They have been the perfect foil for each other both at home and at work. From being classmates at IIM to becoming life partners, Meena and K Ganesh have been best friends and partners in business for the longest time. “We met when we were 21 and 19 and got married when we were 23 and 21. So we kind of grew up together,” says Ganesh. While fast-talking Ganesh is the big picture guy raring to go with ideas, the calm and collected Meena gives shape to ideas figuring out the nitty-gritty of the businesses and scaling it up. As co-founders with complementary strengths, Meena and Ganesh have successfully built and scaled up three companies, Customer Asset, Tutor Vista and Portea Medical.
Their complementary strengths have not only brought them great success at work but have also ensured the smooth transitioning of roles at home and when it came to raising their two children. Both Meena and Ganesh started their careers in Delhi right after graduating in 1985. “We got married immediately after graduating and we had our first child Akshita after 5 years. At the time I was working with NIIT and Ganesh was starting up his first company. So I absolutely needed to work to make sure money was there on the table.Since he was building a business, he was putting long hours at work plus there was a lot of travel and no cell phones those days,” says Meena. “Ganesh has always been extraordinarily focused on work. I remember the day my daughter was born, I was rushed to the hospital with labour pains. There were the three of us —his mom, my mom and me with all the crying and drama. Our man walks in says, ‘Oh nice, all of you are here. So let me go to work’ and off he goes. Then at 4.07, the little one arrives and as if on cue, our man walks in at 4.09 saying, ‘how wonderful! We have a baby’,” she recollects with a smile. While this behavior may have led to WW III in some families, what saved Ganesh was the fact that Meena not only understands his crazy drive to excel but also has it in droves within her as well.
Three months after her daughter was born, Meena went back to work full-time which involved extensive travel as well. Thankfully support came from both families. “His mom has always been with us and my mom has always come in to help out on various occasions,” says Meena. With both parents travelling extensively, Akshita grew up to be a strong independent girl. “Meena was abroad and I had an offsite to go to. I decided to take her along. She must have been around six at that time. She not only packed her bag but also made sure that my bag was packed too,” says Ganesh.
In 1996, Meena moved to Bangalore with her daughter. She was with Microsoft then but Ganesh was still in Delhi. While mothers helped the children in the respective cities, Ganesh finally moved to Bangalore after a year and a half. In 1999, the couple’s son Atishay was born after a nine year gap. “This time, Ganesh was pacing outside the delivery room,” says Meena with a laugh.
When their son was around eight months, the couple started Customer Asset in 2000. Meena calls it their toughest stint. “It was a BPO business so we have shifts throughout the day and night. We took turns, still it was a very stressful time for us,” she says. Meena says she had the best time of her life when they sold Customer Asset. She went to head Tesco in India while Ganesh took a year-long break. Their son was two years old then. Ganesh was only glad to step up at home. “I would see Meena off to her office, carry her bag to the car and get my son ready to school. I would wait for my son to come back in the afternoon. We spent a lot of time together,” he says. Spending time with his dad during his break did a world of good for Atishay. “In all of this one beautiful thing happened. My son was very shy. But because he spent a year with Ganesh, there was such a transformation. He became this confident child and as a parent it was really lovely to see that happen,” says Meena.
After Customer Asset, Meena and Ganesh insist things have gotten only easier with children getting older and the seamless integration that technology offers. Meena says many a times work pressure and their child’s needs have come to head to head like the latest round of fundraising for Portea came together with their son’s college admission. “The key is to always prioritise like hell. For us it has always been what takes priority at that moment, whatever needs our immediate attention be it home or office. The rest doesn’t really matter.”
What best describes your parenting style?
Ganesh: Permissive and communicative. If we are not happy with something, we communicate it directly to them.
Which is the one value you have strived hard to inculcate in your kids?
Meena: Few things, one, there is no substitute for working hard. Lot of people asked me why are you pushing your son to study so hard to get into IIT? He can always join your business. First of all he can’t do that. Secondly, that’s my achievement, he needs to have his own. The other thing, we have drilled into them is about being grounded and not to change your values when circumstances change.
What is your most memorable milestone about your child’s development?
