Women in Business — Marina Kundu

Marina Kundu is the first female head of executive education at HEC Paris. Elected by the faculty, Ms Kundu took over from Bertrand Moingeon who had been in charge for 16 years.

Ms Kundu has a master of arts from Yale University. After teaching at the University of Chatham in Pittsburgh, she became dean of undergraduate studies at Sciences Po in France. In September 2008, she joined HEC Paris as director of executive education programmes.

Born in India to Italian and Indian parents, Ms Kundu has lived in France, Ghana, India, Italy, Switzerland, the UK and the US. She is interested in improvisational theatre, conservation ecology and animal welfare.

1. Who inspires you?

Muhammad Yunus, social entrepreneur and founder of Grameen Bank, is an exceptional figure. His work on microcredit and microfinance, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, strikes an interesting balance between theory and practice, between social reform and business. Of course no system works perfectly, but the fact is his work has improved the lives of millions of people and has provided a model for helping people help themselves.

I believe his accomplishments sit within the tradition of another Nobel Prize winner, RabindranathTagore (1861-1941), who is famous for being the greatest poet and philosopher from my native Bengal, but who also got involved in inventing new modes of management for rural India. After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, he established an institute for rural reconstruction, to help empower poor people through education and social reform.

2. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I find working with participants in executive education particularly rewarding. When a 40-year old participant who has struggled to find her way in the corporate world decides to come back to school in order to give herself new career options, and afterwards tells me that the experience has changed her life by giving her the knowledge, skills and confidence she needed, then I feel I have succeeded.

3. How do you deal with pressure?

I tell myself that life is too short to let unimportant things get the better of me. I focus on where I can make a difference, stay true to myself and be the best person I can be. If I can make even a small positive impact on someone or something each day, then that’s what matters. It’s not always easy, as there is a lot of external pressure and stress that comes with the level of responsibility I have in my job. You have to try and find the right work-life balance, and carefully nurture your support network of family and friends.

4. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

Probably not very much! In one day I cannot imagine what difference I might make to any circumstance. On the other hand, maybe it would be like the last term in office of a politician. Maybe knowing I had only one day would make me bold enough to say or do what I otherwise might not dare to in order to challenge the status quo. After all, as de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince said, “If I never try anything, I never learn anything; if I never take a risk, I stay where I am”.

5. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

Learn to think critically and not accept common wisdom as “the truth”. This was the main takeaway I got from studying French literature at Yale. People wonder how scholars in literary studies can read the same texts over years and centuries and yet still be able to glean new insights from them. It is because they are able to reassess and interpret them from evolving perspectives. This skill can help us to constantly re-evaluate what we think of as true and therefore to be open to new ideas. Several meanings can be folded into a single sentence. This is not only true in poems or novels, but also in everyday conversations as well as in business.

6. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

I taught a course once on the role of women in society, where we studied a number of French novels and plays across different centuries. My students were final-year French majors in an all-women’s college. For most of them, they were the first generation of their family to go to college, the first to be exposed to another culture through its literature. As young women in women’s colleges in the US tend to be in their final year, most were confident enough to express their opinions with passion, and, for the most part, with the necessary underlying knowledge.

However, one woman was completely detached and seemingly uninterested throughout the entire semester; no matter what the text or issue we studied she did not seem to care. But at the end of the year, she blew me away with her final paper on Marguerite Duras’ book Hiroshima Mon Amour. Not only had she understood the situation of the young heroine ostracised by her own society because of her involvement with a German soldier under France’s occupation during the second world war, but she wrote beautifully of her transference to the Japanese lover she had many years later who had survived the horrors of war through his own detachment. For a teacher, these are the moments we live for and shall never forget.

6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

That we mustn’t let ourselves get overwhelmed with the enormity of the struggle, for even the smallest actions can have great consequences. This has been a lesson learnt in my personal and professional life, over many years and through many experiences. It was a message powerfully delivered last year at the 50th anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King Junior’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he gave his “I have a dream” speech. Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, stood on the very spot Mr King had 50 years previously and said: “We can’t sit back and get caught up in a state of sedentary agitation, where we get so upset about the world . . . but we don’t get up and do something about it. We cannot allow ourselves to let our inability to do everything undermine our determination to do something.” I try to live by this every day.

7. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?

The same advice I give to all our graduating participants: never compromise your values, be open-minded and tolerant even when it’s difficult to do so (especially when it’s difficult to do so), be fair, be kind, be original and be bold. And within your organisation, think big picture but be careful to never take your eye off the ball. Whether in terms of gender or race, it is often true that minorities have to constantly prove themselves in order to succeed against subtle and sometimes unintentional forms of discrimination. It is important, however, not to let oneself be defined by this minority status: what defines you is what you do, in all the roles you play in life.

8. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

The vast majority of environments we women face are male-dominated, so it’s not a question we tend to ask ourselves — it’s just how we navigate the world! In my case, I’ve always been a minority. I’m a mixed-race woman living in a society whose cultural traditions and language are not my own. I work in a business school and interact with senior business people. Apart from my staff, which is mainly female, these are very male-dominated environments. We have only 25 per cent women in our most senior programme, the Executive MBA, despite considerable efforts to increase this number. It is unfortunately a reflection of the current make-up of this echelon of society in most countries today.

When I was elected to my current position, people made a big deal about my being the first woman to hold the position. At first I did not appreciate this, as surely my merits and previous accomplishments had earned me the job. But when I saw how proud my female colleagues were — and other women who did not even know me — I realised how important it is for women who do succeed in obtaining positions previously reserved for men only to show others how important it is to dare.

9. What are your future plans?

In my current role, I want to do my part to push management practices towards a stronger sense of globally responsible leadership. Managers cannot meet society’s expectations and businesses cannot lastingly succeed if the broader environment that sustains them is decaying. When I attend industry conferences and listen to chief executives speaking about their expectations of business schools, what they say is that they choose us because they want to know what’s coming down the pike. It’s not about helping them run their business today — they already know how to do that. It is about teaching them what they need to know to run it better tomorrow.

10. What is your plan B?

Ever since I worked with the Rachel Carson Institute in Pittsburgh many years ago, I’ve always wished I could develop a parallel career in conservation ecology. Both the knowledge and the type of research practices and social actions developed in conservation ecology are appealing to me. It astounds me how collectively irresponsible we humans are towards our environment, our planet and the other species we share it with. It is our worst fault and will surely be our ultimate downfall.

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