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Written by NITA AMBANI
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During the IPL season, she can be seen in the dugout at every match lustily cheering her team, the Mumbai Indians and being with the team at every win or loss, to be part of every moment of the game, its ups and downs. But most importantly to inspire her team and to be always by its side. In short, her cameos on the sports field defines the person she is off it too, a woman of substance. That for you is Nita Ambani, the first lady of Indian business and the last woman to leave when it’s time to help the needy.

It was in April 2016, exactly a year ago that the Forbes magazine named Nita Ambani, Director of Reliance Industries, as the most powerful businesswoman in Asia. She headed a list of 50 women across Asia, eight of whom were from India. Describing her as the First Lady of Indian Business, the magazine said Nita Ambani, 53, was a ‘power near the throne’ and made the mark on the list because of her rising profile in Reliance Industries, led by her husband and India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani

In a country where billionaire wives tend to remain in the shadow of their husbands, Nita’s rising profile in the Reliance empire is unusual and earns her a debut spot on our Power Businesswomen ranking this year, Forbes said of Ms Ambani’s growing stature in the business world. Reliance is among India's most valuable companies, with $57 billion in revenues.

According to someone who has worked closely with Reliance, Nita is like the software which combined with the company’s hardware to create a unique work culture that became the foundation of their success.

Nita is Reliance's non-executive director, and has no formal operational role in the conglomerate that her husband runs as chairman and managing director. But it's no secret that Bhabhi (Hindi for brother's wife) — as she is called by insiders--is a power near the throne.

Nita is known to juggle multiple roles: she is the one behind the company’s charitable arm, the Reliance Foundation and looks after the Dhirubhai Ambani International School named after her father-in-law. Believing that education and sports have a symbiotic relationship, Nita runs the Reliance’s sports ventures which owns the Mumbai Indians in the IPL in a joint venture with the sports management firm IMG. She is also part of the EIH board which runs the Oberoi hotel chain and has a 18 per cent stake in it.

But it was not that Nita got everything in a platter by virtue of being Mukesh Ambani’s wife. For years she played the good wife and mother to her three kids and only after she stepped out of her home did the woman work diligently into her newfound role. At that time the two brothers also parted ways with Mukesh and younger brother Anil dividing up the family empire. The two are back now as business partners with Mukesh’s new mega Jio telecom venture using Anil’s vast network under Reliance Communications.

It is her missionary zeal and obsession with the details that have stood Nita in good stead. Even Mukesh acknowledges the huge impact her presence has had in the business. He has always said that Nita has the ability to bring together talented people and set up a cracking team to achieve goals. Be it retail or Jio, Nita is always a winner.

Nita grew up as the girl next door in Bombay’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood which was very middle class and grounded. Her father was an executive with the Birla Group. Nita did her undergrad in commerce, but her real interest was in Bharatnatyam. She was an accomplished dancer and performed publicly. It was dance that finally connected her to the world of the Ambanis. The story of her journey to the Ambani family has a hint of Bollywood except that it was father Dhirubhai Ambani who spotted her and not Mukesh.

Apparently Dhirubhai watched one of her shows and immediately took to her grace and charm and inquired of the young girl after the show. Next he called Nita’s home. It was she who picked up the call and on being told that it was Dhirubhai Ambani on the line she shot back that she was Liz Taylor and promptly hung up. What she thought was a prank turned out to be her greatest reality. She dated Mukesh for a while and as the story goes had to accept his proposal at a traffic signal when Mukesh refused to drive despite the light having turned green unless he got an answer. The two got married in 1985. But she made it clear to husband Mukesh that she would not end up as a decoration in the Ambani household.

After their marriage in 1985, Nita enrolled for a diploma in special education and worked as a teacher for a few years. People thought it was just fancy for Nita to work and always questioned her about the need to do it hailing from such a rich family. But she says that it was Mukesh who encouraged her to work, but had to take a break after a difficult pregnancy and the birth of her premature twins in 1991.

But you can’t keep a good girl down for long. Nita was back in action six years later. And she jumped into the building of a huge Ambani township in Gujarat’s Jamnagar. It was Mukesh who with his father’s backing got her involved in the project for building a giant refinery complex. She did have her doubts initially having no experience at all in such matters, but then as she was to say later, it was the challenge of creating an oasis in an arid zone.

It was not going to be some cakewalk for Nita. For the next three years, she had to visit the site twice a week and work among only men and getting used to being called Sir

But then it was great to see the fruit of her labours. The Jamnagar complex today boasts of a well-planned, tree-lined township for 17,000 residents. The complex is also proud of an orchard with more than a hundred thousand mango trees and home to many species of birds.

This was a defining moment in Nita Ambani’s life and the success gave her the impetus and the credibility to take on bigger challenges. The next step was giving shape to her dream project – to set up a quality school with international facilities. Thus, having got the go ahead from the family, Nita was to set sail now and build the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, which today boasts of more than 1,000 students and 150 teachers and is ranked among the top schools in Mumbai. She even sent her children to the school to prove her point. About certain criticism that the school serves only the elite, Nita is quick to point out that she conducts evening classes for street kids.

Once she finished with education, it was sports that seemed to beckon her. Reliance bought Mumbai Indians in 2008 at a whopping $112 million as part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) the new kid on the cricket-entertainment block. For the first two years the team was wallowing at the bottom of the table and struggling. It was then that Nita took it upon herself to learn the game and give the team some direction and leadership.

She remembers that it was in South Africa, where the league got shifted for a year that Nita found her footing. From then on she has been immersed in the game and can be seen at every Mumbai Indians game. The team went on to win two IPL titles, one in 2013 and then in 2015. Having won the alternate years, it looks like even this year the team is blasting ahead to win from its explosive performances and heading the points table.

Having made its mark in the IPL, Reliance has now expanded into basketball, tennis and football as Nita believes that education and sports must go hand in hand. Maybe some day Nita will deflect her talents to help the nation win some Olympic medals.

The Ambanis are not really the Gates or Beffet of India’s philanthropy, and have had their share of criticism that the family has not given in proportion to their immense personal wealth touching $22 billion. The Reliance Foundation, founded by Nita in 2010, is entirely funded by the company, not the family. The activities of the foundation are also criticized for not being far-reaching enough.

But unfazed Nita is quick to point out that the Foundation has been working with farmers in 531 villages across a dozen states under the Bharat India Jodo project which is an attempt to bridge the two worlds, between Bharat and India, between the rural and the urban.

Her interests have now also turned towards art and conservation. The foundation has sponsored an exhibition of traditional pichwai paintings of Shrinathji, the Ambani family deity, at the Art Institute of Chicago last year. She also funded the retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi, an Indian artist, at the new Met Breuer in New York.

Nita being an Ambani always thinks big. She is now building a huge convention centre for the arts on a 19-acre plot close to her school in Mumbai. It will be thrown open in 2018 and will house a 2,000-seat theatre, retail spaces, offices and residences.

Nita has not learnt to sit still. The only time she does it when she does her Buddhist chantings which she has taken up as a way to keep some balance, within and without. Her attention next will be towards building a school for disadvantaged children and a university for liberal arts which could hold its head among the top schools in the world.

Nita is on a journey with no fixed destination. But whatever she touches or where she stops on the way, she is sure to make a difference.

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