Skip to main content

Lunch with Ranji Nagaswami '86

A Ghanaian scholar, Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir - Aggrey once said “if you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate an entire nation. Women are the ones who are most in contact with children during their formative years. Children who physically or psychologically abused are likely to vent their anger on society later in life.

On the other hand children who are surrounded by the warmth of loving women during their formative years tend to spread love as they grow. It comes as no surprise that the first president of the United States of America, president George Washington once eulogized his mother saying: "All I am I owe to my mother...I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her." It is essential for women to be well educated and encouraged to ascend the ranks of business and society so that they can help in nurturing generations of leaders who possess the right upbringing and requisite moral values and to help drive positive transformation within the broader society. For instance studies have shown that when a board has more than 25% of its members being women, stocks get better. It comes as no surprise that the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal three (3) seeks to promote gender equality and women empowerment.

I find it intriguing when I see women rise to the helm of affairs in business and in various fields of human endeavor. Such women deserve great respect and admiration. The fact that they are able to excel against all odds regardless of the various barriers posed by social and cultural norms to women’s progress is awe-inspiring. Women who are able to ascend the ranks of business and society must give back to society by mentoring other women to attain heights and also rise to the challenge of helping in the emancipation of women who still face oppressive situations. For me Ranji is a classic example of such an achiever who loves to give back to society, which is worthy of emulation.

During the lunch between Ranji and the ladies in the MAM program, we delved into various issues spanning personal and business. Earlier, she had talked about her plan of transitioning into entrepreneurship with his spouse. We were curious to know how to manage one’s business with one’s spouse. Pertaining to this she talked about knowing each person’s strengths and weaknesses, leveraging on strengths; and being tolerant and respectful to each other. She also mentioned that roles should be assigned taking cognizance of each person’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is known that there are differences in dynamics in how things play out when one is working with the public sector vis-à-vis the private sector. As regards how one can get things done and at the same time work in a way that makes sense when working in the public sector, Ranji talked about the fact that we have to massively adjust our expectations of what success looks like. She talked about the fact that success is not about being right about something. She said it is about the outcome and not the process. We should be humble about our prescriptions. One should be able to present or communicate one’s ideas in a way that makes sense to the target audience. We should not only be clear about the big things we are trying to do in our lives, but also why we want to do them. If it is for personal gain, we should be clear about it; but if it is for social good, we must forget about personal gains. With this clarification done, the strategy to achieve it becomes clear. One has to get the facts, do research on it (i.e. doing the work), make sure to get smart people especially those who can disagree with us or criticize us constructively when there is the need to so that one can place checks on one’s self and then find the appropriate language to communicate one’s ideas and spend time with each person. We should be sensitive to who we are trying to influence because people have their egos to protect. Avoid playing blame games or blaming people and also make people feel at ease so that it becomes safe to talk about untouchable subjects. Things take longer to implement than expected in the public sector. You are not going to achieve all your aims and so you should decide your priorities. Learn how the game is played, be clear about your goals and be very resourceful.

Concerning the role of government in helping its citizenry, she said that government is the institution that we need in society to set the rules of the game but there is need to draw the boundaries between how the game should play and the extent of interference into the day to day of playing the game. Government should structure markets, provide infrastructure, etc. Markets but not governments should define the winners and losers. The clearest areas for government are in education and defense. Further she said that in her view it is education that promotes equality and provides a level playing field for all. Education for all is a must. The problem is with bureaucracy not government. Over time there’s the attitude of a public good becoming a public entitlement. There isn’t competition for government resources. An example is the US welfare system- because it a good social goal it became easy for people to not work and claim welfare. This created inertia and people became dependent on the system. Eventually rules had to be set by government to curtail this total dependence on welfare. The issue with government is to know where to draw the line. Where is government setting the rules of the game versus interfering in how the game is played? Government comes with responsibility and as such leadership has to be examined.

