Friday, 25 August 2017

Music

What is it about music that makes me want to breathe the notes, play the melody and dance to the composition? Why is it that music makes me want to dive like a dolphin, soar like an eagle and run like a doe? How can music easily make me blush like a teenager, smile like a bride and sleep like a baby? 

What is it that breathes life when music plays, I cannot comprehend. Why does life become sacred and special with music, I remain clueless. How can music infuse happiness and joy into life, my being marvels at the mystery. 

But without music life is meaningless, without music every achievement is incomplete and without music every joy a shade paler. While much has changed, these  aspects have remained constant; making it the one big truth of my life. And at least of this about music I am certain and convinced. 

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Roots


My closest friend from school days came home after many years and her immediate reaction was - " it feels so good to be back here in this house". Yes we spent a lot of time here - we shared secrets and joys, bounced from setbacks and failures, and we grew from young girls into young ladies. She is my constant - one who is there even when she is not. 

A few days later, as I was reading into the night, a friend sent a message - "Why are you up so late?" How did he know? I was puzzled! "Well, we were just driving past your building and saw that your lights were on. Please sleep." And peacefully sleep I did. I know for sure that just as he had looked out for me the day I had a severe migraine attack in college, he (actually now he and his wife) is still looking out for me. From a young lady to a woman, he has seen my journey. And its not my material or professional accomplishments that he is proud of, but he says he values the person that he sees in me. 

As I waited for mother and father in the foyer of the club, she called out and simultaneously caught hold of my hand. "This is you Tanushree! I have been thinking of you!"  I was stunned. She looked as young as she did as the Grade X class teacher. "Ma'am it's you. I have been wanting to meet you as well." A few minutes and a short conversation later she elicited a promise from me of a meeting in the first week of September. A promise I promise to keep. She not only taught me the science behind chemical reactions, but also what dignity means when surrounded by adverse actions. She may have been following my facebook activities but in all these years her silent blessings have been with me, of that today I am aware. From then to now she wants to see how the seed has groomed. I am anxious to pass the litmus test. 

Three people having three different histories with me walked through the garden of my life, all in one week, one after the other. While one is always present like the wind, another one is seasonal like the rain and yet another one is the occasional rainbow. Their associations maybe different but all three have contributed to me being who I am. And all three tell me that this is what home means. I may travel the world, but it is back here that I will find my true self. I may journey through enchanting forests, but it is here that I will find my reality. I may wish upon many a star, but it is here that I will find the strength to realise my dreams. Because this is where I started my journey. This is where my roots are. And this is where I will return to when the sun decides to set. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Needed - 12% Tax on Sanitary Napkins

When I put forth my thoughts on why a 12% tax on sanitary napkins and tampons is not discriminatory, I thought I was being logical and rationale. But then there were those who communicated their scepticism, their disbelief or simply a disagreement. Some of them are extremely intelligent and some are wonder women. And so I began to wonder if I could gather some numbers to highlight that a 0% tax on these products will probably not be sufficient to encourage their use. 

Based on Google research, facts and mathematics here is the data - 

Average cost of one sanitary napkin (SPC) = Rs 6.00
Cost without tax (0SPC) = Rs 5.36
Average number of pads used per month (#) = 17 (average of min 15 and max 20)
Total monthly cost of sanitary napkin use (SPC#) = Rs 102
Total monthly cost of tax free sanitary napkins (0SPC#) = Rs 91.12
Average income of a rural household for a family of 5 = Rs 5000. 

Assuming an equal split of the income for every member of the family, per rural woman we have Rs 1000 of monthly spend. For a monthly requirement of sanitary napkins the woman would thus need to shell out 9% -10% of her monthly income. That sounds unaffordable, especially when one considers that one kilogram staple food such as tomatoes or pulses could cost as much!

From an urban woman's stand point, a saving of Rs 10.88 every month represents 0.22% if she earns Rs 5000 monthly. 

So why shave tax off when it probably makes no difference to either set? Let me elucidate a bit more.

