Passion and expertise are gender agnostic: Arpana Kumar Ahuja

Women Achievers Series: Arpana Kumar Ahuja, Head of Corporate Communications & Brand at Shell India Markets Pvt Ltd., talks about her professional journey, gender equality, and more

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Mar 12, 2021 8:46 AM
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A communications professional with over 20 years in the PR industry, both agency and in-house settings, Arpana Kumar Ahuja has made a mark in the industry with her significant experience in the areas of crisis/issues management, media relations, brand building, integrated marketing communications and social media campaigns. Currently, she is the head of corporate communications and brand at Shell India Markets Pvt Ltd. In her earlier stints, Ahuja has been part of organizations like Weber Shandwick, PR Pundit, Britannica India, Clea PR and Good Relations. She is also the Co-Chair, India Chapter, Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors.

In today’s episode of 2nd edition of ‘Women Achievers Series’, we speak to Arpana Kumar Ahuja, Head of Corporate Communications and Brand at Shell India Markets Pvt Ltd., about her professional journey, teachings from 2020, her inspiration, views on gender equality, pay gaps and more.

Edited Excerpts:-

How did you enter the communications industry? How has been your journey ever since?

I had always been fascinated by the PR Industry since high school and it has been a fascinating journey with constant learning and enrichment. In fact, my starting point is what I always draw inspiration from.  It is an interesting story. I knew I wanted to pursue PR, and therefore was determined to apply to the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) and spent much effort preparing for the entrance exam. However, a bout of severe food poisoning a day before the exam made me miss it. So focused was I on IIMC that I never explored any other option! But a chance encounter with a senior made me aware of the Xavier Institute of Communication (XIC) in Mumbai, and within 48 hours, I was on a train to catch the admission deadline. Not only did I clear it, I also managed to persuade the dean to enroll me for the advanced diploma, which was offered to people with work experience. I promised to get a job to qualify and I got one by applying for a PR executive’s position.

Juggling between my demanding course, first job and a new city has really been a parallel for my journey ever since, and I have not only survived but thrived!

In my over two decades of work, I have worked across seven organisations and each has played a crucial role in teaching me the many facets of the profession.  It has been wonderful to be a part of the changing landscape, adapt to the new brand environment and shape corporate reputations in the social media space.  Personally, the profession has provided me with immense opportunities. The sheer challenge of winning a communication battle while understanding complex issues in a business environment rife with inherent contradictions and intricacies is very satisfying. 

What has been your biggest inspiration to serve the industry? Who has been your inspiration?

I have been fortunate and blessed to have the most enabling and inspiring leaders in my life who have helped shape my career and in the process my own self too.  Incidentally, majority of them have been women.  Beginning with the then XIC Dean, the late Jane Swamy, who took a chance on me and laid the bedrock for my entry into the industry; to my first bosses, Meraj Naqvi and Satnam Sachdeva who literally took me under their wings and taught me the ropes.  Prema Sagar, who gave me my first break in Delhi and entrusted me with the responsibility of launching a magazine in Jaipur all by myself! Sabina Mehta Jaitley who helped me cut my teeth on crisis communications at a very young age. Valerie Pinto who just energised me with her creative and boundless energy.  But the biggest inspiration to me has been Archana Jain, a mentor par excellence! Her passion for this industry, the unwavering commitment to her clients and team was motivating and put the fire in me to excel and push the envelope. I also drew inspiration from Aalok Wadhwa, who gave me his blind support to shape the narrative for Encyclopaedia Britannica in India and the late Ravi Dube who taught me the value of networking and relationships.  Last but not the least, I draw inspiration from the amazing young talent that industry continues to attract.

What have been key learnings for you in the entire journey to work for the communications industry? 

From being a support function, communications today has evolved into a central function in most progressive market driven organizations and is integral to shape, build and protect reputation – an invaluable asset of a company.

If I was to share the top three key takeaways for me in all these years, the first would be the value of cultivating and managing genuine relationships with a wide range of stakeholders.  Second would be to embed yourself into the business to ensure communications is aligned with the purpose and contributes to the bottom line.  Thirdly, be bold and take risks and keep evolving with the times to be nimble and agile. When I joined the industry, there was no digital sector and “traditional PR” ruled the roost. However being a part of the changing landscape, adapting to the new brand environment and integrating communications to help shape, sustain and protect reputation has been one of the most exciting transition in the industry! 

2020 was a different year. What major changes did it bring into your life both professionally and personally? What were the major challenges faced?

The pandemic has been hard for so many professionals all over the world. The biggest challenge was to stay positive and inspire and help others.  The early days of the pandemic were completely unchartered waters, with work from home leading to a jumble of work and home commitments, which was mentally and physically draining.  However, I do believe that all challenges come with opportunities too, and for me it took the shape of doing some great focused work to support the company’s response to COVID-19 both internally and externally; and being able to spend a lot of quality time with my family.  I constantly remind myself to be grateful and appreciate the little things in life and I am one of the lucky ones because I have a strong support system in my family and organization.  

How has the industry treated its women in the new normal? What paradigm shift have you noticed in the functioning with respect to women?

The pandemic has accelerated the shift in workplace practices like flexible timings, WFH, hybrid workforce, diverse roles and reliance on gig workforce, all of which create more opportunities for women. Working online removes many barriers and biases which can open up partnerships and connections not explored or possible before. During these unprecedented times, the world as we know it is changing significantly, and conventional roles are being redefined.  As a proud and empowered woman leader I believe that we can play an active role in redefining what “normal” means, #ChooseToChallenge working arrangements, how and when we speak with people and integrating life more into our working patterns.

Why do we witness attrition in women leadership as we go high above the ladder? 

The biggest barrier to women in leadership roles, is because women are the primary child care giver. The dearth of flexi and family-friendly policies are also a primary reason for their lack of progress to the top leadership slot.  The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labour. Now, the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended.  The crisis also represents an opportunity. If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term.  Before the pandemic people were skeptical about work-from-home, but the lockdown greatly changed this perception and we now have enough and more legitimacy accorded to this workplace practice. 

Has there been any instance of gender bias in your journey? Is the pay gap a major concern for the industry?

Thankfully I have not faced any such bias in my career journey.  Like I mentioned earlier, I have been privileged to have worked with progressive & supportive mindsets.  Also I do believe that today skills and potential are given more importance than gender. Passion and expertise are gender agnostic and that defines growth in the industry. 


How did you convert a crisis into an opportunity for yourself, professionally?

Whilst I have several to share, my entry into the profession is the best example here! 


What are the steps that you would take to support other women in the industry and large?

I am involved in many diversity and inclusion programmes and part of the women leadership network.   I actively role model and mentor other women colleagues to boost their confidence, open up networks and give strategic insights to help them progress at the workplace. 

 

 

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