WOMEN OF THE YEAR
VOGUE India|November 2021
Sometimes, a single event can set the course for the future. Today, if the world seems altered from the devastating effects of COVID-19, it has brought with it a new and evolved set of heroes.
MEGHA MAHINDRU

While planning our annual Women Of The Year (WOTY) awards, which bring together prolific women achievers for a night packed with glamour and excellence, we decided to spotlight these new rock stars who have leveraged their popularity and platform to effect change in their industries. Take model-of-the moment Nidhi Sunil, who takes the role of an inclusivity champion in her stride, or legendary actor Salma Hayek, who made a prolific film career for herself while making a multilayered statement on ageism and diversity.

On our line-up are those whose ambitions revolve around a better planet and a tangible impact for its inhabitants. At 15, scientist Gitanjali Rao is the youngest ever winner at WOTY while the oldest, Jane Goodall, at 87, is the most resilient face of hope. Propelled by the times, our winners are redefining the world we live in by using their talent to break barriers in science, arts, business, sports and beyond.

Relevant and irrepressible, meet our stars of 2021.

SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR

PV SINDHU

On performance anxiety and finals phobia

The annual BWF World Championships has been badminton star PV Sindhu’s biggest sporting challenge. Between 2013 and 2018, she won two bronze and silver medals each in the World Championships, but the gold consistently eluded her.

She lost in the semi-finals in 2013 (to Ratchanok Intanon) and 2014 (to constant encumbrance Carolina Marin), twice in the finals (to Nozomi Okuhara in 2017 and to Marin in 2018) when nagging questions propped up about her choking on big occasions. That year, she won three titles in over a dozen tournaments, but the focus was always on the three finals she lost, including the World Championships. “That weighed on me,” she shares. “People asked me: ‘Do you have a finals phobia?’ That was challenging. They don’t realise that getting into the finals itself is a big thing.”

In 2019, she had the right answers, when she beat Okuhara in the finals for a gold at the BWF World Championships.

Tokyo too wasn’t easy, particularly when only four Indians qualified for the badminton events. “It’d have been good if there were more [Indians in badminton] but we got seven medals [across all disciplines], which was a big thing,” says the Olympic winner. The only other thing she says she missed in Tokyo was the furore and the fanfare. “With a crowd, we get motivated and encouraged. That josh (enthusiasm) you get is different with a crowd. But it was a well-managed and well-maintained event, one that’s always to be remembered,” she says. —As told to Arun Janardhan

SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR

LOVLINA BORGOHAIN

On her unrelenting quest to achieve a dream, despite the obstacles

An athlete’s life isn’t easy. It’s all about a disciplined routine, without any let-ups. And Lovlina Borgohain knows it better than any of us. “I can’t eat what I want to because it’d affect my game. I can’t take a day off because it’d affect my training. It’s not easy, but I keep telling myself that this is what I have to do,” says the boxer.

Preparing for the Olympics is arduous enough, but more so in a pandemic. With no training protocol, equipment or sparring partner at hand, sportspeople had to rely on their discipline and unwavering self-belief. Borgohain had it tougher when she tested positive for COVID-19 as her training began. A harder blow came when she suffered a Lisfranc injury that nearly put paid to her hopes of competing in Tokyo. As if it could get any worse, she found out that her mother needed an emergency kidney transplant surgery.

She discounts all this when I ask her about the hardest challenge she’s encountered so far. “Leaving home at 15 for better training opportunities,” says the former Muay Thai practitioner, who entered the world of boxing without formal training. “When I look back, all the training and hard work I put in, all the sacrifices I made...those days still stand out as the hardest. I used to cry a lot, it was my first time being away from home and family.”

