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There are a myriad of ways to describe this powerhouse of a woman, Dr Swati Piramal, who, along with her husband, turned a textile-centred business into Piramal Healthcare Limited, a Rs21,000 crore conglomerate that works in pharmaceuticals, real estate, financial services and packaging. She’s one of India’s leading scientific minds and industrialists, and is a doctor by training. She is also an alumna of the Harvard School of Public Health and has dedicated her life to the prevention of chronic diseases like diabetes and arthritis.

Gunjan Jain (GJ): How would you describe your journey of 23 years?

Swati Piramal (SP): It has been a fascinating journey, and a very satisfying one for me. It’s like thinking of an impossible dream and achieving it.

GJ: What was your childhood like? Are there episodes that had a very strong influence to shape you to be the person that you are today?

SP: My mom and dad had a strong influence on me. My dad always would make me read. I think, if a child learns how to read and learns how to find something that he doesn’t know, then most of the battle is won because books are your best friends. He was keen that I study mathematics. My mom is a very enthusiastic person and used to say ‘I don’t want to hear the word depression from you, forget about all this stuff like depression, what’s that about?’

GJ: What do you have to say about the judgments coming towards you because at that time it was not very common for women to work?

SP: I was very lucky to start with a very strong foundation of loving parents as they believed in me, so I think that is the biggest reason for my success. And then I was second lucky with my in-laws who also believed in women, that women should work, and my father-in-law was a liberal man and so was my mother-in-law, and hence, I’m lucky on both sides. I got married early, I had children early, they grew up early so I could work and it was all a set of circumstances.

GJ: Your father-in-law passed away when you were young. In three years, your brother-in-law was detected with cancer, and the mill factory collapsed too. How did you feel at that point? What sustained you through?

SP: It was really a low point in my life. The thought that tough people last and tough times don’t is what got me through. It was a test of spirituality, test of what you believe in. I remember how at the mere age of 29 my husband headed the textile company as the Chairman. The elders warned us that the journey would not be easy but my husband and I nevertheless took up the challenge and my husband said, “I respect the old but I think they are wrong”, so he took over the whole group. Industry was bankrupt because of textile strike but slowly, piece by piece, he recovered the business and grew it; he decided to diversify and bought a small company and grew it.

GJ: The first ten years is taxing time for any company but Piramal made it to the top five from 48th rank. Especially in a competitive and intense industry like the pharmaceuticals, how did you do it?

SP: The textile industry is a commodity driven industry, whereas the pharmaceuticals is a knowledge industry. It was a completely different business. So, we built it step by step, slow and steady, focusing on the immediate goals and making sure that we deliver them. And definitely, good management principles helped us gain market share little by little, building well and then taking the next acquisition. Eventually, the business grew and then we sold the company for $3.8 billion, which we had initially bought for ten crores. It was completely a value addition for the share holder. We learnt how to build a business, how to get into acquisitions, how to work for consumers.

GJ: Where does the effortless synergy between you and Ajay Piramal come from?

SP: We have different strengths; like in matters of high finance, Ajay would naturally do it, if it were something to do with R&D, medical health that’s where I took over. We were in a business which needed the both of us. That’s why it worked so well for us. We agree upon many things, debate a lot on many things. We handle different parts that play to our strengths.

GJ: Has doing business together ever put strain to your marriage?    

SP: We don’t meet at all at work except for sometimes at evenings when we would sit together to discuss some issues. We work 24/7 and there is little holiday time. We love our work.

GJ: Which acquisition was the one which has given you the maximum excitement?

SP: Personally, for me it is the R&D deal because they had 25 years of work; it’s a German company and they hadn’t yet achieved the end.

GJ: What do you intend to do with the Vodafone India deal money?

SP: Most of it is going to go into pharma and also our new innovative business, second vertical will be on financial services and the third one will be defense. Defense doesn’t mean making trucks and guns but home surveillance products, security business, about technology and surveillance.

