It’s only fitting that we start with the president of the ruling Indian National Congress party and arguably the most influential woman in India today; in fact, according to Forbes Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women of 2008, Sonia is the 21st most powerful woman in the world.
An Italian by birth and widow of the late PM Rajiv Gandhi, a grieving Sonia cut herself off from public life after the assassination of her husband in 1991. She rebuffed repeated entreaties from Congress officials to enter the political arena until 1997, a year after the party lost the national elections and was in a state of utter chaos. In a bid to preserve the crumbling legacy of the Gandhi family, she finally became a primary member of the Indian National Congress and within three months of joining, was party president. Having steered her way into Indian public and political life, there was no looking back — Sonia led her party to victory in the national polls in 2004. And when controversy arose over the country having a prime minister of non-Indian origin, she stepped aside and recommended renowned economist and present PM Manmohan Singh, who is known to defer to her in all matters.
In 1972, the Indian Police Service recruited its first lady officer — Kiran Bedi.. Her career with the force has seen her go from strength to strength — during her glorious tenure spanning more than three decades, she was Inspector General Prisons of Tihar Jail, an award-winning prison policies reformer and finally retired as Director General of the Bureau of Police Research & Development, Ministry of Home Affairs. It is said that she once had PM Indira Gandhi’s car towed for illegal parking!
Kiran has also founded two NGOs for welfare, preventive policing and drug-abuse. And despite her dedication to her career, she still found time to be a dutiful wife and a doting mother. Life lesson from Kiran: Defy convention, because nothing is impossible — and be the best you can be.
Television journalist and presenter with news channel NDTV, Barkha has been making waves in the media world ever since she became a part of it. She first shot to fame in 1999, with her fearless reporting on the Kargil conflict at the Indo-Pakistan border. She is also the youngest journalist ever to receive the prestigious Padma Shri Award for her career contributions. While her reporting on the Mumbai 26/11 terror strikes was widely criticised, she remains one of the most prominent media personalities in India today. Life lesson from Barkha:
Take risks for what you believe in.
Meet the Indian woman who beat Sonia Gandhi and a host of other influential ladies from around the world to bag third position onForbes’ Top 100 Most Powerful Women of 2008 list — CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi. This business-minded lady has been in the boss’ chair since 2006 and has been in the news lately for her aggressive measures to help PepsiCo brave the economic downturn. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Indian Government in 2007 and also serves on the board of organisations like Motorola, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the International Rescue Committee, among others. And oh yes, she’s married and has two daughters as well. Life lesson from Indra: You’ll reach the top if you have what it takes — and make sure to keep climbing.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Aish is an achiever if ever there was one. From winning the Miss World pageant in 1994 to forging a successful acting career in Bollywood to becoming the face of the Indian film industry in Hollywood, this gal has been there and done it all. Ash was the first Indian actress to serve on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, the second film personality (after her father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan) to have a likeness of her displayed in London’s Madame Tussaud’s Museum and has even had a special variety of tulips named after her in the Netherlands. As for detractors and controversy, she’s had her share of those too, but always prefers to keep her personal life private and remain gracious in the face of criticism. Life lesson from Aishwarya: Take criticism in your stride and meet harsh words with silence — let your accomplishments speak for you.
Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore politician Mayawati. The CM of Uttar Pradesh started life off in humble surroundings, the daughter of a Dalit telecommunications clerk in Delhi. Securing bachelor’s degrees in Law and Education, she became a teacher before joining the Bahunjan Samaj Party in 1984 and switching to fulltime politics. The BSP, which sought to represent the Dalits, has become a political force to be reckoned with in the last few years and many are of the opinion that she will be the nation’s next prime minister. Today, Mayawati is the highest income tax-paying politician in India, shelling out Rs 26 crore per year and is closing in on Sonia Gandhi on Forbes’ list of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women — she weighed in at number 59 as of 2008. Life lesson from Mayawati: Turn your perceived weaknesses into strengths; the lower down you start, the higher you’ll climb.
