How Dr. Kamla, the ‘Founding Mother’ of IIMA Battled Sexism With Her Sheer Grit

In a country with relatively few elite institutions of higher learning, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIMA), Gujarat, has carved out a unique place for itself.

(Image above of Dr. Kamla Chowdhry in the middle of two students during the first convocation ceremony on 10 April, 1966 courtesy the IIMA Archives)

For many middle-class Indians looking to climb up the economic ladder, an MBA from IIMA offers a genuine stepping stone into the higher echelons of corporate India. An institution of excellence, this is the place where India’s brightest gather.

But how many know about the history of this institution, founded in 1961? Those with a cursory interest will probably point to the ‘founding fathers’, including Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, Jivraj Mehta, the first Chief Minister of Gujarat and Kasturbhai Lalbhai, a leading industrialist.

But one name that was, until recently, largely erased from this narrative was that of Dr Kamla Chowdhry, the institute’s first faculty member and de-facto director until 1972. Academics like Professor Chinamy Tumbe, a faculty member at IIMA and author of India Moving: A History of Migration and Age of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped India and the World, are looking to rearrange this narrative.

Going through his recent research on Dr. Chowdhry, captured in this moving tribute published in Fifty Two, one can make the argument that she was the ‘Founding Mother’ of IIMA. Without her immense contributions in the early years, the institution arguably wouldn’t exist as it does today.

Unfortunately, old-fashioned sexism prevented her from becoming the first director of the institute, but not before she left an indelible mark on the institution.

Early Life

Born on 17 December 1920 in Lahore to a Punjabi Khatri family, Kamla was raised in a household of liberal persuasion by her father Ganesh Das Kapur, a leading surgeon in the city, and her mother Lilavati Khanna, who came from a family of engineers.

“After early education at [Rabindranath] Tagore-inspired Shantiniketan in [West] Bengal, she obtained her BA in Mathematics and Philosophy at Calcutta University in 1940 and MA in Philosophy at Punjab University in 1943. In 1944-45, she taught Inter and BA classes at Mahila College, Lahore and then moved to the USA to obtain a MA in Social Psychology at Michigan University in 1946 and a PhD in Social Psychology at Michigan University in 1949,” notes this brief profile on Kamla published in the official IIMA online archives.

She was married to Indian civil service officer Khem Chaudhary, but their union was brutally cut short. In the early 1940s, Khem was murdered in his own bed while posted in Lahore. Much to her horror, Kamla woke up to find him lying dead next to her. Although the culprit was tried, convicted and given a death sentence, the event deeply traumatized her.

Battling trauma and the depression that followed, Kamla finished her MA in Philosophy from Panjab University before eventually leaving for the United States.

Dr. Kamla Chowdhry (Image courtesy IIMA Archives)

Making an Impression

She came back to India in 1949 as Dr. Kamla Chowdhry after obtaining her PhD in Social Psychology, and found a job with the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association (ATIRA), where she headed the Human Relations Division until 1961. Established by Dr. Sarabhai, ATIRA sought to infuse scientific research in addressing industrial problems.

Backed by a PhD in social psychology, which gave her insight into how people behave in groups, she sought to understand workers labouring in the textile mills of Ahmedabad. By closely observing their behaviour at the site, their socio-economic conditions and even what they ate, her research helped improve relations between workers and employees at these mills, while also facilitating an increase in overall productivity on the shop floor.

This research spanned nearly a decade, but by 1960, she sought opportunities outside Ahmedabad, and there were many offers that came her way. However, in his desire to keep Dr. Chowdhry in Ahmedabad, Dr. Sarabhai talked about a leadership/faculty position opening up at an upcoming institute of management (which has since come to be known as IIMA).

IIMA
Vikram Sarabhai (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

IIMA’s First Faculty Member

The institution itself was actually founded in December 1961 as part of a unique collaboration between the Government of India, Gujarat government, local industrialists in the city, Ford Foundation and the illustrious Harvard Business School (HBS).

Interestingly enough, before joining IIMA, Dr. Chowdhary spent a year at HBS as a researcher, working under Dr. Fritz Roethlisberge, a professor of human relations. As Professor Chinmay Tumbe argues in this article, her one-year stint from March 1961 onwards helped cement IIMA’s collaboration with HBS, which was important to further the former’s credentials.

