"It was the longest route one could have taken to Bhopal from Delhi,” Akila Krishnakumar, former manager at ICIM, reminisces of a journey that began in the capital city then took a detour to Pune to drop her four-year-old son at her mother’s place. Her husband, Krishnakumar Natarajan or KK as he is popularly known, was away for his job at Wipro.
“Amidst all such detours, KK and I would wonder, are we even making money? I may have spent more than I earned just to keep my job,” she says. Both KK and Akila started their careers with Wipro, which is where they met. While KK went on to co-found Mindtree in 1999, Akila started Exeter Group’s Indian venture in 1993 and a series of acquisitions later went on to become the president of global solutions centers at SunGard, a $5-billion American software company.
Through their gravity-defying careers complete with extensive travel, it was the mutual respect they shared for each other’s careers that helped them weather every storm that came their way. “We ensured we weren’t travelling at the same time. We are each other’s Plan B,” says Akila, who now serves as an independent director on a few company boards. She describes the synchronised relay in the early days, “When I had to catch an early morning flight, I’d start the breakfast and lunch and then KK would take over. Our email exchange would have instructions such as ‘Don’t forget to season the rasam, add dal to the sambar or sauté the veggies’. And you thought we were just CEOs,” she adds with pride.
Over the years, this bond has only gotten stronger, evident from the way they finish each other’s sentences through their light-hearted banter, where Akila doesn’t miss an opportunity to rib KK. It is this practice of having each other’s back that enabled Akila to take what she calls her life’s toughest decision — leaving a toddler back home for a year-long stint in London.
“There were some who thought I was cruel and asked me, ‘How could you?!’ But, I had the unflinching support of everyone at home,” she says. Both of them agree that their unconventional work demands only made the children more resilient and independent. “There were high expectations from us at work so we pushed ourselves harder and hoped the kids would understand,” KK explains.
For instance, in 1999 KK had to move to the US on the night that Mindtree was launched to start operations there. This time around, Akila did the heavy lifting and not only did she manage shifting apartments but also balanced her work and the kids back home. After a year, she and the children moved to the US. The duo believe that the stint in the West did a world of good for their kids. “It helped them in terms of global exposure,” KK says. After less than two years in the US, the family returned to India. The move was particularly tough on the elder son, who joined the Indian CBSE school system in the crucial 10th grade. But Akila has no regrets, “It had to be done. I remember we were quite cavalier about it saying he would cope and he did.”
Once back home, things only got busier for the couple. “This was before working from home became fashionable. Work would often spill over to the weekends and back then there was no internet at home. So we came up with an ingenious plan, only our neighbours and particularly my office building guys thought we were nuts!” reveals Akila. She would leave for work as early as 5 am over the weekend and return by 10 am. By this time, KK would have prepared breakfast and would be awaiting his turn to rush to work.
On weekdays when they didn’t finish early, Akila picked her son from the crèche and brought him to office. “He was a well-behaved kid but the office boy did have some cleaning-up to do since he would scribble all over the whiteboard,” she recalls. The couple explains how most of their parenting was instinctive and that they never caved in to expected norms, “Some of it was definitely unconventional like giving the kids the house key in the 3rd grade. If my landline at work didn’t ring between 3.00 pm and 3.30 pm, I knew the kids were safe,” Akila says.
The couple agrees that nothing would have been possible without family support. “Despite all our co-ordinated efforts, it helped to have family close-by. They took pride in our success and we couldn’t have done it without them,” admits a grateful KK.
What best describes your parenting style?
KK: A combination of authoritative and permissive best describes our parenting style. When the kids were young, it was the pre-Internet era, so we had a more zen-like approach. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss because if I had the access to all the information then, I would have read up everything and we would have been in knots.
How did you tackle sibling rivalry?
Akila: We didn’t have to. Despite the six-year age gap, the younger one (Abhirath) behaved like there was no gap and in fact, at times he would boss over the older one (Siddarth). The funny part: we were never allowed to boss over him but he accepted it from his little brother.
Did gender play a role in how each of you disciplined your kid?
