Tribute to Lila Poonawalla

Lila Poonawalla and I have followed a custom over the years. When we meet, we don’t shake hands, we simply give a big hug to each other. And that tells you the special bond that we have between us. In fact I would say that we form a great mutual admiration society!

I returned to India in 1976 and joined National Chemical Laboratory as a scientist. But I had my first interaction with Lila only when I became the Director of National Chemical Laboratory in 1989. Her first contact with me was when she approached me for holding the events of the Quality Circle Forum of India. She was the chairperson emeritus. The memories of my first meeting with her are very vivid – as her passion, commitment and vision showed up so definitively – as it has been in every encounter I had with her over the years, as I and she kept on working together on several common causes.

I will come to her exceptional professional and personal attributes later – but let me begin with Lila Poonawalla Foundation. As we know, she created this Foundation for supporting meritorious girls from resource poor families. There are Lila Fellows supported for post graduate studies. There are Lila girls supported for undergraduate studies in science and engineering. And there are Lila girls, who receive the scholarship in the 7th standard. So the Foundation spans across the whole spectrum.

Lila was kind enough to invite me to be the Chief Guest for a function, when I gave away the scholarships. It was the most memorable and touching experience of my life – as I saw girls from poor families speaking with confidence – not only about their own future — but the future of the nation that they wanted to build.

And I could relate to such early help so much, because I myself came from a poor family, studying under streetlights, walked barefoot to the school – but a Tata scholarship of Rs. 60 per month made me what I am today.

But there is an important point about the Lila Foundation – and that is the support `beyond the scholarship’ by mentoring, counselling, career advice, in short hand holding till the Lila Fellows and Girls make something of their life. To me, the value of Lila Foundation does not lie in the value of the scholarships in rupee terms – but the value that this `beyond scholarship’ model creates. In fact, to my mind, Lila Poonawalla Foundation is an exemplar that the rest of India, indeed the rest of the world should follow.

And then there is another big plus. The foundation is not run by a rich non-achiever, who has money to give – but by a great achiever with her heart in the right place. So for the girls, there is a role model that they can follows – they can aspire to become Lila Poonawalla.

Lila’s achievements are staggering. She is the second Indian woman to secure a professional degree in mechanical engineering. She showed how being a woman does not mean that one hits a glass ceiling – because within just couple of decades, she rose to hold the office of chairperson of Alfa Laval – becoming one of the first woman CEOs in India. No wonder she was called the `original first lady of the corporate world’ by Economic Times. During her tenure, the revenues grew by 500%, demonstrating her merit as an `exponential’ leader.

But the girls should not emulate Lila Poonawalla for being a great industrialist – but also as a great contributor to society at large. She is an industrialist, philanthropist and humanitarian rolled into one. Her interests are so varied. These move from welfare of rural communities to blind persons to wildlife to education to management – and you can keep on counting.

As a scientist, I remember both of us being the members of Science Advisory Committee to the Cabinet when Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was its Chairman. We scientists trend to drift away, but with Lila’s sharp and incisive professional lens, she always made us focus – always got us to ground realities – always emphasized how we should be part of a solution and not that of a problem.

Both I and Lila were members of the Board of Directors of KPIT (now KPIT Technologies) for nine years. And for nine years, we always sat next to each other! When board presentations were made, I found her astonishing ability to see what we all were unable to see. Her comments were always crisp, precise, direct and firm. I learnt so much from her – and continue to do so.

And I must emphasize that when we talk about Lila, we must talk about Lila and Firoz. They are amongst the most unique couples I have met – always together – in every possible way! I have been the beneficiary of their unbound affection.

And that is evident in my receiving from Lila and Firoz the very first message, whenever I received an honour, a prize, an accolade. I have preserved their messages over the years like one would do a rare treasure!

Finally, how can we describe Lila in couple of words? In 2003, she was awarded by the King of Sweden with the `Polar Star’ award. To me, that’s where she is – a Polar Star!

Lila was born on 16 September 1944 – so she has hit a milestone of 75 years. Here is to hope that this `Polar Star’ will continue to show us the way as an iconic, as a stellar, `Polar Star’ for the next 25 years – as she approaches her centenary.