“She was the first member of the IIMA faculty when she joined as Professor and Coordinator of Programmes in July 1962. Dr. Chowdhry was a member of the IIMA Society, and also the first faculty nominee to be appointed on the university’s board in 1962. She effectively ran the institute from its bungalow office in Shahibaug, Ahmedabad, for three years, taking key administrative decisions, recruiting the first set of faculty and closely coordinating with the Harvard Business School and Ford Foundation,” note the IIMA archives.

As de facto director, her biggest contribution was probably designing the Programme for Management Development aimed at company executives in 1964, which later came to be known as the Three-Tiered Programme for Management Development or the 3TP. By most accounts, it was IIMA’s first educational offering, which continues till this day.

Inspiration for the 3TP came from the Advanced Management Program (AMP) of HBS, which aimed at “men who are or soon will be in top management positions.” However, when it came to designing a course along similar contours, Dr. Chowdhry, who had attended AMP sessions in the past, understood that it had to be different in an Indian context.

IIMA
IIMA Campus (Image courtesy Facebook/IIM Ahmedabad)

She realised that any such educational offering must be “oriented towards the company rather than the individual.” Speaking to the institute’s YouTube channel, Prafull Anubhai, the author of ‘The IIMA Story’, notes, “She observed that Indian industry at that time was dominated by family businesses. Families controlled and ran these industries as if it was their domestic affair. It’s in that atmosphere that professionalism had to be inducted.”

Instead of training someone with a foreign or postgraduate degree in isolation and sending them to work for these companies directly, there was a need to create a class of individuals that could understand the language of professionalism.

Unlike the AMP, the 3TP asked companies to send executives across middle management, senior management and top management. A programme was customised for each management class that ran for anywhere between five to ten weeks.

The first edition in 1964, which was organised in Jaipur, attracted 120 participants across 40 companies, which included Dr. Vargheshe Kurien of Amul fame and legendary entrepreneur HT Parekh, the brain behind ICICI and HDFC, notes Professor Tumbe. The 3TP in some regards laid some of the groundwork for the full-time MBA programme.

After her stint as Coordinator of Programmes, she shifted her focus towards teaching and research work, laying out case studies of major Indian corporations like Unilever. She also remained a consultant with different corporations and, in March 1968, became one of the first women to be appointed as visiting faculty at HBS, which otherwise was a bastion of male supremacy.

Nonetheless, she was denied the position of director. The reasons for this denial lay in sexism prevalent in the halls of HBS that couldn’t see a competent woman. In letters between HBS professors and doctoral students tied with IIMA that Professor Tumbe documents, doubts were cast on her abilities as a teacher and administrator. In hindsight, they reek of sexism. HBS at the time did not admit women into their MBA programme.

In 1965, the institute eventually invited economist Ravi Matthai, who didn’t even have a doctoral degree at the time, to take over as director. This fracas eventually led to the breaking down of the relationship between IIMA and HBS.

IIMA
Ravi Matthai (Image courtesy IIMA Archives)

Years later, in 1987, Dr. Chowdhry reflected on the issue of sexism in higher education. “I remember there was an unconscious bias against the induction of women in the faculty—there were only two or three women faculty members. This was because of Harvard, which was not known to be having any women faculty members. However, I had to fight strong battles with admissions to have more women in the PGP [MBA].”

Even after she quit IIMA in 1972 (a year after Dr. Sarabhai’s sudden passing), she continued to speak up for greater inclusion of women in the university’s MBA programme and faculty. In one such instance, she confronted JRD Tata for a job advertisement which said “women need not apply” and got this condition overturned the following year, allowing women to apply.

“She left IIMA in 1972 and continued to excel thereafter, first as an advisor for the Public Planning and Management Committee of the Ford Foundation India Office in the 1970s, and then as head of the National Wastelands Development Board under Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime-Ministership between 1985 and 1988. She was a member of the World Commission on Forestry and Sustainable Development and the World Bank’s Advisory Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Her research interests gradually shifted over her career from organizational behaviour to environmentalism and Gandhian thought,” notes the IIMA Archives profile on Dr. Chowdhry.

Kamla eventually passed away on 4 January 2006 at the age of 85, but her legacy remains forever etched in this institute of excellence. Dormitory 1 at IIMA, which is predominantly for women, was renamed in her honour.

More than anything else, however, she is the giant upon whose shoulders the institute stands even today.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)

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