Notice that the tax of  Rs 10.88 can almost buy 2 sanitary napkins. The tax paid by 9 urban women can actually buy the monthly quota for one rural woman, but 2 sanitary napkins a month help neither one!

According to last census there were 106.916m women in the age bracket of 15-24 in India and 251.070m in 24-54. Rounding off, there are about 360m menstruating women in India. Of these 12%-20% use sanitary napkins. Tax collected on this sale could help an additional 4.8m - 7.8m women use sanitary napkins, which is 1% - 1.5% additional Indian female population!

Now we see things moving. 

If the government would contribute an equal amount to this we could have an additional 2% - 3% women having more hygienic facilities available. Corporate CSR and NGOs can help improve this number.

Schools are already being used as free distribution points, but girls get only 5 pads a month. So alternatively, with tax paid on sanitary napkins, we can now triple this grant and ensure they have enough for the entire month! When we inculcate awareness at a young age, we groom a healthier future with better prospects for national GDP.

The God or the devil, whichever be your pick, lies in the details. The numbers scream out for tax on sanitary napkins to be used to make this facility available for the ones who cannot afford it. That must become the endeavour of the urban, educated, sanitary napkin using women - to ensure that our government puts our money where the bloody need is!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Bleed to Lead, Breed and Succeed

I am a woman and my reality is that I bleed and breed. Equally is my reality that I lead and succeed; but that does not change the fact that I am a woman. I cannot own one and turn my back to the other. Both these aspects complete me just like heads and tails maketh a coin. So if I can walk the corridors of the corporate world, use logic and reasoning to make decisions and forge ahead why should I not use the same analytical skills to answer questions on discrimination...

Ever since GST has been rolled out in India I have worked with my team to understand if the pre roll out impact analysis was accurate and sufficient. In the last 12 days I have read, heard and discussed varied reports and opinions. All of them have led me to the conclusion that this much needed reform would have created upheaval whenever we would have attempted it despite preparation ad nauseam. While the focus remained on business, in the background there was this constant humdrum that sanitary napkins are being taxed at 12% when bindi, bangles, sindoor and condoms are tax free. The women empowerment morchas have been crying foul and their voices are never fading. The secular brigade is on a slogan screaming campaign just behind the feminists. Their din is hurtful to the ears. While logic told me that taxes alone cannot make sanitary napkins unaffordable I decided to flesh out this discussion a bit more.

To begin with - bindi, bangles and sindoor were tax free pre GST as they are post. In the post era they are tax free not to appease sentiments of religious factions or to force women to use them as some sort of bonded labourer marks, but because a majority of these products are manufactured by entities with an annual income of less than INR 20 lakhs. These entities are outside of the GST network, which means that they do not get to avail of input tax credits. Now if these enterprises are made to pay an output tax but they don't get input tax benefits then we are making them economically unviable and that will be injustice. So the status quo for these items remain to ensure that GST roll out does not eat away livelihoods of the lower strata of the society. That's logic and rationale from the leading and succeeding me. The bleeding and breeding me wants to ask the secular brigade one question - are bindis and bangles used only by women of one religious faction? I know of Hindu, Parsi, Muslim, Jain and Christian women who love wearing both these accessories on a daily basis to enhance their beauty or for personal pleasure. Parsi married women equally support red bangles as do the Hindus. Hindu women in urban India, at least, no longer sport sindoor on a daily basis unless you count the Indian television appearances of Sindoor soaked women. Feminist senoritas now that's the cluster of modern society you need to educate because their caricatures propagate what you are so against. And they propagate to the world and not just to Indians in India. Fight the battle at the root cause and maybe you can eradicate it. 

