Meera Sanyal on women, governance, and India



About Meera Sanyal

Meera Sanyal is a banking professional in India. In her banking career spanning 30 years, Meera worked with RBS for the past 6 years and with ABN AMRO Bank for 15 years. She is President of LiberalsIndia for Good Governance – the Indian Liberal group, a not for profit think tank, that provides a platform for like minded Indian Liberals and Active Citizens to work towards improving the quality of life and state of Governance in India. Meera is on the Board of PRADAN, a NGO that provides entrepreneurship skills to the poorest women in rural India.

Meera serves on many more committees and boards, across the world and regularly travels to meet and inspire people. There’s a lot more of her thoughts/and journey at her website!


Interview transcript


Mrs. Meera:  I’m so glad to meet you because I think that it’s people like you who are the real leaders.  That’s what we need more of in this world.   A lot of people have a passion and they think, “I will follow that passion later after I’ve finished my studies, after I’ve married, or after I’ve succeeded in my career.”  Sometimes afterwards never comes.

It’s wonderful to meet you.  I’m very pleased to be with you.  What I suggest is a compilation of what I say to you and what I can send you.  Some of my answers may be long and you may not be able to finish in 15 or 20 minutes.  What I will suggest to you is to just give me the 4-5 questions you have and I will give a brief answer and send you more information or something that is published.  The first would be to describe my journey or my story.



Dhanya:  The second would be about banking and how you decided that that was the career for you.  Was there was any particular milestone where you thought this is what you were going to do and this is what you were going to stick with?

The third question is regarding your community involvement.  I’ve always noticed that it’s a trend among the people we meet that they’re almost always involved very actively in their community.  I want to know how that started as well.  When exactly did you decide that you’d rather spend some of your time doing community projects?

My fourth question would be about the public life that you have had so far, your 2009 journey and also currently your Aam Aadmi interactions.  Do you think this going to work out?  I’m so excited to see Aam Aadmi here and everybody supporting it.  Is this really going to work out?  I want to be a part of it.  I’m so excited to hear your opinion on that.

I’m sure you’ve faced many challenges as a woman doing all of this.  What do you think about that, especially coming from a country like India?  I think that closely relates to the work that you’ve done with the women of our country about building women in the entrepreneurship sector. How can we help build this section?  How can I help sitting here 2000 miles away as well?  Sometimes I think that I should just come back and start working here.  I would like to know about that as well.

The very last one is what is your message to young people like me?  What do you think we can do in the meantime?  I see this as the learning phase of my life so I’m learning how to run an organization or a store right now.  I see myself coming back to the country in a couple of years.  In the meantime what can I do to be part of all the action that’s happening?



Mrs. Meera:   We’ll start with the last question in terms of the message to young people like ourselves.  I think my message would be that I believe India is really at a tipping point at this moment in time.   In my experiences of the village which you have been following and which I will share more about, the one conclusion I have arrived at is that Indians are very hard-working, very entrepreneurial, and very innovative people.  They are also very generous, decent, and honest.  The current image we have of ourselves is as a very corrupt and very chaotic country. Many people think that, that is all we are capable of.

I have certainly not found that.  I don’t find that in the teams of people who work with me, I haven’t found that in the villages, I don’t find it amongst young people.  What is true, however, is that our leadership of our country especially in the political space doesn’t reflect these qualities.  Unfortunately there’s a very small group of people who are, I’m sad to say, very corrupt.  Quite a lot of them are criminals.  Many of them are selfish.  They are just looking at things from their own point of view and that has given the country a very bad name.  I believe my message to the young people is that this is the golden age of India.  Our country has everything.  We have abundant demand, we have abundant talent.  There is no shortage of capital.  We have everything going for our country but we need to do something about government and leadership.

You are living in Singapore and you see what good governments and good leadership can do for a country which has no natural resources.  You can see how Singapore is prospering; how the people are growing too.  Look at the state of ordinance, of law and order, and of safety.  These are all things to be admired.  Where do they come from?  They come from good leadership and good governments.

