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Getting To Know Padmashree Lila Poonawalla

Jyoti Ranade

Life was not easy for Lila Poonawalla when she came to India as a refugee from Hyderabad, Pakistan with her grandparents, mother and four brothers. The entire family had to survive on the pension from their father's life insurance policy after he died in a train accident.  Lila was determined to go to college despite the fact that money was tight. She beat the odds and became the first female mechanical engineering student at the Government College of Engineering in Pune .Today she is known to the world as the first woman CEO in India’s business history as Chairman and Managing Director of Alfa Laval from 1987 to 2001.

After a very successful career at Alfa Laval and Tetra Pak (India), Lila Poonawalla could have enjoyed a quiet retirement. Instead, she wanted to make a difference by helping Indian women pursue higher education.  She started the Lila Poonawalla Foundation (LPF) in 1996.  With over 200 million illiterate women, India has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world. The foundation supports the college education of young women by awarding scholarships.  So far, 581 girls have been given 785 scholarships. Because of LPF scholarships, Prajakta Rane, a handicapped girl, who does not have both palms from birth, is working on an MBA in finance; Koyel Ghoshal, from a low income family has completed masters in Pharmacology and Toxicology from University of Rhode Island and Rita Jaiswal, a daughter of a lottery ticket seller is doing electrical engineering.  
Every Lila fellow has an amazing story. I was inspired by Mrs. Poonawalla’s pioneering work and decided to ask her a few questions about her mission.
1.    What inspired you to start the Lila Poonawalla Foundation (LPF)?
Traditionally, in India, the importance of educating girls is unrecognized by society, especially in economically and socially disadvantaged communities (family income of less than $1000 – 2000 per year). This bias is rooted in the ‘gender realities’ of India where boys are regarded a virtue and their education receives utmost priority. Young girls face challenges in pursuing professional education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, mostly due to poor financial backgrounds. This hinders their chance to get gainful employment and become economically independent.  I too come from a poor family background. As a child of two years, I came to India as a refugee. My mother had a difficult time bringing up the family, especially since I had lost my father when I was only three years old.  So I appreciated the timely support I got through scholarships to pursue my education.

2.    Only 1% of women in India have a college education. What kind of steps does your foundation take to expand the education of women in India?
The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. Education is an undisputed tool of empowerment. Education plays a very important role in shaping the capacities of girls at an individual level. It is for this reason that we give scholarships, which are an outright grant, to academically brilliant but economically challenged girls for higher education.

3.    It is wonderful to know that LPF has given several scholarships to the girls who want to pursue a degree in Science and Engineering. Even in wealthier countries, women are underrepresented in the academic fields of science and engineering. Is your foundation working to encourage more women to seek these types of degrees?
Yes, we are encouraging girls to get into technical education. From my personal experience in the industry, I am aware of the opportunities that exist for them. Today the industry needs girls who have highly technical skills. The unique aspect of this scholarship program is that the scholarship holders receive not only financial support but also technical guidance from experts in the industry, entrepreneurship training, career counseling, job placement services from the foundation, and personality development training to make them well developed individuals.

4.    You were one of the first women CEOs to lead a major corporation in India. Does your foundation work to promote entrepreneurship amongst young women in India? What advice would you have for women looking to follow in your footsteps in the Indian corporate world?
      As explained in question three above, we believe that every individual has potential to become an entrepreneur. We encourage this as a means to secure employment and become financially independent. We invite speakers to talk to them about the benefits of entrepreneurship and how to go about achieving these goals. Of course they have to work hard and be committed to their careers - otherwise it is not possible to succeed.

5.    Can you tell us about the special training programs for the “Lila Girls” and the “Lila Fellows” initiative?
We aim at providing a platform for girls to engage in total personal development. The aim is not only to support the girls in getting a university degree but also to groom them through mentoring and a total development program. We want to not only give them financial assistance but also the emotional strength to develop as an able human being.  We have had over 100 programs in soft skills, motivation, confidence building, positive attitude, professional skills, etiquettes and personality grooming, spoken English classes, personal power and personal effectiveness, thought management, importance of body language, and many more. These programs are conducted by specialists from their field and renowned teachers.

6.    You started LPF in 1996.  What have been some of your most memorable personal experiences while working for this foundation?
Every time I see a successful girl, my heart jumps with joy. Luckily, I have had many such moments. When a rickshaw puller’s daughter becomes a professor in a reputed college and vows that she will get each of her siblings educated, when a cobbler’s daughter becomes a renowned singer and achieves her dream of becoming a professional singer, when a maid servant’s daughter becomes an engineer and gets a job to work in a multinational corporation, my heart soars. Ever since the start of the foundation, my life has been full of joys and more joys, as almost all of my girls have made a breakthrough in their lives. I now have a big family with many daughters, and also many sons-in-laws and many, many grandchildren. We are one big united family.

“No deserving girl should be denied the right to get education.”- The LPF Foundation 

Your financial contribution can change the destiny of a young girl!  

If you want to help, please send your contribution to:

Vinod Prakash, PhD  
President, India Development & Relief Fund, Inc.,
5821 Mossrock Drive, North Bethesda, MD 20852-3238, USA

email: idrfvinod@yahoo.com

Your donations are tax deductible.  The donations should be made to India Development & Relief Fund (IDFR) which is a registered charity trust.  Please state that you are donating for the education of underprivileged girls in India through the Lila Poonawalla Foundation.

Please check http://www.lilapoonawalla.com/ for more information. 

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Lila Poonawalla

Prajakta Rane

Koyel Ghoshal

Rita Jaiswal

Lila Fellow Tejashree, daughter of a vegetable vendor, receiving her scholarship at the hands of Dr. A.P.J. Kalam

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