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Female CEO Leads The Charge At India’s First Integrated Rice Company

An Interview With KRBL's Priyanka Mittal

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Priyanka Mittal, a full time Director on the board of KRBL Limited. She is the International Division Head also handling investor relations, government relations and corporate affairs of KRBL. She is responsible for brand development of India Gate rice globally. Graduate of Harvard Business School’s OPM programme, an undergraduate of University of Southern California and on the Board of the University of Southern California Veterbi School of Engineering.

1.Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?

KRBL is established by my great-great grandfather in 1889, who was extremely industrious. I joined the company in 2001 after completing my graduation, where I had to work my way up to my current role as director of the company. Being the daughter netted no special treatment. In fact, the journey was harder because I had to prove myself at every step. But what it did was it grounded me. I gradually moved my way to the top accepting more responsibilities. Though challenging, the journey upwards gave me a good understanding of the entire business.

2.What is your definition of success?

When I started my career at KRBL, over 17 years ago, aim was to be accepted as a co-worker and later as a manager by the employees without the legacy of my father. The journey of moving up the hierarchy ladder, to a Director today, was very hard and the most gratifying. But as decisions started to generate value and as the team got bigger, I had another set of aims to achieve. The feeling of success was there but the desire of achieve more was always overpowering.

In the later days the aim was to build India Gate as a brand. Today, when the brand India Gate is revered to be the most trusted and authentic basmati rice around the globe, I feel that the aim has been achieved but maintaining that position is the new aim which drives me every day.

I begin each day with an aim to achieve smaller goals which culminate to a bigger goal and everyday there are set of successes and failure.

Success to me is achieving those smaller milestones one has set for themselves to achieve a bigger goal. No bigger goal is achieved without planning for it well. Success is a collaborative result so it’s important to share with the team and ensure that their personal success is aligned with the company success. There should be up-liftment in their own success barometers because many small stars only brighten up the sky.

Individual success can sometimes be gluttony, but if it is shared with all stakeholders then it is more permanent and has a multiplier effect.

3.Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Basmati is a male dominated industry and women in the past used to work only in secretarial positions. So when I started with the branded export I used to travel to clients alone. When I would walk into the room they would usually continue to look at the door with eyes that said “where is the boss?” And I would reply that I shall be conducting the meeting. They would smile and we would have a small laugh and carry on with the meeting.

The Middle East market has been the kindest to me contrary to the stereotype. The people I have met are the most professional, collaborative and future looking. They have shared my vision and worked hard to execute it. Many of them are still part of KRBL and I owe a large part of my success to them.

4.What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

As India Gate became a global phenomenon, it not only won the admiration but has been a victim of lot jealousy. It has been victim of perpetrated online scandals which went viral and part of TV frenzy. But that did not shake the confidence of the customers and the brand emerged even stronger. Not only the regulatory authorities but the consumers were quick to defend the brand. When you run an organization transparently and share your ethos with the stakeholders, it forms an unbreakable chain. My biggest learning was that I need to trust the consumers more than it and have faith in their intelligence. Also there is no substitute for running an ethical company because no PR-marketing that buy the goodwill that “I-do-as-I-believe” company generates in the minds of its consumers.

My trust and faith in God has only become stronger with each passing year. He has been a constant companion through ups and lows of life.

5.What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

KRBL is India’s first integrated rice company, the world’s largest rice miller and the biggest exporter of rice in India. We engage in seed development, contract farming, procurement of paddy, storage, processing of rice and by-products, packaging, branding and marketing of basmati rice.

The company is built keeping only 2 keep stakeholders in mind: the farmer and the consumer. All the accolades are by-products of the effort of benefiting these 2 ends of the value chain.

In the 1990’s Pusa Institute developed Pusa No 1 as a variety of basmati which was entirely dismissed and earlier rejected by the entire industry. In fact there was tremendous lobbying against it by the rest of the industry against this farmer friendly variety. KRBL was the only one to envision the potential of this variety and they went ahead and commercialized it in 1995, today it is one of the most accepted basmati rice varieties in the world. This decision not only proved to be game changers for us but also lead and shaped the industry.

Again in early 2000’s, KRBL commercialized another variety, Pusa 1121 in the domestic and international market which swept the market and was a booming success and has put Indian Basmati on the global map. Pusa 1121 by far the most popular variety of basmati rice till date. KRBL not only made both varieties popular amongst farmers by encouraging cultivation but it also popularised it amongst consumers, which opened new markets for India globally. KRBL battle of getting recognition for those varieties was like my own battle, alone, with conviction and determination to get its rightful recognition within industry, government and international levels.

We are constantly evolving and changing our products to offer the best to the ever changing preferences of the consumers. KRBL today is in the transition stage of being a rice company to a healthy food company. More than ever the consumer today knows the importance of healthy foods and makes a very conscious and informed choice of healthy foods.

6.Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Along with the fight of improving India Gate’s market share, I am also working on building up KRBL India to be one of the best places to work in the industry. We are working on improving gender diversity in all functions and hierarchy by hiring more women. I cannot emphasize enough on how women at workplace benefit the organization by their emotional intelligence and compassion.

KRBL is much focused in becoming a healthy food company and this endeavor has brought us to the launch of India Gate Quinoa, India Gate Sprouted Brown Rice, India Gate Chia Seeds and India Gate Flax seeds.

