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KN Vaidyanathan, Building A Career and Family In India

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Summary

On this episode we sit down with KN Vaidyanathan, Vaidy for short.  Vaidy is currently Chief Risk Officer at Mahindra & Mahindra, one of India’s largest multinational companies. Formerly, he was the country manager for Morgan Stanley.

We discuss his personal story in his career and his path to becoming a father, what fatherhood means in the Indian context, and what his personal philosophy is on managing his career and family.

This episode is particularly interesting for those who are on their journey to fatherhood, and are hoping to broaden their cultural understanding of what that may look like in a different part of the world.

Podcast Transcription

Khaled – Introduction:

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to season one of Building A Legacy, a podcast on becoming a parent, growing your career and supporting your family. Today, we’ll be chatting with Vaidy, the former head of Morgan Stanley’s operations in India, and currently the executive vice president, chief risk officer and chief auditor at Mahindra & Mahindra, a multinational company based in Mumbai. What I think will be interesting to you is to hear a unique cultural perspective on fatherhood from a man who has been extremely successful in his career but doesn’t give any words of advice, simply what he calls words of caution. So without further ado, here’s our interview.

Khaled:

Well, thank you, Vaidy, so much for being with us today. It’s such a pleasure to have you. You come with such an impressive background and you come with, more importantly, such an awareness and an open-mindedness about what it means to raise a family, to be a father. And what I’m hoping to do today is talk to you a little bit about your own journey to fatherhood, a little bit about your own upbringing in India, how it shaped the kind of father you wanted to be. And then for many men, there’s an ideal of what they want to be and becoming a father actually is a awakening for them where they realize that raising a child is a lot more difficult than they had ever imagined. So I’d love to dig in a little bit. And if you don’t mind sharing a little bit about yourself, your background and where you grew up and we can take it from there.

Vaidy:

Where do I begin? Let me begin with early childhood. I grew up in a family of 10 people. My father was the sole breadwinner for 10 people. My father, my mother, we were six children. My father’s mother, my father’s younger brother, who was physically challenged. So that made the 10 of us. And there was one earning member. That was my father. So he understood the status that he enjoyed, the power that he could exercise as being the sole breadwinner of the family. My mother is one who became a mother of six children at the age of 27. Possibly if you tell a liberal youngster of today that at 27, a lady had six children and these people will not even contemplate that because they’re not even thinking of marriage at that age. They think that it’s uncool to be getting married early. And my mother had seen her entire youth go by bringing up children. So it was an extremely difficult situation, very challenging from an economic standpoint and more challenging from a stress standpoint.

So it manifested in different ways for each of the six of us. So I would always say that it’s very easy to externalize a problem, but it is important to understand that the external force affects different people differently. And that’s a function of vulnerability. So the risk of street water is a constant because that’s street water, but drinking street water would affect Matt very differently from the way it’ll affect you, Khaled, from the way it’ll affect me as Vaidy. But that’s our constitution. So it’s very, very early in life I realize that the external elements are the same for all of us. Maybe there is some difference in some material aspects, but in a lot of sense, what influences you, it’s relatively constant within the family, within a small society, but it affects different people differently and that’s your physical, mental, psychological constitution. So I learned that early, but it’s like anything in life, you may have learned it, but may not have internalized it.

So the intellect helps you to learn. The intelligence helps you to learn, but it is wisdom and maturity, which helps you to internalize. That comes with time. That comes with experience. So if I just fast forward, if you ask me, what is the biggest learning from fatherhood? It is actually about myself. It is not about my daughter. It is not about anybody else, but my daughter has helped me internalize all the things that I had learned, observing as a child in my family, in my siblings and my parents, particularly in my father. So as the famous saying goes, kids don’t do what you tell them to do. Kids do what you do. So when I see my daughter raise her voice, it takes me back 50 years to my small house in Madras. And my father raised his voice and that had become part of nature. And that’s what she’s observed. So fatherhood is possibly, or motherhood is an important stage of self-actualization when you actually learn a lot about yourself, that when you are in a position to then say, now let me do something about this.

Khaled:

I like this concept of self-actualization for yourself because we focus so much on fatherhood as really being about raising children but, in many ways, it’s actually about raising and elevating your own sense of consciousness about yourself and who you are. And it makes me think how as children, we go through phases as well. When we’re younger, we don’t understand why our parents do the things they do. And yet, as we grow older, we begin to understand it more and more.

And there’s a quote from Mark Twain that I particularly like, where he says, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around, but when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” And of course the quote is not actually about his father. It’s about himself and how he has seen the world through his father’s eyes as he became an adult. And it sounds like part of that evolution is about learning to see the world now through your own children’s eyes and how that reflects on you and who you want to be as a father.

