From the office romance that blossomed into 19 years of marriage to her teenage twins who keep her grounded, from honing her leadership skills to dreaming of opening a restaurant some day, Abanti Sankaranarayanan shares her life story with Phorum Dalal
Abanti Sankaranarayanan, Managing Director of Diageo group, India
The cream-coloured floor is squeaky clean. The shelves are filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes that sparkle as the bright, yellow ceiling lights magnify the liquid inside. Launched at the T2 departure duty-free shopping lounge, earlier this month, the first Johnnie Walker House in the world looks elegant with copper lampshades, an island centre showcase and a wall dedicated to the whiskey brand’s history.
Abanti Sankaranarayanan, MD of Diageo group, India loves to read, watch movies and decorate her home. pics/Nimesh Dave
Amid the media frenzy, we spot a smiling face. Abanti Sankaranarayanan stands in a corner, patiently waiting for the mediapersons to settle down. When Doug Bagley, managing director, Diageo Global Travel & Middle East, announces her name, she adjusts the pallu of her black, embroidered saree and walks up to the mike confidently. It’s an important moment for the India MD of the Diageo group.
When we meet her after the event, she is still beaming with pride, and happily turns the pages of her life to the early chapters. “I was born in Kolkata, but I have lived in multiple places — Delhi, Patna and Bihar — as my father was an IAS officer,” says the 40-something businesswoman, who did her BA in Economics from St Stephen’s College in Delhi. “I was a talkative child,” she grins, adding, “I lived a happy, protected childhood with my parents and older brother.”
The big change came when she graduated from college and took admission in the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) for an MBA programme. “That was the first time I was away from my parents. I had to deal with the big, bad world on my own. I came from a very humble background, and was mesmerised by the competitive atmosphere at the institute,” says Sankaranarayanan nostalgically.
The next change came when she joined Tata Administrative Services in Delhi and met her future husband, Govind. “Though we were in different departments, it was an office romance and we soon started dating,” says the businesswoman, who has been married for 19 years, and has 16-year-old twins, Vinayak and Kamya.
“Our romance was similar to the plot in Chetan Bhagat’s novel, Two States. I’m Bengali while he is a Malayali from Bangalore. But thankfully, we didn’t face too much parental opposition,” adds the mother of two with a smile.
Home and hearth
She admits that striking a balance between her personal and professional lives often takes a toll on her but she manages to maintain her sanity by prioritising. “I put a lot of conscious effort in determining the order of the tasks for the day. I don’t work late hours in office. I’m quite flexible and prefer sending emails at night, but don’t expect my team to reply immediately,” she laughs.
The business magnate also elaborates that it hasn’t been an uphill task to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling. “Yes, it is a man’s world out there but it hasn’t been hard for me to prove my ability. After all, a person is judged by his/her performance. In every organisation that I have worked, my male and female colleagues have had the same expectations from me. As a leader, I believe it’s really important to be fair,” says the entrepreneur, who believes in giving a free reign to her team members. “It’s all about inspiring and empowering my team. I always tell them to step up and lead and I’m there to provide support,” adds Sankaranarayanan.
Once home, she catches up with her twins and husband over dinnertime and they often watch television shows together. “I find my emotional grounding with my family. We love holidaying together, too, and recently, we had a beautiful time discovering the history of World War II in Germany,” elaborates the avid book lover.
The quest for me-time
Though finding time for herself is always a challenge, Sankaranarayanan believes it is something everyone is struggling with. “All of us lead frenetic lives. But it’s up to us to ensure that we find some quality time for ourselves. The innumerable hours that I spend on long-distance flights give me the opportunity to introspect and think about a gamut of things,” says Sankaranarayan. A cricket buff, who also enjoys listening to music. She loves to experiment with the decor of her house and reset her furniture every once in a while. The czarina also owns an enviable collection of sarees and Indian jewellery. “I’m not too fond of bags and shoes, but every time I go to Bangalore, I pick up silk sarees from there,” she adds.
The road ahead
The managing director has many plans for her future, which include planning CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities at Diageo. “I also dream of opening a restaurant some day,” says Sankaranarayanan, who loves to cook at home once in a while. “I prepare the typical Malayali sadhya, comprising 21 vegetarian items served on a plantain leaf, very well. I prepare it twice a year, during Vishu and Onam, and invite my friends and family to savour it. Apart from this, I also rustle up delicious Prawn Curry, Mutton Biryani and Roast Chicken,” says the foodie.
With a lot achieved, and a lot more to go, the India head of the spirit company ensures she unwinds once in a while. “To end a long day at work, I like nothing more than enjoying a drink with my husband,” she says. And what’s her poison, we cannot resist and ask. “For me, it’s Black Label, on the rocks,” she smiles.
Food dish: Fish
Movie: The Bourne Identity, 3 Idiots
Book: A Tale of Two Cities
Born: August 14
Education: MBA from IIMA, BA in Commerce from St Stephen’s College
First job: Tata Global Beverages – brand manager, Tata Tea
Best advice you ever got: My mother-in-law once told me: ‘Don’t give up your career just because you’ve had kids.’