We are also collaborating with new softwares to collaborate with our distributors seamlessly.

All of these initiatives are made keeping in mind the 7 year vision of increasing KRBL revenue to USD 1 billion.

7.Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become be more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?

Being an agro- business company, our sustainability is intrinsically linked to famers and agricultural sector sustainability. The biggest challenge the farmers faces today are the economic remuneration of the crop and also climate changes.

To address these 2 concerns, KRBL have established an ideal model for effective contract farming practices, where in farmers are provided by best quality seeds coming from our R&D center, they are hand-held through every step of the crop cycle. A field team of agriculture specialists involved in helping farmer in every step through seminars, training and one-on-one coaching. We have introduced a number of ecofriendly measures in the farm for soil conditioning and pest & disease management- this ensures that any adverse effects on the environment are minimized besides conserving the environment and local communities. KRBL is also involved in seed farming which are graded and later provided to the farmers.

Keeping in mind the remuneration of farmers, we have introduced India Gate Quinoa which is produced through contract farming. Quinoa consumes less water and ensures high return to the farmers due to the high demand in the market.

8.What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

· Invest in and encourage learning

Today, employees work in multi-cultural settings and for many, this might be their first time interacting with colleagues from different geographical areas and socio-economic backgrounds. All employees value professional development, therefore investing in team-building activities, or hosting in-office training sessions can reinforce a positive work culture. Regardless of these cultural differences, when an organisation’s work culture is strong, employees behave as a support system that lifts up their fellow co-workers and contributes to workforce retention.

· Lead by example

Building a strong work culture takes time, effort, and commitment. Risk-taking is particularly important in a world that is constantly changing. Focus on research, take risks that innovate, transform and disrupt, and most importantly, benefit the company overall. Handling and resolving tough issues that arise also affect an employee’s decision to stay on or look for brighter opportunities. When they see their leaders taking smart risks, they will follow suit.

· Embrace feedback

Learning leads to progress and soliciting regular feedback from employees is critical to advancing work culture. Many leaders are accustomed to performing tasks by following a working pattern, but great leaders listen and facilitate. Feedback forms or monthly progress discussions will identify bottlenecks and find the best methods to resolve issues. Employees appreciate being involved. Allowing a top-down management system an opportunity to flourish will encourage more employees to share their feedback and criticisms and in turn, identify alternative solutions at a quicker pace.

· Allow for autonomy

Micromanaging does not improve productivity. When you hire the right people, expect them to be capable of working well on their own. Allow them to be responsible for their work and judge employees based on how they perform with minimal interference. An open culture allows for minimal levels of management between staff and executives and gives them the confidence to focus better. Unless intervening can improve a situation, avoid doing so.

9.None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father, Mr. Anil Mittal, has been my biggest inspiration and guide. His valuable lessons: to be kind and to never give up have been important lessons in me becoming the leading lady of the organization and the industry today. He ensured that I had my share of learnings from my failures and always encourage me for my good work. It was him who recognized my passion and efforts in my work and gave me strength and constant encouragement. As a professional I was blessed to have him as a mentor & boss because the opportunity that I got was tremendous.

10.How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe that it is very important to give back to society in any way we can. Hence, we have tied up with an organisation called Akshaya Patra in Bengaluru, India. It is the world’s largest school lunch programme in India and we are going to build a kitchen that will feed 25,000 children daily.

11. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

· Learn from others’ mistakes

Mistakes are a good thing. Whether you are the one making them or not. Always look at mistakes, especially from those who have succeeded in business, as important lessons. Analyze what they did wrong so as to learn how to overcome similar challenges if and when you encounter them.

· Change is good

Even if you are excellent in doing one thing, there will come a time when you will need to adopt something new in order to grow. Best advice is to not fear change — embrace it instead. Do not get too comfortable in the only thing you know how to do best — change enables you to evolve, grow, and progress.

· Get the right team around you

A leader is as good as his or her team. Getting the right people around you is critical in building a successful company. And as you begin to build your team, also ensure that it’s with people who are not only competent but also those that share your vision.

· It’s ok to say no

It’s ok to say no if you don’t agree with a decision or a point. It’s better to express the concern beforehand than later rolling out the decision and regretting.

· Long road to success.

The journey is more like a test match and not T-20 cricket match. So like a marathon, pacing yourself is important. Don’t be in a hurry, or you will feel burnout. The journey upwards is lonely, and your decisions impact many. But keeping the mind and heart in the right place is important.

12.You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are planet of 8 billion people and still there are millions that die of hunger. There is enough food to feed the population, but it ends up in drains rather than hungry people’s stomach. The tetra pack, cold freeze technology has made great strides. If there was a portable home model, then rather than wasting food, people could pack it. It could then get collected and distributed to the needy.

It is my before-I-die wish to see a hunger-free world. A lot of brilliant people are doing phenomenal work towards this millennium development goal. But apart from technology, supply chains, the societal consciousness needs to be arisen. There needs greater collaboration on global level.

13.Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I quote Illusions- Richard Bach-

“ Learning is to find out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers and teachers.”

“You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however”

MOST IMPORTANT QUOTE “ Your conscience is the measure of the honesty of your selfishness. Listen to it carefully

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