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw
Kiran was the country’s richest woman as of 2004, with an estimated net worth of Rs 2,100 crore. This gutsy lady was the daughter of a master brewer with United Breweries and although she initially considered following in her father’s footsteps, fate had other things in store for her. Instead of opting for the beer industry, Kiran founded her biopharmaceutical company Biocon in her garage back in 1978, with a capital of Rs 10,000 and today, it is India’s biggest biopharmaceutical organisation. Cheers to that! Life lesson from Kiran: It’s better to forge your own path rather than tread one laid down by others.
The daughter of Bollywood actor Jeetendra, you could say that Ekta was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but her individual success speaks volumes about her own ability to turn everything she touches to gold. Instead of making her foray into Bollywood like most star kids, she started out very young, turning television producer and tapping into TV audiences with a host of popular serials that saw phenomenal success. The creative head of her own production house, Balaji Telefilms, Ekta is known to run a tight ship but it has certainly paid off — today, Balaji is the largest production house in all of South Asia and the Middle East and has also produced five Bollywood movies. And Ekta herself is the undisputed czarina of Indian soaps. Life lesson from Ekta: You’ll see success very early in life if you have what it takes to make it.
Lalita started off her career as a trainee in ICICI Ltd (before it merged with ICICI Bank) back in ’71. Serving with the company for the next 35 years, she rose through the ranks to become joint managing director of ICICI Bank, along with Kalpana Morparia in 2001. Lalita was hugely responsible for getting the bank listed on the New York Stock Exchange — the first Indian organisation ever to do so — and her inspiring career saw Fortune Magazine list her as the 31st most powerful woman in business outside of the US in the year 2001. Today, she is chairperson of the ICICI Venture board and also serves on the board of Nokia Corporation. Life lesson from Lalita: The seeds of long and hard labour always bear fruit.
Shahnaz hailed from a royal Muslim family and although she was allowed to receive a modern education, she was married off when she was only 15 and had a child a year later. When she travelled with her husband to Teheran, she took up a course in cosmetology and the next decade saw her study at leading beauty institutes across the world. Upon her return to India, Shahnaz set up her first beauty salon and having studied the ill effects of chemicals on the body, she offered only natural, Ayurvedic products and treatments. Today, she is the CEO of Shahnaz Herbals Inc, with over 400 franchise clinics across 138 countries! Her company’s value was more than $100 million as of 2002 and she is arguably one of the world’s biggest women entrepreneurs. Shahnaz received the Padma Shri in 2006 for her astounding achievements. Life lesson from Shahnaz: Don’t let circumstances get the better of you — work towards your dream.
The highest ranked Indian female tennis player ever (as high as number 27 in singles and 18 in doubles), the first Indian woman to be seeded in a Grand Slam tournament, the first Indian woman to make it to the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament — and she’s only 22! Sania changed the face of Indian tennis and has created an identity for herself at par with some of the most famous sports personalities in the world. She turned professional at 18 and is probably India’s best-known female sports personality. Way to go! Life lesson from Sania: Strive to break not only others’ records, but your own too.
All hail the nation’s first ever woman president! President Patil was also the first ever lady governor of Rajasthan and alongside her political career, she is well-known for her philanthropic ventures. She founded the Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal, which runs several schools and colleges in Jalgaon and Mumbai; the Shram Sadhana Trust that runs women’s hostels in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune; an engineering college in Jalgaon; a cooperative sugar factory, Sant Muktabai Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana; and the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari cooperative bank. While her detractors claim that she does not match up to predecessor Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and she has had her share of controversies, it cannot be denied President Patil is one of the nation’s most influential women. Life lesson from President Patil: Make time for a worthy cause no matter what other responsibilities you shoulder..
