Leaving A Lasting Impact
Forbes India|March 13, 2020
Twenty women who have been audacious with their ambitions and touched lives while pursuing their goals
Varsha Meghani

As Forbes India was putting together this issue, news of Clayton Christensen’s death hit the headlines. The well-regarded Harvard Business School professor, who had been battling cancer, succumbed at the age of 67. A book written by him, a personal favourite, is How Will You Measure Your Life? (2012).

In it, Christensen recasts his management theories as formulae for how best to live your life. He writes, “I know I’ve had substantial impact,” referring to his management ideas that helped leaders, including Intel’s Andy Grove and Netflix’s Reed Hastings, rethink their business strategy (and generate enormous revenue). “But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is on me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.”

What is my life’s strategy? What is my purpose? How can I have a lasting impact? Christensen forces you to think about these questions as you thumb through the book. Interestingly, the ladies you’ll read about in the following pages—a longlist of 45 formidable names, all self-made, was drawn up by our reporters; an equally formidable jury, comprising Ireena Vittal, Meena Ganesh, Naina Lal Kidwai, Padmaja Ruparel and Vinita Bali, whittled it down to 20—seem to have figured out the answers. Consider Vedika Bhandarkar who, after a successful first career in finance, delved full-time into helping poor households gain access to safe water and sanitation. Or Suchita Salwan of Little Black Book who is helping small, offline local businesses get discovered, come online, and generate sales. Geetha Manjunath, who was part of the team that built India’s first supercomputer back in the ’90s, is using her deep domain expertise to take low-cost, non-invasive breast cancer screening technology to the masses, while Usha Vishwakarma, instead of wallowing in self-pity after escaping a sexual assault attempt, has chosen to train women in self-defense so that they can ward off predators. Then there’s sprinter Dutee Chand who has fought long odds—her humble background, hyperandrogenism and society’s backlash for coming out as gay—to emerge among the best athletes in the country.

Audacious in their ambition, yet not so much worried about the level of individual prominence they’ve achieved as the impact they’ve had, this qualitative selection of women from business and entertainment to social work and sport, is inspiring. As Christensen put it, “Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.”

Route Recalculation

By Sayan Chakraborty

Ankiti Bose charted Zilingo’s road to progress by changing track from being a fashion marketplace to a service provider to businesses

Ankiti Bose and Dhruv Kapoor brought their maiden venture Zilingo within sniffing distance of becoming a unicorn within four years of launching their company in 2015 largely by taking a few unusual and tough calls. Its gradual transition into an entity focussed on business-to-business (B2B) sales, as against the Southeast Asiafocussed fashion marketplace that Zilingo started out as, is a case in point. “Scaling down our businessto-consumer [B2C] business is definitely one of the toughest decisions we have made recently,” says Bose, co-founder and CEO.

Bose and Kapoor got chatting about a potential business at a house party in Bengaluru around 2015, when Bose worked as an investment analyst at Sequoia Capital and Kapoor was a software engineer at Kiwi Inc. They narrowed down on launching a consumer-focussed fashion marketplace. The decision was somewhat inspired by Bose’s visit to the Chatuchak market in Bangkok, a popular shopping hub that hosts thousands of small merchants who lacked the know-how of running a business online.

In effect, Zilingo started out as a competitor to the likes of Alibaba-backed Lazada, Sea Group’s Shopee, SoftBank-backed Tokopedia, and Amazon, among others. The battle for dominance would be hard and capital-intensive.

Zilingo has since changed course. The business, in its current form, is increasingly focusing on offering a holistic service to businesses and brands, big and small, including bulk procurement, logistics and financing. This apart, there are a host of services for businesses to avail on the Zilingo platform, including tools to help them with order and inventory management, sales tracking and trend prediction.

Bose maintains Zilingo has always been more than a purely B2C platform. “Fashion is a highly fragmented industry and we witnessed first-hand the pain points of enterprises not being able to improve their margins or grow any further due to the lack of access to technology and capital. We decided to step in and help empower these businesses. We put merchants at the centre of our strategy and this helped us add value through our B2B solutions to the entrepreneurs we serve. Today we have around 75,000 businesses using our platform,” says Bose.

Bose and Kapoor essentially shunned the lure of taking their fashion startup through a rollercoaster ride of rapid scale-up, ballooning sales by incentivising consumers, and consequently, skyrocketing valuation. Instead of restricting itself to a platform that connects merchants with consumers, Zilingo chose to increasingly focus on empowering merchants to sell online, on any platform, including its rivals. Zilingo still operates the B2C platform, but more as an additional channel for the merchants to trade their goods than a direct competitor to other marketplaces.

