Breaking new ground comes naturally to her No glass ceiling, no sticky floor. Radio City CEO and IIMB alumna Apurva Purohit says nothing – neither biases nor boundaries — can stop a determined woman professional from reaching the top

Update, Feb 27th 2018: Apurva Purohit, PGP ’89, is now the President of Jagran Prakashan Ltd.

CEO of a popular radio station, author, evangelist and public speaker, Apurva Purohit, IIMB alumna (PGP ’89), wears many hats with panache. One of the very few women CEOs in the Media and Entertainment industry in India, Apurva has built several media brands like Zoom TV and Radio City. She strongly believes in building organizations around an enabling culture and employee focus; and in encouraging diversity of opinion and thought. Her formula for success is simple: Focus on the critical drivers for the business, teach the team to manage the rest and play with a straight bat.

Her book, ‘Lady, You’re Not a Man – the Adventures of a Woman at Work’, published by Rupa, has been on the national best-seller list.

In this free-flowing chat, she talks about issues ranging from building great work places to creating the balance between home and work, and credits the two years she spent at IIM Bangalore for making her adept at applying processes and analytics in a business where the output is creativity.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, said in her book ‘Lean In’, “In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” Apurva could not agree more.

You have garnered a reputation as a specialist in the field of media businesses and brands. Prior to your entry into radio, you have been part of the television space where you worked with BCCL & Zee Telefilms. Could you walk us through your career?

I have always been very fascinated with brands and how they are built. As a result, after completing my PGDM at IIM Bangalore, I began my career in advertising where I worked on several brands. Then, the opportunity of running Zee TV came my way. I think that was really a big milestone in my life and a big shift in terms of my career, and it was to do with the business of managing creativity. I always wanted to see how processes and analytics can be applied in a business where the output is creativity. I have stayed in either radio or television because that’s what fascinates me.

How exciting is the Media & Entertainment space in India right now?

I think media is absolutely fascinating. It’s a sunrise industry that began growing barely 15-20 years ago. Most media houses were run as boutique firms, so when we talk about a Zee TV, the country’s first satellite television channel, we must understand that it started with the dream of an entrepreneur – Mr. Subhash Chandra, chairman of the Essel Group, an Indian conglomerate. This is true of many other media organizations as well. But in the last 15-20 years, the growth has been phenomenal. The whole entertainment space has grown hugely and it is learning to grapple with processes, systems and best practices of management that need to be brought into this industry.

For anyone who wants to stimulate both the left and right brain, this is the industry to work in!

As for the challenges, Media is a draining industry. As I tell my friends who run FMCG companies, with all due respect to them, they have to ultimately sell their product once a month when the shopper at the super market is making his/ her choice of, say, toothpaste or deodorant. For us in Media, we have to sell 24×7. If I don’t keep my listener engaged every minute of the 18 hours that the time that the radio station is live, then he/ she will go to another station. So, every second of our lives we have to be on top of our game! It’s the same with any news medium, isn’t it? Reader/ Viewer/ Listener engagement must be constant.

Moreover, I work in a live medium so there may be a crisis every minute. The good thing is that I am kept on my toes all the time.

You have launched successful TV brands like Zoom, India’s first lifestyle channel, and you also fashioned the re-launch strategy for Zee TV, the flagship channel of Zee Telefilms.  Would you call yourself a pioneer – someone who loves the challenge of setting up something new all the time?

There is a certain romance to the word ‘pioneer’.  But I think of myself as someone who is more of a startup expert as well as somebody who loves scaling up businesses. If I am given a challenge either to set up something or to scale it up as I did with Radio City, then I am up for it. When I took over as CEO, the revenue of Radio City was what the profit is today. We have scaled 7 times in the last 4 years. That’s really what I would define myself as though I personally don’t like labels very much.

What has been your strategy for Radio City’s 7x growth?