My message would be two things.  One, this is the golden age of India.  Two, Indians are very hard-working, entrepreneurial, and innovative people.  Three, the future is yours.  You are the future of India.  If you want the future to be that golden future, then we must take a stand on the type of governance we want. We must vote.  We must vote responsibly for people who are clean and competent – people with ideas, integrity, and intellect – and then the country will change.  We as citizens have a very important role to play.  We must have zero tolerance for corruption, for criminalization, and for communism.  We must demand a better government and then we will get it.  When we have better leadership, nothing can hold India back.  That would be my message to the young people.  Does that make sense?



Dhanya:  It makes a lot of sense.



Mrs. Meera:  How can young people like you participate who are not based in the country?  It is now becoming a virtual world and we are communicating instantaneously across several thousand kilometers.  It is possible for all of us to participate in this way.   You have to be Indian in your thinking; in your heart and you can contribute absolutely to your country.  Don’t feel like you have to be in India to contribute.  I think you are contributing by what you’re doing.  You’re a great ambassador for India.  India needs women ambassadors.  Unfortunately the image that Indian people have sometimes is very negative.  But young people like yourself can portray the image of the potential of India, of what the real India is, of the soul and the heart of India.  That’s what I think you should do, and indeed keep trying to participate and keep trying to help which you are already doing.  You are spreading the word, spreading the message.  There will come a time in your life when you may be able to relocate to India and contribute in a physical way.  Until then please continue to do what you are doing as an ambassador for India and in the virtual space.

Let us talk about challenges as a woman.  I believe that for the open woman, for people like us, India is actually a place where there is a lot of gender equality.  Is your mother a professional woman?



Dhanya:  No she is not.

Mrs. Meera:  Is she educated?  She would have studied?

Dhanya:  Yes.



Mrs. Meera:  I’m sure you will find that people in your mother’s generation, many of them will be working.  Some of them have chosen not to work.  It’s a personal choice.  I think you have certainly noticed from your own family that in our middle class society, girls are given the same opportunities as boys.  At least I was and I’m finding the same of lots of my peers.  Women are given quite a fair status, quite a fair opportunity across the board.  It’s quite interesting.

You know I’m a member of council for women business leaders.  I’ve been interacting with women across the world and I find that actually in many parts of the world there is no equal pay for equal work.  That to me is horrifying because of course in India that is a matter of law.  There is no discrimination in the law. I don’t know if there is any discrimination in the urban middle class environment.  Of course there are many challenges for women in the poorer strata of society and I don’t want to downplay this.  So when you ask what the challenges of women in India are, it depends.  It depends where you are, it depends what your socio-economic strata is.  It depends on what your religion, caste, community are.  All of these things make a difference.  For the urban middle class young woman I believe India is a place where there is equality of opportunity.

However, there are still challenges.  These challenges come from the fact that the woman is the primary caregiver.  A lot of people say “She’s just a housewife.”

Well let me tell you this: being a housewife and being a mother is an important job.  What happens to a woman who is working is that if she has a young child, she still has to look after that child.  If she has a sick parent or in-law she still has to look after that person.  One way or the other, when she goes home the responsibility of making sure that food is on the table, that the house is clean, that the dishes are washed, and that the clothes are right invariably falls to the lot of women.  That’s not just in India, that’s everywhere in the world.

The real challenge is how does one balance these things?  How does a woman balance the demands of being the primary caregiver and having a career?  Those challenges are the same everywhere in the world.  In one way, women in India have an advantage.  What is that advantage?  The advantage is that we have parents who are very supportive and in-laws who are very supportive, so you have family support.  The second is that we are lucky we are still getting domestic help which is affordable.  It’s not like some countries in the world where domestic help costs so much that you really can’t afford it.  We have those advantages in India.  One of things I always said in my young colleagues is that if you have the opportunity to stay with parents or with in-laws, grab that opportunity with both hands. There is no better person to look after your children than you parents or your in-laws and vice versa.

