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Book review: Breaking Barriers

The success stories of 11 top women business leaders falls short in the telling.


Breaking Barriers

By Janaki Krishnan
Jaico Books
Pages: 190; Price: Rs 195

The title may be cliched but it is apt for a book on women business leaders in India. Breaking Barriers comprises 11 stories of successful women entrepreneurs or corporate leaders, focusing on their struggles and achievements at a time when India is still adapting to the idea of women leaders in the workforce.

Almost all the women featured are trailblazers, such as Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of India's first biotechnology firm, Biocon, or Zia Mody, one of the founding partners of India's most prestigious law firm, AZB & Partners, or Kalpana Saroj, India's best known Dalit woman entrepreneur. All the stories exemplify great courage, conviction, strength and determination.

The book presents a slice of history, capturing iconic Indian businesswomen on their journey to success at a time when women and business were thought mutually exclusive.

However, the author could perhaps have distilled a few lessons the millions of working women who even today face enormous gender-related challenges at work could draw from these role models.This would have provided some perspective. But no such effort is made. This is just a collection of stories of 11 individuals. There is a brief introduction discussing the general problem which makes the usual correct noises, but without saying anything new.

Again, the author may have picked interesting women to profile - among them Vandana Luthra, founder of Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves, or Shaheen Mistri, founder of the education related NGOs, Akanksha Foundation and Teach for India - but the writing does not measure up. The packaging and design of the book are hardly inspirational either.

Interesting anecdotes tend to get buried under masses of text, such as the story about how Renuka Ramnath, the queen of private equity in India, formerly with the ICICI group and now founder and CEO of the private equity fund, Multiples Alternate Asset Management, chose to study textile engineering. But again, some of the anecdotes - such as the one about Luthra's run-in with her mother-inlaw, for instance - seem a little out of place.

The subject is a relevant one; there is some good reporting with interesting insights, but the writing and the packaging fail to hook the reader. Had some unifying structure been imposed - such as grouping the women on the basis of businesses they are in, or the common challenges some faced - the book may have been of more help to the reader.

The book presents a slice of history, capturing iconic Indian businesswomen on their journey to success at a time when women and business were considered mutually exclusive. A lot has changed since then, but the road ahead for women in business and the corporate world remains long. It is sobering to remember, as the introduction also points out, that for all strides Indian women have made, a global survey as recent as in 2011, showed that this country still has the lowest number of women at every level of the workforce among major Asian nations: China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and India.

Shweta Punj
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