Registering on the Zilingo marketplace is free. Businesses pay Zilingo a commission on sales and additional fees for other services offered, as per usage.

Instead of becoming a competitor to deep-pocketed businesses, Zilingo has become an enabler. “Zilingo’s B2B business connects brands with suppliers, such as fabric mills and factories, globally across the fashion supply chain. We help unlock efficiencies of 30-70 percent for merchants and consumers and optimise the supply chain via a range of services like financing and credit for manufacturers, software for quality control, and trend forecasting,” says Bose.

“Zilingo’s technology platform vertically integrates different stages of the fashion supply chain, analysing thousands of data points to aggregate demand, optimise production performance, timelines and enable diversified sourcing with 6,000 suppliers in 17 countries.”

Bose and Kapoor’s conviction in the business model isn’t misplaced. Despite the general air of caution, a clutch of marquee investors have bought into their vision. Sequoia Capital, Bose’s former employer, Temasek, EDBI, Burda Principal Investments and Sofina have together invested about $308 million in the firm across multiple rounds, valuing Zilingo at $970 million last year.

Kapoor credits Bose with sensing the opportunity in a broken supply chain in fashion and steering the company towards fixing it. “When we kickstarted the Zilingo journey, Ankiti and I were navigating through new territories, building complex technologies and identifying the right talent to work with, among other challenges. At that time, her critical decision of affirming the need to add more value to merchants on the platform through supply chain solutions, financing and more, essentially laid the foundation to the path we took later on,” says Kapoor, co-founder and chief technology officer.

Agrees Shailendra Singh, managing director at Sequoia Capital (India) Singapore: “Ankiti is bold, driven and courageous. She learns rapidly and can quickly connect dots and back her instinct to make great decisions as an entrepreneur. She and her team have built Zilingo into a pioneering fashion supply chain company with over $200 million of revenues in a little over four years of starting up.”

Director’s Cut

By Kunal Purandare

Ad filmmaker-turned director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has delivered hits with her incisive storytelling and hopes to represent India at the Oscars

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari sees some of her photos on the computer screen next to her and suggests that the gel paper placed on the lights be changed from blue to red. She feels the blue tint is lost in her all-black attire. Red, she insists, would provide the desired effect. Not surprisingly, her assessment proves to be correct. It’s evident the 40-year-old has an innate understanding of lights, camera, angles and colours. After all, she spent over a decade in the advertising industry, directing over 300 commercials, before earning her stripes as a filmmaker. Her three feature films—Nil Battey Sannata (2016), Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) and Panga (2020)—have all earned critical acclaim.

Relieved that her stint in front of the camera is over, Iyer Tiwari looks forward to the prospect of eating at a local joint in Mumbai’s corporate hub of Lower Parel after the shoot with Forbes India on a cold February morning. “It’s exciting,” she says about directing films, as she alternates between biting into misal pav and sipping hot tea at the noisy eatery teeming with people. It was an ambition she had secretly harboured since she passed out as a gold medallist from Mumbai’s Sophia College where she did a four-year course in applied arts.

A campus placement got her an internship with Leo Burnett (formerly Chaitra Advertising) as a visualiser. She returned to the company for over a decade-long second stint later; when she left in 2013 as executive creative director, she had worked on commercials for shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati, Indian Idol and Bigg Boss, as well as a slew of brands, from Whisper and Tide to Fiat and Tata Indicom, among others.

The transition from a cushy corporate job to Bollywood, where she was a rank outsider, took many by surprise. “But I wanted to tell stories. I had visualised stories that can become bigger in terms of many people seeing it and making a mark in society. I knew stories will always travel far,” says Iyer Tiwari, winner of the Cannes Lions gold in advertising. It helped that her bosses told her she could return if her directorial journey did not take off. But she hasn’t had to look back since.

Iyer Tiwari debuted as a director with Nil Battey Sannata which spoke about the need for educating girls. It won such rave reviews that she remade the film in Malayalam the following year. “Of course I was nervous on the first day of shoot,” recalls the filmmaker, who was happy to see her name on the big screen later. “But the bigger high is knowing that the audience is watching my film. People may not know me, but they know me through my work. That is a great feeling.”