It is such a wonderful thing to have a joint family.  There is nothing better for the health of the parents than having grandchildren to love them and discuss with them.  It takes away the loneliness; it takes away the problems of safety, health and all of those things.  I think the joint family system is a great advantage.  Unfortunately we have all these saas-bahu tv shows which I believe are very negative and portray a bad image.  I would say that that’s a big advantage.  I think that as working women in India, we have some advantages.

What we need more are companies that have flexible policies.  There will always come a time when some child is sick or a parent is ill, sometimes for a prolonged period.  A company should have flexible policies not just for women, but for all employees.  A father may also need to take care of some things.    We should have flexible policies in the workplace which allow women, but also men to participate.  I think that’s something that we should do. In my organization, I’ve tried to put these in place, and I’m very happy to say that many organizations in India are now beginning to look at this in a very proactive and good way.  This is good for the individual because they can continue their career.  It’s also good for the company because you can then retain the best talent whether that’s men or women.  That’s the issue on the challenges.



In terms of banking, how did I choose it as a career and what were the milestones?  To be quite candid with you, I’m an accidental banker.  When I finished my MBA in France, I studied at INSEAD, I came back and looked around at what I could do and the job offers that I received.  The job offer I got from Grindlays Bank seemed like the most interesting and best offer, and so I chose that.  I have to tell you that this is now my 30th year in banking.  I will be stepping down at the end of December, so that’s one phase of my life over.  I have enjoyed every one of these 30 years.  I’ve enjoyed all the ups and downs from the regional financial crisis, global financial crisis, Indian economy growing, and the Asian economy growing.  I learned a lot and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I don’t know whether there will be any milestones but I feel very privileged being able to step down at a time where I’ve experienced all aspects of banking – to have been the CEO and chairperson of RBS Bank in India, to be on the councils of the FICCI and the CII, and to be on Hillary Clinton’s council.  I feel very privileged to have had these opportunities and very grateful too, because it has been a wonderful journey.



Dhanya:  What do you think was that special quality that you had that has led to all of this?  Do you think you can point to something and say, “I am always doing this, and that’s why I’ve achieved this?”



Mrs. Meera:  A lot of people ask me what my motto in life or driving principle is.  This is something that I learned from my father and something our father always used to tell us.  He used to say, “Do your best and leave the rest to God.”

I think that is a defining thing for my life because banking has seen ups and downs, it has seen crisis.  The Indian economy has seen ups and downs.  In many ways, in all of our lives there will be times when things are going very well and times when things are going very badly.  There will be times when you do your best and everything goes wrong, and there will be times when you did nothing and everything goes right.  That is the way life is.  One needs the attitude that you have to put in your best.  You have to work hard; you have to do the best that you can at that moment in time.  We also have to have a little bit of humility to accept that luck, chance, and the hand of God are very important.  I believe in all of those things.  That has been my motto.

You asked about community involvement.  It’s very interesting that you say that so many leaders whom you have interviewed have that aspect of their life.  The most recent job I held was as CEO and chairperson of RBS in India which I have been doing for the last six years.  I had three parts of that job.  One was the CEO of the bank.  That is the front office; the customer facing side, the revenue side, etc.

The second was heading the global share processing center in India which employs over 12-13,000 people. That’s a very exciting part because you have young people and it’s being a grand ambassador for India in one way, presenting the high quality of their services.

The third role that I had was as chairperson of the RBS Foundation.  Through the foundation we do the community work or the CSR work.  I have to tell you that that has been the happiest part of my job.  I’ve enjoyed all parts of my job, but whenever I’m having a difficult day, then I just go to my memories of what we do at the foundation and that lifts my spirit.  I have really enjoyed that.

How did that start?  I’ll give you a brief answer.  In the early part of 2000, we started a Micro Finance program at the bank in India.  At that time the bank was ABN AMRO and I mentored that program. We started in the early part of 2000 and over the years we have financed (through Micro Finance) about 650,000 women across the country.

