Interview with Priyanka Malhotra

Resilient, compassionate and dynamic, Priyanka Malhotra is admired by many for her “never give up” attitude and her ability to wear many hats with elegant and effortless ease. Her son Nipun affectionately calls her “my tigress mother” in a touching letter that describes the love and resilience of a mother through the eyes of her disabled son.

But Priyanka Malhotra is much more than just a loving and dedicated mother. Hailing from an eminent business family based in Ludhiana, India, she grew up learning the nuances of family business and leadership from her father, late Shri O.P. Munjal, the founder and chairman of Hero Cycles, the world’s largest bicycle manufacturing company by volume.

Her personal experiences and the challenges she faced as the mother of a son with a disability inspired her to establish the Nipman Foundation in 2012, a non-profit organisation with a mission “to ensure that the disabled live complete lives, have mobility devices and aids that ensure their independence, jobs to flourish and an ecosystem that provides for dignity and happiness”.

WIFB India correspondent Swati Gupta sat down with Priyanka to discover more about her journey, from growing up in a family business environment to her foray into the fasteners business with her husband Pravin and establishing a foundation with her son, as well as her current role as the cohesive force of the family.

Priyanka Malhotra

Let’s start at the roots. Take us through growing up in a business family. Did you and your siblings get exposed to the inner workings of your family business from a young age?

Our father never discussed work at the dining table, and that is one of the foremost lessons I learnt from him – keeping the personal and professional separate. However, when I look back, I cherish those times when we kids would hang around my father and uncle in the morning. They used to shave together every morning as they discussed their work. Only later on did we realise that they took some major professional decisions during that seemingly inconsequential “shave time”. We absorbed a lot about the running of a business in India just by overhearing discussions at home.

Were the women of the family expected to work in the business at the time?

No. There were enough male members in the family, and women in the Ludhiana of the 70s and 80s were not expected to join the family business. However, I remember my father always taking into consideration my mother’s input on important matters. We girls were encouraged to have a mind of our own, and that has gone a long way to shaping us into successful businesswomen today.

A lot has changed in today’s India, and I would advise and encourage daughters and daughters-in-law to work in the family business.

What brought you to Noida and into the fasteners business?

When Pravin and I got married, we initially settled in Mumbai. The economic liberalisation in 1991 kick-started crucial reforms, leading to a lot of restructuring and subsequent recessionary trends in the steel industry. As a result, my father-in-law’s business saw downward trends, pushing my husband to branch out. We decided to move to Noida in 1997 and founded Nipman Fastener Industries to serve the auto and auto-component industries. That is when I fully realised how much I had learnt by growing up in a family business environment. I set up the back end, which is the foundation of a company to rise upon.

Currently, I am the Director of Human Resource Development at Nipman, and Pravin is the Chairman and Managing Director of the Nipman Group. I have always preferred being a big fish in a small pond, and moving to Noida opened a plethora of prospects for me. After all these years, I am still known in the city for having worked tirelessly to provide accessibility to the disabled. Now that we have moved to Gurgaon, I hope to achieve the same here.

Is it unusual for women to be in a leadership position in the automotive industry? As a woman, what unique qualities do you bring to the table?

Yes, it’s not commonplace to see women at the helm of affairs – not just in the auto industry but in any industry. Because of this scarcity, I make it a point to lead by example. As a woman, I add empathy to all my dealings. Women are often criticised for being too soft, but that is our biggest strength. We express sincerely and take decisions sensibly. As a Director, I have been able to boost employee engagement and even lower attrition rates thanks to my approach. I modified our forms to help us better understand an individual and see where they fit in the organisation.

Women are intuitive by nature, and they quickly understand the complexity of various circumstances. We have noticed that employees often come back when I take exit interviews because I am able to understand the other point of view. I believe that our ability to connect in a more humane way makes it easier to run any aspect of a business.

What are the dynamics of working with your husband? How do you maintain a work-life balance?

There’s nothing more wonderful than working with your life partner! Both are on the same team, and you have a colleague you can always count on for his or her unbiased opinion. We complement each other, and it’s wonderful how that plays out in the business as well. We do not let things become an ego issue; it doesn’t matter who wins or who is smarter. Couples need to realise that they are working for themselves and their progress – not to show it to the world. Work-life balance is not an illusionary myth hanging at the horizon; it’s very much achievable if you do not bring the work home.

Now that you have formed Nipman Foundation, which focuses on ensuring that disabled persons lead complete lives, do you think it interferes with running a profitable business?

I do not think a foundation and a business are contradictory forces. In fact, the foundation benefits the most when the business does well and vice versa. What’s the point of all those profits if we can’t give back to the community? Besides, our foundation started with the need of our child. Both Pravin and I are on the same page regarding this. Our project Wheels for Life has outside funding – an even greater responsibility on us to utilise every penny judiciously.

Priyanka Malhotra

Tell us about working with your son at Nipman Foundation. How does the mother-son relationship play at work?

Having worked for more than a decade in the disability sector, it was a natural step for Nipun, my elder son, and I to establish the foundation. My struggles to ensure that he received equal opportunities, no matter his disabled status, and my work as a counsellor for parents of children with disabilities had fortified my determination to make a positive impact on the disability sector.

As far as working with my son, the sailing has been exceptionally smooth. Our personal equation assists us both in working more vigorously towards our goals. Wherever there are two people working, one has to understand the other person and utilise their strengths well – especially in this field, where one has to be more accepting and giving, rather than aiming for personal gain.

Now that your younger son, Manek, has entered the family business, how has your role evolved? Is generation gap real? 

This is where I feel, at the moment, my role is completely different from what it has always been. I am the equaliser now. The children are brimming with new ideas and techniques, often thinking their father’s knowledge is dated. What they don’t realise is that we have reached this far because of those very ideas. On the other hand, their father feels they are just kids starting out! It’s very natural for these kinds of feelings to surface.

The worst for me is taking the brunt from both sides because everyone thinks I am protecting the other one. Ah well, that’s my job! I listen to my heart and always know what the right step to take is. A woman in the family business is very important at this stage. Getting the next generation in is a tricky subject.

What advice do you have for family firms that are introducing the next generation into the business?

Let’s get the basics sorted: it is good to have more family working hands. One never has to worry about agency problems! My advice would be to create well-defined roles and work on building the family business constitution. These are the paramount ingredients for a successful transition and also the hardest tasks to achieve. I have noticed that getting family business education together often helps in smoothening the creases. It also benefits to work on the constitution during retreats. A change in environment goes a long way; when everyone is relaxed, knowledge seeps in better.

What changes do you wish to see to create a better working environment for women in India?

We need to bring up our boys differently. They need to learn that it’s ok to help with household activities, it’s okay to care for kids, and it’s okay to cry. We, as a society, need to diminish the stigma attached to men who help at home. I appeal to all mothers to bring up their boys differently. Stop pampering them like kings or lords. It needs to start from the women – they have to teach their sons to respect other genders. Mothers also need to stop resorting to stereotypes when bringing up their girls.

Second, we need to stop expecting Indian girls to pick between career or family. I meet a lot of young girls who are scared at the thought of getting married simply because, in our country, that automatically translates to giving up your career.

Is there any advice you wish you had received from other women before heading into your family business? What would be your message to young women entering their family businesses today?

Reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was an eye-opener for me. I wish we had that book when I was starting out. I recommend women as well as men to read it.

To all young women stepping into their family businesses: it is your right to be there! Get skilled and do it well. Stop feeling like someone is doing you a favour by letting you work. It is your space. Just grab it immediately! And don’t stand still. Get out on the field and fly.

Featured Pictures Courtesy of Priyanka Malhotra