On the eve of International Women’s Day, the Managing Director of TVS Srichakra Ltd., Shobhana Ramachandran, shares with Soma Basu the story of her journey on a less travelled path for women and how she made it to the top staying in small town Madurai
There are no two ways about Shobhana Ramachandran, a scion of the powerful TVS family that runs the country’s largest automotive conglomerate company. Strongly opinionated, she never sways from decisions once taken. The firm person that she is it reveals the clarity in her thoughts and actions that follow.
Yet, feels Shobhana, feared as a boss for her aggressive temperament, “Clarity is a struggle.”
“I want to be slim but I also want to eat,” she explains in simple terms to underline if you are clear about what you want and let go of the other, you can understand your role better and deliver far better. The belief in the process of ‘letting it go’ has helped Shobhana take many more definitive steps in her journey from being the great granddaughter of iconic industrialist T.V.Sundaram Iyengar and daughter of R.Ramachandran to the straight talking no-nonsense businesswoman who has taken her Madurai-based tyre company to a premium position in the world market. Yet, not many know much about her. She is a woman impacting on people. But, she says, gender does not matter to get to any position. “Your commitment and achievement matter.”
In the male dominated automotive industry, one would presume a woman is likely to feel diffident. But Shobhana Ramachandran believes in producing great results and tirelessly works towards the goal. Did she ever think of working anywhere else? “It never crossed my mind when I was in school or university. But my father surely did not want me to be in business,” she says.
A strict upbringing kept Shobhana confined to the house. She and her three brothers had to strictly follow the rules. The children were not allowed air conditioners or mattresses to sleep on, had to fold their beds every morning, finish every morsel that was served to them on their plate, never went on a holiday even though their cousins came visiting them from other cities and pushed off to Kodaikanal.
“My father did not like being in limelight because he felt it would drift us away from family values,” she says. But then he allowed her the freedom to do what she wanted to -- play boys’ games! The girly presents and dolls gifted to her just lined up the shelves. The cricket and badminton coaches came home to train them and she would play with her brothers’ friends as a team.
Shobhana says she always made best use of the choices available without ever feeling bad or complaining. She wanted to do her under-graduation in psychology but her father told her she is “supposed to study literature”. After her B.A. English from Fatima College, Shobhana did M.A. Psychology from Lady Doak College.
“I never pushed myself, but remained among the top 10 in class, and had much interest in sports and drama,” she says. She would have loved to dance away too but for the lack of partners as tall as her. Shobhana taught English for a year at Fatima College and resigned hurt when told that the job should go to someone needy and not somebody as affluent as her.
It is not in her nature to ever fight or rebel. “I always move away from those who pick up fights and find a way to get around the blocks to do what I want to do,” she says. If there was anything that she ever refused, it was marriage. “It was a choice I made early in life. My parents did not object,” she says.
Left to her father, says Shobhana, she would have never got into family business. It was her grandfather T.S.Rajam, who brought her on board in 1982 when she started taking interest in the TVS school at Palanganatham. Shobhana who attended Noyes and OCPM School, apparently used to tell her friends that one day she would build the best school in Madurai with the best infrastructure.
“I never had a perfect dream project to execute,” she adds, “but one thing led to another.” Her love for children and passion for education turned the Lakshmi Vidya Sangham (LVS), a registered society formed by members of TVS family, into a leading education group in Madurai.
As the LVS chairperson, Shobhana is constantly expanding and innovating to provide quality education to 12,000 plus students enrolled in the nine institutions including exclusive rural and primary schools, one for children with special needs, a finishing school for engineering students, teachers’ training school, and those under the various boards (State/Matriculation and ICSE).
Always attentive to others, Shobhana’s plans and projects are need-based and well-calibrated and the single thought that drives it is ‘why should her city Madurai be deprived of it?’ In her business Shobhana oversees each detail to improve the quality of service -- from introducing modern technologies, encouraging performance-based work culture, recruiting youth and more women, establishing sustainable and profitable relationship with customers, suppliers and stakeholders.
In the schools that she runs she is equally sensitive and particular about providing the best infrastructure, faculty and child-friendly atmosphere. Her practical approach and financial prudence have only led to growth of the academic institutions and the company over the years. She joined the latter in 1986.
Shobhana inspires girls to think forward and create options for themselves. She is ever-willing to help and support women who seriously want to come up in life. “Women should be clear of what they want and break the glass ceiling. They should have emotional intelligence and not an emotional reaction to everything,” she says.
“A lot of it is your personal choice on how you interpret your responsibilities and what you view as your obligation,” says Shobhana, who also finds sympathising with women all the time is being unfair to men.
In sync with TVS family thinking, she desires a corporate culture of giving, rather than only earning profits. Professional to the core, she has everything in her -- honesty and humility, feelings and cravings to do something for others. Beneath her so-called hard exterior, Shobhana is very human and humorous. She laughs off her “Female Hitler” tag. “I am aware of the epithets I have earned being a non-conformist and a very blunt person,” she says and adds, “I appreciate people who have the guts to speak out.”
Though hard pressed for time, Shobhana does not neglect other social responsibilities. She founded the Arogya Welfare Trust to facilitate inclusive and participative community development through health care, education, skill development, general hygiene and women empowerment in villages around Madurai. Her love for light, Western and Classical music also made her take charge of the Madurai-based Sathguru Sangeetha Samajam encouraging younger artistes and honouring senior vidwans for their contribution to Carnatic music.
There is a soft and gentle side to the bold Shobhana, who is much in love with simple things in life. Recently when she went visiting the Table Mountain with her cousins, while everybody went gaga over the view of the city of Cape Town from the top, Shobhana yearned to return to her home in Madurai. “I have not known any other city better,” she says, “and I like being with myself.” Shobhana loves watching movies but hates visiting malls or partying. She would rather meditate to keep her focus and read books on philosophy and management. A nature lover, Shobhana draws comfort in being alone. But right now she has found new companions to share much of her time with at home. “Till two months ago I was scared of dogs and would jump on to a table seeing them,” she admits. But after her brothers gifted her two golden retriever and labrador pups, she is herself bemused at the changing equation!
Success doesn’t just pick a lucky few. It chooses those who make conscious decisions and seize the opportunities and implant their ideas for others to notice. Shobhana is one of them. Her success and her relative anonymity stem from the same source -- a steely resolve. “Everything comes to you with a purpose,” she says.