A Force to Reckon With: Soma Mondal
An alumnus of NITR, Soma Mondal, recently achieved a feat that has helped her etch a unique mark for herself. She graduated from the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1984 and joined the Technical Cell of NALCO, Bhubaneshwar. She assumed the charge of Commercial Director, NALCO in March 2014. She has been lauded for her contributions towards devising marketing strategies for NALCO in both the domestic and overseas front. One among few women, in a country like ours, she has risen to the top of the ladder and has been appointed as the First Woman Director (Commercial) of SAIL, in March 2017. She has broken gender stereotypes throughout her life and paved her way towards success in a tale filled with struggle, hard work, and patience. In an interview with Team MM on a fine Sunday morning, she shared her remarkable journey, from being a shy girl at REC to assuming a position of such high repute.
Monday Morning (MM): Tell us about your life before joining REC.
Soma Mondal (SM): I was born and brought up in Bhubaneswar and completed my primary education there. I appeared for my 12th Board Examinations from BJB College, Bhubaneswar. I was brought up in a family where education was given utmost priority and no compromises, whatsoever, were entertained in this regard. My mother looked after my day-to-day studies and despite her other engagements, ensured that my education was not hampered in the least.
MM: In an era when women were dissuaded from pursuing education, what kind of support did you get from your family to pursue engineering?
SM: My father, as all fathers do, loves me very much and was very protective of me at that time. Since he wanted me to have a hassle-free and calm environment to pursue my education, he was initially reluctant to send me to an institution that had just a glaringly skewed gender ratio. In fact, he even suggested that I pursue Medical Science or a degree in Basic Science instead. But, it was my mother, who was a pillar of strength and relentlessly supported me so that I could pursue my ambition. She explained to my father that if Engineering was my calling, then I should be allowed to chase my dream. As a broad-minded person and a liberal at a time, when they were indeed fewer in number, she believed that as her daughter I could do whatever I wanted in my life, irrespective of my gender.
It is mandatory that I mention at this point, that my mother could not pursue a professional career, despite having the requisite skills, because of several societal and familial constraints. Thus, when it came to me, she ensured that I would not have to face a similar fate. Overall, my father has been the source of inspiration for finer aspects of my life, but my mother has been the one, undying motivation for my professional career.
MM: Tell us something about your life during your stay at REC. Do you have any special memories of your college days?
SM: My days at REC were fun in their own way – we had a small group of 8 to 9 girls, in the college back then, and we became a family for each other. We were so closely connected that these years in between have hardly made a difference, and I am elated to tell you that all of us are still in touch. When it came to our male counterparts, the interaction can be called ordinary, since we soon came to treat them as classmates and our initial prejudices were overcome.
Being a girl in an engineering college then was indeed a privilege as the faculty in our department, as well as in the workshop were extra protective about us. They did as they deemed fit to ensure a healthy, and fair learning experience for every single one of us. As individuals, those days were instrumental in shaping our personality and we took up the onus to look after ourselves, as well as each other. As of now, I cannot recollect any specific memory, but needless to say, there were several significant ones.
MM: What was the environment on campus like, back then? What kind of extra-curricular activities were you involved in?
SM: The environment on campus then was certainly good, and we never faced any problems. I have to mention that for a major part, the experience was noteworthy because of my batchmates, many of whom I am still in touch with. As far as extra-curricular activities are involved, we were a small group of women who were shy and hesitant to step out of our comfort zone, lest we become more prominent. It was not like we were too career-oriented or studious, but we confined ourselves to within the group. I personally also tried to involve myself in as many hostel activities as I could.
MM: Being a graduate of the Department of Electrical Engineering, how would you compare the job opportunities then, to those available now?
SM: During my time, most of the graduates preferred jobs in Public Sector Units, Central Public Sector Enterprises and some in Private Ventures like Tata Steel and LnT. So when I graduated, I only thought of these as possible career options. However, some of my friends did shift to Civil Services, and some other seniors and friends took up research, which was a popular option for women, back then. Basically, for me, I always wanted to have a corporate job, irrespective of whether it was in a core or non-core discipline, since I never imagined myself in an academic setting, as a teacher.
Today I feel happy to see that women are willing to join in various fields, be it core sector, jobs in factories, IT sector or research. Back in my days, the workplace in core sectors was also not conducive for women to work in, but today that has changed tremendously.
MM: How was your professional life during your initial years at NALCO? Could you brief us about some projects which you were a part of during your tenure?
SM: During the initial years of my career, I joined NALCO Bhubaneswar’s Technology Cell. At that time, NALCO was still in the project stage and had not been commissioned. Work was good enough, and the system was very supportive of us. I looked into the technical aspects of various undergoing projects that NALCO had taken up, then. I was a part of the team which was working on the synchronization of the Capture Power Plant (CPP) with the grid.
