[BW Legal World GC Talks] ESG Provides An Improved Brand Reputation Amongst Shareholders and Stakeholders: Manjaree Chowdhary, General Counsel, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd

In the first episode of GC Talks, Manjaree shares about her inspiring journey in law. She also shares her views on topical issues like ESG, Data Privacy and much more with Ashima Ohri, Managing Editor, BW Legal World.

MS. ASHIMA OHRI: Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to BW Legal World GC Talks, where we speak with General Counsel and Heads of in-house legal departments about their journeys and industries to keep in step with our ever-evolving legal environment and to become more change-agile leaders. Our guest today is the Executive Director and General Counsel of Maruti Suzuki India Limited, power woman, business leader Ms. Manjaree Chowdhary. Ms. Chowdhary thank you for joining us on GC Talks, so wonderful to see you!  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  Thank you, Ashima! It’s extremely wonderful to be here today with you this afternoon and absolutely my pleasure.  

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Thank you, Ms. Chowdhary. Your persona needs no introduction; you’ve been a General Counsel with some of the most renowned companies in the world like General Electric, now you are the Executive Director and General Counsel at Maruti Suzuki India Limited. But, before this you had a brief stint with Litigation and still the most fascinating part of this journey is that much before embarking on this legal voyage you were a professor teaching English literature for almost seven years. How did this shift come about? What has been the most striking part of this journey for you?  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  Actually, when I look back I find it equally fascinating that, I had the courage and perhaps the guts at that time when you're young you can take a lot of such risks. I was in a proper UGC and a government job with the university and to think that I made that plunge when I was seven years down in that profession. I look back I feel I may not have been able to do it if I was asked to do that now, but somehow, I think it was providence. I felt it was just meant to be, it had happened, and there were some sort of personal circumstances that led me to take a sabbatical, do my masters in London in law, come back. I think that one and a half year changed my life, I was able to view the world in a much larger canvas and a bigger horizon and the corporate world in India was just beginning to catch up after the decentralization and delicensing etc. And I thought this would be a wonderful thing to do, and I quite fell in love with law when I was doing my masters and hence my journey with law and my love affair with law started. In the last over now close to 25 years since then and it just continued. There have been many challenges, ups and downs, but I think at the end of the day no regrets. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  And what has been the most striking part of this journey, the most memorable part of this journey for you? 