I used to love to go out into the field meeting these women and it has made a big difference.  At one time our bank held about 25% of the market for all of Micro Finance.  Then it became a part of the regulatory environment.  The banks said that all banks should do it and gradually the share of the pie increased and many people were doing it.  I’m sure if you’re following the sector you know what a lot of problems have arisen through the Andhra Pradesh crisis, etc.  I am very sorry about that because I think it can really have a powerful impact on women’s lives.

Nevertheless as we were doing Micro Finance we found that there were women who were so poor that they were at subsistence level.  They could not come to the level of being an entrepreneur.  So we set up the foundation which is the RBS Foundation and we said that we will make outright grants to these women.  In the process of giving the grants, we will teach them a livelihood.   We won’t give them money, but we will give them things through which they can start a small business.  We will train them and we help them to learn and provide access to markets, etc.  For example, we would give a woman 10 goats, or 20 pigs, or 50 chicks, or 2 beehives and with that we would give veterinary assistance.  How do you feed them?  How do you take the product?  How do you bring it to market?  We taught them how to be a little entrepreneur.

Over the last 5-6 years we have financed and trained over 175,000 women like this.  It is just fantastic because the results have been great.  I would say between 60-75% of the women we have financed have turned out to be successful.  And of course, 35-40% have not worked depending on where it is.  Mostly I think that’s a very good result.  Our grants are very small.  They are 5000-1000 rupees.  Within a year some of these women were earning 60-75,000 rupees.  It is just magical.  I have really enjoyed it, I have learned a lot.

India is a very poor country and we have grown up in this mindset of charity.  My learning is that you can give a person fish, or you can teach them to fish, or you can create an environment where they become successful fishing people.  If you can’t do anything else, definitely to teach a person to fish and she can feed herself and her children for a lifetime.  The goal of the government and the entrepreneurs is to create an environment where we can have thousands or millions of fisherwomen.  We have people who are startup learners who know how to do it themselves.  They can create wealth and jobs; they can succeed.  That has been my journey in community and I can tell you I have loved every minute of it.

Your last question was on public life.  This goes back to the first answer which I gave you in terms of our message.  In my story you will see that the catalyst for me to do this was the 2008 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.  People like us are great critics; we are great analysts.  We have the solutions to all the problems.  But, we don’t roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.  What I have learned through the community work is that an individual can make a big difference.  An organization or a foundation can make a big difference.  The most powerful impact can be had by the government.  As individuals, you and I can touch 500 lives each, or 75,000 lives.  We can touch 650,000 lives.  That’s not bad at all.  That’s good.  But the government can touch millions and millions of people.  If we do the right things there, we can have a real and significant impact.  That’s the reality of the matter.

I personally would say that this is something I have started a journey on.  As you know I am stepping down from the bank because now that I’ve done 30 years of banking, although I loved every minute of it, I’m now dedicating the next 30 years or for as long as I am alive to the service of my country.  I think we must attract people with the right intentions; people with ideas, intellect, and integrity into politics so that we can create better governments and we can have better outcomes.  As I said, I started with the story of Singapore and I would like to close with the story of Singapore because we need a government like that.  A government which looks to the welfare and the benefit of the people and really works in a proactive, highly competent, highly efficient manner to make sure that people’s lives are improved.  That’s what we need.  That is my journey.

Regarding the Aam Aadmi party, as we speak we are seeing the elections.  From the bottom of my heart I hope they do well because what happens  today will be a message for the rest of the country. If the Aam Aadmi party does win then people everywhere in the country will see that good people can stand and good people can win.  That’s very important.    It will be like a clattering call of hope through the country.  I have my fingers crossed.  I pray and I hope that the people vote in large numbers, that they vote wisely, that they vote for the right people and that we have a good outcome.  That would be the answer to your last question.

Thank you for taking the time, Meera. It was wonderful talking to you! The work you have done so far has created positive impact on thousands of lives. And like you rightly said, we hope it’ll now impact many millions from a place in governance.

Real Leaders Team