In Conversation With Amrit Rai

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We continue with our Monday series of Women in the Spotlight’ after an insightful conversation with Adornologist Varuna D Jani last week. Today we introduce you to a woman with humble beginnings, no fancy degrees and a family to manage. We knew her as the publisher of a reputed fashion magazine Elle and now she has recently been anointed as the Business Head at Big CBS. A position that is majorly male dominated in the TV industry.

Payal Hindocha catches up with Amrit Rai (Business Head Big CBS), as she shares with us all about the blood, sweat, tears and of course the triumphs in her 23 years professional career. Here’s one more to women power!

Amrit Rai - Business Head Big CBS
Amrit Rai – Business Head Big CBS

Payal: To begin with, tell us a little about your early days and education?

Amrit: I grew up at a time when there were fewer professional options, other than those of a doctor, an engineer and a chartered accountant. Since I was good in math and accounting ““ I was guided into what was considered the most preferred stream, namely a BCom degree. In retrospect a bachelor degree in Arts would have been a better choice. Sometimes I do believe that with a more defined guidance, I would perhaps have been educated myself more.

After my BCom degree I didn’t study further and dived straight into my career. I have been working 23 years now. One year was spent floating through life, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. All my other friends were from more privileged backgrounds, and had their goals set, except for me. When you don’t do have a defined career, you land up in sales. I started my career as a sales professional and from there kept growing. I believed that the only way to success was by fully concentrating on the job at hand and doing it better than expectations. I am not really proficient at personal PR, and my strength was clearly my ability to be able to sell the brands I represented and convince clients to invest in the right thing. Slowly the path led to media. There was no looking back after that.

Payal: What was your first job?

Amrit: I dabbled with hotels and airlines and did not enjoy working at either. Thereafter Business India magazine was my first foray into media.

Payal: What has your professional journey been like?

Amrit: I have had the privilege of working for some great brands. I worked for Business India, the pioneer business magazine of the country, to Star TV, the leading television network in India. Then I moved to Elle, the world’s largest selling fashion magazine. And now I am here at CBS, which is USA’s number one entertainment network for almost 11 years now. I somehow had the sensibility to take the right decision at the right time. At Business India, I was assigned the task of selling India magazine, which wasn’t an easy sell being an arty lifestyle related magazine and that time art was not appreciated except by the rich and privileged. We managed successfully with The India Magazine. Along the way I got married and started a family quite early in my career and to have more time with my baby, I moved out of sales thinking I will excel in a desk job. I quickly realized my mistake and came back. At that time, way back in 1994, satellite television had mushroomed and it saw me contact TV18 for a job.

It was my first foray into television and I did really well there. Then Nimbus came along, where I honed my skills to become a great negotiator. And thereafter, I joined Star, once again did really well there too for 6 years and saw myself get promoted every year. As I wished for a horizontal growth after having achieved a vertical one in sales, and not wanting to be restricted in a sales role I got an opportunity with the Indian Express group. This journey taught me a lot as I was handling a large portfolio which included 5 brands, 11 categories and overseeing more than a 150 people, I worked very closely with the marketing and editorial teams. And when the position of Executive Publisher was offered, I felt I was ready and just dived into it.

Payal: Tell us more about your role at Elle. Were you only engrossed with the business aspects, or you dabbled on the creative and content side too?

Amrit: At Elle I managed the business from marketing, sales, subscriptions, processing, and printing and circulation teams. I built the brand visibility through strategic partnerships and with very little marketing budgets. Whatever I did, was through the creativity that I brought to the team.  We had threats of new competition all along. But we managed to tide through since we were positive and managed to focus on the right things. I was involved in a lot of decision-making even on the creative and editorially as well.

Payal: You started at Big CBS about a month back. What made you switch again from print to television?

Amrit: I left television when it was at its peak. Today no one wants to be in television. There are some trendsetters and there are some followers. When I joined print people said it was a wrong decision and that print was dying.  I believe that print will survive irrespective and every brand needs to evolve regularly to stay in demand. And every media stream fulfills a different need. Television lost a lot of credibility in last 11 years. I don’t know why. However now I feel like I have an opportunity to write on a blank canvas. Plus it’s a great team here. CEO of the company is very forward thinking. He gives a lot of freedom and someone like me will thrive in an environment like this. I relate to the brands that I am representing here, that is CBS Love and CBS Prime.