Now coming to condoms. Well it's not just condoms but all contraceptives that are tax free. And that's to control the population growth which is already at levels where food, energy and water security for the nation are threatened. That is logic and reasoning once again, but singing the logical notes I am forced to think that condom manufacturers are larger organisations. So why should they stand to benefit with no output tax but access to input tax credit. Do they though? Must research this point or need to logically understand it. Flow of thoughts - So if an enterprise has an input tax carry forward do they get cash back from the government? No. Also if sold B2B the dealer has no input credit and no output tax so no benefit. B2C the retail customer anyway has no input tax credit availability. So is this really a huge benefit for the organisations... If you still want to harp on condoms feministas, well they also protect the health of the woman and ensure her pleasure with the least discomfort. And while condoms are tax free the government also distributes them free to encourage the use and save this country from turning into an overcrowded ant hill. So the bleeding me thinks that tax free contraceptives and condoms benefits women too.

That brings me to the point that no one has spoken of yet - free distribution of sanitary napkins. Take away the 12% tax and rural India will still not be able to afford sanitary napkins. Distribute them free, install hygienic dispensers and educate women on benefits of pads - that is money well spent. So I say charge me 12% every month but use that 12% on a fellow woman who cannot afford even one tenth of the 12% that I stand to save. Create a corpus from the tax proceeds of sanitary napkins to be spent on improving menstrual health of girls and women in the most deprived parts of the nation. I would say give an additional tax break to the larger manufacturers of women hygiene products so that savings on tax are ploughed at the ground level to help us bleed healthy and breed secure. That's logic, rationale, emotion and solution all rolled into one. 

If the government pulls of something like this then the reforms in India will truly be revolutionary. If the fire brand women can lobby for something like this then the colour of red would have painted us in a different light globally. If the religious factions can implement this at grass root levels, their votebanks will be ringing in well wishers in abundance. Any takers? Any seconders? Anybody for a positive change? And well I don't count on the media to help with something like this. At the end of the day this is really worth implementing and not sensational enough you see...

Monday, 5 June 2017

Sunsets

For everything that interests us there is that one aspect that completely mesmerises and captivates. When I consider music, I will have to confess a strong bias towards stringed instruments and Indian classical. As I turn to books, I would be lying if I said anything captivates me more than political thrillers or geopolitical history. And the minute I venture to photography, there are enough and more shots of sunsets and trees that will evidence my prejudice very aptly. Of the two, picking any one  would be a dilemma. But if I was forced to, at this moment, and only at this moment ,maybe my pick would be sunsets. 

The first vivid memory that I have of a beautiful sunset is from a summer holiday in the hills of Kumaon region. We had driven from Nainital to Kausani via Almora. It had been a long drive, and by the time we reached our rest house in Kausani it was evening. Getting out of the car I felt the cool wind hit my young cheeks. To avoid it I turned in the opposite direction. As soon as I did, the view in front of me had me enthralled. The setting sun had spread sweet orange flames across the sky, and the snow clad mountain peaks were reflecting the warmth of these in shades of peach and pink. No shade of these three colours was missing from the canvas and that perfect painting of nature has been etched in my memory ever since. Had I attempted to capture the moment, I don't think I could have done that view any justice. 

After that Mumbai sunsets captivated me. Whether it was Priyadarshini park, Tata Gardens, Worli Sea Face or Hanging Gardens; I have spent many evenings just watching the sun melt away into the sea and spread a blanket of harmony on this city riddled with chaos. Through my teens and early twenties, post a good day it seemed as if the setting sun was creating a delicious orange syrup for me to dip my ice lolly into and enjoy. Every tough day that I ended with the sun, the ball of fire just slipped into its watery bed and sent a message to rest and rejuvenate for  a brighter next day. While I saw many sun rises as well, none of them spoke to me like the sunsets did. 

If I thought it was the Mumbai sunsets that were special, my view changed as soon as I started to travel. Whether it was the plains of Jaipur or Fontainebleau, the mountain tops of Cape Town or Santorini, the cruises of Budapest or Quebec, or my days in my balcony on the Thames; every sunset brought with it new smiles and evoked new emotions. Each sunset, even today, gives my dreams wider wings to soar higher. Every sunset puts a perspective to every struggle I have faced. All sunsets bring forth an enhanced version of nature's beauty all around us. And so did the red and orange sunset  of yesterday; and probably that's the reason at this moment I am partial to sunsets - the red, orange, pink, peach and yellow paintings of nature.