Directing commercials and helming a film are as different as batting in a T20 cricket game and a Test match. Not only is the canvas bigger in the latter but it also entails more than just doling out instructions from behind the monitor. “You have to think differently. A lot of technical knowledge is required,” says Iyer Tiwari. Besides, people management—something that she claims she’s good at—is key. “Co-working and coexistence have always been a part of me,” she says.

Actor Jassie Gill, who starred in Panga, agrees. “Ashwiny’s biggest strength is that she grows creatively with the actor, trusts our talent and her craft,” says Gill.

The director’s second Hindi film, a rom-com titled Bareilly Ki Barfi, starring Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao and Kriti Sanon, was also appreciated. And her latest, Panga, featuring Kangana Ranaut with Gill, was lauded as a poignant tribute to mothers and an acknowledgement of their aspirations and sacrifices. All her movies have had strong women characters, but Iyer Tiwari says every film comes with its own challenge. “It is important to get out of your comfort zone with each film, otherwise you’ll be doing the same thing,” she says.

The filmmaker likes to have the script locked before shooting commences. But that does not mean she is averse to creative inputs. “Direction is a job where you prep, but what happens on set is also magical,” says Iyer Tiwari. “It’s wonderful when you see a trail of work that you have done for two years coming alive on screen. The vision is yours, but a film is an accumulation of a jigsaw puzzle. And the only person on set who knows the whole jigsaw is the director. When it comes out better than you had imagined, you feel ‘wow’.”

Gill believes the filmmaker’s work ethic and clear vision make working with her a smooth affair. “On sets, she is dedicated and immersed in her craft. She puts in a lot of hard work behind every scene, and makes actors feel comfortable,” he says.

Iyer Tiwari is now working on a film on Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy and his author philanthropist-wife Sudha. That apart, she is producing The Siachen Warrriors, and producing and directing a film for Ekta Kapoor. “The idea [behind production] is to build an ecosystem like Infosys where you grow and other youngsters also grow along with you,” she says.

Despite having her hands full, she reads a lot and runs an Instagram page #NoMakeUpBooksByAIT. Gardening also gives her immense joy. An aspiring painter since childhood, Iyer Tiwari wants to do an abstract painting course in London. And, some day, go to Switzerland to study the [Carl] Jung theory on life and death. “I like to study and learn. If not a filmmaker, I would have been a psychologist or an anthropologist,” says Iyer Tiwari, who is married to Nitesh Tiwari, her colleague at Leo Burnett and director of hits such as Dangal (2016) and Chhichhore (2019).

Movies, however, will remain close to her heart. And that’s where she hopes the learning never stops. “Whenever I direct, I feel it’s my first film. I have to work that much harder to meet my own expectations. I want to do a lot more, in terms of my storytelling… making films which, maybe one day, represent our country at the Oscars. I am still not there. I need to do far more,” she says.

On her Mark

By KathaKali Chanda

Sprinter Dutee Chand fought social and global forces to become one of the best athletes in India

In 2018, Dutee Chand and her coach N Ramesh were scheduled to travel from Hyderabad to Bhubaneswar to attend a felicitation ceremony for the sprinter, a double silver-medallist at the Asian Games and India’s national record-holder in 100 m. While thrashing out travel plans, Chand requested Ramesh to proceed on a flight, while she would follow separately.

Upon landing in Bhubaneswar, Ramesh met Chand, but what caught his eye was not his ward but a spanking, new BMW that she had come driving in. “She told me she had gone to a showroom in Hyderabad, bought a BMW and driven straight to Bhubaneswar in it,” says Ramesh, a Dronacharya awardee. “A lot of coaches would advise caution against such on-the-spur decisions, but I didn’t. I want to preserve this boldness in her. Most 100 m races have one starting opportunity. Only when you are unafraid at the start, do you get it right,” he adds of his protege whose silver medals in the 100 m and 200 m events of the 2018 Asiad were the first by an Indian since PT Usha and Saraswati Saha in 1986 and 1998, respectively.

But what elevates her achievement from being a mere athletic feat is that, in 2014, Chand was banned from competition on grounds of hyperandrogenism—a condition in which her body produces testosterone at the level of men. Chand, then 19 and a resident of Jajpur district of Odisha, fought back and got the IAAF (now World Athletics), the global body for athletes, to overturn her ban. Last year, she made headlines by not just being the first Indian athlete to win a 100 m gold at the World University Games, but also the first to come out as gay, weathering backlash from her family and transcending her humble socio-economic milieu.

