As a teenager growing up in Bangalore in the 1980s, Lathika Pai was sent to learn canvas painting by her parents. But she saw an opportunity which few would have. “I watched my art teacher doing some fabulous canvases; so I asked her if she would be able to replicate some paintings by Monet and Picasso. She said yes, and that it would cost Rs.75,” Lathika tells MAKERS India.
Already a school topper, young Lathika was giving math tuition to kids in the neighbourhood, making Rs.1200 per month herself. So Lathika made an even better offer to her teacher: Rs.150 per piece. She recollects, “I had some friends who were looking to get some paintings done. So my teacher would make them, and I would buy each for Rs.150. Then I found a store in Commercial Street in Bangalore that did the framing that cost me around Rs.75. So altogether, my expense was Rs.225, and I ended up selling it to a friend of mine for Rs.750.”
Needless to say, Lathika Pai has what one calls the ‘entrepreneurial DNA.’ And today, as the Country Head, Microsoft for Startups, India & SAARC, and as the Founder of SonderConnect, a platform for empowering women entrepreneurs, she is sharing her wisdom from being a serial entrepreneur and corporate veteran, with decades of experience in the US and India.
In a recent chat with MAKERS India, Lathika shared her thoughts on empowering women entrepreneurs, her experience of working with various State governments as a social entrepreneur, and more.
An engineering graduate, Lathika went to the US in 1991 for her postgraduate studies in software telecom, following which she served in senior roles at multiple IT companies. Often, she was the only brown woman in the board rooms filled with white men, and it taught her lessons for life. On her return to India in early 2000s, she also started JobSkills, a social enterprise which aimed to upskill underprivileged youths.
In India, Lathika was shocked at the lack of women in senior positions in IT companies, and figured out that prioritising family and domestic duties are stopping women from climbing up the career ladder. Recounting her own experience, being married for 29 years and having a son and daughter (both in their early 20s now), she says that she had the support of her in-laws to balance her family and career.
Lathika believes that workplaces should also take an effort to bring more women into workforce – especially in senior roles and leadership positions. She explains how a number of companies in the US have really remarkable women-friendly workplace policies. For instance, she says, the American Management System’s policy allowed women to reduce the number of working hours to 50 percent than the standard requirement, while still allowing them to enjoy the benefits that they would if they were working full time.
Also, on being a woman in the male-dominated world, she says, “I love being called a woman leader. To be successful, you don’t have to become a man. I can be as hard as I need to be; I can bring up the feminine side in me too.”
(Interviewed and produced by Athira Nair)