Latika Thukral is the co-founder of iamgurgaon, a movement that is an attempt to create a platform for every citizen of Gurgaon to work towards improving life in the millennium city.
AboutHer had an interesting and engaging conversation with her that revealed a lot about the woman behind this movement that has made the city as we see it today. We learned how she became a social worker from a banker. She told us about her early life, her career, the challenges she faced and the learnings of her life.
Latika was born in Durgapur, where her dad was with the Steel plant. They are three siblings, she being the eldest. She has a younger brother and sister, and the siblings grew up in Delhi, where the family moved, but for the most part, she studied in a hostel in Pilani at the Birla School. After that, she moved to Delhi and studied at St. Thomas school and, from there, went on to study at Hindu College.
The bold and independent streak we see in her today was probably the result of her learning to live on her own from a young age.
The Many Facets of Latiks’a Professional Life
After school, Latika studied at the University of Delhi and graduated in Marketing. She joined ITC Hotels as a management trainee and, from there, went to Paris to do a hotel management program affiliated with IHC Paris. She grew up in a very progressive family, so it was a given that she would start working after completing her education. There was no question of doing anything else.
After two and a half years with ITC, Latika moved to banking and joined Citibank. Citibank was a long stint, which taught her a lot and trained her, as she says, for her life ahead. She has fond memories of her time there.
And after eighteen years with Citi, she switched gears to do something totally different. It was as though she decided to give a twist to her life. She moved from banking to the social sector and, together with some friends, co-founded 1amgurgaon in 2008.
The Transition in Career
It was pretty interesting to understand how the transition happened. As they say, some things are meant to happen, and when the time comes, everything shifts to make a place for that event. Her transition is a case in point.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like what she was doing; she loved it. So there was no apparent reason for her to leave banking. She just needed a break and wanted to spend time with her boys. So she decided to take a sabbatical but then never went back.
While at home and free from her professional commitments, her mind started wandering and exploring. She realised that she wanted to do something different and started gravitating towards the idea of an NGO and giving back to society.
So Latika and some like-minded friends decided to do something for the city of Gurgaon, where they lived. They could see it growing haphazardly and felt they needed to step in and streamline things.
In those days, forming an NGO was not that simple. It was a pretty closed sector, and they preferred people from the social sector. But like they say, where there is a will, there is a way. And with the efforts of these people, iamgurgaon was born.
Initially, she thought she would spend only half a day working for iamgurgaon and have time for other things for the rest of the day. But that wasn’t how it turned out. She got so involved that it took over her life and consumed her. There was so much to do, so many things to put together, that she had no choice but to get deeply involved. And, of course, it goes without saying that she was dedicated to the cause and so happily put in all the hours that she had to.
Though some of her friends left, she carried on. She was committed to the cause and wouldn’t turn her back on it. Also, people in her friend and family circle had helped her by contributing funds to the cause, and she felt she could not let them down.
And today, she has no regrets, and iamgurgaon has become big, drawing people from different walks of life to contribute in different ways though it is synonymous with her name to a large extent.
Challenges She Faced in Her Journey
In life, we all face difficult situations and challenges. The initial part of Latika’s life, especially when she was with Citi, was about the challenges that most working women face. They have to learn to balance different aspects of their life, and their focus tends to get deviated. But working in the corporate sector is structured and organised, so one pretty much knows what one is dealing with. For the most part, the challenges are known and predictable. So with some bit of planning and organising, Latika was able to deal with situations.
But the social sector can be a different ball game altogether, especially when beginning from scratch. You are, for the most part fighting the unknown, the unforeseen.
So this journey was fraught with challenges for Latika and her team. It was a completely new space, and they had no idea how to begin. They were also clueless about running their setup, and the fact that it is an NGO made it even more complex.
In addition, there was a lot of cynicism and scepticism around the idea. People wondered why she had thrown away a lucrative banking career to do something like social work. They could not understand the motivation and so started doubting the intentions. And as is bound to happen when people don’t understand something, they cast aspersions over it and the people involved. So many of them thought she was doing it for the money, and there was a lot of judgement around her decision. It was all quite ironic because it was a purely voluntary exercise, and nobody was getting paid for it.
On the one hand, it was an unchartered, unexplored territory; on the other, their intentions were being questioned. This upset Latika and her team to no end, but there wasn’t much that they could do about it. However, they decided to dig in their heels and carry on instead of getting affected.
There was a lot on their plate, like raising funds, working in the forest and figuring out the planting business, so they decided to focus on that rather than what people said. As she says, the team was committed and dedicated. They combined all their efforts with common sense and made a go of their venture.
If that wasn’t enough, they were dealing with people with personal agendas of not letting iamgurgaon succeed. Some people had encroached on the land, which iamgurgaon was trying to regain. They didn’t want to give it up because that would mean a financial loss. This meant that they were running a lot of people the wrong way. As a result, many people wanted to harm and teach them a lesson. So the team had to go through court cases, enquiries and investigations. It was quite a struggle.
So the first two years were tough, but they stuck to their guns, and now it is all behind them; they have made a name for themselves.
