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An iron fist in a velvet glove

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Malini Saba, philanthropist and founder of a global commodities company, tells Menka Shivdasani that a woman can have everything and still finds ways to be herself

When Malini Saba visits Mumbai in January 2019 to open her new office for Saba Industries and Saba Family Foundations, she will bring with her a remarkable blend of tough-as-nails business acumen and philanthropy.

When she was in her early 20s, the Malaysian-born youngster horrified her parents—one an engineer, the other a teacher—by saying that she wanted to go into business. Her Indian mother and Sri Lankan father saw this as a risky choice but she knew that being self-employed was the “only way to secure yourself” and not be dependent on others.

She began the process by getting into investments, mainly in the technology space, before she founded Saba Industries. Today, though she is not yet 50, her group of privately-held commodities companies trades in rice, exporting 5,00,000 tons of it worldwide; it also deals in the wheat, palm oil and cashew nuts businesses. In addition, Saba Industries operates in ethical iron ore and gold mining, ship breaking and hospitality.  As Chairman and CEO of the company, she has 2,600 employees globally and the number will rise when she brings her business to India.

In the previous financial year itself, the collective revenue exceeded $500 million—enough to sustain her other passion, which is the Saba Family Foundations, an umbrella organisation for her philanthropic works that encompass healthcare, education and human rights. She is clear that she will fund these ventures through her own earnings, rather than try to raise money elsewhere, “because otherwise you will have to go in the direction the other person wants; it won’t be your vision as an individual”.

Her goal is to help people around the world gain access to basic healthcare, provide education and opportunities that allow them to break the cycle of poverty, and educate people on human rights issues. Her particular passion, however, is women’s rights, especially legal ones, and she wanted the bandwidth to pursue this enough to make a difference.

The foundation has undertaken numerous projects, including partnering with Stanford Medical Center to train physicians from developing countries; distributing preventative health information on HIV/AIDS, immunisations, gastric and reproductive health; providing vocational education for women in Togo, West Africa; and supporting human rights issues around the world. In 2017, she also founded UpCara, a nonprofit within the Saba Family Foundations that provides access to preventative healthcare and human rights for at-risk women throughout their lives, with a special focus on older women’s health issues.

When Ms Saba brings both ventures to India in January, it will be the culmination of a two-year process where she and her team have already been building relationships. “Opening the office will just mean cementing the process,” she says. Mumbai will be the base, but her team will work with farmers across the country.

“We are looking at a $100 million investment between Thailand and India,” a news report in November quoted her saying. The firm plans to set up 10 warehouses in Uttar Pradesh and an equal number of dryers with an aim to dry 1,000 tonnes rice per day and export 20,000 to 25,000 tonnes of rice, particularly Basmati, per month.

It wasn’t easy, of course, getting to this point. Working in the technology space in the 1990s—certainly a male-dominated area at the time—she decided to go into the “alpha male” world of commodities, and discovered that a woman in business had to know when to be tough (“bitchy” is the word she uses). She also found that in the  philanthropy space, she could let the human side emerge, and be herself—”like finding the yin and yang”.

“I tell women that they should have iron fists in velvet gloves,” says the entrepreneur, who learned that while a businesswoman has to be strong when required, she can “still be the lady who pushes to achieve what she wants”. She was in her late 30s by the time she achieved this balance, learning to manoeuvre her way through all the “deep potholes” she faced.

One bitter truth she learned was “never to trust anyone, because it’s each man for himself out there”. She also realised that while today, MBAs and Harvard degrees might make you part of the crème de la crème, none of these really matter when it comes to the crunch. “You don’t need degrees, you need knowledge,” she says, and clearly she has more than enough of that!

As we speak over a WhatsApp call, she keeps apologising for the cats in her office. “They want to have their say as well,” she laughs. It turns out that for all her talk of being tough and bitchy, she runs an office space where the many women she employs can be comfortable. People bring their animals, and their children to work, and Ms Saba herself has three cats and her dog joining her. “We eat together, the animals are here; the children are here, they can do their homework... I realised that women, especially when they are moms, feel guilty when they are working, but they must realise that women can have careers and be moms, whether there is a man in the picture or not.”

In fact, she believes that women should not rush into marriage, and even when they do tie the knot, they should ensure that the man is the sort who will enhance their growth. “We are in a different age. It’s a two-way street. It’s not your role to enhance a man’s career; he must do the same for you,” she says.

Ms Saba herself had many ups and downs in her personal life, because few men were strong enough to understand her needs as a businesswoman. Then, at 40, she met someone and had a child; she was delighted it was a girl. Through all the pressures of running her business, shuttling between Monaco and London, she has found time to cook and eat with her daughter, Danica. “Cooking is one of my biggest passions,” she says. “I find it therapeutic.” Her own favourite is crab curry, while Danica’s is pasta. With Danica’s encouragement she has even written a cookbook, The Abbreviated Cook, with quick and easy recipes that offer a twist on traditional South and Southeast Asian dishes.

No wonder Malini Saba believes that a woman can be everything she wants. “I can choose to be like Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone,” says the self-made businesswoman. “Or I can be like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary. As a woman, you can choose to be both!”

“Women, especially when they are moms, feel guilty when they are working, but they must realise that they can have careers and be moms, whether there is a man in the picture or not.”

 - Malini Saba

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