The mistake most people make when they look at business is that they focus on the front end or the last connect between the business and the buyer. A lot of media organizations, to give you an example, focus hugely on the revenue angle. Even before the sale of the product is the creation of the product. One has to be very clear about what/ who is creating the product in different businesses. Sometimes, it’s the factory; sometimes it’s the innovation within the factory; sometimes it’s the supply chain. People end up getting confused and apply the same principles for different business. That cannot work. For me in the media business, it’s the people. It’s people who define the product and it is people who are the product. In radio, people are the product. My product is as good as my RJs, my music producers. So, as a CEO, I am very clear about what are the drivers of my business. That is why I spend all my effort on creating a fabulous team and a great environment where they can succeed. My product is young; my team is young (average age is 25 years) so it’s important that the team has fun doing what they do. My strategy has been really to recognize that the people are the product.

At Radio City, I have spent 5-7 years working on the culture of the organization. For the last 4 years, Radio City has been voted ‘Great place to work in the media industry’ and we compete with some very large media houses. We have been voted among the Top 25 great places to work in, across all businesses in India. This is an effort which took us 7 years.

Of course, attrition is a fact of life. There were 20 radio stations in the country when we began; now there are 100. We really were the pioneers and therefore we were the place where competition would recruit from!

Today, attrition at Radio City is very low – it is amongst the lowest in the media industry. But more than attrition, which is just one evaluative parameter, the fact is that our people are engaged and happy. More than half our organization is 5 years +. This allows us to handle any challenge that comes our way. The residual experience we have has helped us through tough times like the recession. Today, if we are amongst the most profitable radio stations in the country in terms of listenership and revenue, in spite of having a larger number of stations to compete with, it’s because of the collective experience in the organization.

You lecture extensively at institutes and corporates on issues ranging from managing gender diversity, creating the balance between home and work, and making successful career choices. Any message for prospective IIMB students in particular, and for young people in general?

There are positives and negatives to the Indian education system. On the one hand, it teaches you discipline and rigor. It teaches you to think logically. This is where I would like to recall my days at IIM Bangalore, where I learnt to think in a process-oriented and logical manner. It taught me to link various dots and create a strategy out of it. Logical thinking and process orientation is what I learnt at IIM. And I am very grateful for that.

Having said that, I think the problem with our education system is that it seldom nurtures innovative thinking. It lacks the ability to make people think on their own. One of my strengths, for example, is left brain-right brain balance but I find very few young people learn this balance through the standard education system. However, it is this left brain-right brain balance that business organizations demands of their people.

You have been the first President of the AROI, the industry body of the radio industry, where you were at the forefront of several industry initiatives like the resolution of the royalty issue, the structuring of the Phase 3 policy and the evangelizing of the medium among advertisers. Is advocacy a big part of your work?

Yes, advocacy is the most important part of my job right now. My initial days at Radio City were spent in scaling, building the team and creating the culture, so in that sense my first 4-5 years as CEO were very inward looking. I must say I have a fabulous team of heads of departments who are very operationally efficient, so most of my time today is spent doing two things – evangelizing this medium with policy drivers not only because this is a nascent medium but because it is the most regulated medium in the country. Television and print have far more freedom. For example, radio stations are not allowed to carry news. I spend a lot of time explaining to the policy makers why we require content independence.

I also spend a lot of time evangelizing with advertisers who I think are not using the medium to its full potential.

The other constituency that I work a lot with is adjacent industries like the music industry. There was this 10-year royalty battle that went on which we finally won in the Supreme Court. That required a lot of legal effort. I practically became half a lawyer as a result of that. I can tell you a lot about copyright law!

Another issue that is facing the media industry is digitalization, and royalty on digital content. Radio City has launched 7 Internet streams; now we need to know what to pay as royalty on digital. When we work with the music industry, we want it to be a win-win situation for both of us.

