An architecture aficionado, IIM(B) gold medallist, the first India CFO of a Nasdaq listed company, an angel investor and a social entrepreneur are some of the hats worn by Revathy Ashok, a veteran business-woman who has had an illustrious career spanning over 35 years and counting. Born in Kerala, Revathy did her schooling in Carmel Convent in Bihar, before relocating to Bengaluru to pursue a B.Sc. She then went on to get her PGDM (the then MBA equivalent) from IIMB and entered the field of finance. She has since been a powerhouse with what her family calls a “bias for action”. She runs her own consulting firm to help small and mid-level firms. Her most recent role is as the CEO & Managing Trustee of Bengaluru Politically Active Committee (B.PAC).NSoJ student journalist Tanvi Shenoy visited Revathy Ashok in the B.PAC office in Vasanthnagar to talk to her about her experience as one of the first women executives in the country’s finance sector as well as her transition into managing B.PAC, a citizen’s collective to create political awareness.
You began your professional journey over 35 years ago. Did you find the male-to-female ratio in the Indian work-place daunting?
I never went to any place, any institution, thinking that I was a woman. I went in thinking that I was a capable person. We were only 8 girls in a batch of 100 at IIM. But I didn’t look at myself as a lady getting into IIM. I saw myself as equal to everyone else there. We were fighting head to head on various things. I began a career in Sony, where I was the only female executive in my office, and all other women were secretaries. I think it all depends on your personal outlook, which in my case helped me gain respect with a lot of male colleagues because then they start respecting you for what you are and not because of your gender. The respect for intellect comes purely from intellect and has nothing to do with gender.
How easy or difficult was it to reconcile work and home balance while having a career as illustrious as yours?The workplace was not difficult. From day one, I was treated equally. I can’t say there was any differentiation. I guess it was the way that I carried myself. I didn’t perceive myself as different from anybody. I didn’t ask for or expect anything special. But in those days it wasn’t common to discuss what was going on at home. Managing work-life balance was not easy but I believe that when you are at work you have to give your hundred percent but when you at home that’s where you should fully be. There has to be clarity of thought, that when one needs to take precedence due to work deadlines or family emergencies, you need your space to take that call. But you have to be careful of not taking advantage of the situation, and be conscious of the fact that organisations need to deliver. My husband has always been my biggest supporter. I don’t think I would have reached where I did if not for him, and I received a fair amount of family support from his parents and mine. But the only things that took a back seat are my personal interests. Between home and office, it was all consumed. You want to read and listen to music and have your own personal space and time. Now that my children have grown up, I’m taking it all back.
You are a self-descried “entrepreneurship evangelist”. Where does your passion for entrepreneurship stem from?All my jobs happened to be where there was nothing and I was creating something, like a new division or a new business, starting afresh in unchartered spaces and growing it to scale. The journey from starting up, getting a team together, making things happen, then getting it to scale and maturing it, has an excitement about it. Most of my roles, though serendipitous, were in that category. At some point, maybe subconsciously, I started to look for and prefer jobs with the entrepreneurial component. In the early days of entrepreneurship in Bangalore, maybe ten years ago, entrepreneurs would walk in and ask me to look at their business plans. It started with us listening to entrepreneurs, their stories, and giving them feedback. Over a period of time, it grew into an ecosystem and I saw more entrepreneurs and also venture capitalists. That was when I developed an interest in angel investing and learned more about it.
Can you point out flaws, if any, of the quality of entrepreneurship in India based on your experience?I get the opportunity to listen to a lot of pitches. We find people are not generally well-rounded. For example, a person who is technically sound and is very passionate has poor business knowledge. When you are designing a product, you need to be able to sell it. You need softer skills in business, negotiation and convincing. Maybe it is our education system, where we are taught in silos. It is not comprehensive enough and we are bucketed too early in life. An engineer will not be exposed to business, accounting, finance or behavioural science courses. They know very little about customer satisfaction. We do not have campuses which are multi-disciplinary. We produce very good technical people, but they lack that well-roundedness of a holistic perspective. In countries like the US, entrepreneurs have a handle on the articulation of business, which is what is lacking in our own entrepreneurs.
What led to your transition from the business sphere to the political sphere in B.PAC?I would not call it a transition. I have had a long career and there are certain things I am very passionate about, and this is how I have chosen to give back to society by pushing for better governance. This is a voluntary effort to signal some change in the city.
The mixing of business and governance seems like a recipe for disaster. Do you not see a conflict of interest in having a PAC headed by people such as yourself, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Mohandas Pai, all of whom are even now very much invested in businesses?We are not aligned to any political party. We are simply aligned with the Constitution of India. As citizens, we believe that we have certain duties, which have been forgotten today. We also have certain rights that we must demand from the people who we vote to power. We are only trying to get that power back to the people. That’s all we’re trying to do. Similarly, with the political parties, it is to help deepen the democracy, where we’re saying that if we behave like the ruler and the ruled, how is it different from the raja and the Praja? We must remind the politicians that they are our representatives and should, therefore, listen to our concerns and fight for our needs. I do not see any conflict of interest as someone who is in business. I am simply executing my role as a citizen, a duty which we have forgotten. We are only trying to inculcate good citizenry.
We are all a group of people who love our city. We have been here for a number of years and we want to contribute back to it. We open source data to help people demand things of our elected representatives. Hardly 45% Bangaloreans come out to cast their vote, which is irresponsible. When you turn 18, you are hankering for a driver’s license, but you can have a much more powerful card – a voter car – but you don’t care for it. Respect your democracy. Know your candidate and hold them accountable. Hold them accountable every year and not just every five years. Let them know that their citizens have woken up and that they won’t back down.