Vaidy:

It’s two parts. It’s one to learn about yourself through your child’s eyes and two, to learn about yourself by recalling your father. In my case, my father is no more and maybe that brings a little more pinch to it, but even he passed away five, six years ago. So my daughter has had a nine year overlap with my dad. So it also gives you a chance to recall. And it doesn’t matter that he’s no more, but I am actually fixing some of my emotional bond with my father now. I’m very conscious he’s no more, but in my head, I’m fixing because these are all little things that they’re not cobwebs. There are these batches of emotions in your own system and unless you come to terms with it, unless you come to reconcile and gain closure on your relationship with your father, because I remember as a child growing up and I thought it was uber cool to ask my dad, if you couldn’t afford it, why did you have six children?

Now much like Mark Twain, would I say that now if he was in front of me? Would I have had the gumption to say that even 20 years ago? So this was not about lack of intelligence that I asked him this question, this was lack of wisdom. This was lack of maturity. It’s when you go through these and they kind of… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the process of natural [inaudible 00:08:04] starts with dust. [inaudible 00:08:07] soil. And then it gets added up, added up over thousands of years. And then a structure gets formed, natural structure. So similarly, these kind of things keep getting moss or weed or grass or hay or cobwebs in your system. They keep forming. And then you use the time to cut through or reflect on it and then squash them one by one. And that is why I call it self-actualization. You release yourself from all of these. You free yourself from this, and therefore you’re in a far more evolved, happier state.

Khaled:

You’re clearing your hard drive, you’re defragmenting your hard disc.

Vaidy:

Absolutely. Could I have done all of this without having become a parent? Maybe. But I can tell you unashamedly that it is because I’m now a father that I have had the need, the necessity of looking inside, reflecting, having these conversations with myself, having these conversations with my wife, and then coming to terms, reconciling, getting over it, hopefully trying to become a better person.

Khaled:

Vaidy, I’m curious to hear your perspective. I think a lot about the way culture impacts raising a child. And in particular, I think about it selfishly, which is having grown up in the Middle East, having spent some time in North America and having traveled to different parts of the world, each culture values different attributes in the way they build a family or raise their children. And I’m curious how you think having grown up in India and holding those values, but also having seen so much of the world, how do you think that culture has shaped the way you think about raising your daughter?

Vaidy:

Oh, it’s everything. So since you quoted Mark Twain, I’m sure you would know those famous words of Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Khaled:

Yes it does.

Vaidy:

So culture is truly your DNA that is not just possessed by you uniquely, but by a set of people uniquely. My wife actually puts it beautifully. There is sense, which is logic, reason. And there is sensibility, which is emotion, culture. It is as innate to you as sensibilities are. It’s like, for example, a lot of Indians, I don’t know about others. A lot of Indians who move to the United States work very hard to forget their Indian groups. And then they realize what a confused state they are in 10 years into life in America or 20 years into life in America because they have suddenly realized there it is a vacuum of identity. There are things you do. There are things, the way you eat, the way you react, the way your instincts work. So let’s say we go to Madras and my mother is in Madras. And if Gauri sits down to eat without asking my mother if she will join her or if she would like to eat, I get upset. It would be a perfectly acceptable thing in certain other societies.

Khaled:

My mother would definitely hit me.

Vaidy:

Exactly. So the child, some societies may say, oh, it’s the child who gets the first right, let the child have it. These sensibilities come from culture, the influence of religion, not so much in the ritualistic sense, but in a larger purpose sense. And that comes from culture. You’re prioritizing things in life. That comes from culture. Your attitude to things material, that comes from culture. That comes from upbringing. I just think that… Can I step back and say, all culture is just about listening to music or watching a dance show or eating Indian food? I’m not going to ridicule it because it’s a manifestation of it, but it is not everything.

Khaled:

Correct. It’s a manifestation. I think that’s exactly right. I’d be so curious to hear a little bit more about how you met your wife and how and when you decided that this was the person that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with.

Vaidy:

I came to Bombay. Bombay was my place of work, much like a lot of people within the US may move to New York City for their work. They may have grown up in any small town and then they come to New York City because that’s where the big jobs are. So I came to Bombay in 1985 to start my career post my MBA and financial services is where I started. And I met my now wife, then girlfriend, who worked in a bank, two buildings away. And that’s how we met. We first met in a yacht at a common friend’s birthday bash, and we got talking and we found things of common interest, whether it was about books or movies or things happening around us in society. We had a lot in common to talk about, but we had as much to argue about on things like who would be your likely heroes and zeros. So that’s how I met her. And I think there was the unexplained part, which is chemistry that happened.