Though encroachers are still a challenge, iamgurgaon has proved itself and its credibility. People and government agencies trust them and believe in them. Currently, they have almost 7-8 projects going on.
As she says, it’s been tough but well worth it. iamgurgaon, started in 2008, is a citizens’ movement and something that no other city can boast about.
Challenges as a Woman
She had several interesting things to say when asked about her challenges as a woman.
Though it now amuses her, it frustrated her when she went through it. So in the initial years when she decided to be a part of iamgurgaon, many people felt she was doing it because she was a bored housewife with nothing better to do. It seemed unfair and unjust to her, and she would get upset over such comments, but with time, she learnt to ignore them and continue with her work.
But what helped was the fact that along with such cynics and critics, she had a set of people who supported and stood by her. They believed in what she was doing, which gave her a lot of encouragement and motivation.
Being a woman meant she had to face situations that a man would never have to face. In the kind of work she was doing, she had to interact with men regularly. But she had to be mindful of the interaction. She had to get work out of them but couldn’t get too familiar with them. So she had to draw a line. For the men, too, it was a strange new land. They couldn’t deal with her the way they would have dealt with a man, and then some even had to take orders/directions from her.
However, the fact that she worked extremely hard to learn what was required and actually did it ensured that nobody could question or doubt her intentions. And gradually, with time and effort, people started respecting and valuing what she was doing for the city.
However, she added that this environment was similar to what she had experienced in the corporate world. Men were the same; women were also the same though fewer in number; the only difference was the setting.
The Different Hats a Working Woman has to Wear
It’s a given that women, especially those working outside their homes, must juggle different roles. It is as though they are like trapeze artists and have to wear different hats depending on the circumstances.
Latika’s life has been no different. While she was at Citi, she was balancing her role as a mother, wife, and banker, but as she says, being planned and efficient helped her.
Though she travelled almost ten days a month for work, she organised her personal life to ensure her kids didn’t suffer. So from planning and organising their academic schedules to birthday parties and gifts, she managed most of everything.
There is something to be said about women and their organisational skills!
However, with iamgurgaon, things became difficult because not only was it something new, but it was all-consuming as well. It left her with very little time to do other things. But then, since she could call the shots to an extent, there was an element of flexibility in the work.
To do that, Latika framed some ground rules for herself, which can also help others. She believes that to balance different aspects, one has to prioritise and know when to do what. A line of demarcation has to be drawn between work and family, and it is up to the woman to do that. And not only does one have to prioritise, but one has to stick to those priorities.
Once you have done that, life becomes simpler.
Achievements and Accomplishments
When talking about her most significant success, Latika said that she feels her most notable achievement is putting something like iamgurgaon together, for which she feels the credit goes to Citibank and how it trained her. It is as though Citi was preparing her for her life ahead!
She believes Citi gave her a lot of exposure in terms of experiences and people, making her the person she is today. She was able to build a strong network of friends and advisers who have been there for her at all times and have stood by her. She has learnt a lot from them. Citi also taught her to think big and live with integrity.
As a result, when it came to giving back to society, she thought of a venture like iamgurgaon, which was an extremely ambitious project. Yet, despite people’s misgivings, she turned that dream into a reality and has proved her credibility and integrity.
Not only that, her days with Citi taught her that no task is big or small. When the time comes, we should be able to do what is required without any questions or misgiving. Her decision to quit and take on something like social work was also thanks to Citi which gave her the stature and the financial security to take such a plunge.
And then, to be able to do what they have done for the city of Gurgaon is like divine intervention. She feels they are the chosen ones who were given the opportunity to put the whole thing together.
Times When You are Down and Out
Life comes with its set of ups and downs. Not every day is bright and beautiful. So what happens when you are down and out? What can get you back on track?
Latika shared that she has her share of bad days, which can get very frustrating. There are days when she is judged/ questioned/ unappreciated for what she is doing. Many times things get stalled or delayed because of reasons which are beyond her control. Things get stuck for no rhyme or reason. All this gets frustrating, but it is her creation, and she knows she can’t walk away. The only thing is to wait it out.
Her commitment and dedication to the cause ensure that she pulls herself up and moves on. Also, she is a person in a hurry and wants to do as much as she can for the city. So when she is feeling low, she motivates herself by thinking of all the work she has to do, and the frustration melts away.
Moreover, when she sees how much they have achieved, it spurs her.
When they started, they believed that they could change the city. Though they haven’t been able to do that, they have done a lot. They have, for instance, saved close to 750 acres of forest land and made available areas/paths/walkways where people can walk/ cycle—seeing all that encourages her to carry on.
Her work is result-oriented, enough to pull her out of any moment of frustration or despair.
What the Future Holds
She believes that the future is uncertain, so one can’t always predict what life will have in store. So as far as her future is concerned, she is unsure what she will be doing ten years from now. She knows she wants to take a back seat in iamgurgaon and wants others to take over. They are working on making that happen. She wants to be around to support, advise and help raise funds but wants to move away from front-line execution. So they are on the lookout for paid employees to carry this further.
