to achieve in your professional life. I like focusing on both my professional and personal lives, but I don’t mix them.