Sudha Murty knows “how to beat the boys.”
In fact, the 72-year-old investor, educator and philanthropist wrote an entire chapter about overcoming misogyny in one of her 42 books. Let’s debunk the myth that it is easier for her to be outspoken about women’s rights.
Sure, she’s a billionaire, the benefactor of information technology services giant Infosys Ltd. and the mother-in-law of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. But she had no fortune, fame or family connections when she started smashing glass ceilings in India.
As a young woman in the 1970s, Ms. Murty famously confronted industrialist J.R.D. Tata about his company’s sexist hiring practices – and won.
Decades later, however, gender inequality remains a persistent problem across the corporate world. That is why Ms. Murty is encouraging a new generation of women to take corporate leaders to task. Her message: Don’t be afraid to rock the boat at work.
“Any social change requires time,” Ms. Murty said in a recent interview. “And patience is one of the best methods along with boldness.”
Ms. Murty was in Toronto to accept the Canada India Foundation’s global Indian award for her lifetime of work battling gender discrimination and her philanthropic efforts to assist orphans, sex workers and victims of natural disasters.
“Her story is all about being courageous,” said Reetu Gupta, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Markham, Ont.-based Rogue Insight Capital Ltd., the venture capital arm of the Gupta Group. “I think for a lot of women, our fear usually overrides our sense of courage.”
But to hear Ms. Murty tell it, you can easily work up the nerve to call out injustices in the workplace by adopting a “ready to lose” attitude.
“I used to think: Suppose I say something that is in my mind straight away. What can happen?” explained Ms. Murty.
“People may not listen, but that’s okay for me. I have spoken my mind. So, acceptance of the worst situation is called courage.”
Ms. Murty began bucking social conventions at a young age.
Born Sudha Kulkarni in 1951, her family lived in Shiggaon, Karnataka, which is in southern India. By age 17, she had her heart set on becoming an engineer – much to the dismay of her relatives.
Her father, a doctor, wanted her to follow in his footsteps. Her schoolteacher mother encouraged her to pursue mathematics and become a college professor instead.
But her grandmother had other worries. “No man will marry an engineer girl in our community,” Ms. Murty recalled her saying at the time.
Undeterred, Ms. Murty became the first female engineering student at B.V.B. College of Engineering & Technology in Hubli, Karnataka. It was 1968, and the college campus didn’t have a women’s toilet. So, she trained herself not to go.
“My teachers were not keen because they thought it’s not a girl’s domain and I may fail,” Ms. Murty said. “My classmates were not very happy because they’d never seen a girl in class.”
The principal insisted that she wear a sari every day (no other clothing was deemed appropriate), and no one spoke to her for the entire first semester.
But the silent treatment soon gave way to tittle-tattle: “People felt something was wrong with me, maybe psychologically, because I’m going into a man’s domain.”
Male students also tried to drive her out of the classroom with pranks: They would spill blue ink on her seat and toss paper airplanes at her head. That’s when Ms. Murty realized that she alone controlled her fate.
“If I have to do engineering, then I must work hard. I should not get scared of what people talk,” she explained, referring to her thought process at the time.
“I should depend only on myself, not my classmates. So, train your mind and body in such a way that you are your best friend and you are your worst enemy. That made me very autonomous in life.”
She later realized that her mantra – the mind can be one’s best friend or worst enemy – is also a key lesson of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture. So, she inured herself to the prejudice and handily beat the boys by remaining singularly focused on her studies.
After obtaining her bachelor of engineering degree, she then completed a master’s in computer science from the Indian Institute of Science – graduating at the top of her class both times.
In 1974, she came across an advertisement for engineering jobs at Tata Engineering and Locomotive Co. (TELCO) that bluntly stated that “lady candidates” need not apply. Ms. Murty, who was 23 at the time, was incensed.
She promptly wrote to Tata Group chairman J.R.D. Tata to express her dismay. In doing so, she pointed out that his father’s cousin, Jamsetji Tata, helped establish the Indian Institute of Science for the betterment of the country.
“The great Tatas have always been pioneers,” she wrote, according to an account on the company’s website. “But I am surprised how a company such as TELCO is discriminating on the basis of gender.”
Mr. Tata, she would later learn, was amazed that a young woman, especially one with no social connections, would point that out.
That act of protest landed her an interview and then a job as the first female engineer at India’s largest auto manufacturer.
“She’s a trailblazer for the aspirations of Indian women,” said Satish Thakkar, chair of the Canada India Foundation.
In 1981, Ms. Murty became the first investor in Infosys when she lent her husband, N.R. Narayana Murthy, 10,000 rupees, the bulk of her savings, to start the business from their Bombay apartment.
Infosys, of course, is now a publicly-traded corporation with a market capitalization of US$73.5-billion. “Probably, I’m the best investor, at least in India,” Ms. Murty quipped.
Incidentally, Ms. Murty uses a different spelling of her surname than her husband because she disagrees with the South Indian spelling of M-U-R-T-H-Y.
“When I got married, I told him ‘No, I don’t believe in that spelling! So, I’m going to write my surname as Murty,’” she said, adding their children, Akshata and Rohan, also use her spelling of the family name.
Although Ms. Murty opted not to work at Infosys (she was teaching computer science instead), she established the Infosys Foundation in 1996, a non-profit focused on assisting the poor. As part of her charitable work, Ms. Murty spearheaded the construction of at least 16,000 women’s toilets around India.
But she is most proud of her efforts to assist survivors of sex trafficking. Over a period of 18 years, Ms. Murty helped more than 3,000 women and girls escape sexual slavery.
“The pimps were upset with me,” Ms. Murty said, adding they first threw slippers at her and then pelted her with rotten tomatoes.
Her father offered her perspective: “You got a promotion from slippers to rotten tomatoes.”
These days, Ms. Murty is still focused on calling out the boys’ club for thwarting women’s leadership in business.
A role model for women in India and around the world, she encourages young women to advocate for themselves at work.
“Whenever a job is there, and if you’re qualified, you have to ask for it,” Ms. Murty said. “Nobody will come and tell you, ‘Look, the job is suitable for you.’ You have to go and ask.”
She also offers practical advice to young women who worry about advancing at work while juggling family responsibilities: It is critical that your partners do their fair share at home and accept support from your family and friends.
It is also important for both parents to keep an open dialogue with their children to understand their difficulties, too, she added.
As for Ms. Murty, it’s a point of pride that females now comprise the majority of instrumentation engineering students at her alma mater.
“So, I tell them: ‘Girls, look after the boys. They’re in the minority.’”