GJ: Regarding the HR policies, yours is considered to be one of the best places to work in India. How do you keep the motivation going?

SP: We are a fair employer. We try to make it friendly for women. There was one lady who said her previous work place was highly male intensive, somewhere in north India and used such bad words that was demeaning. When she came here, she found this clean respectful environment and she said “I really enjoyed working for you”. I think sometimes there are very simple things that you can enforce. Pornography at work is what we do not allow on our computer system. It makes a woman feel better and safer.

GJ: Because HR policies in our country are not very advanced,  how do you deal with it?

SP: We have a policy on sexual harassment; we follow it and such complaints come straight to me. So, I mean these are just forward looking things. Senior people are looking at issues of safety and health and environment. We possibly spend more on health and safety and environment than any other company in India.

GJ: You have a strong leadership drive within you. You’re the first woman President of Assocham and the only woman in the scientific body of the Government of India. Can you elaborate on how did you manage to succeed at these roles?

SP: There are three areas written in the company manual, and also prescribed as a management lesson in Bhagwad Gita: Knowledge, Action and Care. If you have knowledge, nobody can fight you because you have the answer to everything. When I became the President of Assocham, I had no idea about banking, or the economy of a nation. At that time, I was to greet the President of Indonesia, so before the President arrived, I had to read a thousand pages on Indonesia. Before I went for a meeting at RBI, I learnt whatever I could about banking. Basically, I did my homework.  So when I went to meetings, I was armed with knowledge. This helped me answer pragmatically to real questions; nothing that is frivolous or funny or irrelevant. Knowledge is my biggest weapon. I know how to search for anything. I had the innate curiosity to know things, and learn things.

Next is about action. One thing with women is that they are uncomfortable to step outside their comfort zone. They lack time and enthusiasm to step out. Action is about doing something where an individual has to persevere, something that comes over time and not immediately.

Next is the concept of seva or service. When leading people, I am always concerned about what they need in the first place.

GJ: Did the financial companies like ICICI or LIC ever intimidate you?

SP: I wonder why they need a doctor and I ask all of them the same. But the institutions wanted a new view, the view of a consumer, they wanted a general management view and I already had the experience as I was already running a successful business, running companies. Whenever it’s my turn to talk about economy, I play the common joke; I tell them it’s my version of the Indian economic index. Interesting index concept: the pomegranate index… it meant when a person sells pomegranate on a cart across the city streets, then you know that there is not much malnutrition, because people don’t buy pomegranates as it is an expensive fruit; they would rather buy banana. Buying pomegranates means that you have enough wealth and therefore, they would not stint on milk for a little child. According to me, it is a simple way of assessing the real growth of economy. 

GJ: Do you think being a woman has made you a better leader?

SP: I think so, because women naturally have a different way of looking at things, they are nurturing, they are more inclusive, do better at team work, and they are more sensitive, and so, I can often tell Ajay when a person is upset more easily than he can because we read signals which are at a subliminal level. I think there are so many advantages of being a woman.

GJ: How do manage work life balance?

SP: I don’t waste time; I don’t spend time on frivolous things. I don’t know when was the last time I went to movies! I don’t go to kitty parties.

GJ: You have been on the board of several apex bodies. What, according to you, should be the policy changes that would help India lead the world?

SP: There are two major ones. One, we have to look at ourselves as leaders, but we see ourselves as followers of some other economy. For instance, how will we invent a medicine for 50 million diabetic patients in India when we follow the West because they don’t have as many diabetics as India does? If we got an HIV virus that is unique to India and has got a genetic mutation, we better know what that is all about. We better have answers to our own problems. Innovation, new thinking and self belief that we can be leaders is not there within the people. So, I would like to change that.

