Even though by virtue of her family background she got all the comforts of life, Rajshree maintains she always wanted to carve out her own identity. The idea of being confrontationalist and controversial gave me a thrill those days, she admits. But the thrill of breaking free and being unconventional, however, was shortlived when, in 1990, she lost her father in a freak accident at 52, in Amsterdam. Suddenly the responsibility of handling a Rs 60-crore textile business fell on her shoulders.
Just before her fathers death, the family had decided to expand into the sugar business. To help steer the company in this direction now that her father was no more, her relatives suggested that a male member from within the community be inducted as a professional. Rajshree, however, preferred to take on the mantle herself. She has come a long way since then and today, she can be counted amongst a handful of women CEOs in the country. She manages the Rs 400-crore Rajshree Group (named after her father Raj and mother Shree), which includes a travel agency, auto dealership, sugar, chemicals, energy and textile. The latest feather on her already crowded cap is that she is now director of the Coimbatore-based, export-oriented Ayurvedic products company, Kama.
Remembering her days of struggle when she was setting up the sugar factory, Rajshree says: For me, it was a challenge interacting with the farmers and convincing them to grow cane. It also meant day and night work, co-ordinating 22 sets of equipment manufacturers, erectors, cable layers, etc. It was an engineering feat that I was not accustomed to, but enjoyed in totality.
Let people be!
Recognising that she needed to upgrade her skills after she took over the business, Rajshree enrolled for an owner/president management programme at Harvard Business School in the US. Peer pressure, according to her, made her take a fresh look at her company and after completing the course, she made substantive changes in the group, which included better corporate governance.
Today, Rajshrees efforts are being reflected in the groups increased sales over the years and the fact that they have diversified substantially. One major move that she made in this direction is diversifying the sugar business by starting co-generation of electricity from the by-product of sugar, bagasse and industrial alcohol through another by-product, molasses. Then, the groups flagship, Rajshree Sugars and Chemicals also started manufacturing value-added brown sugar under the brand name, Demerara. Thats not all. Rajshrees textile business expanded from manufacturing cotton yarn to knitted fabric, and some unviable units were turned around.
But for her, the most fulfilling experience has been to see that what was barren land 13 years ago is now transformed into lush sugarcane farms with prosperous owners who supply cane to us. For me it was a great moment when a farmer wept with joy and told me I had made him a crorepati.
Rajshrees work got global recognition when she got the Global Leaders of Tomorrow award at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1996. Friends she made at that forum, which includes writers Ben Okri and Paul Coelho, became her mentors and impacted her life in their own way.
A woman CEO, she confesses has to do a lot more than her male counterpart. After all, she cannot be relieved of her responsibilities of being a mother, a wife and a daughter of ageing parents because she is running a business. Besides, a woman undergoes a whole lot of biological changes during a particular phase of her life, whether she is a housewife or a CEO, she observes. That apart, she doesnt like to differentiate between male and female CEOs: If a balance sheet made by a woman chairperson does not read different from that made by a male chairperson, why should the business community differentiate between a male or female CEO
After minding business and family, Rajshree also has the time to indulge her passion for art. This has led to her involvement with the Coimbatore-based Centre for Performing Arts, where she frequently promotes young artists, especially from rural areas. She also finds the time to scuba dive and photograph underwater life.
From her base in Coimbatore, Rajshree frequently travels, both for work and to stay in touch with her vast circle of friends. Whats more, when she travels, she takes along her cook to prepare authentic south Indian meals for her friends.