Friday, 21 April 2017

The Science of Branding and Marketing

It was another night evolving as a battle between pain and my willpower. To challenge me in this round, the pain attacked not just my arm and shoulder but the head and the neck as well. So using television, or reading as distraction was out of question. Yet I needed something to keep myself away from the awful painkillers. 

I had been meaning to reoragnise my trinkets and move my watches in another box. Well the perfect time had presented itself! With the box and my four watches I sat in front of the mirror. The first one, a Swatch, took me down memory lane. Father had got this when I was probably not even a teenager. From then todate, we have all worn it, loved it, and Sequoia and I still keep passing it to one another regularly. This one with a green leather strap and a light gold dial is simple, but gorgeous; and will always be special. 

The next one is technically not mine, but has tremendous pride associated with it. Post my first investment banking job I was to come home for the New Year. I wanted to buy mother a nice watch. I did not know much about brands then but knew that Swiss watches were the platinum kind. Of course a Swatch would not do for mother; she deserved the best, or at least the best I could have afforded back then. I spent weekends browsing through watch shops in London. Why I did not read about watches I don't know but I just did not. After a few shops I noticed that the one brand I liked, and could stretch myself to afford was Tissot. The elegance and simplicity of this brand always stood out. While I identified one for Sequoia and one for Bonsai, none seemed apt for mother. Just the week before I was to fly to India I went to Munich on work. Voila! At the airport duty-free I found the thin steel metal strap and dial Tissot that I could gift to mother. Priced in Euros, it was also more affordable for me earning in Pounds then. Today I wear it because on my injured arm's wrist this one is the most comfortable.

This third watch is my favourite and the cheapest one I own. With a tan leather strap and a dial of concentric circles, this ck creation is minimalistic grace on any wrist. It is the first watch I bought myself, on an impulse, two years after I started my investment banking career. The number of compliments I have received for this, since then, have reaffirmed that the correlation between price and aesthetics, or price and quality for that matter, is not necessarily linear. 

There were two watch shops in the mall close to home in London. And in both of these I had seen this steel coloured metal strap and rectangular dial Rado. Of course I had really liked it but found it too expensive, especially for myself. Everytime I would pass by I would pledge to start a Rado savings account. Then came the summer sale. Even then it seemed as an expense to be avoided. But then father came on a holiday and as my luck would have it, he spotted the same watch. In his view, such a sale was a great opportunity to buy this brand that would last a lifetime. He did not know about my liking for the watch and I did not tell him. I do remember telling him though that I would save and take my chances at next year's sale. He suggested to buy it for me. I was earning, and in that currency, so there was no way that I would take money from him. When he insisted and persisted I reluctantly pulled out my credit card and bought the watch. Somewhere deep down I was smiling, and that my choice was the same as father's had made the spend worth it. 

As I put the watches down in their respective places and stared at the mirror, I realised that I was feeling a tad better. I took my mobile and decided it was time I read about watches. When I googled Swatch, what I discovered had me stunned and stumped. The home page of the Swatch Group detailed that not only are Swatch, ck, Tissot and Rado  brands of this group, but the other watch brands I like - Breuget, Omega and Longinnes, are also owned by the Swatch Group. This entire group has been formed, over the years, through various acquisitions and joint ventures. As none of my purchases were influenced by advertisements, I concluded that corporate values must have a role to play in communicating brand value to target customers. Given that the group was formed by M&A, I could not but applaud the fabulous post merger integration done. If most of the brands of this group have appealed to me, I am highly likely potential target customer. And over the last thirteen years, at least, they have done a phenomenal job in reaching out to me via all their brands! It's a marvellous achievement from the eyes of a CFO and a professional.