And we got married. We got married in 89, but because both of us were consumed in our careers in our own ways and pursuing certain goals, becoming parents became a lower priority. So I tell everybody that there are parts of, I possibly will represent a book, everything that you should be and you should not be. And I have lived both sides of life, but there are parts of me that I don’t want anybody to follow. So like this phase, when I felt that career was everything in life and personal things, family matters, everything to the backseat. And then we decided to have a baby, but by then, my wife was in her late 30s and therefore biologically, it became more difficult and she had a miscarriage.

Khaled:

I’m sorry to hear that.

Vaidy:

But this is when you start believing that there is a higher order force in life. She had her miscarriage on the 16th of August, 2002. And my daughter, Gauri, who we brought home when she was about four months, our daughter of choice, Gauri was born on 16th of August.

Khaled:

Oh, wow.

Vaidy:

Right.

Khaled:

I’m curious to understand from you, when you think about raising your daughter, how do you make sure that she sees the sea and the depth and not just the shallow ripples where it’s easy to try to be liberal, it’s easy to not really intellectually engage with these topics? How do you do that? Especially when some could argue that the most recent generation is the millennial, the millennial is a different beast than other generations.

Vaidy:

And why did we name her Gauri? I come from the South and my wife is a Sindhi, means her roots are from Sindh, which is [inaudible 00:15:59] Pakistan, but she’s a Hindu. The Hindu family in Sindh had to come over to the Indian site after partition. So her father and his family, his parents, they migrated. So she’s a Sindhi, which is a community whose roots go back to Sindh. So in my tradition, in my South Indian culture, it is common for the first child to be named after the boy’s parents. So if it’s a girl child, we take the boy’s mother’s name.

So my mother’s name is Parvati which is the wife of Shiva. And Parvati, like I said earlier, Indian gods and goddesses have multiple limbs and goddesses have far more names and forms. So one of the forms of Parvati is Gauri as a protector of cows. That’s how we named her. But Sahita, that’s my wife, came from a completely different from her childhood. Sahita grew up in Bombay and the God for Bombay is Ganapati, Ganesh, the elephant God. And his mother is Gauri. So from her childhood, Sahita had felt that if she has a girl child, she will name the child Gauri.

Khaled:

Wow.

Vaidy:

So that’s how it matched again.

Khaled:

So it’s-

Vaidy:

From my standpoint, Gauri-

Khaled:

No longer two dots that intersect, it’s now four.

Vaidy:

Exactly. So how do we bring that to my daughter is to explain that her name roots go back to a lady called Parvati, who was the wife of Shiva, but in Sanskrit means mountain and Shiva lives in the mountain [inaudible 00:17:41]. So his wife is called Parvati, but it’s the same Parvati who takes multiple forms. She takes the form of Gauri, as a protector. She takes the form of Durga as a protector of a different kind. And she takes the form of Kali who is like a violent goddess. So that comes in recognizing that in your period, in your life, you would have to play different roles at different times. There are times when you need to be the one protecting others. You may need to combat something, you may need to conquer something.

So that comes in trying to explain that the person is the same, but the roles kept changing. And that’s the concept of goddess manifestation or [foreign language 00:18:27] as we call it. So the point I’m making is, so when you said, how do you explain the depth of the ocean, not the ripples on top, is through this. And that’s the advantage of stories. They help teach you the lesson very nicely and simply. So, which comes back to parenting is about painting those scenarios to children. So you create awareness, you help nurture them. You help them build values around it.

Khaled:

Just as you were talking about how a god or goddess may have to take on different forms, I think each of us have to take on different forms through our lives as well. And who you are at 18 is not the same that you are at 28, 38 or so on. And I’m curious to hear, particularly as someone who has had a prolific career, how have you thought about balancing being career-oriented and thinking about your building your professional legacy, how do you think about balancing that with being a good husband, being a good father and balancing it with your family life?

Vaidy:

You started as yourself. And then the next thing around you was family and the next thing around you was society. So I think we place a disproportionate emphasis on career, almost that is the centerpiece of life. The centerpiece of life is you, your family, your values, your society. Career is an important vocation. Hindu dharma tells you to take up an important vocation. It’s an honest way to earn a living. It is a way to contribute something noble to society. So do that, but don’t start the question with career. Start the question with you and your life. Then I think, in my view, if you look at it as a set of concentric circles, or if you’re familiar with cricket batting order of life, then it’ll be very clear. If you have a team of 11 players, each player is important, but in your batting, you have a certain order.

You rarely switch orders unless there is a specific crisis and you’re trying to experiment. And then you get back to. Once a crisis is over, you get back to your old order. So what I’m getting at is this is about rocks, stones and pebbles. You need to be clear about what are the big rocks for you in life. The moment you say career is that big rock, then you start missing the bigger picture of life. But if you say you, your family, your society is the big rock and then these things have to find places for it, then you have far more equanimity about it. And I think that equilibrium also helps in career because I’m sure, but maybe you haven’t seen, you’re still young, but you will see when you are at work in organization, a lot of over-anxious people, over-enthusiastic people, and it is that zeal and overenthusiasm that actually hurts them, kills them because they, in that zeal, they make mistakes.