“The confidence to take on bigger powers comes from the fact that I don’t fight just like that. I fight for a cause. In 2014, I was being punished for no fault of mine and later I was pulled up for matters that were personal and no one else’s business. I had to speak up,” she says. That Chand had sass and pluck in abundance was evident since her childhood as she fought off derision since the tender age of six. Back in the day, goaded by her sister Saraswati, almost a decade older than her, Chand took to sprinting. While Saraswati, a national-level athlete who landed a job in the police department through the sports quota, taught her the basics, she went about running bare feet on the banks of the river and around her village, Chaka Gopalpur, turning a deaf ear to snide remarks from locals on what a young girl ought to do. “Despite them, I would win the races in school every year,” says Chand.

In 2006, when Chand was 12, she was selected for an Odisha government programme that secured her admission in a sports hostel in Bhubaneswar. That ended her physical travails—of the acute knee pain she developed after running on cold sand in her village during winter, or a sparse diet of pakhala bhata and aloo sabzi that her weaver parents could rustle up for their family of nine. In Bhubaneswar, with only running to focus on, Chand became India’s 100 m champion in the under-18 category.

But bigger battles, not limited to the running track, awaited her. In 2014, a year after she became the first Indian to reach the 100 m finals at the IAAF World Youth Championships, the first Indian athlete to do so at an international event, Chand was dropped from India’s Commonwealth and Asian Games teams for hyperandrogenism and banned till she took corrective measures. “Back then, I hadn’t even heard of those tests. All I knew were dope tests and I had come clean in those. I spent the first night trying to figure it out in my head. Next morning, the media splashed the news all over and people started taunting me, saying I was actually a boy and not a girl. I spent days crying,” says Chand.

As all financial and emotional support slipped away, Chand, then 19, dipped into the reserves of her own firepower and, with the help of a group of athletes’ rights activist and lawyers, took on the IAAF, appealing against its decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in Switzerland. During this period, she also shifted to Hyderabad, where coach Ramesh, among a handful that she had in her corner, was based. In Hyderabad, she put up at a facility offered for free by badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, and Chand and Ramesh immersed themselves in training despite an uncertain future. In 2015, the CAS overturned the IAAF policy and allowed Chand to compete. Within a year, Chand qualified for 100 m in the Rio Olympics in 2016. While Chand had a poor run at Rio, being knocked out in the first round, she continued to train full steam on her return. And she hasn’t looked back since. 2018 was a stupendous year as she became a double silver medallist at the Asiad. In 2019, she followed up her gold at the university games with a new 100 m national record that, at 11.22 seconds, shaved off.04 seconds of her own previous record and brought her within touching distance of the 11.15-second Olympic qualification mark.

“Chand’s a fighter. She never gives up. What makes her such a good runner is her frequency, measured by the number of strides she takes per second, and her excellent reaction to the starting gun,” says Ramesh. “In India, the emphasis earlier would be on the 200 m and the 400 m. In fact, I also asked Chand to focus on those disciplines. She replied, ‘Sir main 100 m itna achha se daurungi ki woh dekh ke dusre log bhi 100 m mein aayenge [I’ll run 100 m as well as I can and that’ll attract others to it]’.”

Now that the cycle has turned and the distractions have been fought off, Chand has narrowed her focus on the Olympics, barring the occasional Sunday indulgence of sleeping till late and cooking her favourite fish and mutton dishes. Since 2012, she has been approached for biographies and biopics, “but all that’s for after the Olympics”. She’s not a big fan of Bollywood movies, so she can’t pick an actor who she would like to play her. “Whoever it is has to work very hard to shadow me and emulate my practice and running schedules,” she says.

For Chand, both on the track and off it, there are no shortcuts to success.

For The Greater Good

By Manu Balachandran

Geeta Goel has steered philanthropic initiatives towards improving education, jobs and livelihood in the country

Geeta Goel dreams of a day when she will finally be out of business. But, for now, she knows it won’t happen anytime soon.

That’s because as the country director of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Goel drives the organisation’s investments across India to improve people’s lives in the form of grants and donations, and as impact investment across companies that can provide accessible services to the poor and needy.

“The journey has been extremely rewarding and interesting,” says Goel. “We have been able to push the boundaries when it comes to making a change.” So far, since it began operations in 2006, the foundation has committed over $250 million across the country.