At Tokyo, all these experiences and emotions paid off when Borgohain let out a huge scream—she had finally become the first Assamese to win a bronze at the Olympics. —As told to Anupama Bagri

SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR

SAIKHOM MIRABAI CHANU

On conquering fear, depression and a mysterious body pain

It’s safe to say Saikhom Mirabai Chanu is a woman of great strength. But the weightlifter, who can lift over two times her body weight and won India’s first medal at the Tokyo Olympics, once almost contemplated quitting the sport after she failed to complete at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

At age 21, the pressures of expectations had worn her out. Chanu started seeing a psychologist, but even as her mental strength showed signs of recovery, something was amiss, physically. “After winning the Commonwealth Games gold in 2018, I had severe lower back pain,” Chanu recalls of a mysterious pain that doctors couldn’t diagnose. She had to pull out of that year’s Asian Games and the World Championships. But months later, when she was feeling physically improved, a fear persisted: “I started living in fear: what if I get injured again? What if I don’t manage getting ready in time for the Olympics?”

While training for Tokyo, the pain returned. The girl who was used to lifting hundreds of kilos of iron every day felt weak in both body and mind. “I think the worst thing was not knowing what it actually was,” says Chanu. With the Olympics postponed, Chanu’s coach organised a trip to St Louis in the US to see weightlifter-turned physiotherapist Dr Aaron Horschig for her diagnosis. They found it wasn’t an injury but a technical flaw that was causing the pain. “Knowing that it was because of a technical flaw in my lifting, I was able to train better and without pain, and that was a huge relief.”— As told to Suprita Das

SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR

AVANI LEKHARA

On the power of self-love and perseverance

Most people who suffer life-altering accidents don’t go on to win paralympic medals. But most people aren’t Avani Lekhara, who won India a gold and a bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Despite the odds stacked against her—a teenage girl playing a sport overwhelmingly populated by men—she persevered.

Lekhara, who turns 20 this month, took up shooting as a hobby after a car accident in 2012 left her paralysed from the waist down. Once she won her first title against able-bodied peers in a regional match in Rajasthan, there was no looking back.

Her rise to the top, though, didn’t come without its hurdles. The rifle shooter says the initial years after her accident were “a nightmare”. The only way out was to believe in herself. “Shooting gave me the selfconfidence to think I could do anything,” she says. “I’ve represented India all over the world on wheels and I’ve been able to do that through positive affirmations. I’m totally in love with myself, and that’s how I know I have what it takes to make it.”

There is a grit to Lekhara that belies her soft-spokenness, and nothing is more a testament to that mental fortitude than the fact that, along with being an internationally decorated shooting prodigy, she’s also a law student. “Even before I started shooting, I wanted to be a judge. There aren’t many female judges in our judiciary and I want to change that. Hopefully, in 2024, I can hold both my degree and my gold medals in my hands,” she says. —As told to Arushi Sinha

INVESTOR OF THE YEAR

ANJULA ACHARIA

The celebrity manager and serial investor’s repeated success is built on her foresight to predict the next big thing and take a chance on it, writes Hitha Herzog

Anjula Acharia sits on her sofa at her family home in London, cup in hand, channelling her own version of desi hygge. “I make my own blend of chai,” she says, “with turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, peppercorn and a sachet of Vital Proteins, a company I invested in.”

Acharia’s collective portfolio of talent, companies and media properties under her company A-Series Investments includes many female-funded businesses like Bumble, ClassPass, Yumi (an organic baby food company based in California), managing actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and playing executive producer on Evil Eye, a horror series inspired by a Madhuri Shekar book. “Everyone I invest in has three things in common: their ideas are great and fill a space that has otherwise been ignored, they don’t know a lot about the space they are about to build in, and they always bet on themselves,” says the 21st-century arbitrator of pop culture.

ClassPass founder and executive chairman Payal Kadakia Pujji recalls their first meeting in 2012: “I was working at Warner Music Group and had an idea to start a company, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump right in. The uncertainty was an inflection point for Anjula, who told me: ‘If you can’t bet on yourself, how can I?’”

EYE ON THE PRIZE

Acharia’s brutal truth-telling and talent development comes from her days at an executive search firm in London and as co-founder of Desi Hits!, a multimedia platform that focused on South Asian content and combined her love for tech and entertainment by spotlighting bhangra and rap mash-ups that were ‘breaking the internet’ before the saying existed. “Growing up in England, I’d unfortunately met with a lot of racism,” says Acharia. “It leaves you in a vulnerable place, fighting for visibility. Something had to change. I saw the opportunity to change it.”