KK: With our elder son, like most first-born kids, we fussed over him a lot. With the second one, as long as there was no blood on the walls, we were okay.
On what basis did you pick their school and college?
Akila: When it came to college, the boys did much of the groundwork. I think the first one was sorted and we were sure that all his choices were researched to the bone. We knew he wanted to do computer science and when he got into Carnegie Mellon, he was certain that he wanted to go even though he was only 16. The only hitch was that he couldn’t travel often to come home. Luckily, the second one chose to do his undergrad in Singapore, which was closer. He generally shares a lot more details but we suspect that was more to show off how much groundwork he has done. He would have a dashboard, where he ranked universities on 10 parameters and some of them would have weights. That’s how he zeroed in on Singapore and France. That is something he definitely gets from KK.
What’s the harshest punishment you have administered?
Akila: I don’t think there were any time-outs or punishments. But weekday mornings were always crazy. It was like ranbhoomi. I remember in the morning rush hour when we were carpooling, one kid would make it down in time while the other wouldn’t and we have driven off leaving the latecomer to find his way to school. Not that we didn’t want to wait but we had a ton of work and people waiting for us in office and if you didn’t fall in line, too bad! After being left high and dry a couple of times, I remember they asked for cycles.
Who has been your biggest support system?
Akila: My mother and in-laws. They were always ready to pitch in. It would have been impossible without them.
Which were your most stressful moments as a parent and how did you deal with them?
KK: There was a period from 2004-2007 when we were both at a very important stage in our careers. There were difficult and stressful situations at work. We disproportionately focused on our work and because it was important we hoped and prayed that the kids understood it. There were times when we were physically present but mentally completely involved with work. We didn’t try to overcompensate but at the same time we know we could have done better. Then again, everybody is not perfect.
Is there an incident that made you realise you eventually did well as a parent?
Akila: A lot of who you are as a parent, what you do and how you react are all imbibed by the children and sometimes they outdo you. For instance, the elder one is superbly calm in a crisis. The younger one is not afraid to say the right thing even if it makes other people a little uncomfortable.
The elder one would refuse to go to restaurants, where there is child labour. That thought never struck us, we would be nice to the kid and tip him generously so it was refreshing to see our child taking a stand at such a young age. Their responsiveness to things, they will always respond to your mails or calls no matter where they are. In unexpected situations, when we see them do the right thing for others that’s when we know we have indeed done something right.
Are there moments where you were guilty or embarrassed but it turned out to be a good parenting lesson?
Akila: When students go from the 10th grade to the 11th at the National Public School in Bengaluru, it is always a big deal. The student has to commit to a particular group (the elder one was taking science) and had to pay the fees on a designated date. KK was in the US at the time and had been informed about the fee deadline by my son.
But somehow it slipped my mind. I realised that I had dropped the ball on that one only after my son called to check with me the next day. I rushed to the school and the principal gave me the hiding of my life. My son got an earful too, poor thing. We were asked to wait for nearly the whole day. And if that wasn’t enough, mothers who had to come to pay the fee rubbed it in further.
Finally, the principal called us in by 4 pm and asked to us come the next day. I don’t think I slept that night thinking how I ruined my child’s future and was already considering other options. The next day both of us trotted back to his office sheepishly and he seemed a lot calmer. He allowed me to pay the fees but not before giving me another lecture.
Is there an inside joke involving the kids?
Akila: I remember the younger one had complained of a stomach ache in school once and landed up in the hospital. Everything was fine but they kept him overnight for observation. We were allowed to take him home the next day and it was around noon. We had settled the bills and were ready to leave. But he refused to budge saying, “I have not eaten lunch yet and I am not leaving without having food”. My mother burst out laughing saying what a slap on my face it was that my son would rather eat that horrible hospital food than come home and have something I cooked.
Do you recall a remark from your kids that stunned you?
KK: We were not around when this happened. We were travelling and left some cash with the boys. I think the second one wanted to splurge on something and the elder one just took off on him. He gave him a big lecture saying, “Do you think money grows on trees? Do you know how hard our parents work?” We found it very amusing!