MM: How was your experience as The Commercial Director at NALCO BBSR? What are some of the major goals you achieved under the post?
SM: NALCO is a company that has grown extensively in the last couple of years, and coincidentally I have also grown with it. A position of such high repute in a large enterprise such as NALCO carries a tag which not only comes with authority but also several responsibilities. My experience throughout my tenure was made both pleasant and enjoyable because of the bonding I shared with the company - perhaps it was because NALCO was my first job, or perhaps it was because it paved the way for me to pursue a career in the commercial field.
My marketing responsibilities included procuring the best product at the best price, and the most challenging aspect of this job was to ensure a continuous flow of raw materials because the slightest change of quality or quantity there, could jeopardize the entire production process. We made systematic changes as we deemed fit, without altering the continuous flow of events. As a Commercial Director along with my obvious responsibilities, I was also in charge of the marketing and procurement of goods, so I needed to focus on maximization of sales and maximization of right product mix to get the maximum realization, to balance all exports in the domestic market.
MM: At this time, when the steel industry is facing a low demand in homes, what plans do you have in the pipeline as the new Commercial Director of SAIL?
SM: One of the major tasks for the Government of India as well as SAIL is to increase the demand for steel in our country, which is being done by conducting various workshops and seminars to bring about awareness among the public. We are focusing on the fact that cost efficiency should be based on the life of the product rather than on its cost. We are trying to educate the common masses about how steel can be used in various ways and how it is better than its competing products. Our focus is also on the retail side to increase the retail and export presence in the market, to improve the value-added tax (VAT) amount. Although the Government has been very supportive regarding the price of steel, there needs to be a proper increase in the demand of steel for proper commerciality. There are certain areas where the demand for steel is quite low, and our main focus is on improving the demand in those areas.
MM: Despite being in a core industry, where gender inequality exists, what according to you helped you in surpassing all odds and gaining the post of the first woman director in both NALCO and SAIL?
SM: The first thing that I would like to mention is that I did not face any gender discrimination during my tenure of work in any of the two companies, NALCO or SAIL. Speaking genuinely, the major trouble that most women face at work is because they disbalance their time between work and family. Unless you are able to manage your home efficiently, the shortcomings at work will be inevitable.
For those women who feel that their career growth is important, they should be able to balance the two, since their absence from home might not hamper its continuous running in a humungous way, but their absence from work, most certainly will. I was able to ensure this balance because of the support that I got from my family. They have always stood by me and I know that I have been able to surpass all odds because they were there for me. They devised their own backup plans to compensate for my absences for few days or extended periods, and I could not have done any of this without their love.
MM: What are some of the activities that you do for leisure?
SM: Since I lead a stressful life, I try to avoid involvement in anything serious. I mostly spend my time watching the news and a few comedy soaps, which are light-hearted and can be enjoyed at the moment. I also like to keep in touch and communicate with my kith and kin, so as to have a peace of mind with regard to their whereabouts. Frankly speaking, I do not have any hobbies as such.
MM: What is your take on the role of alumni for an institute of national importance like ours? How do you think the present scenario of alumni interaction can be improved?
SM: In my opinion, for any student who is pursuing his/her degree from a reputed institution like ours, the ultimate aim is to make a place for themselves in a field of their choice. In this aspect, I think alumni interaction can be vital on two fronts. Firstly, the alumni who have assumed positions of importance in respectable companies can come forward at the time of placements to increase interest in our institution as well as to provide opportunities in terms of internships or placements, to the current students. Secondly, direct interaction will be helpful to those who have queries or require guidance in any form. Thus, I think guest lectures should be organized more frequently, and the current students should make it a point to attend them.
MM: What are some of the most significant changes you have observed in the institute and what further changes would you like to suggest?
SM: I have been to the institute twice in the last two years, and I can see that the female strength of students has been increased to almost 40 per cent. Moreover, I believe a lot of new branches have come up over the years, and though I am not aware of the exact academic curriculum, I think more focus should be given on developing the entrepreneurship skills of students. I was elated to hear that students in their sophomore year have been coming up with their own start-ups. I am impressed with the way our institute is running, and I do not want to comment on the lackings as I am not aware of the present statistics. Finally, I hope to see more and more individuals coming out of this institute who are professionally excellent and humanitarian in their own way, as well.
MM: Any message that you would like to give to our readers?
SM: I am proud to be a student from NIT Rourkela and I hope that one day when you graduate, you feel the same too. Always give your best in whatever endevour you take up. Do not crave for short-cuts either in your professional or personal life as there are no short-cuts in life. The ones that bring you momentary gains affect you adversely in the long run, and thus there is no point in seeking them. Work with passion and both acknowledgment as well as growth will come as a consequence. Do have a hobby, which I unfortunately missed out on, because it helps you a lot in times of stress. Always remember your professional aspirations and personal goals should be properly aligned as both are equally important.