A chance meeting with music executive Jimmy Iovine, the co-founder of Interscope Records and Beats By Dr Dre, proved to be pivotal. He was the first independent investor and mentor for Desi Hits! “He taught me to be an anticipator of pop culture—the conversations that people are having at dinner tables and coffee houses, and the ability to see around the corner. When Payal came to me with ClassPass, and everyone was talking about SoulCycle and Barry’s, I knew it was needed.” After a few attempts at launching Chopra Jonas’s music career, Acharia turned to TV, using that same sixth sense. “You were seeing Sofia Vergara, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington take on leading roles. Television was becoming more inclusive, so I went to them and said your next thing will be to put a South Asian woman [on air].”

THE GIRL CODE

If it sounds like Acharia’s investing life is charmed, it is. What it’s not, is easy. With all the wins (her most recent exit was Bumble) there have been some misses. For example, Uber. “I questioned if they’d be able to manage the complexities of regulation, and weirdly, I didn’t think I’d use it. Getting into strangers’ cars was something we’ve been told all of our lives not to do. But that’s the disruption of tech,” says Acharia, whose future investments will focus on wellness, animal welfare, and global proliferation of content.

“Anjula is what I call a ‘kick-ass’ person,” says Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo and one of our winners at Women Of The Year 2021. “She has a nose for spotting trends and connects the dots on investments that may not be obvious to others. But most importantly, she gives female founders wings to do the right thing.”

A strong network of women cheerleaders is essential in navigating early-stage investing, but Acharia also credits her success to slowly understanding one’s worth. “You’re only worth as much as you think you are. The ‘next great so and so’ starts with someone who approaches a challenge with confidence, vision and faith. And that’s someone I’d bet on.”

GLOBAL ICON OF THE YEAR

SALMA HAYEK

The legendary actor, who juggles her roles as a producer, writer, philanthropist, superhero, mother and wife, shares her guide to living life to its full potential. By Priyanka Khanna

After over 60 films and a prolific career that took her from Mexican soap operas to Marvel superhero films, the multi-hyphenate actor-producer-philanthropist Salma Hayek surprises me while short-listing an achievement she’s proud of: “My children, my family. I’m most proud of my family,” Hayek says, without batting an eyelid. “I’m most proud that I beat the odds and was able to do the impossible, or what everyone thought was impossible—for someone like me to have a career in the United States,” shrugs the star, who has defied expectations with every milestone.

These days, there’s so much conversation about the elusive work-life balance. And while it remains a problematic concept to many around the world, it’s one that the 55-year-old has tackled head-on. “You know, as women, we sometimes hear that it’s impossible to have a career and a family, and to be present for both. I’m proud that I’ve been able to do it,” says the actor who has a teenage daughter, Valentina, with husband François Henri-Pinault and is stepmother to his children from previous relationships.

AGE OF BEAUTY

Her fifties, Hayek insists, have been the most fulfilling yet, both personally and professionally. “In so many ways. For me, it’s been the most important [decade]. I’ve spent 15 years with my husband and we’re still making each other laugh, still understanding each other well. And that’s not very common—for love to survive, to thrive, to keep growing. It’s very nice to have it in your mid-fifties, it is an amazing gift.”

On the work front too, things look promising. Earlier this year, Hayek reprised her role as Sonia Kincaid in the comic caper sequel The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. This month, we will see her in two blockbusters—first in Marvel’s Eternals, directed by Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao, alongside Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani and Kit Harrington. Funnily, Hayek initially thought she was being offered the role of a grandmother, as playing a superhero at 55 didn’t figure even in her wildest dreams. But if not on screen, then in real life, she hopes to fulfill this dream: “Maybe François’s eldest son can give me a grandchild. He’ll tell me to absolutely get over that thought, but I’d be so happy to be a grandma or a step-grandma,” she laughs, circling back to her family.

