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July 24, 2013A while ago, a teenager asked me what I do for work. “I study the career paths of men and women, and the role organizations play in that journey,” I replied.

“Career paths? Like Google maps for work and stuff?” she asked.

I smiled. “Something like that!”

And that set me thinking about whether, indeed, we can create road maps for success and routes for advancement, marking detours and land mines along the way so that men and women may follow their career paths with time-tested guides. By reviewing the milestones marking the career trajectories of a few successful Indian women, I went looking for an “Indian Woman’s Map to Career Success.”

  • Does success breed success? Do only “privileged” women make it to the top in India?

Although it is rare for children from truly impoverished backgrounds to climb corporate or political ladders, India Inc. is by no means just for the moneyed or privileged few. So while Rajshree Pathy (MD/Chairperson of Rajshree Group of Companies), the daughter of an industrialist and politician, comes from an affluent background, Vinita Bali (MD of Britannia Industries Ltd.) hails from a “typical educated middle-class family,” with a well-read mother whose family had moved to India after Partition. In fact, a lot of successful women come from middle-class backgrounds; they are raised to be thrifty and mindful of their roots—and to grab opportunities for learning and advancement wherever they find them.

  • Power by inheritance or by creation?

An assumption that is common enough to warrant examination is that successful women owe their success to their family connections—or, to put it more crudely, because their daddies helped provide them with a career! There are certainly cases of inherited wealth and power amongst men and women alike, including but not limited to people like Dr. Preetha Reddy (MD of Apollo Hospitals), who is the daughter of Dr. Prathap Reddy, the pioneer of corporatized health care in India. Yet while the younger Dr. Reddy comes from a powerful family, she certainly wouldn’t have gotten the job if it weren’t for her hard work and impressive credentials! Other titans of business in India are entirely self-made, one remarkable example being Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and chairman of Biocon and one of India’s wealthiest and most successful women. Mazumdar-Shaw trained as a brewer, but ended up running one of the country’s most successful biotechnology firms.

  • “We don’t need no education?” Sorry, ma’am, looks like you do!

Ah, finally a stop on the “Success Roadmap” that is frequented by most successful women (and men). Almost all of the women whose profiles I looked at had a post-graduate (Masters or higher) degree. It may be that in a journey chock full of barriers (stereotypes, lack of inclusive and flexible workplaces, lack of sponsors and role models, lack of developmental opportunities), successful women must make sure they don’t add “lack of educational qualifications” to the list.

  • Supportive family ecosystems

In a context where work-life issues seem to take a serious toll on women’s aspirations and chances to advance, it is not surprising to hear frequent references to a supportive husband or family when women discuss their journeys to the top. Whether it is encouraging their wives, mothers, or daughters to take up higher positions, rearranging their own careers, or just being by their sides through ups and downs, supportive husbands and families go a long way towards ensuring Indian women’s success at work.

  • The virtuous cycle

Once women have reached their destinations they don’t stop; they keep on giving. Whether it’s donating their fortunes to philanthropic causes, becoming involved in government/policy efforts and NGO-run initiatives to help the underprivileged, or supporting other CSR initiatives, most successful women leave a legacy outside of their careers—thus reinforcing Catalyst research on a key aspect of the business case for diversity.

After taking a careful look at many of India’s top businesswomen, I concluded that there is no single, surefire route to success for women in India. Each successful woman blazes her own unique path, and brings along thousands with her. She makes it easier for those who want to follow in her footsteps, while also showing others that it’s all right to go where no one has gone before. It’s a new day for women in India, and there are many new maps waiting to be drawn.