Second is the regulatory bottleneck. In India, regulation takes so long. It takes long to get permission, and it is all grey as somewhere someone tweaks it a little bit to get ahead of the others in the deal which is not right. Regulations are not transparent, honest and upfront. This is really a big issue. For instance, currently the government is working on penalty charges for real estate delays in projects but there is no penalty for the government when it delays or postpones its responsibilities. In pharmaceuticals, if you ask for the trial and approval in the USA, they will give it to you within 24 days. If you don’t get an approval, then you can start your project but here in India, the time varies from six months to one year and that is very frustrating. Two things are lacking: vision and then getting the process right.

GJ: So, have you ever thought of joining the Rajya Sabha?

SP: No, I’ve never thought about joining the Rajya Sabha but I definitely want to be the Health Minister of the country one day. I really like to do things that have an impact.

GJ: In spite of achieving so much, are there any positions you’re still eyeing at?

SP: What I’d like to do is make an impact somewhere. If there was a position that I’d like to be, it would be the Health Minister of India. I am not joking about it. It is because I really think that policy can make a huge impact. In government, policy can make a huge impact; it can affect the lives of thousands of people. And only the government gets scale unlike any other company. However, the spending that India does is so little that I feel the Health Ministers have not been able to make an impact because the health care scale is very tiny.

GJ: Does that mean you are planning to get into mainstream politics?

SP: No, I am not going to get into politics and so, I don’t think I’ll ever be a Health Minister. I think whoever is running the health ministry can make a huge impact. I would like to work with the government in creating impact. But I would not get into politics. That is not my real goal.

GJ: There are approximately 600 million people in India who do not have access to the right medicines. What are your suggestions for developing policies for eradication of disease?

SP: I recommended a whole bunch of policies, not one. Invest in innovation, invest in affordable drugs, make sure your regulations go on time, invest in something like universal health coverage that everyone should have, every man, woman and child, especially those who don’t have a voice need to be covered, so focus on low cost insurance policy and so many. Government should tax bidi smoking to 80% to 90% of its price to make India tobacco free.

GJ: How would you assess your journey as a reformer?

SP: When I was 19, just graduated from medical college, I saw a polio struck girl with crutches. For me, it was the most horrific sight that the girl could not run or walk properly, like other normal kids. Then and there I took the decision to fight polio. People were superstitious and thought that polio is a Devi or a demon which went into the child. They used silver, tried other methods to prevent it. They were simply ignorant to the fact that one dose of polio can cure it all. I, along with my committee, started treating 25,000 kids to put more effort on prevention. As part of the awareness programme, some of my friends would sing and dance in Marathi and performed skits to give the message that polio was not a demon but only a virus and if they would give their child that one injection, it would be fine. My father-in-law owned a textile mill. I had this idea and went and asked my father-in-law to donate 10,000 meters of cloth which cost me Rs 10 then. I gave one meter of cloth to every mother who finished all the three polio dosage as an incentive. This proved to be the best thing because these mothers stitched baba suits for their babies and many of the local kids wore the same colourful stripped clothes. It was the first time I realized that an intervention can make a difference; that a person can make a difference. Ten years after that we closed the rehabilitation center.  It was also the first time I realized the value of public health and I was determined to know more. If an individual plans an early intervention, the cost of prevention becomes lower than what it might be in later stages. It’s a simple fact. It was soon thereafter that Piramal took over Nicholas laboratories and became a pharma company.

GJ: Can you tell me about the health awareness campaigns by Piramal on Osteoporosis?

SP: All people knew that old people in the family would slip in the bathroom, get factures and end in bed till their death. I started OSTOP India to stop osteoporosis. The project stressed on finding out whether bones are strong or not. I conducted a study in 30-40 schools and found out that every teacher has osteoporosis. It was a shocking truth that people did not get enough Vitamin D in the bones. Thereafter, I initiated various other health awareness programmes on epilepsy, chronic diseases and so on.

GJ: What drives you to help other people?

