Three weeks before I am due to interview Vandana Saxena Poria, I receive an email from her querying if she is really an appropriate cover story candidate, and whether economia has mistaken her for someone else. She explains: “Like so many women, I struggle with imposter syndrome. It’s deeply ingrained in me and, yes, I was surprised to receive economia’s invite. Despite my achievements, I don’t consider myself to be of the same calibre as the other interviewees. My delight at being asked was quickly superseded by the self-doubt: ‘Do they really mean me? Did they invite me by mistake?’”
Vandana Saxena Poria OBE, adviser to ICAEW in India, non-executive director of the UK India Business Council, and founder of award-winning start-ups including the Get Through Guides (GTG) training manuals and programme – she’s no imposter, so why has she not managed to silence the inner critical voice? “Like everything, it starts in childhood,” she explains. “My brother and I experienced racist abuse when we were children. Of course that makes you feel furious and indignant, but when you’re that young, it can also undermine your confidence. And I also felt that I was living in the shadow of my quite brilliant brother – a top-grade student in everything.”
There may be another reason: while ultimately recognised as gifted, she nonetheless had problems with conventional methods of learning as a child, and devised her own techniques, using mind maps, diagrams, colours and annotations. The approach served her well throughout school, university, and her ACA training in the early 1990s. It may also have been the catalyst for the training centre she set up after leaving EY in Romania, and for GTG, which she founded in 2006 to “transform the way content and training is delivered and learning occurs”.
What she achieved with GTG – setting up a publishing company within a year of moving to India and having her second child – was remarkable. “I saw an opportunity,” she says. “Training manuals, including those for accountancy, were dire. How can people learn from something that doesn’t engage them? So I decided to change that. We had a team writing the books for us – mainly women accountants who had children – and were doing so well that we were asked by corporates to train accountants to be better communicators and leaders. Then we got a call from the Insurance Institute of India, asking us to produce study manuals. I told them honestly that while insurance wasn’t our expertise, robust content frameworks were and that I thought I could make it work for us all: very soon we were writing material for hundreds of thousands of insurance professionals across India.”
So what made her choose to read accountancy and finance at university in the first place? “My father,” she says laughing. “I was fascinated by oceanic geography, but my father – though progressive – was still very Asian in his thinking. He gave me three choices – accountant, lawyer or doctor – and strongly recommended accountancy because, and I can still hear his voice saying this, ‘you’ll get married, have children and will be able to work from home easily while you raise them’.”
She negotiated a year off to pursue her artistic passions: first landing the drivetime DJ gig on one of London’s Indian radio stations and then heading to India to do a 16-week classical dance course. “As it turned out, the radio station went bust, and my dad said ‘if you’d been an accountant, you could have saved that business’. It was checkmate. I joined HW Fisher and qualified as a chartered accountant.”
She says the ACA and HW Fisher made her what she is today. “There is nothing on ICAEW’s syllabus that is superfluous. HW Fisher trainees were well mentored. The firm invested a great deal in us and was, in some ways, ahead of its time. There was an acknowledgement that people mattered, which helped me define the type of ACA I wanted to be – a multi-disciplinary, values-driven enabler.”
She also has a rather apt description of what being a chartered accountant involves. “I see us as business acrobats,” she says. “We have to be agile, versatile, able to look at things from every perspective. Sometimes we have to dig deep to make sense of things and other times we need to stand back and look at the missing pieces of the jigsaw. I can’t think of any other training that gives you that 360-degree vision.”
When she was 25, she left HW Fisher to work as an auditor for EY in Romania, but 18 months later realised she much preferred teaching auditing to practising it, so set up a training centre. Within a year it was bought out by BPP Professional Education, Europe’s largest listed professional education company.
Appointed CEO of its new international division, her brief was to replicate the model throughout Eastern Europe, starting with Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Her time in eastern Europe was the steepest of learning curves, during which she encountered every kind of discrimination going. “Sexism, ageism, tokenism, racism – I faced them all, but I learnt quickly. Over time, things have become easier – and adding an OBE and FCA to my ACA has helped tackle people’s pre-conceived ideas about who I am.”
