The Same Opportunities for Women
Shilpa Divekar Nirula believes that people need to get opportunities based on merit and not on gender. She is currently the Lead – Regional Business Strategy for Crop Science Commercial Operations – Asia Pacific at Bayer and was previously the Managing Director and Commercial Operations Lead - India for the legacy Monsanto organization. On International Women's Day, she looks back on her career.
Throughout my life, whether it was for academics or professional reasons, I have never been someone who believes that women need to be looked at differently for opportunities to progress. In fact, I believe that people should get opportunities based on merit.
For sure, I haven’t noticed any gender difference at our organization. However, the gender disparity becomes more apparent when I am out on the field interacting with farmers and channel partners. I see a lot of women from the villages step out and come for meetings that I am in because of the comfort that there’s a woman already in the group. In fact, I had an interesting experience at Bihar, where a retired local government officer, while addressing farmers, said that in all his professional experience, he had never seen a woman come and conduct a farmer meet. This for me was an eye-opener. He went on to say how important it was for villagers to inspire their daughters to step out and take up more roles. These are not instances that you come across every day but there are definitely times in your career when you realise the difference you make and how can impact a group of society, whether directly or indirectly.
When I began my professional career, I was in a consulting role for eight and a half years working across different sectors till I was asked by one of the companies to join them. For me it meant moving out of my comfort zone. Today, I am glad that I took the plunge. When the offer from legacy Monsanto came, my son was very young and given my home responsibilities, I wasn’t too keen on making a change. But then I spoke to people and was intrigued with what the company did - their philosophy of investing today to meet the long-term needs of customers and farmers appealed to me. This was my first exposure to agriculture. My keen interest was fuelled by the learning opportunity agriculture provided and the tremendous potential to make a difference in this industry that is still in a very nascent stage in India.
When you take new roles, you also learn how to work your way around failure. I stepped into the corn seed business at a very a tough time and realised that it could not be turned around in a year. It would take a couple of years of strategic and tactical planning to make a difference. Here, I learnt to deal with some really testing times and moments of failure. At a later stage, I moved on to handle corporate affairs. As a person, I am not very comfortable interacting with unknown people – this role took me out completely to an unknown arena. While this posed a huge risk, this also provided me with a great learning opportunity when dealing with Government officials, media and other industry stakeholders.
I believe that leadership is a journey and each new role exposes you to a new diverse culture – beyond countries, organizations, functions and ways of working. When you put yourself in roles that can stretch you, the learning curve is phenomenal. And if you can accept a challenge, learn as much as you can and inspire confidence in all around you, then half your job is done.
The good thing is that I have always had tremendous family support - My husband’s side is a big joint family and I also had my mother around to help me. My son has spent all his formative years with the grandparents and extended family, especially in my absence. It has been a balancing act on multiple fronts. There was a period of time when I was so focused on my work that I would spend many hours at the office. My son also needed my attention for his academics and personal growth. I realised that I can’t compromise one for the other – I had to set my priorities.
Commitment is something I picked up from my father – he never took any leave from work (which today, we know is not the best approach). He believed that you have to work sincerely every single day and this had an influence on me. I had other things to learn from my mother who gave up her job when I was a toddler so that she could focus on me. She then started working once again when we lost our dad and I was still studying. Many others said that she wouldn’t be able to do it but she wanted to encourage me to finish my studies and proved otherwise by taking on a professional role. In additional to my parents, I have been inspired by something the Indian Nobel Peace Prize winner - Kailash Satyarthi said - "If not now, then when? If not you, then who?”