Interview with Prajna Khanna – Global Head of Sustainability and Vice President at Prosus Group

‘If corporates were run on the values of NGOs and NGOs on the processes of corporates, we would get closer to an optimal societal context’

For years, Partners at Work has encouraged diversity in the broadest sense of the word by using it as a guiding principle in every search assignment. Among other things, multicultural diversity proves valuable in getting the best out of organizations. In a series of interviews Christine Changoer speaks with multicultural leaders who were mediated into their positions by Partners at Work. She explores what different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities can add. But also what challenges multicultural leaders encountered on their way to the top. Together with her colleague Nicole Boevé, Christine sits down this time with Prajna Khanna, Global Head of Sustainability and Vice President at Prosus Group.

The venue: a glass conference room filled with cream-colored couches and chairs at Prosus Group on the Zuidas. Relaxed and with an Indian Chai in her hand, Prajna steps inside. Responding to a compliment about her attire, she draws attention to the colour herself. ‘Green’, she says, smiling, ‘the colour of sustainability’.It fits well with the woman who throughout her multi-faceted career has always stuck to her principles. Pursuing non-financial impact in favour of sustainability is an essential part of that. And to stay in the here and now for a moment; that’s why she feels so comfortable in her role for Prosus Group. ‘We are basically the antithesis of the big Tech companies in Silicon Valley. Prosus Group specifically invests in local companies in emerging markets, focusing on entrepreneurs who meet local needs. Because we invest locally, the money stays there. Thus, we help to build up the local economy and local ecosystem in countries bottom-up, which is completely in line with my personal beliefs.’

A strong role model
Back to the basis for her formation, Prajna’s childhood. That deviated quite a bit from what was common in 1970s India. ‘My parents separated when I was one year old and my mother raised me. In those years, it was extremely brave for a woman in India to decide to be a single mother and her courage can be credited to her upbringing, level of education and to no small measure – her inherent stubbornness. Indeed, through her maternal line she was descended from the Wazir (prime minister) of Kashmir, her great-grandfather. On my mother’s side, we are from what is now Pakistan.’ From what Prajna shares about her mother, Suman Khanna Aggarwal has been a powerful role model and trailblazer. She built a successful career lecturing in India and abroad while juggling the responsibilities of being a single parent.

‘In the Netherlands, you get a lot of criticism as a working mother, while in urban India it is quite normal for a woman to work’

Her mother inspired her as a young girl, at the same time it was not always easy. ‘I am an only child and when you are the daughter of a very strong visionary, that is quite a challenge. All eyes are on you and you have big shoes to fill. Because of how my mother lived and manifested herself, she was both exception and example. She currently runs an NGO in 16 slums in New Delhi. Many look up to her and even politicians look at her with interest. She is a force to be reckoned with.’ Her mother did not need to be verbal about life lessons, she simply lived her values. ‘What inspired me, and I didn’t realize this until much later, is that in her life I was as important as her career. However, she never let motherhood be a dilemma or present limitations. She made a consciously choice to develop herself and aspire to reach her full potential. If the opportunity was presented to teach abroad, she did not say no. She ensured we were surrounded by a great support network that would allow her to have me looked after , and subsequently throw herself into her work. I believe that her choices to develop herself along with being a single parent, made her a balanced person with whom it was easy to have a positive relationship. That, too, inspired me.’

