Naina Lal Kidwai: Banker, Author, A Proponent Of Women In Leadership Roles

  • Success Story
  • Tuesday, 26 Apr, 2022
  • 1233
Naina Lal Kidwai

A young starry-eyed girl once went to her father’s office. His father was the CEO of a reputed insurance company. Her father left her alone in a room and went out for a meeting. Those days there were no computers and the little girl did not have anything to do. So she climbed into her father’s chair with great difficulty and sat down. The leather felt soft and luxurious. With her arms on the two arm-rests, feet propped up on the table—she was close to heaven.

She looked around the room, there was a nice lampshade placed in a corner, and a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru, on one of the walls. Thick green circuits covered the window which opened out to the busy M.G. Road, in the Fort area of Mumbai. She loved the setting, but she needed more excitement than this. And, it came in the form of one kick of the leg and the chair went swivelling. Yippee!!! She screamed happily. It was fun. Another lunge she gave, this time the left leg pushed the table and the chair swivelled in the opposite direction.

What’s going on? Her CEO father had just returned and was standing at the door. He was clearly not amused at his room being turned into a playground.

That day an aspiration was born—an aspiration to own an office, like the one her father had, an aspiration to head a large company probably even larger than that of her father’s. The year was 1966. Over four decades later, everything that the little girl aspired for came true. When her father told her that she could not have the swivel chair that she wanted so much, she did not aspire just to get the chair all for herself.

Naina Lal Kidwai is one of the most powerful and influential persons in the world

In the world of finance, Naina Lal Kidwai is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and influential persons in the world. The secret, she reveals, is her passion for work. 

“We need to be passionate and driven to achieve any goal we choose,” she says. “We need to push the limits of achievement and better our performance all the time. I think we should be ‘engaged’ in the profession of our choice rather than just ‘work hard’ in our chosen work area. We need to literally set ourselves on fire with our objectives.”

Kidwai’s own career is an excellent example of her principles. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in economics from Delhi University, she went on to get her master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School in 1982. She returned to India to work with Morgan Stanley and initiated the merger of JM Financial and Morgan Stanley in India in 1998. In 2002 she became vice-chairman and managing director for HSBC Securities and Capital Markets India Private Limited, in 2006 she became CEO, and in 2009 she became the group’s country head.

Naina Lal Kidwai has several firsts to her name. She was the first Indian woman to get an MBA from Harvard in 1982, the first woman president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and the first woman to head a foreign bank’s operations in India. These days, however, she works for causes closer to her heart: environment, sanitation, access to water and women’s empowerment, to name a few. 

Interestingly, it was as country head of HSBC India that Kidwai got the opportunity to attend forums and debates on water and climate change, which honed her understanding of these issues. Over the last few months, she has been busy with her latest book Survive or Sink, which deals with issues of sanitation, water, pollution and green finance.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Naina Lal Kidwai came from a family of high achievers. Her father was the CEO of a leading Indian insurance company, her sister became one of India's top golfers, and her husband, Rashid K. Kidwai, was managing director of Digital Partners, a non-profit organization.

Kidwai earned an economics degree from Delhi University, where she was also elected president of the student union and won a college leadership award. She then completed a chartered accountancy course before applying to Price Waterhouse as a trainee in 1977. One of the partners told her that since there were no other women in the firm, they did not quite know what to do with her. She stayed with Price Waterhouse for three years as an independent auditor, examining clients' accounting and finance records to ensure their compliance with established controls, policies, procedures, and laws.

Kidwai decided that acquiring more degrees was her best defence against gender discrimination. In 1982 she became the first female from her country to earn an MBA from the prestigious Harvard Business School. After graduation, Kidwai returned to India and joined ANZ Grindlays Bank. In the 1980s India's investment-banking industry was in its infancy, and there was a decided lack of role models for young Indian businesswomen. Kidwai found her own path and within three years rose to head Grindlays's western regional operations for investment banking. In 1989 she was promoted to head the entire division. By 1991 Kidwai felt it was time for a new challenge and made a lateral move to the company's retail banking division.

Towards Consolidation

In 2002, Naina was headhunted by HSBC. In another five, she was made CEO of HSBC in India, becoming the first woman and second Indian to head its operations in India, as well as the first woman to head a private or foreign bank in the country. Two years later, she took charge as country head of India, overseeing all entities of the bank in India and the group’s global resourcing business comprising 35,000 people—almost 12% of the group’s global employee base. 

Analysing Naina’s contribution, NR Narayana Murthy, Infosys founder and one-time board member of HSBC Holdings, sums it up to perfection: 

“Naina came in as the head of HSBC at a very crucial time in the history of post-1991 Indian banking. She had to win her colleagues’ confidence, push them towards innovation, help them create differentiation and make HSBC more successful. But, through her endeavours, she demonstrated that the heart of HSBC is with India. They are interested in making this country a better place and interested in serving the poor. Like Hindustan Unilever, HSBC has been successful in winning the hearts of many Indians and this has happened because of Naina’s personality.”

Moving up on the professional ladder

  • From 1982 to 1994 she worked in ANZ Grindlays, where she rose through the ranks to become the Head of the Investment Bank, the Head of the Global NRI Services, and Head of Western India, Retail Bank. 
  • From 1994 to 2002, Kidwai worked at Morgan Stanley India and JM Morgan Stanley as the head of investment banking.
  • She served as the Manager of Investment Bank, West India, based in Bombay from 1984 to 1987.
  • And she also worked at Price Waterhouse & Co.(PwC) from 1977 to 1980.

Career highlights

CA Naina Lal Kidwai worked majorly for HSBC for the prime professional years of her life. She has been serving as the Group General Manager of HSBC Holdings plc. Since 2006. Apart from that, she has also been working as the CEO of HSBC India and since 2009 as the country head of HSBC.

Currently, she has also worked on the following projects;

  • Working as the chairperson of Max financial services Ltd.
  • Working as the Chairperson of HSBC Asset Management (India) Pvt Ltd and HSBC InvestDirect (India) Ltd.
  • As the non-executive director on the board of Nestle SA and Altico Capital Partners.
  • On the governing boards of several firms such as NCAER, the Audit Advisory Board of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and on the National Executive Committee of CII and FICCI.
  • She also works as the independent director of Essar oil limited (now called Nayara energy limited).
  • She recently put in her resignation from the board of CIPLA as its independent director, which shall take effect from March 2022 onwards.

To Conclude

The way her life is and how she has lived it is proof that shows that when a person does hard work, it never goes wasted. It always is appreciated in some way or the other. The fruits of her hard work have had sweet fruits in the end and it never went unnoticed. She has always gotten a praiseworthy appreciation for what she has done and on the other hand, Naina has always made a significant contributor to the banking and finance sector of the country. This is why she has been awarded several awards as well.

However, the quench of her having the food of success has still not been satisfied. She is always seen investing her time more and more in other genres and works so that she can make the most of her day, skill, and capacity. Her unbelievable spirit and dynamic personality is a proof which shows that a woman is in no way less than anybody in the world and she needs the pity of none. She is in herself complete and can-do wonderful things whenever she wants!

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