Life and What It Teaches
The grounded person that Latika is, she has done her bit by motivating younger women and colleagues whenever she has had the opportunity to do that.
She feels that in life, it is absolutely essential to have your boundaries in place, especially when it comes to women. She says the world will understand and respect you for laying the ground rules for what you can or cannot do.
For every working woman, it is essential to be able to differentiate between personal and professional life and keep them as apart as possible.
It is essential to know when to do what and then actually to do that. She feels life is about choices, which one should make with a lot of thought and consideration, but having made a choice, one should be able to stick to it. Commitment and integrity are non -negotiable. Also, she feels a woman should not use her feminity to get any concessions. Work is work and should be the same for everyone. So she says by putting in her best and delivering, a woman can earn the respect of everyone around her. Therefore it is critical to lead by example and walk the talk.
Do Men Look at Successful Women with Different Eyes?
According to her, men appreciate women who have been successful in their chosen fields. They may be in awe of them, but they do appreciate them for what they have accomplished.
She has experienced different reactions from both men and women at various stages of her life. When she was with Citi, people who met her thought she was an intelligent woman who worked in one of the best organisations. But when she quit, that belief in her and her abilities vanished as they felt she wasn’t worthy of interaction.
Then during the initial years of iamgurgaon, people didn’t care about what she was doing. It was as though it wasn’t worth acknowledging.
But now, when she has made a name, things are different. Men and women appreciate her work and are in awe of her. Some still criticise or judge what she is doing, but again, that is not confined to any particular gender.
So people’s reaction has had more to do with her work than her.
Latika switched careers in her early forties, and it was interesting to know about her point of view on this topic.
According to her, people start working when they do, primarily because of financial considerations. Everyone needs money, and salaries are critical. But over time, most people reach a situation where they are financially comfortable, and that is when their attention moves towards their interests and passions. That is when they want to try something new and different.
In today’s times, it is easier to do this because people are more accepting and less judgemental about the choices people make, which wasn’t the case earlier. She admits that when she decided to quit her cushy banking job, it was tough for her to explain the reasons to people around her, especially her parents. Leaving a safe and secure job to explore the unknown or maybe not work was unimaginable. Nowadays, she feels it has become easier.
Also, she feels the partner/spouse has a role in this decision. The transition is much easier if the spouse/partner is understanding and supportive. She, fortunately, did have that.
Some Pearls of Wisdom for Young Girls
Latika has some sound advice for the young generation, especially young girls.
At the outset, she clarifies that there can be no rules for anyone to follow. Everyone is different, and everyone’s life is different, but certain core rules can bring stability in a world that can be pretty chaotic.
She feels that we all must be free to choose what we want and decide independently. Yes, we could take suggestions or advice from others, but ultimately, we have to take ownership of what we decide. And having done that, we need to stick to our decisions.
In life, we must be clear about what we want and are chasing. So if you want a career go for it; you don’t want children, it’s your call.
Decisions, as she says, are choices you make. The choices have to be made with a lot of thought and consideration, which has to be done by you. And once those decisions/ choices have been made, you must follow them with the right attitude and integrity.
No one can teach attitude and integrity; they come with your value systems, what you have imbibed and grown up with. They will teach you how to look at situations and deal with them.
Life will always throw lemons at you; your attitude will tell you what to do them. With the right/positive attitude, you will make lemonade with those lemons and with a negative one, you will make your life miserable.
She feels you must be positive in life and believe that things will happen and you will make them happen.
Integrity is about the values that help you distinguish between right or wrong, good or bad. Your integrity teaches you to be honest and true to your work and not misuse your power/ position.
According to her, everything else will fall into place once you approach life with the right attitude and integrity.
This is true for both girls and boys, but more for girls because she feels women face more challenges in life than men.
Latika believes that every woman must work and make her own money. Financial independence, followed by emotional independence, is essential for every woman. No woman should live a life of dependence on anyone for anything.
Also Read: 10 Reasons Women Make Great Leaders
She has an extra bit of advice for young girls on the threshold of professional lives. She feels that before choosing a career, you need to know everything about it. You simply cannot ape people. In today’s world, when so much information is available at the click of a button, there is no way that you can opt for something without knowing everything about it.
Every line of work has pros and cons; one must know them before taking a call.
And one must not chase only money/lifestyle.
Can a Woman Have It All?
Latika believes that women have a critical role in a family and society. With the balancing that every woman ends up doing, she has the effect of keeping everyone and everything together.
She feels that if a woman is strong, she can keep families together and be the glue that holds everyone together. And mythology proves it.
So whether she can have it all depends on her choices and what she does with them.
Having it all does not always been in the physical/material sense. It could be in the way you feel and the way you are. A woman can have everything if she is happy with her decisions, choices, and independence. And a supportive partner always helps! Happiness comes from within; it is not something someone can give you.
And LatikaThukral is one happy woman doing what she loves to do. There is a huge sense of satisfaction in her. She feels they may not have done all they wanted for the city, but they have come a long way and are forging ahead.
More than that, she has done what was right by her and her organisation.
Nothing else can give more satisfaction, more happiness.