Today, the organisation that Goel leads primarily works in the areas of education, financial services, and livelihood. Among others, the foundation has made investments in edtech companies such as ConveGenius, Onlinetyari, Avanti Learning Centres, in addition to funds such as Education Catalyst Fund, India Education Investment Fund and Unitus Seed Fund. While the education portfolio looks at helping underserved students improve academic performances and offer access to quality education, the livelihood portfolio focuses on providing high-quality vocational skills, especially to the marginalised.

“We want to accelerate the human opportunity,” says Goel, who has also invested in skilling companies such as LabourNet, DRF and Foundation. “We may not go after the biggest opportunity, but we want to create equity in opportunities.”

But long before her focus on education and livelihood, Goel and the foundation had also been a catalyst for improving the microfinance sector in India. Among others, the foundation had invested in companies such as Svasti Microfinance, Arohan, Sonata Microfinance, Janalakshmi Small Finance Bank, Ujjivan Small Finance Bank, Swadhaar, and Samhita Microfinance, at a time when the Indian microfinance sector was virtually non-existent.

“When we started, microfinance was largely rural,” Goel says. “Urban microfinance was less than 5 percent and after we did our background research, especially based on models in Latin America, we knew the potential was huge,” Goel says. Between 2007 and 2009, the foundation made eight investments in the microfinance space, and by the time it began exiting the ventures, urban finance made up for 65 percent of the total microfinance market in India.

Today, however, Goel is done betting on the microfinance segment, and instead drives her energy into improving education, jobs and livelihood in the country. “We want to bring about a change in India, especially among the low-income categories,” says Goel.

Much of her desire of improving lives, Goel reckons, is due to her middle-class upbringing and exposure earlier in life. Her father was in the railways and that meant staying in many small towns across India. “From early on, I had known that you get what you work towards,” Goel says. After graduating from the illustrious Lady Shriram College in commerce, Goel went to IIM-Ahmedabad to complete her MBA. “I was among the youngest in the batch,” says Goel.

At IIM, Goel developed a taste for corporate finance and was soon offered a job at Coopers & Lybrand, a consulting firm, in Mumbai. After a year, she moved to Delhi to become the first employee of the firm in the city and, over the next few years, worked on numerous cross-border transactions and joint venture deals. Coopers & Lybrand merged with Price Waterhouse in 1998 to form PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

By 2006, Goel knew she wanted to do something more impactful. “After my second son was born, I continued working. But I would often think about what I am doing and whether this was the line of work that I wanted to do,” Goel says. “I had a lot of internal debates.”

That’s when a colleague mentioned about setting up a microfinance fund, and Goel was asked about her interest in joining them. Goel then went on to explore more about the impact such funds had and soon realised her skills could be used there. “I realised it was personally satisfying and intellectually stimulating,” Goel says. Although she never joined the fund—something she calls destiny—a few months later she joined the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation as its sixth employee in New Delhi.

“The focus was on microfinance and education,” Goel says. While the foundation made its first investment in Ujjivan Small Finance Bank a few months before she joined, Goel was instrumental in driving investments into eight microfinance companies thereafter, and spent the next few years as the portfolio director and then as vice president, before being made country director in 2018. Over the next few years, apart from improving learning outcomes and bringing best practices to the education sector, Goel is also looking to help the bottom percentile of the population by funding ecosystem solutions to develop early-stage innovations in skilling people.

So what does she look for while making such investments? “At the core of it, the product has to have an impact on improving the target segment,” says Goel. “Apart from that, the promoters’ reasons for the investments, the potential of the idea, the potential to attract other investors and the unit sustainability of the product are also factors.”

Entrepreneurs who have worked with her say her ability to collaborate and show empathy are some of her biggest strengths. “She operates from a sense of purpose and cares deeply about the impact,” says Akshay Saxena, co-founder of Avanti Learning Centres, a Mumbai-based test prep company. “She understands the problems entrepreneurs face, both personally and professionally, and is always there to help and collaborate without overstepping the boundaries. That focus on the mission and its purpose is inspiring.”

Today, Goel is quite clear about where she wants to take the foundation. “My heart and mind are in India,” she says. “For me, the future is all about bringing a change in the country, especially for the low income and the marginalised.”