They lose balance. If you look back at Hindu dharma, it tells you that you have so many responsibilities as a person. You can’t say that I will skip one responsibility because I’m going to deep dive into another. Sorry, not acceptable. If you’re a good [foreign language 00:21:53], which is a family man, you have to deliver on your responsibility as a [foreign language 00:21:57]. You can’t say I will do that after I am 45. Biologically, you may not be able to do certain things. So the simple point is people need to step back. And that’s where parenting helps not to overemphasize any one aspect that seduces you into believing that is the only thing that is important.

Khaled:

Vaidy, what advice would you have for men who are about to begin their journey to fatherhood about men who are going to be having a child soon and are about to have their lives fundamentally changed? What words of wisdom or piece of advice would you have for them to be thinking about from today?

Vaidy:

I think that [inaudible 00:22:40] as a statement to say words of wisdom or advice. Let me just caution them on a few things.

Khaled:

Words of caution. I like that.

Vaidy:

One is it is not a sprint. It is a marathon of an order you have not seen. It is a permanent change to your life from then on, irreversible permanent change. Come to terms with that. The second, the child is not the alter ego, tempting as it is. You almost treat the child like clay. I’m going to mold it. What if I had the child go this direction, that direction, I will make this child everything that I was not or I wanted to be. So tempting. And the child is so vulnerable that it’s so easy to even do it. That is when you have to sit in front of the mirror and say, would you pardon your father if he had done that to you? So therefore the child is not an alter ego. The third, the child is not a laboratory for you to experiment, but you be the laboratory for the child, or you make the child experience the breadth of it.

So my wife, for example, right from the time Gauri was small, it didn’t matter whether she was going to the bank or to her office or to shop or buy jewelry or go to the vegetable market, Gauri would go everywhere. Gauri would come to my office when I’m in meetings. So the point I’m making is be available for the child when the child wants you. Create the laboratory for the child to experiment. Don’t make the child the laboratory, create a laboratory for the child to experiment. Some of the things that my daughter has done stumped me. She’s done fundraising at least three times in the last 12 months for some social cause. And she’s going to turn 15 this Sunday.

Khaled:

Wow, happy birthday to her.

Vaidy:

Six, seven years ago, she demonstrated a business instinct by making things and selling them. The moment you compare child A to child B, then you’ve killed it. That is something, if people can consciously stop short of that focus on absolute. I learned something very interesting from a child psychologist. Children who grow up with their grandparents are happier because parents discipline you, grandparents admire you because there’s two generation, three generation gap. So anything you do, especially kids sitting on a computer doing things, the instinctive reaction is wow. And that gets a huge [inaudible 00:25:28] to the kid.

Khaled:

We’ve covered a lot in this past hour and from a little bit of geopolitics to learning also just about what fatherhood means to you. And I learned a lot from it as well. I really appreciate everything you said about the process of self-actualization, about thinking of parenting, just as much about yourself as it is about the child. And I wanted to ask in particular because many of our listeners will actually be Indian men and women who are working in the tech community in the US, do you have anything that you’d want to share with them or any personal causes that you would want to highlight before we wrap up?

Vaidy:

I think personal causes, each one has to find. So I have always had a fascination for children and particularly girl children. So for me, there is a program that Mahindra sponsors called [foreign language 00:26:15] which is the girl child. So I support that. So each person has to find their personal cause but for a lot of people that are second generation Indians living in the US, now having children, children are a good excuse for you to regain your roots because in bringing that child up, you will hopefully remember how your parents brought you up, your grandparents brought you up. So it’s a throwback to the times that you would have had. And in that process, relive some of the culture because somewhere in the bloodstream is the culture. Use this parenting as an opportunity to look back at roots and storytelling and mythology and all of that. Relive the culture.

Khaled:

I think that’s good advice for not just Indians, but for anyone who’s been living away from home and certainly advice that I think about for myself as well, how to stay connected to home. Vaidy, thank you so much for your time. It’s been such a pleasure getting to hear a little bit about your story and getting to know you. After having heard already so many great things about you, I’ve had the chance to see it for myself. And thank you particularly. I know it’s quite late in Bombay right now. Thank you, especially for doing this in the evening time.

Vaidy:

Khaled, I just want to say thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. I can’t say that I learned a lot about you, but I can certainly say that by the way you’re posing questions, you’re able to assimilate and respond very, very quickly. So that’s a huge asset, huge strength you have. So lovely talking to you and I hope this was of some use to you.

Khaled:

Thanks for joining us on this episode of Building A Legacy Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whoever you get your podcasts from. We’re new, appreciate your feedback and we’re excited to keep producing good content.