By her own admission, Kalpana’s childhood ambition was to grow up, marry and become a housewife. But three months of domestic chores left her so bored she resumed her education and kept working even after marriage! She wound up with ICICI Bank for the next 33 years, serving as joint managing director along with Lalita Gupte from 2006 to 2008. Today, she is one of the country’s senior most domestic bankers and CEO of bank JP Morgan’s India operations. Life lesson from Kalpana: If what you think suits you actually doesn’t, be sensible enough to make the switch.
The Mangeshkar sisters
They’ve ruled the Bollywood musical roost for decades now and both Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle have won the hearts of millions with their sweet voices. The eldest of five siblings, Lata started focusing on her singing career at age 13, when her father died. Talent and hard work helped her create an unparalleled reputation in Bollywood for playback singing and she held a position in the Guinness Book of World Records from 1974 to 1991 for making the most recordings — reportedly 25,000 — in the world. She is the second vocalist to receive the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.
Asha’s career started off after an unhappy marriage. Left to fend for her three children, she started off with small playback parts in the movies and moved her way up to a standing at par with sister Lata. Today, she is far more active in the music industry than her elder sister, having collaborated with a host of foreign artists and releasing non-movie albums. She became the first ever Indian singer to be nominated for the Grammy Award in 1997 and has even found the time to become a restaurateur — she owns eateries named after her in Dubai and Kuwait.
Life lesson from the Mangeshkar sisters: If you pursue your talent, the sky’s the limit.
A tireless social worker, Medha was born to parents who were also passionate about social causes — her father actively participated in the Indian Independence Movement and her mother worked with an organisation that aided women. Medha is particularly known for her fight against the construction of the Narmada Dam and even went on a hunger strike in protest back in 2006. Her tireless work for the downtrodden has garnered her several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (1991) and the MA Thomas National Human Rights Award from the Vigil India Movement (1999). Life lesson from Medha:
Stay true to your cause, no matter what.
She started of her career as a dance choreographer in Bollywood and today, Farah Khan is a filmmaker in her own right, with two successful movies to her name. She is part of an exclusive inner circle in the industry with friends like Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar. Farah is also married to director Shirish Kunder and is a doting mother to her triplets born last year. This lady’s got it all — a great career and family life! Life lesson from Farah:
Don’t be afraid to think big.
T he managing director of Hewlett-Packard, Neelam is an inspiration to young women everywhere. She has worked in the IT field for 22 years now; she started off as a trainee with HCL and in 2005, she became Microsoft’s fifth woman country manager worldwide when she took over Indian operations. Last year Neelam moved to HP as the new MD and in an industry where women make up only 18 percent of the workforce, she has managed to make it to the top of the ladder. Life lesson from Neelam: <
Don’t let limitations and statistics hold you back from achieving success.
Anjolie Ela Menon
O ne of India’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Anjolie embarked upon her career early in life. At the age of 18 she held her first solo showing and such was her talent that the French Government presented her with a scholarship to the exclusive art school Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Awarded the Padma Shri in 2000, her works are coveted by collectors all over the globe and sell at steep prices. Life lesson from Anjolie:
Forge your way ahead and focus on what it is you want to do.
Ritu is undeniably one of the most celebrated and respected Indian fashion designers in the world today. The likes of the late Princess Diana and Jemima Khan have been fans of her work and in her professional capacity, she has also co-authored a book, Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, published by Christie’s in 1999. In a sea of fashionable talent, her name and designs stand out a cut above the rest. Life lesson from Ritu:
Your work always needs that something extra to put you above the rest.
Born into the prominent Gandhi family, Priyanka has followed in the footsteps of generations before her and became a politician with the Indian National Congress. She has a reputation for being gracious, calm and organised and besides fulfilling her career obligations, she is also a wife and mother. And we love that she doesn’t hang on to appearing conventional — unlike mum Sonia, who’s always in a sari, Priyanka wore pants to Parliament recently. Now that’s style!