You are one of the very few women CEOs in the Media and Entertainment space and have been managing media organizations for a large part of the 25 years you have spent in the corporate world. What are your challenges? And what is your take on being a woman CEO?

I don’t think of myself as a woman CEO or a woman manager even. To me, there are only good managers and bad managers. Gender does not matter. Perhaps, it did to the generation before mine. Those women, to me, were pioneers in the true sense of the term because they stormed many a male bastion. Perhaps, in some industries, like manufacturing or sales, women came in a little later because of biases but in the media and entertainment industry, of which I have been a part of, I did not face any such biases.

Having said that, there are 2 points I want to make. While I do not think that women professionals should be treated any differently from their male counterparts, I do think that there are certain points in a woman life – like childbirth, where I strongly feel that organizations need to reach out with a helping hand. If they put in an effort as an organization to support the woman, either with flexi time, work-from-home options or good crèches at work, then they can be assured of her loyalty.

The other point, which I feel very strongly about and which is really the reason for my book ‘Lady, You are Not a Man’, is that organizations, over the last decade, are putting in a lot of effort to ensure that women in their workforce stay on. They realize that if they do not make such an effort, they will lose 50 per cent of their talent pool, and they simply cannot afford to do that. Even though organizations are stepping up to the challenge, the proportion of women in corporate India remains abysmal – 30 per cent of women enter the work force, 15 per cent stay till middle-manager level and then there is just 5 per cent at the top. That’s why you see such few women CEOs like me.

It’s one thing to say let’s have reservations for women and the new Companies Act talks of the need to have at least one woman director on the board and so on  but the challenge does not lie there. The challenge is in the 30 per cent that is falling to 15 per cent. If the pipeline is not there, what do you expect chairpersons of board to do? Where will they select women from? I have tried to address this challenge through my book ‘Lady, You Are Not a Man’ by telling that 30 per cent of women not to leave the workforce.

My message is that women who have reached the top are not special; we did not get any special opportunities or any great mentors. We reached where we have because we persevered while the others perhaps gave up.

Personally, what price did you pay for this ‘perseverance’?

Sure, there are days when I have felt overwhelmed by the demands made on my time. I am sure every woman faces such situations, especially when one has young kids. The maximum number of phone calls and letters I have received after my book was released has been around this ‘guilt’ issue that women have! Her kid is crying, ‘Mom, don’t go to work’ and that’s the time she asks her self if her job is worth it. And if she is having a tough time at work, then she may veer towards making the decision to quit. There could be support systems issues too. It’s not that I have not had such moments. I still feel guilty about missing large parts of my son’s childhood (he’s 20 years old now and I still suffer guilt pangs) as he was largely brought up by my mother but I think at the end of the day you must ask yourself which guilt are you more comfortable living with. Because 10 years later, your kids would have moved on and you will want to come back to the workforce. I get a lot of letters from women who want to restart work after a gap of say 7-8 years and then they say, ‘Corporate India is so cruel; there are no opportunities for women like us!’ To them, I ask: ‘How much control are you taking of your own career? What have you done, during the break, to keep yourself updated on the industry that you want to work in? What skill sets have you built?’

My book is basically my mission to share the lessons that I had learnt in my own life with women in similar situations – women who want to achieve success and happiness in all areas of their lives.

Nine years as CEO with Radio City, what next?

I am satisfied with the way my career has progressed. In fact, I was the youngest CEO in my batch and things have progressed very well. At Radio City, I think I have made a big impact especially in creating a unique culture. With my book, the impact goes beyond my work at Radio City. It is about spreading my message among women and influencing more and more women to stay in the work force.

I once attended a lecture by Charles Handy, Irish author and philosopher specializing in organizational behavior and management, who said whether you are a brand, an individual or an organization, you must start planning your reinvention just before you hit the peak, not when you are on the downward spiral. I have tried to do that in my life.

I am now looking at making social impact.

Reinvention is in my DNA.

(Interviewed by Kavitha Kumar)

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