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A wife, mother and COO at 38

By Insiyah Vahanvaty
Last updated on: June 15, 2009 16:02 IST
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After the India-Pakistan partition, Rahat Beri's family decided to move from Karachi to Mumbai. Hailing from a business family, her father runs a wire ropes and hardware enterprise, which he hoped she would join someday. They also run a poultry farm in Pune.

Instead of joining the family business, however, she chose to work, and today at the age of 38 she holds the post of COO of Percept Profile, a leading PR agency. Ambitious from the beginning, Rahat started working when she was in college itself. She freelanced in various domains, from sales and marketing to exports, and even tried her hand at working with a friend who was opening a boutique.

Being a self-confessed rebel, she refused to get married when her father suggested it, choosing to hunt through newspapers to find a job for herself. When she came across an advertisement for a job at Mercantile Advertising, a company with clients like East West Airlines, Crompton Greaves, etc, she decided to apply.

Today, Rahat credits Mercantile Advertising for her training in PR. It was while working there that she got an offer from Percept, which was located three buildings away in the same complex as Mercantile. She joined as PR executive has now been at Percept for 14 years, of which she's been the COO for six.

My background: I am a Bombay girl through and through. Although my ancestors are originally from Karachi, I was born and brought up in Mumbai. I did my post-graduation in commerce and then, later, a diploma in Public Relations. I started working while I was still studying. I was just sixteen and trying my hand at just about anything, from from sales and marketing to exports, and even working with a friend who was opening a boutique. My dad runs a business of wire ropes and hardware, which he actually wants me to join someday, but I didn't want to join it then.

About my career: After I finished studying, my dad said, "Okay, now it's time to get married." I was like, "No way. I'm going to get myself a job." So I started scanning the papers for advertisements, and stumbled upon this one ad from the firm Mercantile Advertising, which is still around, by the way. Now, though I always knew that I had excellent communication skills, I didn't know what I could do with them -- and I didn't know what PR really was. So, actually, Mercantile is where I was in PR skills. After some time there, I was offered a job with Percept. Since they were much bigger than Mercantile, I decided to take it.

The challenges I've faced along the way: Professionally, the biggest issue was the actual understanding of PR. I actually took up a course a few years after joining Percept; to see what exactly it was that they taught.

On the personal front, it was great for me to achieve what I did, because I was doing all this to prove a point to my father. Initially, he would do things like send the car for me, and not let me go anywhere without it. It was really awkward for me, since I was in a crowd of other professionals, but then slowly he started seeing that I was handling myself quite well on my own.

Then, about three years after I joined, I got into an inter-religion marriage, which at that time, was a huge deal. There were Hindu-Muslim riots happening, and people in general were not supportive of such things. But thankfully, I was able to balance that along with my work.

And then, five years later my son was born with a heart problem. So I had to take six months off, during which Percept was very supportive. They told me to take my time and come back when I was ready. But even that was difficult, because when you have an ailing child, its not like you can leave him at home with his grandparents and take off. That was a very tough time. But because I started working at 16, it was impossible for me to sit at home doing nothing. Now he's eight years old and much better, but this will be a challenge for me all through my life, because there is no cure for these things -- it bothers you all your life.

My take on success: What worked for me was the fact that I was working in a place where I was allowed to learn a lot from peers and other people in the industry. Especially because in this industry, you have to learn on the job.

Another thing you need is passion. When I joined, we were a very passionate bunch. We'd work till midnight on our pitches and presentations, without caring what time it was. These days, unfortunately, I don't see that. But also, one needs to realise that a lot of success depends on timing and luck also -- just youth and passion won't cut it. But it certainly gives you an edge.

Balancing work and your personal life: With so many things going on in life, you often miss out on some things and not do them justice, which is something I hope I haven't done. You often don't realise these things -- I've just begun to realise that parents age so fast, and I haven't spent much time with mine. My father just had a stroke, which is actually when it hit me.

Balancing parents, home, husband, children, work...its tough, and honestly, I'm sure I've missed out somewhere. But one can't be perfect.

I think early success makes you stronger. It gives you the confidence and maturity to handle things better, especially as a woman. But if you put a man in such a position...I don't think any man has ever been through this. Being a successful woman, if you're mature enough to prioritise, and have enough help and support, it's quite possible to balance it. My husband has been a big help -- he's pushed and encouraged me always. And my parents have been supportive too -- especially since they come from a business background.

Being a successful woman, I also realise that it's not easy for a man to get the big cars and foreign holidays that women love. Also, men are not as adept at handling different facets of their lives as women are -- I think it's much harder for them.

I also try and make time for myself, and for my family. I love reading. I read this great book a few weeks ago, called The Chairman. I actually lost it, and had to go out and buy another copy -- it's that good! I love travelling. It's been my passion since school -- I used to go for every local tour they organised.

Now I do two holidays with my son. In the summer, it's just him and me, and then later in the year the whole family goes off together, since my husband can take only one holiday a year. And when I travel on work also, I take a day off and spend it on my own, because travelling with your family isn't really a full-time holiday (laughs).

My advice to youngsters: Don't try and jump too fast. A year or two in a company is not enough to learn, grow and gain from the experience. You need to stick around for longer. Yes, money is important, but it's more critical to become something before you move out. If you look at profiles of most successful people, you'll see that they have spent a lot of years in one company, learning all the aspects of the business. Look at people like Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai -- these people are brands on their own. So don't job-hop for a 20-per cent hike, unless you feel that the place is not providing you the opportunity to learn. However, if that is the case, you should leave in six months.

If you've been laid off: See, companies have over-hired in the past, and now are having to cut back. I don't blame those who have been fired; I blame their seniors for not having analysed how much manpower they actually needed. I feel very sad for young people who have left their hometowns and come to big cities only to be fired. But I think this is a good time to study, because you won't find a great job right now -- all you'll get are peanuts. So just use the time to study.

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Insiyah Vahanvaty