“She Walks, She Leads” by Gunjan Jain

She Walks, She Leads” is in my opinion a somewhat misleading title for Gunjan Jain’s outstanding book profiling 24 of India’s most famous ladies of recent times. If not for the by line, “Women Who Inspire India” one might wonder what the book was about going just by the title. I would have opted for, “Trailblazers: 24 Women Who Inspired India” or something to that effect.

Be that as it may, this 520 page book published recently by Penguin-Viking is a trailblazer of sorts. I can’t readily recall anyone having catalogued so succinctly but in such an interesting manner the lives of 24 women who achieved great success in contemporary India, almost always struggling against great odds. Without exception all of them have become household names in India, a country where there is a huge need for role models. This book provides an intimate glimpse of the lives of these women.I liked the way Gunjan Jain  describes her thoughts on how she initiated this book project. She started with a short list of 200 women and finally whittled it down to 24. The criteria she used is interesting too. She asked, “How has she contributed to change in the larger social context?” and “What can a reader learn from this achiever’s story that cannot be learnt from anyone else in her field?”

The gist of the book is condensed in 8 success values that are common to all the 24 chosen achievers. I shall not list them all, but they include, as may be expected, “Swim Against The Tide” and “Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone.”

What I loved most about the book was the format used by Ms. Jain. Each profile begins with a chapter about the lady concerned, written based on the author’s interviews with her subjects, buttressed by her research on their lives and achievements. This is followed by questions about that person answered by someone who knows them extremely well. This lends greater authenticity to the book giving us, as it does, insights into the person which otherwise we may not have got to know about

The achievers are drawn from 7 different interest areas:

In “Altruism & Other Interests”, we meet a formidable team of achievers which include Nita Ambani, Rajashree Birla, and Sudha Murty. Kiran Mazumdar Shah, Indra Nooyi, and Chanda Kochhar are a few of those who have shone in “Corporate, Banking & Law.” From the world of ” Entertainment” we have Priyanka Chopra, and Shabana Azmi, while Ritu Kumar and Anamika Khanna feature in, ” Fashion, the Arts & Empowerment.” The fifth area is the “Media” profiling Shobhana Bhartia and Indu Jain, while the sixth and last on “Sports” features 3 sportswomen who choose themselves by virtue of their achievements, Mary Kom, Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal.

Apart from the lessons we learn from reading about their lives and how they met the diverse challenges that faced them, here are some snippets that have stayed in my mind:

  • Nita Ambani’s push towards developing basketball as a popular sport in India has seen Reliance Foundation Jr NBA program reach 2 million children across india within 3 years of its launch
  • Food is a passion for Rajashree Birla, a woman of immense grace, dignity and compassion
  • Sudha Murty’s credo is that philanthropy is a personal and private matter
  • Yasmeen Premji’s book, ” Days of Gold and Sepia” took twenty years in the making
  • There are few better connected and networked people-men or women- in India or elsewhere,  than Parmeshwar Godrej
  • Indra Nooyi’s marvellous ability to be a good wife, mother, daughter, and daughter-in-law apart from being the CEO and Chairperson of PepsiCo
  • The person who stemmed the run on the ICICI Bank in September 2008 was none other than Chanda Kochhar, then the Jt MD.
  • Arnavaz “Anu” Aga had to fight against cruel fate and shared the lessons she learnt from those terrible mishaps
  • Naina Lal Kidwai was at 23, the youngest of her class at the Harvard Business School, when she went there as the first ever woman from India to complete the prestigious MBA program
  • Kiran Mazumdar Shaw became an “accidental entrepreneur”. She wanted to become a brewer in keeping with her professional qualifications gained in Australia, but nobody gave her a job in India
  • Zia Mody, despite all her qualifications and professional achievements was considered a misfit as a young woman junior in the Bombay High Court soon after her return from the United States
  • Swati Piramal, a doctor by profession, became the first woman President of the Assocham , one of India’s most respected industry associations, in its history of 93 years
  • Priyanka Chopra did not know that her mother and brother had entered her in the Miss India contest. Not only did she win but went on, shortly after, to become Miss World at 17.
  • Mira Nair went to Harvard on a scholarship with a view to study drama but finally majored in documentary film making
  • Shabana Azmi was a rarity in being a film star who was appreciated for her active participation as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha
  • Kareena Kapoor Khan’s maternal grandmother ( the mother of film star of yesteryear, Babita,)  was an English lady called Barbara
  • Anamika Khanna was one of three Indian designers to be invited for the very first time to show at the prestigious Paris Fashion Week in 2007
  • One of Ritu Kumar’s biggest contributions has been her book, “Costumes and Textiles of Royal India”
  • The Sakhi Manch founded by Jyotsna Darda has grown in 16 years to have more than 250,000 members largely in Maharashtra and Goa
  • The World Economic Forum at Davos named media tycoon, Shobhana Bhartia the “Global Leader of Tomorrow” way back in 1996
  • For Indu Jain of the Times Group spirituality and corporate social responsibility have always gone hand in hand
  • When Mary Kom won her first championship she had not yet told her parents about her love for boxing as in those days that sport was considered taboo for women
  • In 2003, Sania Mirza won the Wimbledon Girls’ Doubles at 16, the youngest and first ever Indian girl to have won a Grand Slam
  • Both Harvir Singh Nehwal and Usha Rani, were accomplished badminton players and so it was natural that their daughter, Saina Nehwal took to the game as a child

Not many have taken up such an ambitious book project and made a success of it as has Gunjan Jain. This book is eminently readable. It inspires readers to dream big and achieve those dreams. In conclusion, Ms Jain has said there are no plans to a sequel to this book as of now. I do hope, however, that Ms. Jain does write one more. This time focussing on the not so well-known women in India who too have become role models and super achievers by dint of sheer merit and dedication.


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