Screen Success

By Monica Bathija

Geetha Manjunath’s experience helped her build a breast cancer screening technology that is non-invasive and cheap

The first urban breast cancer screening camp by artificial intelligence (AI)-based health tech startup Niramai was held at founder Geetha Manjunath’s first workplace, the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing. “It was my way of giving back,” says Manjunath, who was part of the team there that developed the first supercomputer from India in the 1990s.

They had announced the camp but there were, disappointingly, only four registrations. The team decided to go ahead anyway, and set things up in a conference room, ready to start at noon for the 15-minute per person procedure. By the time they had screened two people, registrations started pouring in and the camp went on till 7.30 pm.

Niramai’s non-invasive “no-see, no-touch” solution Thermalytix, a computer-aided diagnostic engine that combines thermal imaging with AI to detect early-stage breast cancer, had quickly found takers. “When I came down to leave at 8, the general manager was waiting at the reception. He said, ‘I know this is a free camp but we want to pay you a nominal amount, you are doing a great service’,” she says, recalling that he handed her a cheque for ₹5,000.

Though they didn’t set out to be “privacy aware”, the team realised it was more comfortable for people. The test involves sitting in a booth for 10 minutes. “Nobody sees you or touches you; not even the technician is inside the booth. You come out and the report is ready,” says Manjunath. “Since the device was remotely controlled, we started putting a curtain between the technician and the woman being screened, and saw how huge a difference privacy awareness makes to the adoption.”

Learning something new and trying to solve problems have been motifs in Manjunath’s journey. She attributes her engineering bent of mind to her father who was always repairing and fixing things himself, and the reason she picked studying engineering over medicine when she cleared her Class 12 in 1984 with flying colours. Manjunath studied computer science and went on to get a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, topping in both. After working in the field for 17 years, she decided to do a PhD, choosing a completely new subject rather than what she already knew. “I am like that. I went back and picked up a completely new topic, which is AI and data mining. I never knew it would be such a big thing now.”

It meant going back to maths and other classes, sitting with younger students, and getting a C grade in her first test. “I am not used to getting C grades at all, I have always topped grades, but it was because I was writing a test after 17 years,” she laughs, adding that she soon got her “rigour” back. She then joined an MNC as a senior manager where the team worked on emerging markets solutions, transportation and traffic management systems as well as with hospitals and health care, trying to do “meaningful innovation with business and social impact”.

A tragedy in the family made her turn her focus to breast cancer screening and to entrepreneurship in the form of setting up Niramai in 2017. “The last three years have been amazing for me, interacting with hospitals and doctors, with investors, raising funds. It’s been a learning experience,” she says.

Niramai has raised $7 million so far—seed funding of $1 million in April 2017 and Series A funding of $6 million in February 2019. Its products, which do not involve the use of radiation, are being used at 50 locations in 13 cities with the basic test costing around ₹200 (used in rural camps, it does not generate a full report) and ₹1,500 in hospitals as against ₹3,500-4000 for a mammogram. Niramai is looking at international regulatory approvals and recently also won a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to develop a solution to control river blindness. “It shows the technology we have developed can be used beyond breast cancer screening,” says Manjunath.

There are two pieces to Manjunath being an entrepreneur, says Ritu Verma, co-founder and managing partner, Ankur Capital Fund, which has invested in Niramai. “One is that she comes with a super deep domain experience. Having spent her life in R&Ds of large MNCs, she’s been exposed to the domain experience globally and brings that to building the technology,” says Verma. The second part is her passion and enthusiasm for building this and bringing it to the market. “She brings the same amount of passion if we are sitting in a public hospital versus going to a Stanford or a Harvard and talking to researchers there.”

The road ahead, says Manjunath, is to make a real impact in reducing deaths due to breast cancer. “And putting India and health care innovation on the world map.”

Without Fear Or Favour

By Pankti Mehta kadakia

Karuna Nundy has shaped much of the law around gender justice and freedom of speech, taking on corporations and governments

“I have no doubt that my phone has been tapped,” lawyer Karuna Nundy says to me almost lightheartedly, over, well, a (freewheeling) phone call from her Delhi office, recalling a particularly unnerving piece of news.

Nundy, a Supreme Court advocate, has been tirelessly fighting for victims and families of those affected in the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy, among the world’s worst industrial disasters—it killed thousands and has left another several thousand with permanent disability and injuries. This piece of news she refers to came out back in February 2012, and alleged that a US-based security think tank called Stratfor was spying on people working on the case, according to whistleblowers at Wikileaks.