SP: I was always attracted to medicine. To me, it was a way of living, a way of helping people, a way of taking responsibility of other people’s health. Another memory which influenced me much in my early days is that my cousin brother was regularly taken to the doctor for vaccination. I did not know what it was but once my brother got an allergic response to the vaccination and the baby became blue in the face. My mother ran around screaming for the family doctor. The doctor came, gave some medicines and the child recovered. I was surprised by the respect that my family members had for the doctor for saving the little one. Everybody said, ‘Wow what a person!’ So, I wanted to become like that, and it was an inspiration to me. When people’s health is affected and you can heal them, that is the biggest reward in life. Nothing else takes that space.

GJ: Could you share with us anecdotes related to how people appreciate your work?

SP: When my team and I invented a new medicine called Rejoint for arthritis, it was a huge success. I remember how people would come to me and say thank you doctor for giving us this medicine. One person came and touched my feet - these are prized feelings. They were grateful that they didn’t have the pain – so that they could live a normal life, go out and do many things which they couldn’t do earlier. So today, in every part of medicine that we are working upon as a company, we have this additional public health anchor. And it has won for the company a lot of good will, a lot of reputation, won them friends everywhere and it can’t be replaced easily.

GJ: I was reading about Pratham India. Can you tell us a little bit about it because to me it is a revolution, 3.3 million children touched by the initiative?

SP: Actually, we didn’t start it. It was an NGO started by one of our board members Mr. Vaghul who introduced Ajay to Pratham. He was totally fascinated with the whole idea of accelerated learning that you could teach a child who could not read and the child could read in a few weeks. And that joy in the child’s face when he could actually read is something just amazing. It is really a wonderful institution, and it has won so many awards, and Ajay is the chairman of Pratham India, but again, despite it being the largest NGO, it’s still a drop in the ocean because India has so many children and you don’t have the wherewithal and the team and the teacher to teach every single child.

GJ: Do you think Indian education system needs to be modified to meet the needs of the society?

SP: We do something in the education field. It was a trust by someone else, we fund it now. It was called the Kaivalya Education trust, now it is called the Piramal School of Leadership. We train head masters in rural schools on leadership and there is a set curriculum method of inculcating ideas of creativity, innovation, learning and that has been a very successful programme in the state of Rajasthan. And people want us to carry it out all over India. But again, we do not have that many people. So, in 800 municipal schools in Mumbai they are getting this kind of different training and we are part of this service; that makes us present in Mumbai, Rajasthan, and Gujarat where we are trying out the whole idea of training headmasters. We can train a headmaster because he is a natural leader of so many teachers and that leads to real creativity and it has brought amazing number of changes, productivity in education, more people attending school, dropouts have been few, they are able to get in new ways of training children, make it fun and creative rather than being strenuous. The experiments just began four or five years ago and we have to wait, of course, for the children to grow old to see if they have worked.

GJ: Tell me a little bit about the spiritual side to you?

SP: They always say that child is the father of man and in this case, my son taught me the lesson. He was 17 when he went to Italy, to study art and architecture. He (Anand) was bemused by the Italian architecture. His teacher, however, said that India has got more; it has 3,500 years of philosophy, which is so old and ancient, yet practical. After returning home, he asked if he could learn philosophy and so Ajay and I arranged for someone who could teach him Vedic science. Young Swami Sattwick ji came every Saturday. In three or four months, we finished the summary of the Gita. It happened ten years ago and even today, we study the Gita. Philosophy is about interpretation, how you can apply it in real life. Ajay and I wrote a book together on “18 Management lessons of Gita” from 18 Verses and how we applied it.  Whatever you do, you must build it world class. Whether it is the safety of employees, the quality of products, for environment, we want to be the best.

GJ: Anand was a part of the Dia Movement, he went on a toothpaste campaign in villages and has been accompanied by you; and your daughter Nandini has been handling operations for four years now in Canada and has contributed largely to the company. It reflects that in the Piramal family, the second generation is as able as the first generation. How do you see it?

