Power Couple

Sejal Shah & Mukul Gulati

Sejal & Mukul Gulati on how they are each other's 'intellectual' soul mates

Ask Sejal how different she and Mukul are, and she promptly replies, “like night and day”. She is the bubbly, fast-talking American (Indian by birth), who speaks her mind and is passionate about everything she does. Mukul is almost Zen-like; he takes time to process his thoughts before he speaks and is objective in every task he undertakes. Sejal Shah Gulati grew up in a suburb of New York in a traditional Gujarati family, while Mukul grew up in Delhi and then went to the US for college. They were set up on a date 12 years ago, only to discover that they were each other’s “intellectual” soul mates. The couple decided to come to India in 2006 so that Mukul could set up his firm’s Indian operations. They saw it as a fun adventure that they were going to take together. Mukul says that while the move brought them closer, the transition was tougher for Sejal. But she was determined to make it work and there was no stopping her.

Sejal admits that though she did it for love, the move to Bengaluru opened professional opportunities that may not have been possible had they stayed back. For the couple, which loves to socialise, Bengaluru is now home, with a lot of friends who they love entertaining. Despite the tight schedule, they are strict about one parent being around with their seven- and three-year-old daughters on important school days or when they are sick; they have merged in the school calendar with their own. When it comes to holidays, Sejal makes the holiday and Mukul executes. While they go to the US every year to visit Sejal’s parents, Phuket remains a favourite, a place where both the book-lovers catch up on their reading while the kids play by the pool.

 When and where did you meet?

Sejal: We met 12 years ago, shortly after I graduated from business school in September 2000. He was working with a friend of mine (who was not from India), who felt we were a good match and set us up on a date. I wasn’t sure but felt there was no harm in meeting him, so I went. We clicked, and the rest is history. We started dating shortly after that and eventually got married in January 2003.

What were the qualities that attracted you to each other?

Mukul: We were both 27 and I felt like I had found my intellectual soul mate. We had a lot in common, read the same books, liked politics and current affairs. Her intellect and compassion were some of the qualities that attracted me to her. 

Sejal: He was extremely well-read, which made him very interesting to talk to. We had similar world views. Even during our initial conversations, it was clear that he was keen on having an equal partner and it was important for me to have that quality in my spouse. I wanted somebody who didn’t have traditional expectations of a spouse and mother.

What quality do you admire in your spouse the most?

Sejal: He is incredibly objective, both professionally and personally, and is extremely rational. So, when I take some work issues to him, he is able to give me very sound advice. He does the right thing even when things are not to his advantage, which is a quality I really admire about him, and he is very ethical, which makes him a long-term option rather than a short-term one.

Mukul: She has a great intuition about people and is emotionally very astute, and that is her biggest strength. She is deeply ambitious without being money-minded; and for her it is more about proving herself and making a difference. Once she sets her mind on something, nothing can stop her and she just moves forward, which is the main reason for her success even though she has taken up some undefined and difficult roles in her career. She has never lived here, so the way she adapted to India when we moved back in 2006 was quite a big deal. Though she was Indian, it was an alien culture; she had no cultural context because she hadn’t lived here. So, it was more difficult for her but she was determined to make it work. 

How different are you from each other?

Sejal: We are like night and day. I am very hyper and passionate. I am open with people and there is very little I am not comfortable sharing. He is more reserved. But we complement each other because if we were both alike, we would have taken up all the oxygen in the room. I need someone calm me down and tell me that everything is going to be okay.

Mukul: I am the numbers guy. Facts, data and understanding business models are right up my alley, whereas I never really paid any attention to assessing people, not even my employees. I always thought what motivated me would motivate them. But I have learnt from Sejal that different things motivate different people and that helps in not only managing teams better but also in better assessment of entrepreneurs when I make investment decisions.

So, how has the move to India been?

Mukul: In 2006, we decided to come back to India because I had the opportunity to build Zephyr’s India business. I always wanted to come back to India since I was very excited about the changes that were happening and contribute to that. So when the opportunity came, I jumped at it and she was very supportive. Coming back to India has really strengthened our relationship. In New York, we lead such fast-paced lives that we barely saw each other at times. And when we came to India we just had each other and we learnt how to become each other’s best friends. We have a lot of friends here now, but it took us five years to get there.

Sejal: It has definitely been an adventure. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be in India one day, but I did it for love and to support my partner. Though there were no expectations, moving here opened up a whole new world of opportunities, setting me off on my entrepreneurial journey, so it was better than I had imagined.

How are household responsibilities divided?

Mukul: We are very clear that when it comes to the children, one of us should be around when they have school events such as sports day, parent-teacher meetings, annual day or when they fall sick. We make sure that happens so that our kids never feel that their parents were not around. So, we request the school to gives us the school calendar as soon as they can so that we can pencil in the important dates.Both of our assistants talk to each other. Her travel dates are on my calendar and vice-versa and we try not to travel at the same time. But, despite all this, if we have to travel at the same time, we ask family.

Sejal: What no one will tell you is that it is easier being the boss! The balance is in the aggregate. There are days where work will take priority and there are days when my girls will come first. As long as I am okay with the ratio, I don’t worry too much about the balancing act. 

Who plans the holidays?

Sejal: I make the holiday demands! He executes and does a very good job.

Mukul: I get the broad agenda on whether they want to go to the beach or the mountains and I execute it. Our favourite place to go on a holiday is Phuket, Thailand. We love staying at the JW Marriott there. We do nothing but absolutely chill out. No sight-seeing, just visiting the spa and watching our kids play in the pool as we catch up on our reading. Both Sejal and I love to read and it is during holidays that I can catch up on non-fiction. We also go to the US once a year to visit Sejal’s parents.

What have been some of the memorable holidays you’ve gone on?

Mukul: The holiday to Tuscany in 2006 on the way to India was definitely memorable. Our kids weren’t born then. We drank a lot of wine and had a lot of good Italian food. 

Do you discuss work at home and does your spouse often act as your sounding board?

Mukul: We are each other’s sounding boards. She is hyper-communicative and I think about problems deeply, formulate questions, present the case and get her insight. I don’t even talk about my problem till I can frame the question correctly. But I consult her on people matters and strategic issues. I give her my advice when she wants it but sometimes she doesn’t want it, she just wants someone to listen, and I am happy to do that for her as well.

Sejal: We talk about work all the time. We both have something to bring to the table and it makes for a good partnership. I value him as an advisor.