8 August 2016 | Shruti Kohli | Mumbai
Zia Mody, one of India’s top corporate lawyers, loves emerald, beach holidays, Thai cuisine and sports cars. Over 30 years of hard work in a male-dominated profession has helped Mody gather success and wealth and break the glass ceiling to earn the reputation of a great negotiator. In a chat with Shruti Kohli, Mody tells where she parks her investments and why she doesn’t gamble, not even at the casinos her family owns. Read on…
Shruti Kohli: How has it been to be a lawyer all these years?
Zia Mody: I think it sort of changed over the years. When I first came back (to India) in the early 80s I found …at that time I was a barrister or a counsellor as opposed to a transactional lawyer. I found that there were very very few women at the bar. That it was struggle to get your normal Indian male to have the confidence in you as a young woman.
There was a sense of, “Are we better off going to a man to argue this case rather than a woman. In the beginning it was quite difficult to break that impression. I think what was in my case, what I did in my case was I simply decided that the only way to demonstrate and gain confidence of the client was just to do very good work and hard work. So I would really burn the midnight oil, I would really look up those cases.
I would be completely ready every morning when the case was in court. And slowly both my solicitors and my clients felt that this was a junior who was well prepared. And from that then I got my chance to argue and make my voice heard in court. Then when you win a few cases, it always gives you more opportunities. And from then it grew better. Now today, if you look at today’s environment, fast forward 25 years, its an easier mental acceptability. But that having been said, I think if a woman fails in her first couple of attempts, she is not given as much as a second chance as a man would be. the failure factor is higher still. And I think that the forgiveness factor is lower still.
I think the other thing is that women are very hard on themselves. If men make a mistake, they kind of try and make their way through it. A woman will kill herself 20 times when she makes a mistake because her guilt gets the better of her. Probably just DNA. For those professionals who are women the main message is to stay the course, don’t get disappointed over a few upheavals or a few mistakes or a few setbacks. Just continue.
Shruti: How big a role your father (Soli Sorabjee) played in your choice of this career? And how– if he did– helped you shape your career?
Zia: My father was actually very good in that he didn’t force or he didn’t really say you must be a lawyer. But I think I was very clear that I wanted to be a lawyer. So he obviously encouraged that. Most of my early professional life, I was in America when he was in India. And when I came back to India, I was married in Bombay and he was in Delhi. So to that extent in a way it was good that I was not under his immediate shadow. But I always knew he was a phone call away if I ever wanted some advice.
Shruti: Tell us how has the legal profession changed and where is it going in terms of opportunities for youngsters, increasing competition, the rise of law firms and perception about lawyers in society?
Zia: I think the legal profession over the years has become a much more attractive first choice than before. Earlier, there was always a doubt as to whether you could earn enough, make enough, did you need to have a big daddy or some person with influence to make a career. And I think that today, out of law school you can get very good jobs at very good remuneration no matter who your mother is or your father is. I think its much better now for sure.
Shruti: If you were not a lawyer, what would you be?
Zia: I would have probably been a combination of a bit of a social activist. I would have tried my hand in maybe running some NGOs. I’m not sure if I would have been a good business person because I’m quite bad tempered. I may be running a business now, but that I’ve learnt. When I was young teaching was also a good option but I am too impatient a person to have become a teacher.
Shruti: You went for studies overseas and began your career there only to return a few years later. How was the shift to India in those days?
Zia: Well, it was quite unnerving at times because you know when you spend five years in New York, in one of the largest law firms in the world, and you are trained and the whole environment is full of professionals and you have secretaries and you have access to research and computers and then you come back and you are thrown into a situation where having a secretary is considered being elitist, being snobbish, having to research physically and manually which takes hours, having to dress differently. You wore a skirt and a blouse in America. Suddenly, that was not considered quite correct in India.
And then, of course, the endless waiting for opportunities. Regardless of my family background, I had to wait and wait and wait. And prove yourself whereas after working for five years in a law firm in America, you have kind of proved yourself there for five years. So it was a restart if you like. So at times it was challenging, frustrating. I used to get depressed occasionally. But what really made it worthwhile was that I loved the law and the chance to have a good debate, the chance to do some good research that kept the adrenaline going.
Shruti: I’m sure you would have plenty of women working with you at your firm. What is your perception of them. Do you find them over-ambitious?
Zia: No not at all. Are men over ambitious? Then why women? We have the highest number of women partners in law firms in India. And I certainly think we have an equal if not a higher number of women as part of our lawyers. But are we over-ambitious? No, not at all. We should be more ambitious.
Shruti: Tell us how easy or difficult it was to manage household smoothly while driving a fast-paced, time-consuming career?