Before I researched further on this subject I decided to check my hypothesis - corporate values can be used to silently create a pull effect on the target customer. So I decided to google two make up brands I am familiar with, Bobbi Brown and M.A.C. It was to be a night of surprises. Both these brands, and my most often used brand - Clinique, are all owned by the same group! Once again, neither verbal nor visual signalling have prompted me to use any of these three brands. I like the colours, the texture, handiness of application and the minimalistic packaging. Yes the sales service is an interaction that has delighted me each time, but that has not been a prime driver for my purchase. So quality and values conveyed do seem to be a factor here too. And you know what, Estee Lauder, the owner of these brands also has its current form post many mergers! Clinique originally is an Estee Lauder brand, but Bobbi Brown was acquired in 1995 and M.A.C in 1998. This seemed to not only reaffirm my hypothesis but also underline the importance of percolating corporate values for a sustained successful post merger customer retention. 

Watches done, makeup done, my mind moved to cars. Well this one needed no research but the similarity struck me only then. My favourite cars are Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche. All these and my first choice of segment D sedans in India, Skoda, are all owned by the Volkswagen group; which also has its current form post a few M&As. How interesting! The recent VW scandal, did it put me off the brand? It disappointed me. I wanted to see corrective action, but no it did not take me away from my belief in the safety and technical excellence of the vehicles. It may also be because it's probably true that in such manipulations VW is potentially not alone. While I should be more exacting of my brand of choice's standards, as Reene Mathis said to James Bond - " I guess when one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong. But as one gets older, it becomes more difficult. The villains and the heroes get all mixed up." This is a potential topic for another post but back to the point of discussion. Once again my choice of cars has not been influenced by media campaign but the sturdiness, features and designs of the vehicles.

I am totally and utterly fascinated. One because I seem to have a pattern in picking brands that I was conciously unaware of. Two because across product categories and countries, these holding companies seem to have used consistent delivery of corporate values across their brands to please and retain customers despite undergoing multiple M&As. And lastly because from the budget to the premium segment I seem to veer to the products of the same holding company! 

Well Brand building and marketing are a science of that I was aware, but not of the extent that I have now discovered. This definitely warrants more reading and analysis as I am as enchanted as Alice was in Wonderland. So all recommendations and any suggestions on readings will be welcome. I will share the conclusion of my research as and when I finish it. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Strength of Vulnerability

A few years ago there was a motor accident on a highway. I was a part of it. It was more theatrical than my recent interesting accident at a children's party but it involved zero, yes zero injuries. That it was a miracle is probably an understatement. Soon after that incident I was in zone calm. Cool as a cucumber I took care of all matters at hand including attending the customer meeting I had to attend; but post that, when trying to sleep at night, I relived those moments of impact and I was troubled. How bad it could have been, was a realisation that struck me only then. The extent of grace I had received was astounding. So the next day, after an important meeting that had people coming in from out of town and had been scheduled weeks in advance, I took the day off and came home. I needed to get the aftershocks out of my system and that would only happen if I spent time with myself understanding what really was causing the discomfort. I would not be the most effective, efficient or authentic leader if I did not know myself first. And so my biggest learning post that incident was that it is ok to take time to regroup and get clarity.

This time I was injured and I could feel the extent of the damage. I knew this would be a long road to recovery, so this time I regrouped while waiting to go in for my x- ray. I decided to use my limited energy only for the most critical decisions. Priority one was the upcoming board meeting. I had an email from the team with some updates and some points needing discussion. So that was my first call. Having sorted that, next was to inform my boss. I did that. Then came peers and that box was ticked too. By then my phone battery and my stamina, both were in the red and so I sunk into the wheelchair, closed my eyes and tried to regroup myself again. The call to the audit partner would need to wait.

As reality of an impending surgery started to sink in, thoughts started to smoke my mind. I was not reliving the moment, no I had learnt my lesson in the futility of that attempt; it was the ongoing and future hows, what and when that were burning a small flame. All the family around me were either tired or worried and some even both, though no one showed it. I did not think it wise to have them inhale the smoke being generated from the flame.