Also out this month is Ridley Scott’s anticipated The House Of Gucci, which brings together legends old and new such as Al Pacino, Adam Driver and Lady Gaga, alongside a slew of releases planned with Hayek’s production house, Ventanarosa. “My career has never been better. At this time I don’t have any financial incertitude, which is difficult when you start as an actor. Even if you make it in your thirties, you don’t know when people will stop calling you. There’s a lot of anguish. Today, I’m healthy; I survived COVID-19 [Hayek recovered from a near-fatal case this year], and spiritually too, I feel very strong. I found my way. I have a joyous internal life and I’m very much in touch with myself in that respect. The stronger I’ve dived in, the better my life outside has been.”

It’s evident that Hayek lives a full life, one she’s immensely grateful for. What’s her secret? “I’m creative and curious, so I’m always interested in many things. I like to dance, eat, sing, crack jokes, laugh and tease. I’m curious about nature and science, about how things work, about business. I’ve always had an active imagination, so that’s what keeps me young. I know people who are way younger than me but they are old because they are not curious about anything. They don’t know how to find joy; they’re too self-absorbed.”

That’s success, the Salma Hayek way. Maybe it’s time for a memoir next?

FASHION ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR

MASABA GUPTA

At 33, she helms the House of Masaba and has a hit TV show in its second season alongside a growing community of nearly two million followers, But her eyes are always on the big picture: expanding her legacy. By Priyanka Khanna

Masaba Gupta is on a mission. Well, she has several, but topping the list is to debunk popular perceptions around what it means to be a fashion designer. “Masaba Masaba, besides changing my life and providing a distraction to many during the pandemic, made people see that there is much more to a designer’s life. Fashion isn’t just a stop-gap between graduating school and getting married. I wanted to fight that frivolity—and that designing is not about sketching, head in the clouds, with Dido playing in the background,” she laughs.

For Gupta, who studied at SNDT University and made her fashion debut at the age of 19, on the persistence of the late designer Wendell Rodricks, fashion is a serious business. From that first show in 2009, she brought in a new pop iconography—think Tamil script, camera and prints, and her iconic palms— and in the last decade, she’s turned House of Masaba from a fledgling label into a household brand with six stores across India and had collaborations with everything from HBO’s juggernaut TV series Game Of Thrones to heritage jewellery house Amrapali, as well as with corporate bigwigs including Samsung and Nykaa Beauty. Most recently, she pivoted to e-commerce, with online sales now contributing 60 per cent of her brand’s revenue.

Every entrepreneur knows that pivoting and adapting are keystones for success. For Gupta, it changed the very basis of how she approached work. “Earlier my process was reverse—mood board, colours, what I was feeling at that moment. Now, the feeling comes later. We are driven by data, and then I put the emotion in it—I think of young women, curvy women like myself, and older women like my mother.”

Data tells her that women are buying saris like never before, with Chanderi winning for its heft. It also shows that indigo is the hottest-selling colour and that the A-line kurta has been replaced by a draped version or a three-piece set. Of course, lounge-wear is a no-brainer. But it’s not only charts and graphs and numbers. Gupta is balancing it all with her creative vision, creating at least ten designs for every collection that offer an insight into her genius mind space.

The one thing she learnt on the job (and not at design school) was to value herself. “There were times when I was younger, when I didn’t have the language to articulate a fair deal. I want to tell all young women, ‘Please do not give your brand away.’ Now I know my time and energy is priceless—and my focus is on longevity.”

I pose a question that unintentionally becomes her favourite: in all the interviews she’s done so far, what’s the one thing a reporter has never asked her? She takes a moment. “‘How do you do it all, mentally?’ It’s an underrated question. ‘How do you get up and show up every day?’ I never unwind. A group of people is called ‘loneliness’—that’s the real spirit of entrepreneurship.”

DESIGN WISE

Masaba’s guide to entrepreneurship

Know your worth: “Speak from a position of strength. Even when negotiating with a giant, ask for what you deserve.”

Delegate: “It’s something I’m working on. The next decade is about separating me from the brand and continuing the storytelling. We need to leave behind the baggage of the designer.”

Learn from your losses: “Be unemotional about cutting your losses. Take advice from sound business people. Count every penny and learn finances.”

Adapt: “If your business can’t pivot, it’s not going to make it.”

GLOBAL BUSINESS ICON OF THE YEAR

INDRA NOOYI

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