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India needs many more women billionaires: Meher Pudumjee of Thermax

The chairperson of Thermax and a second-generation entrepreneur, Pudumjee talks about the gap between men and women billionaires, reasons for the gap, and why India needs more women billionaires

Samidha Jain
Published: Jul 19, 2023 09:36:18 AM IST
Updated: Jul 19, 2023 09:56:08 AM IST

India needs many more women billionaires: Meher Pudumjee of ThermaxMeher Pudumjee, the chairperson of Thermax Ltd. Image: Neha Mithbawkar for Forbes India

Meher Pudumjee, the chairperson of Thermax Ltd, is carrying forward her mother Anu Aga’s legacy as the chairperson of the company that focuses on providing energy and environmental solutions. She holds a postgraduate degree in chemical engineering from the Imperial College of Science & Technology, London, and began her journey with Thermax as a trainee engineer in August 1990. One year later, together with her husband Pheroz, Pudumjee assumed the responsibility of revitalising a Thermax subsidiary in the UK. She transitioned to the role of a non-executive director in January 2001 and was appointed as the vice chairperson in 2002. Following her mother's retirement, she took on the position of chairperson in October 2004.

Pudumjee represented India at the Asian Business Women's Conference in Osaka in 2006. In recognition of her professional achievements, dedication to society, and potential to contribute to shaping the future, the World Economic Forum honoured her as a Young Global Leader in 2008.

In conversation with Forbes India for the 2022 rich list issue, in which her mother ranks at number 88 with a net worth of $2.23 billion, Meher Pudumjee spoke about the gap between men and women billionaires, reasons for the gap, and why India needs more women billionaires. Edited excerpts:  

Q. What are some of the reasons for a considerable difference in the number of women billionaires as compared to men in India as well as worldwide?
I believe the answer may lie in the fact that in, most family businesses, the company and wealth go down from the father to the son. Hence, it would be difficult to find women who are billionaires as compared to men. Also, women entrepreneurs find it more difficult to raise funds as compared to their male counterparts, which makes it difficult for them to grow and succeed. Moreover, over centuries, the messages a woman receives as a child from her family and socially is to be prepared to be a dutiful wife and caring mother, whereas her brothers are encouraged to join the business or start out as entrepreneurs. Hence the probability of women becoming billionaires is that much smaller. However, it is changing over time, especially when women, who are the sole heirs to family businesses, inherit by default. 

Also read: Gender equality still a far cry: report

Q. Do you think it is tougher for women to raise funds/capital as compared to men? If yes, what are some of the reasons that lead to this?
I inherited our family business and have not had to raise capital for a new venture. However, I have heard it is tougher for women to raise capital as compared to men. I guess it's because those giving the capital are mostly men and so they find comfort in giving it to other men—since it is easier to get to know them, socialise with them and, therefore, trust them with their money.

It may also be because many men are uncomfortable with women heading businesses—is it because of their male chauvinism and, therefore, genuinely do not believe women can be at the helm of an organisation? Again, social norms playing out? I am not too sure.

Also read: We need more women in leadership positions shaping policy in AI: Wipro's Ivana Bartoletti

Q. A report by Deloitte mentioned that about 17 percent board seats in India were held by women in 2021. The same was about 43.2 percent in France (highest), 30 percent in the UK, and about 24 percent in the US. Why do you think that this doesn’t necessarily translate to women leading companies?
First, not all directors on boards necessarily make good entrepreneurs. The skill set for a board member is quite different to that of an entrepreneur—man or woman. A good entrepreneur may be an excellent board member, however, the reverse may not be true. Second, I also feel the number of women on boards in India has recently ramped up because of the mandatory requirement of an independent woman director on listed and certain other boards. This itself is a new skillset women are acquiring, training for and learning; and again may not be suited to become entrepreneurs.

Q. Do you think that now, going ahead, things are changing for women in terms of raising capital, individually handling companies without a family backing, making profits, and eventually turning billionaires?
Yes, things are changing, but very slowly. There are only a couple of women whose names come to mind, when I think of those that have become billionaires without any family backing. Which means that India needs many more.

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