Payal: What is your role at Big CBS?

Amrit: I am the business head here. So I look after programming, content, acquisitions of content, marketing and sales. What excited me is that I also got the portfolio of programming into my kitty.

Payal: Tell us about the equation you have maintained with your spouse when it comes to balancing personal and professional lives?

Amrit: I have a very balanced relationship at home. There is no controlling, no interference. I don’t have to ask if I have to travel. My husband will take care of my kids if I am out. I have been working through-out my career. I think today’s girls would find it very difficult to balance a career and family together. And when you have two kids at home you need to have a boss who needs to understand your desire to balance the two equally. In turn spouses need understand each other’s work demands and respect each other as equals and then personal challenges will not enter your professional life and vice versa. We don’t discuss work at home. If something is bothering any of us too much we may share the same but in an advice seeking way. We will not interfere or try to influence each other’s decisions. All relationships take time to condition themselves in this manner.

Payal: What do you love the most about your job?

Amrit: I like the freedom to be creative. Sales for me, has never been a mundane job, it’s actually a creative one. You have to find solutions on your feet and I like creativity to be able to find solutions to challenges when you are not expecting them at all. And every business whether is successful if based on an idea that someone buys into.

Payal: What are the biggest challenges of your job?

Amrit: It’s managing people and perceptions that’s the toughest. People’s ability to misunderstand is so high. The level of tolerance of other people’s in capabilities or mistakes is very low.

Payal: You have worked with big corporates, big brands and big conglomerates. Have you ever faced the glass ceiling?

Amrit: Absolutely. You have to work twice as harder. And I know people say it’s not true, but it is very true. You do get a raw deal as a woman many a times. You know men will have this back slapping, beer drinking habit and their share of jokes. As a woman you somehow don’t fit into the boy gang. Men as peers tend to ridicule women colleagues, unless you walk the talk.

Payal: A lot of Business heads with TV channels are men. You must be one of the few women anointed to this post. According to you why were you able to make that exception or how did you fit the bill?

Amrit: I have risen like a phoenix. I have had weak moments, but have always learnt from them and ended up being the Publisher at Elle India. I think they hired me because of what I have managed to achieve in the last few years. Who doesn’t need a phoenix? Even Harry Potter needed one.

Payal: Nowadays lot of women feel that starting a family will hinder their career paths and not let them achieve what they have set out for. Have you ever felt that way?

Amrit: When I was younger it used to affect me when my colleagues went ahead of me. But that was foolishness. Of course if you have a family, you have to work harder. It is usually harder on a woman since people perceive that women need to give priority to family over work. You have to be mentally prepared that it will be a tough 10 years. The journey may be slower but the journey will happen. The destination will be achieved. It may take you 20 years to get there, which without a family may have taken you 10 years. Today I look back with pride for achieving the feat of raising great kids and doing wonderfully on the professional front.

Payal: Who do you look to for inspiration?

Amrit: I look at Madonna for my inspiration. I feel Madonna re-boots every 4 years. She evolves. And she has been my biggest inspiration. So every 4 years I re-evaluate my priorities and see if I am on the right track.

Payal: What are your biggest achievements?

Amrit: I think finding that balance has been my biggest achievement. I don’t think any other woman would have been able to do it. It’s a rarity to have that perfect balance between your personal and professional lives.

Payal: What do you do for fun or exhilaration?

Amrit: I travel a lot. I love yoga. It’s something I recommend to everybody. Spending time with the family is so engaging and lots of fun.

Payal: Which are your favourite brands?

Amrit:  I’m a mix and match person. I love my accessories to be luxury brands. So I love Burberry, Louis Vuitton, TODS and Ferragamo.  In clothes I buy H&M, Burberry, DKNY, and a lot of Indian fashion designers like Narendra Kumar Ahmed, Nachiket Barve, Payal Khandwala are my favourites. I can’t be too eccentric with my clothes as a Business Head. I buy sedate and structurally well defined outfits.

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