Neela Marikkar always saw herself as a career woman and considering anything else was never an option. “Women sacrifice a lot to be a homemaker. But it’s important to remember that children will eventually leave and go their own way. You should not have to look back and wonder where you could have been had you stayed in the work place and built your career,” she asserts, in an interview with the Daily FT.
Neela certainly didn’t settle along the way and as a result of her hard work and commitment, she has many achievements to her credit. The Chairperson and Managing Director of all the Grant Group companies, she is also a Past President of 4A’s, Charter President of the IAA, and a recipient of the HK McCann Award and Zonta Woman of Achievement Award for her contribution to the industry. Her personal passion is championing social causes and she has spoken at imminent forums like the European Commission Brussels, UNDP at The Hague, Harvard University, The table of Free Voices, Berlin and The Woodrow Wilson Centre Washington DC, amongst others. She also consulted for the UNDP on their business and peace initiative.
“I think as a career woman you need determination and a vision for yourself and a strong will to stay on course. There will always be highs and lows but overall it’s worth the struggle,” she reveals.
Following are excerpts:
Q: Why did you choose to be a working mother?
I always saw myself as a career woman. I don’t think at any
Neela Marikkar and family
stage it was an option that I would have considered anything else.
Q: How do you balance the demands of working and raising children?
It’s a challenge and you have to have a strong belief in your ability to make both work together.
I think there has always been a slight sense of guilt that you did not spend as much time with your children as you would have liked to. But being conscious of it makes you really value the time you do spend with them. I made it a point to have lunch with them every day. They picked me up after school and we would spend that precious one hour together. It sort of reconnected us during that day. I think it was harder when they were much younger.
As they got older they had various activities going on after school, which helped. When I came home in the evening we would hang out together. Sometimes they would come to my office if I was getting late and sit in my room and do their homework while I finished my meetings. I tried to make my office an extension of my home for them so they would not resent the time I spent there. The office anyway had a very family atmosphere, which helped. I think it went back to my own childhood where I used to spend time with my father in a similar manner.
Q: Could you describe a day in your life?
I am a late riser as I work late into the night daily. It’s the only time I have to do my emails and attend to my work when everyone is asleep and it is quiet. I have a long day. When my children were school-going, I would come home and help them with their homework if they needed help. As they grew older, they did not need me around as much. They had so many things going on with tuition classes and friends. When they were young I always made it a point to put them to sleep. I would read them a bedtime story and lie in bed with them. Often times though I would fall asleep accidentally, even before they did. They thought it was funny. If I went overseas on work, I would stay in touch with them all the time. In fact I used to leave them a series of notes which I would write to them so they had a note a day. I would tell them to read one each day while I was gone.
When it came to leisure I rarely had time for exercise. But I loved watching TV with them. We would buy DVDs and sit for hours watching them together. As my daughters grew older, we would cook together. In fact I would take them shopping, even food shopping. I tried to include them
in whatever I did so I maximised our time together.
Q: How was your decision to work after having children accepted by your family and those around you?
My husband was very supportive. No one had an issue with it. But it was up to me to juggle career and home. That was my challenge; I had to fight that battle myself. But my daughters always said they were proud that I was a career woman and that they would not have wanted it any other way. Today they are both educated and capable women in their own right. I believe they have great careers ahead of them.
Q: What are the positive and negative reactions you have encountered along the way?
I think as a career woman you need determination and a vision for yourself and a strong will to stay on course. There will always be highs and lows but overall it’s worth the struggle. It’s important that you keep a professional approach to your working life. You need to demonstrate that you can manage your family and your career at the same time; if not you will limit your opportunity to move ahead.
Q: Looking back, what would you do differently?
I don’t think I would have done it any differently. I have no regrets.
Q: Are you satisfied with the level of recognition for women, their voice in national issues?
Not really. I think we are not consulted enough. Considering that we are more than half the population, we are not given that same priority when it comes to policymaking or even in the corporate world. When it comes to the boards of companies, I was surprised to note that most of the top companies in the country have very few women at board level. Somehow we seem to be mostly at middle management. This is worse when it comes to politics, where women’s participation is extremely poor. Even the Minister and Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs are both men. Our global gender ranking has taken a beating as well. In 2009 we were ranked 12th and sadly in 2013 we had dropped to 55th. This shows things are not going well in this area. As women we need to urgently address the cause for this dramatic drop in just a few years. Improving our global gender ranking will help us at a local level.
Q: What new roles should women/mothers play in the future?
I believe women have to assert themselves more. We are natural born managers and we have the unique ability to multi task. The challenge is how we transform from managers to being effective leaders. For this we need commitment, innovation and above all motivation. The ball is in our court.
Q: In terms of policy, what changes would you like to see that would assist working mothers?
I think as business we have to find ways to keep women in the workforce. We have to address their issues and see how we can hold them. Many leave after they marry and after they start a family. This is a loss as many of them are bright and very capable and much-needed.
Q: Your advice to aspiring career women who intend to continue after they have children?
Maybe we have to find innovative ways that will enable them to continue working. We need women to stay in the work force so they can aspire to senior positions. For those women who do not want to continue to work, I would encourage them to think about starting a business at home. Even if it maybe a small idea, it will be empowering for them. At least this way they can manage both family and be entrepreneurs at the same time.
Q: Any tips you can share with working moms?
Stay the course even though it can be a struggle at times. Women sacrifice a lot to be a homemaker. But it’s important to remember that children will eventually leave and go their own way. You should not have to look back and wonder where you could have been had you stayed in the work place and built your career.
Q: How do you stay inspired and continue on your chosen path?
I am my greatest motivator. I am passionate about what I do. I constantly keep myself updated on things that interest me. Other than my work, I do many things of a social nature. I believe it’s important to make a difference, even in a small way. I like having a busy and fulfilling life. I thank God for these gifts that enable me to do the things that I do.