SP: When you are doing parenting, you don’t know immediately what’s right and what’s wrong until late but for the children, you have to walk the talk, you have to live the values that you give them. I made sure that our kids had the tool of knowledge. At the under graduate level, both my kids went to very good universities. Nandini to Oxford, Anand to UPenn; then Nandini went to Stanford and Anand went to Harvard. They have the benefit of having a good education. One thing special is that both my children are interested in the development of the rural areas.

GJ: What is your greatest strength?

SP: It is enthusiasm, curiosity, wanting to know more about life and being happy in whatever I’m doing.

GJ: You have co-authored books and you also have eclectic taste on art and music. How would you say you live life to the fullest?

SP: If something interests me, I would do an intensive research, find out correct answers and would get to the bone of the matter. I recently became interested in all kinds of things like 19th century literature.

GJ: How do you manage your time?

SP: One simple thing that most people don’t do is, for example, they don’t read emails every day and that is an example of less efficiency. If you can respond very quickly to somebody, it increases your productivity. I manage a couple of hours on my computer as it helps me to respond well and it helps me in research and knowledge. New morning distraction is my granddaughter who is one year old. I have lots of hobbies like cooking, photography, making short documentary films, reading about good foods.

GJ: You’re one of the best persons to throw theme parties too. If you could share something on this front.

SP: The latest was the Ecuadorians Party because I discovered the chocolate grown by Red Indians who had cocoa trees of hundred years and that was rare from Equador. At a Wedding party of my friend’s son, I made Ecuadorian chocolate. It’s not about selling but about spreading the love and laughter. The party lasted after the party, as people can take a part of the sweet in the evening back home. It lasts much longer.

GJ: While walking down the corridor I saw art pieces by MF Husain and others. What about art appeals to you so much?

SP: My husband understands more. As you walk down the other corridor, you will find art of a kind of period like the East India company type of art, and company school of arts, Bengal school of arts, Tagore’s and J. P. Ganguly and Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose – all of their piece of art is here, what they thought about India as they took the first step abroad, and how they got Picasso’s influence. My son’s office is a crazy place; he’s got a young artist, sheep walking across, and colours. Both my children like contemporary art.

GJ: You also have a taste for music?

SP: I like to hear music though I cannot keep a tune. I cannot tell you the difference between ragas. I know whether I like it or not, I am an appreciator of music rather than a musically inclined person.

GJ: While walking down, I found that each room was named after the characters from Mahabharata/Bhagavad Gita. Is it so?

SP: All my rooms are named after Arjun, one person because he had to learn, he had to persevere and had humility, fight for dharma and right things and did not give up, persevere and these are all attributes you need in business.

GJ: Of all the awards and accolades that you have received, which one is the most prized?

SP: The one which the French government honoured me with is the prized one because of the name which was something like Chevalier as I like the idea of chivalry and of course, it was from a foreign government. And then, Harvard Board of Overseas nominated me to the board which started in 1637, almost four hundred years old.

GJ: What are the remarkable things in your journey; acknowledgement is important but to get into action, what makes you such a good executer?

SP: I think it’s about perseverance because at first, you can say its too difficult then you can say I have too many challenges and then, you can fail a few times but it’s about being dogged and not getting sidestepped by people who feel you can’t do it or sidestepped by people who say this is not a good way or this is not a good strategy.

GJ: Who is your role model?

SP: The woman whom I met at Assocham was the President of Chile; she is a doctor as well.

GJ: If you had to give an advice to the youth of India today, what will it be?

SP: Always take time to know more, always be very enthusiastic about what you do, have sincerity of purpose, and have a higher goal, look for something outside yourself. Do more for the people and community around. And I’m very hopeful about the future generation.

GJ: Looking forward, what are your dreams and goals is the next 20 years?

SP: For me, it’s very simple - to reduce the burden of disease. I have done only one drop in the ocean and it is still huge. Talk to families, they have one problem or the other and when you ask them, they say I have this problem and I can’t find a cure for it. My dream is to specifically look into cancer, find a new drug for cancer, diabetes. I look for new medicines.