I was weary of being wheeled in to a room filled with sharp instruments, drugged into oblivion, cut open and fixed with multiple metal pieces that would become a part of me. I was asked by the anesthesist if I had any objection to being intubated. I wanted to retort asking if I had an option, but kept quiet. With the little energy I had, I read the consent form I was asked to sign and understood that in short I was giving up the right on my own life for those few hours. So be it. I signed, but the smoke got thicker. And that's when I decided to ask for help. I took my phone and messaged a friend who I consider as a more honest person than me, with faith stronger than mine. All I could manage to type was "Injured. Need prayers." Despite the short message, somehow trusting that one person and asking for help made me feel better. I was now ready to sit out the night.

Why did I trust him? There are reasons that will digress from this post and so are currently immaterial; but reaching out and asking for help gave me the strength to clear the smoke so that my visibility at least was no longer clouded. I was now in control while the silence had only bred anxiety.

In the operation theatre I was clear that I was not lying down until sedated. The pain, in that movement, was far too great in the upper left extremity of my body. I knew my limits and was not going to be pushed beyond them. Of course I was vulnerable and one of the doctors on the team tried to push me into a lying down position before I could be sedated. So I screamed. That was my only defence mechanism. To my relief that is when the surgeon rushed in. I was sedated in a sitting position and then I only have the repair work to gauge what happened. But I made my point that Sunday morning - yes I was vulnerable, I was at their mercy and I was in pain; but I would not let anyone disrespect my threshold of tolerance, exploit my dependence and misuse my trust.

The acceptance of vulnerability and reaching out for help gave me comfort and clarity at a time when I had to lead the most important person in my life -  me myself. More than outside support, even from those who love you more dearly than their own lives, it is your own advocacy that helps you row in troubled waters. Your own faith, conviction and confidence are most essential in successfully navigating a storm. And in this if you to turn to a trusted comrade and say help me beef up my reserves so that I may succeed, it only seems sensible and rational to me.

Some of the most successful leaders have left legacies because they acknowledged their vulnerabilities. An acknowledgement of feelings, doubts and fears allows a leader to connect more transparently with her team. It lends authenticity to interactions which builds on trust. But it takes strength of character and a shedding of ego to accept that as a leader one may not be perfect.

Lady Thatcher resigned because she saw how vulnerable she was and what that was doing to her party. Her voluntary resignation allowed for a more popular candidate to be nominated and the Conservatives ran the government for another seven years. Whether or not it was effective governing is a matter of another discussion, but the leader's realisation of a weakness helped the party and earned her respect if nothing else.

One of the most revered companies, Apple Inc. was founded by Steve Jobs. But it is also common knowledge that he was unceremoniously sacked from his own firm by his own board because he was unable to see how his decisions were taking the iconic enterprise down. The man post his dismissal conceded he was wrong and began to relook at his work. He acquired and grew Pixar; and when Apple needed him back, he joined the company again but only as an advisor and then interim CEO. This time his ego was not on the high pedestal it was in the first stint. As his cancer was diagnosed, he started to hand more power to his trusted team member Tim Cook. The tremendous success Apple enjoys has been seen only after Steve Jobs' death.

Closer to home, the man who wrote history, Mahatama Gandhi or Bapu as the nation calls him was known to have accepted his limitations and weaknesses. In fact he even stated that the biggest battle was fighting his own demons, fears and insecurities. He stuck to his core beliefs and values and did not fail to apologize when wrong. It was this honesty and conviction that led not just a nation but a generation to be inspired by him.

I am writing this today as I am forced to wonder if in the corporate world we have missed the importance of this disposition and considered it solely to be a weakness for far too long. For how long do we expect senior leaders and senior management to always have all the answers, to always be right and to always win? When will it be ok for corporate executives to be human and let their teams know that they are susceptible to the same fears as the team, and that they trust the team enough to help find a way out? Will it ever be ok to make a mistake, apologize and still retain the helm with head held high? Will the world driven by profits and stock markets ever fully appreciate the truth of the statement - "there is nothing so strong as gentleness and nothing so gentle as real strength"? Will vulnerability ever be truly appreciated as a strength on resumes?