‘It’s Pu­nita’s Mer­its that Count, Not Who Her Spouse Is’

A cross-sec­tion of top CEOs say there is no con­flict of in­ter­est in her serv­ing on Infy board; Sinha says she has the right to pur­sue her ca­reer even if her hus­band is a min­is­ter

The Economic Times - - Companies: Pursuit Of Profit -

Kala Vi­jayragha­van & Rica Bhat­tacharyya

Mum­bai: Pu­nita Sinha, an in­de­pen­dent board mem­ber of In­fosys Tech­nolo­gies and wife of a union min­is­ter, has the sup­port of sev­eral In­dian busi­ness icons who be­lieve her con­tin­u­ance as a di­rec­tor at the soft­ware bell­wether and her mar­i­tal sta­tus don’t con­sti­tute any con­flict of in­ter­est.

Ear­lier this month, for­mer chair­man NR Narayana Murthy and his found­ing In­fosys peers Kris Gopalakr­ish­nan, and Nan­dan Nilekani, raised cor­po­rate-gov­er­nance con­cerns, one of which was Sinha’s Jan­uary 2016 in­duc­tion as an in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tor. “She is the spouse of min­is­ter Jayant Sinha and In­fosys has al­ways steered clear of pol­i­tics,” said Murthy. Jayant Sinha is In­dia’s min­is­ter of state for civil avi­a­tion. For­mer mar­ket reg­u­la­tor M Damodaran backed the qual­ity of Sinha’s ex­pe­ri­ence. “It is grossly un­fair not to at­tach any value to the ac­com­plish­ments, qual­i­fi­ca­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence of a woman pro­fes­sional merely be­cause she hap­pens to be the wife of a politi­cian,” said Damodaran, who headed the Se­cu­riti- es and Ex­change Board of In­dia. “Pu­nita was my col­league, for a short while, on a board, be­fore I stepped down, and her con­tri­bu­tion to board dis­cus­sions was praise­wor­thy.” Damodaran is now the chair­per­son of Ex­cel­lence En­ablers that pro­vides train­ing to di­rec­tors. An alumna of Whar­ton and IITDelhi, Sinha’s three-decade ca­reer has cov­ered mar­quee names in glo-

PRE­VI­OUS CON­FLICTS

bal fi­nance — Black­stone, Op­pen­heimer and JP Mor­gan. At present, she is the found­ing part­ner of Asi­afo­cused in­vest­ment firm Pa­cific Par­a­digm Ad­vi­sors, and her pro­file on the In­fosys web­site cred­its her with a lead­ing role in draw­ing some of the ini­tial over­seas fund­ing into In­dian stocks in the early 1990s.

In an email re­sponse to ET from Bos­ton, Pu­nita Sinha said: “This is re­ally about broader so­ci­etal mat­ters rather than about a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion. In my case, I have had a long and suc­cess­ful ca­reer with sig­nif­i­cant fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that I have ful­filled with to­tal in­tegrity.” She added: “My hus­band chose to give up his pro­fes­sional ca­reer a few years ago to serve the coun­try, but that should not im­ply that I too must give up my pro­fes­sional ca­reer that I have pur­sued for al­most 30 years.”

In­fosys had in­ducted for­mer US sen­a­tor Larry Pressler, a politi­cian, as a di­rec­tor on the com­pany’s board in 2001 when Murthy was chair­man of the Bengaluru-based com­pany. In­fosys’ board has three women in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tors, the other two be­ing Roopa Kudva, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at pri­vate-eq­uity fund Omid­yar Net­work In­dia Ad­vi­sors, and Ki­ran Mazum­dar-Shaw, chair­man of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ma­jor Bio­con.

“It is ridicu­lous to even raise such is­sues about women who be­come part of boards based on their ca­pa­bil­i­ties and pro­fes­sional worth,” Marico In­dus­tries chair­man Harsh Mari­wala said, in ref­er­ence to the ques­tion of po­ten­tial con­flict of in­ter­est.

Power cou­ples have pre­vi­ously held board po­si­tions in In­dian pub- Ind. Di­rec­tor, In­fosys For­mer In­fosys chair­man NR Narayana Murthy and his found­ing peers Kris Gopalakr­ish­nan and Nan­dan Nilekani raised con­cerns about Pu­nita Sinha’s Jan­uary 2016 in­duc­tion as an in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tor

PU­NITA SINHA,

lic com­pa­nies. There was no ob­jec­tion about a con­flict of in­ter­est when TVS chair­man Venu Srinivasan was nom­i­nated to the Tata Sons board, even as his wife Mal­lika Srinivasan, chair­man of trac­tor maker Tafe In­dus­tries, was on the board of two Tata com­pa­nies.

“Pu­nita, a dis­tin­guished scholar, could add a lot of value to any bo- ard… if her hus­band hap­pens to be a po­lit­i­cal leader and that be­comes a dis­ad­van­tage for her, that would be highly tragic,” says Arun Dug­gal, chair­man of lo­cal rat­ings firm ICRA. “We must dis­tin­guish a woman’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties from her fam­ily cir­cum­stances. I feel there should be no con­tro­versy about Pu­nita.”

At the In­fosys con­fer­ence this Mon­day, board chair­man R Se­shasayee praised Pu­nita, say­ing a woman should not be judged by the pro­fes­sion of her hus­band. His views were shared by women busi­ness lead­ers. “Some­how women are held to stan­dards not al­ways ex­pected of their male col­leagues,” said Vinita Bali, for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of cook­ies to dairy-prod­ucts maker Bri­tan­nia. “If you hap­pen to be re­lated to the pro­moter for ex­am­ple, the ap­point­ment is seen to be a ‘fam­ily af­fair’ and not pro­fes­sional enough. How of­ten do we hear the same ques­tion when the brother or son of the pro­moter is ap­pointed to the Board?”

In 2015, Ireena Vit­tal, an in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tor on the Axis Bank board, re­signed cit­ing con­flict of in­ter­est. Her hus­band Gopal Vit­tal is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bharti Air­tel, which won a pay­ment bank li­cence in part­ner­ship with Axis Bank’s ri­val Ko­tak Mahin­dra Bank. Axis Bank of­fi­cials then said Ireena re­signed vol­un­tar­ily.

“To­day, every coun­try wants more women to come into the work­force as that im­proves eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity and growth,” Pu­nita said. “So, disqual­i­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­enced pro­fes­sional women be­cause of their spouse would not set a good prece­dence for in­spir­ing younger women.”

Ac­cord­ing to Rama Bi­japurkar, se­nior in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tor on var­i­ous boards, sug­ges­tions that mar­riage to a politi­cian would com­pro­mise in­tegrity and fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­ity are far-fetched. “If there is an ob­jec­tion to the in­di­vid­ual con­cerned, then we need to hear a more spe­cific ar­tic­u­la­tion of it.”

My hus­band chose to give up his pro­fes­sional ca­reer... to serve the coun­try, but that should not im­ply that I too must give up my pro­fes­sional ca­reer PU­NITA SINHA

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