In maintaining a balance between our work or academics and our relationships, she said a supportive network is number one. At our stage we should think about what matters. We should not only think about what matters today but also what matters 3 to 5 years from now. Is this a relationship we’re in that means something? She quoted two maxims she has about life to buttress her point. One was “if it is not hard, it is not worth doing.” The other was that “the most important decision we make in our lives is how we spend our time” and she was quick to add, who we spend it with. You should ask yourself: is this someone you want to spend some time with? Is this someone you value? What are you willing to do to meet the needs of this person? It’s the effort and what you are going to spend your time on that matter. Work away but be clear if you want work to define who you are. It’s a choice to make. It’s fine to work hard and want a partner who also works hard too. Be aware of your needs. If you are upset about the current situation then you need to stop and think and try to find a solution to the need. We must listen to the signals in our lives; sometimes we are so tuned out to our own needs in life. We should make the decision and accept the consequences. She said in marriage a supportive spouse is key. This buttressed what Robert Davies told us some months back about choosing the right partners being key to our progress in the business world. Ranji also touched on the power of outsourcing some of the tasks i.e. getting people to support with household chores so that we can have time to work and be with our family. This she said is a huge boon to women.

On how she dealt with tough moments in her life and still soar in her career, she said one of the most underestimated human qualities and the difference between people who overcome adversity versus people who are overcome by adversity is resilience or grit- something innate in your nature that makes you get up and do it again. Life is about seeing the bright side of situations even in the midst of adversity. We should have an optimistic or upbeat outlook to life. There’s a cliché which says: Pain + Reflection= Progress. We should learn to reflect on our pains and find why we’re going through that and what we can do differently. We should have a passion for life, people and ideas. We should learn to retreat, figure it out and regroup.

She also shared on how women can improve their visibility in business and on other platforms to be able to succeed. She said that one of our gender traits is usually not being self-promotional. There is a huge difference between self-promotion and self-advocacy. Figure out what it takes to get to the top or to excel. Women should learn to speak up. We are not taught as girls in our homes to speak up for ourselves. In most social systems boys have more privileges than girls. We are ingrained for boys to get all the attention. This she said is a social issue. Women are ingrained to bask in reflected glory. We love someone else praising us; we never put ourselves forward. It is a real problem. She advocated that if you’ve done something worthwhile, be proud to share it. It is our responsibility to be our own self advocates. It’s a tough lesson no one can teach us. Role models matter and watching other women succeed is important. We need to know it is possible, we need to know we can dare, we need to know we are capable but it’s only you as a person who can find that strength inside. Women should not be afraid to speak for themselves. We have to know what the limits are. Sometimes women are the cause of other women’s problems- some women try to crush other women’s career. Magdalene Albright, the first woman US secretary of state once said: there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women. Women must help other women.

As to whether what her younger self envisioned for herself by age 40 in terms in career path, personality, attitude to life has been achieved; she said her younger self was very idealistic. Her younger self wanted to go into economic development but her older self is grateful she never went into that field. Getting into her current field was by accident. She loves who she is now; what she is does not matter anymore. The ‘what’ is what you do, where you take vacations, how much money you have, etc. Her younger self was focused on the ‘what’ and she taught that should define her. Later in life she realized it is ‘who she is’ and what she is like that will define her and not ‘what she is’. She’s curious to do things that others would not do. Concluding, she said her younger self would recognize the career success and be relieved that she has a great family. She said affectionately that the happiest moments of her life are the moments with her family at dinner table (without ipad, iphones, etc) - just sitting, talking and laughing.

It was an enjoyable time together and it was all worthwhile. I believe that every woman deserves the chance and encouragement to make it to the top, to contribute meaningfully to business, nation building and the broader society. It cannot be overemphasized that women achievers have a crucial role to play in urging up-and-coming women on to enable them to rise to the top in whatever field of their endeavor. Every woman can help another woman achieve her dream. Women, let’s join forces and help build each other up!