Nita Ambani: The first lady of Indian business

Nita Ambani's role as the first lady of Indian business is just one part of her busy life

Published: May 4, 2016
Image: Rajat Ghosh for Forbes

Ahead of its wider public rollout of the much-awaited 4G phone service, Reliance Jio Infocomm, the telecom arm of oil and gas giant Reliance Industries, held a December soft launch at a sprawling 500-acre corporate campus outside of Mumbai. Soft but big—the company controlled by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person, had 37,000 staff on site for the event, and more than 75,000 others from Reliance outposts were present by video link.

The debut took place on the eve of the group’s legendary founder Dhirubhai Ambani’s birth anniversary. With its attendant Bollywood glamour—superstar Shah Rukh Khan, Jio’s brand ambassador, presided as master of ceremonies—the gala was orchestrated by Nita Ambani, the billionaire’s wife, who has been involved with the telecom’s marketing and branding strategy.

In what is a first for any Ambani venture, the 4G service doesn’t deploy the Reliance name in its branding but is simply called Jio, which translates to ‘live life’ in Hindi. The well-recognised roundel logo of the parent has also been dispensed with. “This is a brave new world for us, so we decided, after much debate, to break away from the old,” explains Nita from Reliance’s headquarters in South Mumbai.

She occupies a desk in an open office that houses Reliance’s sports business, which she also oversees. While Ambani still works from his father’s old corner room on a higher floor, Nita says she prefers mingling with the crew.
 
This new open culture was ushered in at the urging of their US-educated twins, Isha and Akash, who work in an open office on Jio’s campus. Isha, who studied at Yale and worked briefly at McKinsey, is involved in marketing; Akash, an undergrad from Brown, works on the tech side. “I’m enjoying mentoring them,” says Nita.

In a country where billionaire wives tend to remain in the shadow of their husbands, Nita’s rising profile in the Reliance empire is unusual and earns her a debut spot on our Power Businesswomen ranking this year. Reliance is among India’s most valuable companies, with $57 billion in revenues (and now owns Network18, a licensee of Forbes Media that publishes Forbes India).

“Nita provides the ‘software’ to Reliance’s hardware culture to create a capability that works. As Reliance becomes more consumer-facing, her soft touch assumes importance,” says Adil Zainulbhai, a former chairman of McKinsey in India, who is a Reliance independent board director.

As Reliance’s non-executive director, Nita has no formal operational role in the conglomerate that her husband runs as chairman and managing director. But it’s no secret that bhabhi (Hindi for “brother’s wife”)—as she is called by insiders—is a power near the throne.  

Writer and publisher Shobhaa De, a family friend, says Nita has transformed herself into the first lady of Indian business. “Her native intelligence and quick grasping power have helped her.”

Nita juggles multiple roles: Apart from Reliance’s sports ventures, which include the Mumbai Indians cricket team and a joint venture with sports management firm IMG, she chairs the Reliance Foundation, the company’s charitable arm, and oversees an elite Mumbai K–12 school named after her late father-in-law that she founded in 2003. She also sits on the board of EIH, the company behind the Oberoi luxury hotel chain, of which Reliance owns 18 percent.

“Over the years Nita has broadened her interests and evolved to become Mukesh’s anchor. She goes about things quietly and covers a great distance,” observes longtime banker to Reliance, KV Kamath, the former boss of ICICI Bank, who’s president of the New Development Bank sponsored by the BRIC nations, in Shanghai.

While friends maintain that Nita has worked diligently into her role, she got room to grow after Ambani and his younger brother Anil divvied up the family empire and went their separate ways a decade ago. The once-warring siblings are now business partners: Jio has a tower-sharing pact with Anil’s Reliance Communications.

Reliance Jio’s soft-launch opening in December
Reliance Jio’s soft-launch opening in December

Nita, who has never publicly commented on the family conflict, won’t be drawn into it now. Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, who knew Nita in college as a friend of his sister, remarks that, “It couldn’t have been an easy journey, but she’s conducted herself with grace.”

For his part, Mukesh says he’s “particularly proud of her continuing contribution to sharpening our focus in our consumer businesses, whether it is retail or Jio. Nita brings together talented people, weaves them into a team and works with a missionary spirit to achieve her goals.”

Nita insists that apart from the six years she spent as a full-time mother to her three children, she’s always been a working spouse. “For me it’s 11 hours a day, 6 days a week,” she says during one of her thrice-weekly visits to the Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in South Mumbai.

The foundation took the 91-year-old hospital into its fold in 1998 and after securing all approvals, funded an extensive restoration and expansion that included the construction of an adjoining 19-storey wing. The makeover was supervised by Nita, as was its gala reopening in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She says her aim was to create top-shelf health care services and not just for the well-off. One-tenth of the 345 beds are reserved for the poor, and it operates free mobile health clinics in the neighbourhood.  

The hospital has collaborations with institutions such as Johns Hopkins, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2014, Nita joined the board of visitors of MD Anderson, whose president, Ronald DePinho, calls her a “force of nature. She’s a strategic thinker but is also very down to earth.” Beyond an exchange of doctors, Nita would like to introduce mass screening for early detection of the disease. “That could save so many lives,” she says.

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Image: Manav Manglani / Reuters
(From left) Mukesh Ambani, actor Aamir Khan and wife Kiran Rao with Nita Ambani


As she tours the hospital, greeting patients with a polite namaste, Nita discloses that she has personally interviewed each of the 400 nursing staff. Similarly, she interviewed all the teachers who work for the Ambani school. “I’m paranoid about quality and tend to get into crazy details, but it pays off.”