From NGO to corporate: a culture clash
Prajna would leave India at age 22 to study Media and Communications at Deakin University in Australia. After graduating in 1997, India was given the status of a base of operations from which she worked as a producer in the media sector worldwide. Initially for the well-known Indian TV channel Channel V, the MTV of India. Later she would produce, among other things, a car show for BBC Worldservice is. ‘That was similar to Top Gear. It was the most fun thing I did in my media years, though.’ For media platform Comic Relief, she researched funded development projects in Africa about which she wrote articles, and finally she worked as a communications manager on toxics at Greenpeace. So Prajna brought with her a unique mix of knowledge and experience when she decided to leave Greenpeace to move from the world of NGOs to that of corporates. ‘My work at Greenpeace gradually started making me realise that the way to catalyse sustainable change is to have constructive dialogues and collaboration across both sides of the aisle. In an increasingly polarised world I believe we have to make the effort to seek and make connections to solve problems together.’
By the way, the transition to her first corporate, ING, was not completely smooth. ‘I found the corporate world intimidating and was quite apprehensive about my first working day as a sustainability advisor at ING. That was mainly because NGOs and corporates are diametrically opposed, deeply distrustful of each other. Both also have a completely different set of values. I always say: if corporates were run according to the values of NGOs and NGOs according to the processes of corporates, we would live in the perfect economic environment.’ That Prajna had zero prior experience in the financial sector was no impediment, as her new employer saw during the interview process that her ability to tell stories and persuade people would be of great value. Qualities she would go on to use as chief sustainability and social responsibility officer for Signify (formerly Philips) and today for Prosus Group.

‘Sometimes your career is as good as the managers you encounter along your work journey.’

With those employers, Prajna got to know the Netherlands and Dutch husband. She also learned what our mores are like where the social participation of women is concerned. ‘It struck me as rather paradoxical that the Netherlands considers itself progressive but at the same time is critical of working mothers, who commit to a five day week with young children. In India it is quite normal for a woman to work, and lean on her support network. At a macro level, in Southeast Asia, most countries already had a female prime minister, that is yet to be a norm in other parts of the world.’ Of course Prajna recognizes there are dilemmas and choices to me made as a full time, working mother. For example, she cannot always be present at school events and activities or other special moments. But there is also that other side, she says. ‘I hope that I am setting an example for my children by showing them that it is possible to be a mother and to personally develop myself, just as my mother did. I’m hoping that subliminally my son is imbibing that all women have the same right to self-fulfilment as he does and to show my daughter that she has every opportunity to pursue and achieve her potential as a woman. Of course, my husband also plays a crucial role, supporting me and giving me room to grow. And it’s all enormously rewarding, because for me, the opportunity to have a fulfilling professional career is such a privilege and part of the richness that life has to offer.’

Phone off
Her career has already taken her far, but has not been without its bumps. Women are unfortunately still far from being seen as full-fledged, Prajna observes. And even when it is seen that they can perform, there are still managers who simply cannot accept it. She experienced that. ‘To be successful you also need a dose of luck. Sometimes your career is as good as the managers you encounter along your work journey. A manager can encourage you but can also slow you down. I don’t think there is any point in wasting energy in conflict, only one option remains if things don’t work out and that is to leave.’ An important factor in her current success is her ability not to take unwinding criticism personally. ‘Negative comments run off me like water over a duck’s back.’ Another is her great love for what she does. ‘Therein lies a danger I admit, because I can be fully obsessed with work. That should not be surprising, because that is the role model I have been presented with in life. Fortunately, my husband slows me down on occasions. You can just turn off your phone, he then says.’

‘Skin is just a thin layer of leather; underneath, all people are exactly the same colour’

Authoritarian leadership does not appeal to her at all. ‘Because everyone on my team has something to teach me. I am therefore a radical democrat.’ In addition to that pillar her leadership style relies on transparency. ‘I wouldn’t want anything else anyway, but on top of that, people perform best when they feel that nothing is being withheld or concealed. Moreover, honest and timely feedback is essential to help your colleagues develop.’

Getting lucky; down to earth as she is Prajna comes back to it. That too is a success factor, although most careerists prefer not to talk about it. ‘Of course, it is also simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. That’s how I got into ING and Philips.’ Her colour was never necessarily a disadvantage, Prajna says when it comes to diversity. It just depends on how you deal with it. ‘When people underestimate you because of the colour of your skin, that can be to your advantage as you are smarter than them. And vice versa; you harm yourself when you pigeonhole people. Because let’s face it, skin is just a thin layer of leather, underneath all of us are exactly the same colour. the same.’

Text: Baart Koster
Fotografie: Pamela Mooij