Harnaaz, Leena or Gita: Who’s Your Icon?

Is winning a glamour contest, a beauty parade, a bigger achievement than getting to run one of the world’s best known luxury brands or the IMF? asks Sandeep Goyal.

In the past few days, three women, in a blazing trail of glory, scaled unprecedented heights for India.

Harnaaz Sandhu, a 21 year old from Chandigarh, won the Miss Universe crown two decades after Lara Dutta last won the laurel for India.

Leena Nair, who studied in Kolhapur and Sangli, was named Global CEO of French luxury fashion house Chanel after an illustrious 20-year career at Unilever.

And Gita Gopinath, the girl from Mysore, was upped as the first managing director of the International Monetary Fund, effectively the No 2 position in the global organisation.

I commissioned a small straw poll to understand who out of the three super-achievers is the tallest icon for today’s young girls.

We chose Jaipur and Mumbai as the two centres to reach the 186 female respondents that were interviewed.

All of them were in the 18-30 age group.

All graduates, or more. 74 of them were married.

The results from the poll were quite interesting.

Harnaaz won hands down in Jaipur; Leena was a distant second. Gita was almost a no-show.

The contest in Mumbai was much closer. Harnaaz pipped Leena by a narrow margin. Gita finished a decent third.

Interestingly, in the 25- to 30-year cohort, Leena actually scored better than Harnaaz in Mumbai. Also, amongst married women, Leena was a clear No 1 and Gita too made a reasonable presence for herself.

But yes, all the younger respondents were more than starry-eyed for Harnaaz, and thought the world (nay, universe) of her.

There was much admiration and adulation for her achievement as a “true world beater”.

That led me to the inevitable question: Is winning a glamour contest, a beauty parade, a bigger achievement than getting to run one of the world’s best known luxury brands or the IMF?

To be honest, most respondents didn’t perhaps actually understand the magnitude of Leena’s or Gita’s achievements, especially in a world where their direct competition came from well-entrenched male counterparts.

On the other hand, winning a televised beauty pageant in full public view for India was easy to understand, easy to relate to, and be impressed by.

That is not to belittle Harnaaz’s achievement in any which way, but just to put into perspective that a lot of the young girls in our survey did not know much about Chanel or the IMF.

Hence, calibrating the success of Leena and Gita in their minds was actually outside the realm of their understanding.

For a moment, let us forget the research feedback. What fascinated me most was the small town origins of all the three sheroes.

Harnaaz may have gone to college in Chandigarh but she actually belongs to a small mofussil town, Kharar, located a few miles from The City Beautiful.

Leena’s schooling and her engineering studies were completed in upcountry Maharashtra before she went on to win a gold medal at XLRI in Jamshedpur. And then she joined Unilever and was there for well over two decades, including as the chief human resources officer of the global company, in London.

Gita, too, was in Mysore for her schooling. It is only later that she joined Lady Shri Ram and Delhi School of Economics before doing a second Masters in Washington and a doctorate from Princeton.

My deciphering of the research feedback is simple. Both for India and Bharat, the glitz and glamour surrounding the beauty queens is still a big inspiration.

The fact that most of Harnaaz’s predecessors eventually ended up dancing in Karan Johar movies is not really perceived to be anything negative by most of India’s younger generation.

The winning of the pageant is seen to be a ticket to both fame and fortune. And a delightful path to a life of luxury, and untold riches.

Not just Harnaaz, but Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and more of their ilk are role models for young girls irrespective of age or town-class.

If I had run a purposive sample with only women professionals in business, it is quite possible Leena Nair and Gita Gopinath would have outscored Harnaaz Sandhu.

The close scores in Mumbai anyway indicate that for those that know, and know that they know, a Leena or Gita are giant killers. Their achievements in male-dominated professions are well appreciated, and inspirational, without a doubt.

For years, Indra Nooyi was the only well-known female global CEO of Indian origin. But in the last few years, the likes of Revathi Advaithi of Flex, Sharmistha Dubey of Tinder, Reshma Kewalramani of Vertex Pharma, Anjali Sud of Vimeo, Sonia Syngal of Gap, Jayshree Ullal of Arista Networks, Padmasree Warrior of Fable, Priya Lakhani of Century AI, and more have proved their mettle in global business.

They may not have been celebrated with the dazzling $5 million crown that Harnaaz sported, but each of them is a self-made billionaire in the making. You choose.

Sandeep Goyal is Managing Director, Rediffusion.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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