Ganesh: For me, the fact that my daughter made it to the front page of the newspaper for topping the IIM admission test. It was special on many counts because first there aren’t many girl candidates and secondly, it was pretty rare for a non-engineer to emerge as a topper. But above all, I was the proudest that she did one better than us. Both Meena and I are from IIM Calcutta but Akshita made it to IIM Ahmedabad, which is considered the best among IIMs. For our son, it was when he got into IIT Madras. He has always done well academically but he loves the subject ( unlike me ). I have never seen someone like him. I have seen people be passionate and get this excited about cricket but never studies. I couldn’t crack IIT. So when I went there for my son’s admission, I remember I posted on Facebook that my mother is truly delighted that one generation and 40 years later, “Ganesh” finally was in IIT! Both our dreams came true.
How did you tackle sibling rivalry?
Meena: Because of the nine year gap, there was not any sibling rivalry. In fact Akshita used to help out a lot when Atishay was born. When he got older, she even went for parent teacher meets happily on our behalf. But now they fight a little, but it’s fine to watch them fight. Siblings must always quibble!
What kind of assistance could you give them with respect to academics?
Meena: I used to prepare them for all their exams. Till 8th standard, I used to grill the kids; after that they were on their own. My son has just joined college but last 4 years he was preparing for the entrance. It was a joint effort, every bit of what he has to do when he has to do, making up sure he gets up at 5 to study, call him 5 times till he gets up, talk to other parents on WhatsApp!
How did you choose their school and college?
Meena: I think we discussed everything. Both were clear on what they wanted to do. Akshita didn’t want to go to IIT and wanted to study economics. She decided to go to Singapore and from there to Stanford for a year on an exchange programme. Our son was very clear that he didn’t want to go abroad and he wanted to go to IIT and he managed to do that!
What’s the best thing you did to help them discover themselves?
Ganesh: Not box them into a particular stream or thought process. For instance my daughter wanted to study economics and not engineering after choosing science. My son was clear he didn’t want to go overseas for his undergrad.
That one moment when you realised your kids are no longer kids?
Meena: I think my son now is no longer a kid because ever since he went to college there is a different confidence in him. First time in the hostel and outside home. He’s the youngest in the family so everybody pampered him. If the food is horrible etc. he doesn’t complain, but the fact that he doesn’t tell me anything, for me suddenly he’s grown up now. For our girl, I think it was much earlier. By the time she was about 13-14, she was already independent.
What have you learnt from your children?
Ganesh: My son’s ability to remain focused at all times. My daughter’s ability to multitask with equal effectiveness, something I could never do!
Meena: I learnt the importance of networking from my daughter. Another thing I am proud about is that she never feels, ‘I am a woman, will I be able to do it?’ She just barrels on thinking that she is able to do everything and anything. From my son, his emotional quotient is enormous. He never takes things to heart. While he is focused on the input, he is not deeply involved with the result. Whatever the outcome, he is able to take it in his stride. I think it requires a lot of maturity to be able to do that and move on.
A memory with your kids that always brings a smile to your face?
Ganesh: My son was in the first standard and the teacher had asked students to describe what do your parents do. It was around the time we had sold CustomerAsset. So, I was on a break. One kid said, “my father makes planes”, then a lot of them said my dad is a computer engineer etc. My son didn’t know what to say. He told the teacher, my father sends and receives mails, naturally the teacher also didn’t understand. So, the students said your father must be a postman. He came home crying saying people made fun of me. So I told him tell your teacher my dad builds businesses. It seemed far more respectable to him, so he was happy. After a while, his friend came and told him that I saw your dad’s picture in the newspaper. He was very happy that his father has finally arrived in life instead of being a simple postman!
The most embarrassing question your kids asked you?
Ganesh: My daughter used to get upset that I keep on travelling. So I would tell her, I have to earn money so that we can afford things. We were in Delhi then. After sometime, IT&T had opened offices in Bombay and Calcutta, so my travel had reduced considerably. But Akshita got concerned and kept asking, ‘Daddy why are you are not travelling anymore?’ And I kept wondering why is this child trying to push me away. It was only then that I remembered what I had told her earlier about my job and travelling. She was worried if we indeed had enough money and food in the house since I didn’t travel as much. So, I explained to her that there are other uncles to help me now so I don’t have to travel as often. Even then, I think she didn’t fully buy it. But that’s something we still laugh about.