In 2005, after nearly 10 years in eastern Europe, she was ready to move on, and chose Pune, in Maharashtra, western India, as an ideal base for a new business and for raising her family. “We moved when I was seven months pregnant with my second child, and it’s been home ever since. People thought we were risk-takers, because they couldn’t conceive of life beyond Mumbai or Delhi or Kolkata, but Pune is the eighth largest city in India. I had a spreadsheet of everything I wanted our new home to have, and Pune was the one place that was able to provide it.”
She started GTG when her daughter was just a few months old, and very quickly went beyond publishing manuals to training, gaining accreditation by ICAEW, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), and working with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka and CIMA. For many years it was also one of only three globallyapproved publishers for the ACCA. The move also precipitated several new opportunities, among them setting up and chairing the British Business Group in Pune, and acting as a non-executive director of the UK India Business Council, to promote and support UK businesses working there. Her OBE, awarded in 2008, was for services to trade and investment in India. India is a market that no global company should ignore, she says: “It is set to become the world’s fifth largest economy, growing by more than 7% per annum. With a burgeoning middle class and with many millions being lifted out of poverty, there are huge opportunities for investors.”
Since last February, Saxena Poria has also worked as ICAEW’s adviser in India. “ICAI has a million students and I am thrilled to be working with ICAEW to build relationships between the two organisations. The work I do is varied, but includes helping to build local and global economies that are sustainable, accountable and fair. It’s also a good opportunity for me to give something back to something that has given me so much in my life.”
Throughout the interview she returns to certain key areas in which she wants to make a difference, the first being to enable women to achieve their potential, to take up positions of leadership and to return to those positions after having children. In 2013, she founded the GROW (Growth and Revitalisation of Women) network to support those aims. S he is also anxious to change the values that businesses and economies use to calculate success. She believes that the days of economic growth as a singular force are over.
“I can’t stress the importance of looking beyond the balance sheet at deeper definitions of growth. We don’t take into consideration what is valuable to humanity and to business, which is, essentially, a fulfilled population. It worries me that we are not giving enough attention to balance in society and in people – economia’s inclusive capitalism issue was so welcome.” She also thinks that Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy, which measures local authority areas against prosperity; health, wellbeing and happiness; dynamism and opportunity; inclusion and equality; resilience and sustainability; and community, trust and belonging is a step in the right direction, though there is so much more that needs to be done. Another key idea for her is “redefining success,” both in a personal and business capacity.
“If people are balanced in major aspects of their life, they perform better. Having supported a close family member with clinical depression, and as a single mother running a business, I realised how much we all needed to build ‘people ecosystems’ around us to support all aspects of our lives. A people ecosystem combines business, personal and other networks to help each individual reach their potential by giving them access to mentors and guiders who can support them whatever they are going through.
“It’s also a great opportunity to give back. This is what I am trying to introduce throughout all the organisations I work with. They are all leaders in their field, so where they go others will follow.” Saxena Poria is given to action, not despair, but does admit to feeling despondent about the rise of right wing populism, considering it a social and economic threat.
“I find it incredible that we still live in a discriminatory world, that we still have to fight against racism, and sexism and exclusion. Many Western countries have prospered at the expense of other nations, and we see that pattern repeated time after time, with mass exploitation of resources and of people.”
Does she have a plan for changing this? “I do think the world might be a better place if there were more women leaders at every level. Patriarchy is still ingrained in the East, and even in the West it’s prevalent, albeit on a subconscious level. Throughout time, 80% of history, religion, legislation and scientific advancement has been written by men and for men. Women’s contribution has been ignored.”
She has recently finished writing the first of a series of science fiction novels, exploring different worlds, with different value systems, and has also been writing a non-fiction book with the late Alyque Padamsee, India’s godfather of advertising, on transforming mindsets. Is that where her ambition for her own future lies – becoming a writer and novelist?
“It’s certainly in the mix, that’s for sure, but my main driver remains building a more connected world for enriched, holistic growth. I’m actively putting aside money-making ambitions to achieve that.”