“Of course, at that time, I was furious. I thought they were spying on my office. But turns out they weren’t particularly efficient,” she laughs wryly. “It’s very easy to tap people’s phones—all it needs is a very thin layer of government permissions.”

Nundy, who has represented victims in some of the country’s most-watched cases, taking on large corporations and governments, has faced severe trolling on social media, even stalkers offline. “The irony is that I contributed to the law that made stalking criminal,” she says. “But even today, that law, because of conversations in Parliament, is bailable at the first offence, which means that the magistrate’s hands are tied. So we are looking at an amendment to that law—it’s been drafted but nothing has been done yet.”

Spies and stalkers—has she been scared yet? “In litigation? Never,” she says. “Personally speaking, in this time of impunity, every citizen who doesn’t adhere to Hindutvadi male supremacy construct should hold the government accountable for their security.”

Nundy, who started out with a degree in economics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, went on to study law at Cambridge University in the UK and Columbia University in New York. Now a lawyer at the Supreme Court, she works on constitutional law, commercial litigation and arbitration, media law and legal policy. She is best known for her work in human rights, contributing to India’s anti-rape bill, which followed the infamous Delhi gangrape case of 2012. A Delhi court issued fresh death warrants for all four convicts in the case in February, sentenced to be hung on March 3.

Nundy, however, used to believe in the death penalty but has changed her mind for a number of reasons. “One is that we frequently get it wrong,” she says. “It’s also very selective—the people who get sentenced to death are often disproportionately poor or from marginalised communities. Most countries are going away from the death penalty, but ours introduced it in a bigger way in 2013. Since then, have we seen that rapes have gone down? No, they’ve only increased. Those who believe it’s a deterrent should not, because it is not. There’s evidence to show that, in fact, death penalty hardens societies and leads to greater, more violent crimes.”

The 43-year-old is also a global advocate for free speech, and was in July appointed to a UK panel to support media freedom across the world, led by international legal stars Lord David Neuberger and Amal Clooney. She also serves on the Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression expert panel.

What got her interested in human rights? “I don’t think you can be from a country like India, with not just so many disparities, but so many continuing violations of human rights, and not be engaged with it, in whichever capacity,” she says. “Being a woman is not a fixed condition—you could be someone who wishes to work and flourish, someone who may have children, who menstruates sometimes (because transwomen may not). None of this is taken into account because governance is mainly by and for straight, savarna [privileged caste Hindus], able-bodied men.”

When we make our laws, she explains, we need to step away from our ideas of the default man, but also the default woman, because the default woman is able-bodied. “We need to look at who people actually are and what they need when we are making legislations for them,” she adds. “Giving testimony before a police station, for instance— it’s much easier for a man. It’s harder for a man who is a daily wage labourer; harder for a woman who can’t leave her household chores and kids. She has to factor in the distance to the police station, if the journey is safe, and whether the police station itself is safe. If the woman is disabled, that’s a different challenge. In such a situation, police should come to you.”

When people ask her how she finds the motivation to continue to fight for, say, victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy when so many others have given up, the answer is simple. “I don’t have a choice to not. Because when there is such a level of injustice, you have to find the resources within yourself and externally,” she says, “to pursue the hope that people who are affected by those tragedies have. It’s amazing to me how women like Rashida Bi and Champadevi Shukla keep fighting. Rashida Bi lost eight members of her family to cancer—the cause has now been written down as cancer, and not as the tragedy.”

Nundy is also actively involved in helping companies with their prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) policies, and their equality policies, which aim to ensure that “women’s bandwidth at work opens up because then they no longer have to worry about either harassment or discrimination. The best person for the job is promoted and recruited,” she says. She has worked with companies such as Penguin Random House and ITC Vivel, and created education modules that train college students in their rights.

“The past year has been very inspiring in the way that citizens have reclaimed the Constitution and its basic values,” Nundy says. “We train people in very concrete ways on what people’s rights are in their individual relationships but also in how they approach the state. Citizens who know their rights can cause a tidal wave to rise, and force the state to serve its citizens. I would like the work I do in the future to bring more of that duty into our country, through the courts, primarily, and also through engagement with the public. I see that very much as part of my job.”

Fellow Supreme Court lawyer Menaka Guruswamy sums up Nundy’s work succinctly: “She speaks truth to power.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to spark a revolution.