These lessons were imbibed, she says, from her late father-in-law and husband who shared an obsession with global quality and scale. The choosiness figured rather directly: The late patriarch spotted her at an Indian classical dance performance—she’s a trained Bharatanatyam dancer—and thought she would be a suitable wife for Mukesh Ambani.  

Daughter of a Birla group executive, Nita grew up in middle-class environs in suburban Mumbai. With an undergrad degree in commerce, she had ambitions: “I told Mukesh right from the start that I didn’t want to be just an ornament.”

After their marriage in 1985, Nita enrolled for a diploma in special education and worked as a teacher for a few years. “People wondered why I was working, but Mukesh encouraged me.” She took a complete break after the premature birth of her twins in 1991 following a difficult IVF pregnancy. “They needed a lot of attention,” says fertility doctor Firuza Parikh, whose husband was Ambani’s college buddy. “Nita had her priorities in place.”

Six years later, she was back in action. Ambani, with his father’s backing, enlisted her help to build a company township for staff at Jamnagar in Gujarat, where Reliance was constructing a giant refining complex. The offer made her nervous—“I had zero experience”—but she was motivated by the challenge of creating an oasis in an arid zone.

Over the next three years she commuted twice a week to the complex. “It was a punishing schedule. I was the only woman there and everyone called me ‘sir’,” she recalls.

Setbacks such as a cyclone had to be overcome, because, as she learnt, “Reliance is an execution machine. There are daily targets, and deadlines are sacrosanct.” Today the Jamnagar complex boasts a well-planned, tree-lined township for its 17,000 residents. An adjoining orchard of more than 100,000 mango trees is now home to a variety of birds.

That success established her cred, and she got the green light plus a $4 million cheque for her dream project: To start a top-quality K–12 programme from scratch. The Dhirubhai Ambani International School has more than 1,000 students and 150 teachers—and is ranked as Mumbai’s top school. As for criticism that it’s an elite school, Nita notes it conducts evening classes for street kids.

Ace hoteliers PRS Oberoi and Vikram Oberoi with Nita Ambani
Image: Getty Images
Ace hoteliers PRS Oberoi and Vikram Oberoi with Nita Ambani

An accidental entry into sports made her a national figure and the face of Reliance. In 2008, Reliance splashed out $112 million for a cricket team in the Indian Premier League (IPL), snatching icons such as Sachin Tendulkar. When the team floundered in the first two seasons, Ambani got her involved. “I resisted initially as I didn’t know much about the game,” she admits.

In short order she immersed herself and became a fixture on the cricket circuit. Mumbai Indians went on to win two IPL championship titles. Former team captain Tendulkar says that Nita’s total involvement made a “huge difference”. He recalls that she got the team to bond by organising an offsite at a suburban hotel where Ambani was also present.

Veteran sports journalist Ayaz Memon observes, “The Ambanis aren’t afraid to spend money for the right talent. For them it’s a matter of prestige not just to own a team but also to win.” In the joint venture with IMG, Reliance has expanded into basketball, tennis and football. Education and sports, avers Nita, “should go hand in hand.” She bemoans a lack of sports infrastructure and that India produces so few Olympic champions.

Nita maintains that her children are free to follow their career interests. She cites the example of youngest son, Anant, an undergrad student at Brown University, who has set up an animal shelter in Jamnagar. The Ambanis are wildlife enthusiasts, and their holidays are usually in safari parks such as the Mombo camp in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve.

The Ambanis have been criticised for not having personally been givers commensurate with Mukesh Ambani’s $22 billion wealth. The Reliance Foundation, founded by Nita in 2010, is entirely funded by the company, not the family. It is also said that the activities of the foundation are not far-reaching enough. “Education and health care for the elite are no big achievements,” says one banker dismissively.

Nita points to the foundation’s work with small farmers in 531 villages in a dozen states through a programme called Bharat India Jodo, which seeks to bridge the rural-urban divide.

Ambani and Nita also faced criticism when they moved out of their family home four years ago to Antilla, a 27-storey sky palace in South Mumbai, billed as the world’s most expensive home for its $1 billion estimated cost. Nita says the cost is vastly exaggerated but makes no apologies for the tower residence whose construction she supervised.  

Her new interest is the conservation of Indian art forms and making them more widely known internationally. To that end, the foundation sponsored an exhibition of traditional pichwai paintings of Shrinathji, the Ambani family deity, at the Art Institute of Chicago last year. She funded the retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi, an Indian artist, at the new Met Breuer in New York.  

Back home she’s planning an exhibition space for travelling art shows to be housed in a massive convention centre that she’s building on a 19-acre plot close to her Mumbai school. To be opened in 2018, it will include exhibition areas, a 2,000-seat theatre, retail spaces, offices and residences.

Though she has lately taken up Buddhist chanting “to attain balance,” she remains hyperactive: Still to come are a school for children with disabilities and a liberal arts university.

Nita admits that a controlling streak can overcome her. In the early days of the Ambani school, she would stand at the gate to check who came to fetch the students from school. But she credits Ambani with steering her to delegate more. “He uses a floodlight,” she says, “while I tend to a spotlight.”

With so much on her plate she realises she must let go. “I’m more motivated than ever before, but I’m still learning.”

(This story appears in the 13 May, 2016 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Datar Singh Shekhawat

    Nita Ambani's role as the first lady of Indian business is just one part of her busy life. May Indian business community be very happy ..

    on May 10, 2016
  • Kay Martin

    I don't agree with the premise of the article. This is pandering to rich and powerful. It is not surprise that she tops the list after marrying a billionaire, most of which is inherited from his dad. Find real leaders. Not Nita.

    on May 4, 2016
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