Three years ago in 2008 to be precise a Mumbai girl called Varalaxmi Pillai, whose mother, Shanta Pillai works as a domestic household help won the Sheriff’s Scholarship for Women to the University of Westminster, London (UK). Varalaxmi left her Kanjurmarg home and her job with the travel house Thomas Cook, to start a new life. She was 21 at that time. Today, this woman who spent her childhood in a 150-sq foot house in the central Mumbai suburb and is still living there with a limited supply of water and electricity, has returned, this time armed with a Masters Degree in International Business and Management. Varalaxmi’s stirring story epitomizes the spirit of Mumbai and Maximum City as it is called — it is not where you come from, but what you make of yourself that counts.
In a few days time, this girl who is now 24, will be flying off to Vienna for an interview with an organization called JADE, which is the European Confederation of Junior Enterprises. Varalaxmi is being considered for the post of the Vice-President, at JADE. She is confident of getting the post, after which Varalaxmi will be based in Brussels (Belgium) for one year at least, working at JADE.
People often refer to something worthy of a picture as a ‘Kodak moment’. Varalaxmi calls her Westminster break as a ‘life changing moment’. She completed her Master’s Degree successfully gaining a merit rank in London and followed it up by internships with a leading Think and Do Tank Research Company called Tomorrow’s Company and the Food Retail chain called Sainsbury’s in London.
In the years at Westminster, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngster, absorbed lessons like the proverbial sponge, soaking up all the experiences that a new world could bring her. Varalaxmi says, “When I flew abroad in 2008, it was my first time in an airplane. Everything was such an adventure for me, from leaving my home and going to the airport to simply checking in, it excited me so much,” says Varalaxmi smiling at the memory.While she studied for her degree, Varalaxmi worked during the term breaks in the summer, which is, July to September. “I worked as front office staff at the University itself. It gave me a chance to live at the University (which incidentally was just opposite the landmark Madame Tussauds museum) and meet tourists from all over the world. When there is a term break, the University gives out its empty rooms to tourists, so they need a front office and staff, it gave me an opportunity to stay in London at the University and meet people from all over the world. Even during my studies, the windows of the world opened to me and I was fascinated and in thrall that what I saw. London is a very international city, so I was interacting with people from everywhere, while I studied,” says the confident young woman.
Varalaxmi though says that in the course of completing her International Business and Management degree, she learnt a lot about the world, “But I never experienced a culture shock. That is because Mumbai is right up there with the world. As a Mumbaikar, I had already learnt to live with different people, so there was learning and surprise but not shock.” Post her degree, which she earned in 2010, Varalaxmi worked in the Westminster Business Consultancy (WBC), which is a Junior Enterprise Consultancy Company, run by students. At the WBC, she started off as a Business Consultant in October 2010, and was promoted as the Marketing Manager in a few months. In October 2011, she was selected to be the Managing Director (MD) of the first Junior Enterprise, (WBC) in UK. As the MD, her responsibilities were fostering entrepreneurship amongst students. Varalaxmi also spread the Junior Enterprise concept across the UK, as a recession-proof concept, which students could resort to in tough economic times.
Varalaxmi’s feet though are firmly on the ground even though she sprouted wings and flew her Kanjurmarg coop. “All through this, my family could not visit me in Europe as tickets are so expensive. Maybe, one day, I will take my mom to Europe. I, in the end, though, want to return to Asia, and India because these are where my roots are.” Incidentally, Varalaxmi’s mother still works as a domestic help, “simply because she is so used to it.” Her mother, Shanta still wakes up at 4 am to fill the water needed for the house, “since we get water from 4 am to 6 am,” says Varalaxmi.
Varalaxmi’s journey has several milestones and mentors. People like Sheriff Indu Shahani, also principal, H R College of Commerce and Economics, Maya Shahani chairperson, The SAGE Foundation, (SAGE stands for Shahani Academic and Global Empowerment), whose mission is to provide enlightened education to children and wealth generating skills training to their families, her college professors and her guardian and travel writer Meher Heroyce Moos spotted the spark in Varalaxmi and helped ignite that to a blaze. Varalaxmi recalls, “My father died when I was five. My mother, Shanta Pillai worked very long hours, first as a packer in a small biscuit factory (in MIDC Andheri). Then, she worked as a domestic help in houses from 9 am to 9 pm, for 12 years.” Shanta who says she is so, “proud” of her daughter, elaborated earlier, “I worked as a domestic help in several houses in the Powai-Vihar area, I swept, cooked, cleaned and washed vessels to bring home the money.”
Before she went abroad, Varalaxmi got a job with Thomas Cook, Fort, where she worked for 18 months. Her brother, Yogarajan, now works for a call centre. Varalaxmi says of her childhood, “Because my mother was the only bread earner and the earnings were just hand to mouth, my brother and I missed out on several school picnics, (Varalaxmi attended the St. Francis Xavier’s High School in Kanjurmarg) and excursions. We borrowed school textbooks and stationery from friends. We received clothing from beneficiaries.”
Yet, always academically inclined Varalaxmi went to the H R College of Commerce and Economics, after which she joined Thomas Cook. Throughout, Varalaxmi had several trusts like the Thadoomal Shahani trust helping her. Yet, what inspired her most was her mother’s courage. It continues to do so. “Abroad, I have told very few people about my beginnings,” adding quickly, “not that I am ashamed of them, but because I did not know how they would take the news. In any case, I believe in letting my work and achievements speak for themselves rather than telling people about my background,” explains Varalaxmi earnestly.
The young woman, who dreams of becoming an entrepreneur one day, is learning to play the guitar to unwind. If, there is a song for her, Whitney Houston's lines, ‘Give me one moment in time/ when I am more than I thought I could be/ when all of my dreams are a heartbeat away/and the answers are all upto me…’would be particularly apt. “Yet, I like the Spanish musician Enrique Iglesias,” smiles Varalaxmi, who has a few Spanish friends and dreams of visiting the country one day, “because the people are so nice and warm.”
Varalaxmi says a little philosophically, “I tell people do not keep blaming your luck or your destiny. Though luck is important, it is vital to keep working, rather than waiting for your luck to change. Do not blame your past.” While beauty queens may have made Mother Teresa’s lines their exclusive domain, Varalaxmi proves that they can be entirely apt on other occasions too — like now when she has been given the serious business of signing off with a message for youngsters by this journalist. Varalaxmi says with a flourish to people, “You don't have to do great things in life; you have to do small things with great love.”
The University of Westminster (informally Westminster) is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom. Its antecedent institution, the Royal Polytechnic, was founded in 1838 and was the first polytechnic to open in England. Westminster was awarded university status in 1992. The University's headquarters and original campus are based on Regent Street in the Westminster area of central London, with additional campuses in the Fitzrovia, Marylebone and Harrow areas of London. The University also operates the Westminster International University in Tashkent in Uzbekistan and a satellite campus in Paris, France through the Diplomatic Academy of London. Westminster's academic activities are organised into seven schools, within which there are around 45 departments and 65 research centres. Westminster is a member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Association of MBAs, EFMD, the European University Association and Universities UK.
>> Daughter of domestic household help locally called ‘bai' in Mumbai completes Masters degree from University of Westminster, UK.
>> Off to Vienna to explore further opportunities in business.
>> Defies odds and underprivileged background to make most of her opportunities.
>> Turns the tide in her favour with hard work, dedication and belief.
>> Goes West but believes in never forgetting her roots.