A Good Sport

By Pranit Sarda

After Manasi Joshi lost her leg in an accident, she found her passion in badminton

Before the 2019 BWF ParaBadminton World Championship in Basel, Switzerland, in August, a separate team was formed at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad to improve the fitness of Manasi Joshi. The 30-year-old para-badminton player’s body fat percentage was high and the team was tasked with bringing it down before the tournament.

That apart, Gopichand and J Rajendra Kumar, the head coach at the academy, also asked Joshi to let go at times. “[Joshi] played every game under pressure. We asked her to relax a bit and told her to believe in herself because she was playing very well,” says Kumar.

The extra focus showed as Joshi won the tournament, beating World No 1 and compatriot Parul Parmar and bringing home the gold in the SL3 category (standing/ lower limb impairment/minor).

Some years ago, Joshi, an engineer by profession, would never have imagined that badminton, a mere hobby then, would bring her international glory. Growing up in Mumbai, her focus was on academics, but she was quite good in extracurricular activities including sports, music, arts and dance. Joshi says, “Sports was always a hobby, academics was the goal.”

Among all the activities, though, badminton was her favourite. She was introduced to the sport by her father, a scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, who taught her the fundamentals. She began at age 9 at a school summer camp, and went on to represent her school and college at district-level tournaments. After graduating from KJ Somaiya College of Engineering in 2010, Joshi secured a job with Atos India as a software engineer. While she won a gold medal at an intra-corporate badminton tournament in 2011, her plan was to do an MBA, buy a house for her parents and then settle down.

But, on December 2, Joshi met with a road accident on her way to work and her left leg had to be amputated. After spending 45 days in a hospital and three months in recovery, Joshi got a prosthetic leg.

“It was extremely overwhelming to be standing on both my legs again and I can never forget the look on my parents’ face when they saw me learning to walk again. It took me months of hard work, perseverance and patience to walk properly without crutches that had become a part of my identity since the accident.”

Joshi started playing badminton for rehabilitation and “the sport acted as a catalyst” in her recovery. She started taking part in various tournaments after her accident. In 2012, a few months after Joshi relearned to walk, she played the same corporate tournament and won a gold again, against able-bodied athletes. “This gave me the confidence I needed to test my limits and a whole new world of opportunities opened up,” she adds.

Her friend and para-badminton player Neeraj George suggested Joshi take up the sport professionally. She started training for the trials of Para Asian Games in 2014, but didn’t get selected. In December 2014, she played her first national-level tournament and won a silver. In March the following year, she played in the Spanish Para-Badminton International and, although she failed to win a medal in that tournament, it spurred enough ambition in her to turn her into professional badminton player. She hasn’t looked back ever since.

Initially, Joshi juggled her job and training: She would wake up at 4.30 am for yoga, train in the parking lot during lunch, and run to the training centre after office. “It was exhausting but the passion kept me going,” she says. But, in 2016, she quit her job to play full-time.

In 2018, she moved to Hyderabad to train at the Pullela Gopichand academy, where her routine involves three sessions a day (two on the court and another at the gym), six days a week. Complimenting Joshi’s ability to learn, Kumar says, “Whatever we used to suggest, she used to immediately implement on the court and learn fast. She used to learn faster than we thought.”

The sport, Joshi says, “taught me to accept the loss and try and win another time. Once you accept loss, it’s extremely easy to adapt to new things, even if it is a disability”. While being a sportsperson in India is difficult enough, being a para-athlete comes with more challenges.

Joshi was lucky to find solutions for each problem: She did not face discrimination from peers at office, and the cost of expensive prosthesis, which becomes a setback for many to take up professional sports, was borne by support from her sponsors.

Says Joshi, “It has been a journey of learning about the inner self, how human body can adapt to different situations, and how we can push ourselves for the betterment of self and society.”

Joshi is currently focussed on qualifying for the mixed doubles category of Tokyo Paralympics (since the singles event is not a Paralympics event) slated to begin in July, with partner Rakesh Pandey. But whether she makes it or not, it’ll be a journey she cherishes.

Scripting her Story

By Rajiv Singh

As a storyteller, Monika Shergill has scripted a bold and adventurous tale of how women can shape their own destiny

A small garrison town seeped in history, a black and white television set that telecast every programme that national broadcaster Doordarshan had to offer in the 80s, and international news show The World This Week that gave a glimpse into the outside world… Monika Shergill could not have asked for a more content childhood. “As a kid, I used to feel excited watching the show,” says Shergill, who hails from Meerut—the place that gave birth to the revolt of 1857.

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