Zia: It’s been very hard and not successfully balanced. I very often found that my work took precedent over times when I should have been for my children and family and if you ask me what is the price I have paid for all these years of success and climbing up the ladder. I think the price would be that really I should have been around at home more than I was. Fortunately I had a great mother-in-law. She fully supported me. I have a great husband. He fully supports me. So to that extent they were there for the kids. So the kids therefore were less resentful I guess. Yes but sometimes they did ask me to there where I needed to be. Most times that they asked I was there.
Shruti: Tell us about your kids and what they think and how are they different from you.
Zia: There are three kids, aged 24, 23 and 20. One has done design, one is getting ready to do law and one is doing mass communication in Jai Hind. The important thing is they see no difference in being women than men. Mentally they have no issues about the level playing field that they are going to demand from the world. So in terms of their path forward, they have the confidence that I think every young Indian woman should have. They are different from me by probably not being…you know they think that I have skewed my life and so they tend to be a bit more midstream on their path. But you know who knows when they really take off in their professions.
Shruti: A broader question: a very real as well as philosophical question-What money means to you?
Zia: Money…I’ll tell you the truth. Today I have no time to cut my hair, to go shopping, to buy myself a present. So money in that sense mean much in terms of physical things that I can shop for because I don’t have time. But what it means is it gives you a combination of things. It gives you a sense of self-worth and independence. It gives you sense of being able to do things that you want to do with your money. If you want to support a cause, if you want to invest in charity, if you want to contribute to a religious fund. I’m a Bahai by religion. Under our law, only Bahais can give to the Bahai fund. There are not many Bahais so it’s a privilege to give to this fund. So if you have your own money. You can commit to various causes.
Shruti: What could be the best use of money for you?
Zia: Giving to charity….And buying jewellery.
Shruti: Your runs casinos– a place so many wealthy men and women love frequenting. How often do you go there?
Zia: I don’t gamble. My religion prohibits me from gambling. I don’t often visit the casinos at all. If I visit the casinos, it is to try and grab my husband and take him for dinner or just as meet him and say hello. But I don’t think I have ever gambled in my entire life.
Shruti: Most men who earn a lot of money spend it on owning a private jet, yacht, scotch, casino and of course on women. How are women different in spending the money they earn?
Zia: If I had to spend money on something which I enjoy, I would spend on jewellery, something nice for our house, a car for myself, travelling, luxury hotels. That would be my indulgence.
Shruti: What’s your idea of a good holiday? Any favourite destination?
Zia: Somewhere warm. Preferably near the beach. Good food. Good shopping.
Shruti: Any holiday home at some exotic destination?
Zia: No. We have a home in Goa. I don’t like to own a home outside India because it’s too much trouble to maintain. We have a house in Mahabaleshwar which is a hill station it’s not exotic. But Goa would be as exotic. And we love Goa.
Shruti: What’s your favourite cuisine/restaurant?
Zia: Thai Pavilion and Vasabi.
Shruti: Which car do you drive? How many cars do you own?
Zia: I have two cars. I have a ten-year-old Honda which my husband keeps saying I should sell. Then I have a Mercedes sports car which he gave me for my fiftieth birthday. But I’m just not able to drive it. It’s a two seater and then when I come to work, I can’t really sit in the car next to the driver in a two seater. It looks very funny and I have my papers all over the place because I’m reading on way to the office and then going home late at night I use the same car. But once in a while I get out and drive over the weekend…along Marine Drive.
Shruti: What do you like about your cars?
Shruti: Any special interest/attraction: Jewellery, Gadgets, or anything else which you look forward to buying always?
Zia: Jewellery. Emeralds.
Shruti: How much was in your first pay packet?
Zia: 40,000 dollars a year. When I came back to India, in my first year, I must have earned 10,000-15000 rupees the whole year.
Shruti: How many credit cards do you have?
Zia: I have no idea. A lot. But I use basically Amex platinum.
Shruti: How much cash have you got in your wallet/purse right now as we talk?
Zia: Rs 800
Shruti: If you were to hit a jackpot and suddenly get something like a billion dollar, what will u do?
Zia: Give most of it to charity. Try and buy a nice exotic holiday home in India. Maybe somewhere in Kerala.
Shruti: What is your preferred mode of investment: Stock/bond/property/art?
Zia: Mutual Funds and some property.
Shruti: How would your portfolio be split among stock, bond, property, others at present?
Zia: Most of it in mutual funds, debt mutual funds. Rest invested in shares in family business.
Shruti: Have you planned for your retirement?
Zia: No. I should though. I have to think about it.
Shruti: As a spouse who understands finances, unlike many other women who are scared of it, how easy or difficult it was for you to participate in financial decisions at home?
Zia: Very easy. No problem. My husband takes care of my investments. But I know what’s happening. We talk about how we will invest our money in the best possible way. Most of the times, he’s better at it than I am. So he takes the decision. But I know what’s going on.
(this interview was done & first published in December 2011 when The Petticoat Journal was called MoneyQuin & was focused on financial independence of women.)
photo by: shruti kohli
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