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  I think I always felt I started off of course, with some litigation and then moved to a law firm, and quite soon after that, I got a break with General Electric and I have been an in- house counsel since then so that is an over close to about 20 plus years now. I think I found my calling, it was always being an in- house counsel was something that really attracted me. The most fascinating part of being a General Counsel has been that you've been part of a business. I think I'm a complete sort of business and commercial counsel, I like to see what I can do or what my team can do to support and really help the business through so. A business win somehow becomes your win as well. Besides, the wins on the pure legal side that your contributions there, but I think you draw your energies, out of the entire business ecosystem. And I've always enjoyed that, I've always enjoyed building teams. In some manner, being able to mentor people and I'm quite happy to know that people who worked with me and at different points in time in my life have gone on to do such wonderful things for themselves and are GC’s in their own rights. So, it gives a great sense of satisfaction, and the ability to give back. I think that's important so those have been some key highlights besides of course the everyday business of it, but I think that's the big one. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  That's great, Ms. Chowdhary. One follow- up question there, how are you finding the work from home environment with mentoring sort of not remaining the same anymore, is it all virtual, there are no people sitting and imbibing your lessons or learning from you directly in that sense, in a close quarter sort of an environment. So, what has been the difference for you there?  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY: I quite feel that work from home of course was very much necessitated by the conditions that we have been through in the last year and a half, but it has its challenges when you meet with people face to face, you can deal with them better, you can see the body language, the look of the face etc, that tells you, somebody is feeling energized or motivated or needs is down and out, there's an instant sort of interface and your reaction to that is by motivating them or etc. That, unfortunately, of course got reduced but we quickly found a way out, I think my team and I, we just increased our virtual interaction, I think, of course, besides the normal part of having reviews etc with your teams that's fine, but I think the whole team, the 40 of them, while I used to have that one monthly meeting, I made it every two weeks. And on that meeting, I would not talk of business or of work, it was only sharing, and it was understanding how people are dealing with the pandemic how they are liking the work from home, what are the issues, what are the challenges, can we help them in some way, personal challenges stress, anxiety, there were many people who lost their loved ones, many people on my team, including myself, we all got had a brush with COVID. And so how we dealt with it, how we supported each other, I think that kept the team together, and that helped me to stay close to them, because I knew that if I were with them during the time of need, the work will get done. So, I know we had all our technology tools in place so we were up and about servicing the organization as earlier, very quickly after the pandemic about in a week's time, so I did think that would be such a challenge, as opposed to keeping the spirits of the team up and being with them so I think I continue to do it even now of course now we partially open so we do this on a roster and a rotation. Some people come in so whenever I go, I tend to meet the people face to face at a distance of course, observing the norms, but at least you see them and they see you, so things are a little more improved now, but I personally believe that in times of crises, you should always be more seen than before, you should be more hurt than before. And you have to be feeling the pulse of your employees or your teams that helps you to tide over a difficult time. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Absolutely Ms. Chowdhary. I think what we've lost in physical contact, we've gained in emotional connects that have only gotten stronger during the crisis, like you mentioned, and that’s a wonderful thought to have. Now, changing gears to something more topical, ESG. ESG, in a sense, is a movement that has gained momentum across the world today. How do environmental, social and Governance issues impact businesses and how as a GC do you handle these issues. What are your thoughts?  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  Ashima again an extremely topical I would say like you mentioned extremely topical question, see ESG which actually stands for environment, social and governance is now really picking up. I mean of course we saw more of this in the Western world, but given that India has caught the attention of the corporate world and the government now in India, whereas earlier companies were more measured on the parameters, the financial parameters your market share your capital market capitalization etc. Those are still important parameters of course businesses, what to do with the numbers, but I think more and more focus is there on how good are companies on their ESG agenda and these are now becoming big talking points when people are looking to see how credible, you are as an organization, when investors are looking to invest in you, when you decide to go public, and generally building your credibility as an organization, I think the world is looking at it, and I think the government's and the regulatory bodies are also looking at it so this becomes an area of great importance, as we go forward. Now, how would you think that this becomes important and I think it's a very simple sort of understanding that it adds, if you are good with in your environmental, social and governance agenda where environment really is, to give the viewers a few examples, how energy efficient are you, how are you on your carbon emission, are you reducing them, your biodiversity conservation, your waste management, your water recycling. These are a few of the environmental side of things. Social, even more labor relations, employee benefits, workplace diversity, equal parity in pay, human rights, community relations, Health Safety these, these all combined into the social side of things, and governance, of course, we all appreciate that board composition and structures, the Strategic Sustainability oversight your compliance management. How are you looking at your executive management, and their compensation, their political contribution, lobbying practices, anti- bribery, corruption, and quite importantly data protection and privacy all of these come under governance. If you are having a strong agenda on these, it adds to you as an organization, it provides long term value creation for your stakeholders, it provides an improved brand reputation amongst all your shareholders and stakeholders, it gives you an improved differentiation through how you position yourself on ESG, it can become even a competitive advantage for you and, of course, it improves your customer relationships and relationships with all your stakeholders. So, I think, ESG is going to play a bigger and bigger role, and I've just talked to you about how it can be important but and how maybe I'd spend another minute or two to tell you how companies are looking at it. The first thing I think companies look at when they look at ESG is to create a framework, and how do you create a framework? You create your policies, a policy framework, you create a governance structure around it, you identify the ESG issues, you make ESG as an integral part of your risk management systems, you create certain targets and around which you want to achieve during, when you look at ESG sort of the agenda then you monitor a new audit then and obviously at the end of the day you will talk about external reporting and disclosures. Most companies look to do that as a part of their annual reporting in their Intel integrated reports and annual reports, so those are the areas I would think that companies are looking at, and are continuing to the agenda will grow. I continue to feel that. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Thank you so much, Ms. Chowdhary for sort of giving us a playbook on that there. From the auto industry’s perspective, what are some of the obstacles in our path? Would love to know your thoughts on what is taking us or holding us back from really being forerunners on ESG? I mean it's only just picking up but how seriously are we taking this?  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  I would say that we have to really go a long way. It’s an agenda that’s picking up. The World Economic Forum report of 2021 actually highlights and I read them out to you, the ESG risks that for economic growth have been classified as climate crisis, infectious diseases, biodiversity loss, environmental damage, cybersecurity failure I mean these are the top risks to economic growth. So, if a business or a country has to grow economically, we have to begin to look at the ESG pointers, which will help us to achieve our economic targets. Now, how our companies are beginning to look at them, I think you will see there are many companies who are looking to become carbon neutral in India, Mahindra, TATA, Reliance, Dalmia just to name a few. There are people who are, were talking, many companies now have made this as an agenda in their integrated reports, they have sort of created, even at like TATA’s, Mahindra’s had even got this or even Infosys, have created special sort of committees at the board level to address ESG agendas going forward. So it's not that the activity is not begun, it has begun, but for it to really percolate down, it is going to take an effort and I think we've just started the journey, we have a long way to go towards it, and people need to get more conscious of this, and I think you'll find more and more regulations around this, you will find this becoming a more important agenda when we do webinars and panel discussions etc. I'm already seeing this come up more frequently in areas of conversation. So, I think the buzz and the communication around it also has to increase for people to begin to understand its importance. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Absolutely! You mentioned one keyword there, cybersecurity, data privacy that's again, quite a concern in India when a regulation or codified concentrated legislation is missing. How do you deal with that and what are your concerns in that regard?  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  Data privacy, India still awaits a law really a formal law which we have been waiting for some time now, but the last two years or so have really enhanced the importance or really enhanced this agenda and brought it center stage I would say because the pandemic has really accelerated the uptake on technology and digitization and data protection. Data is the basic element, when you use technology and digitization so when you have more data, the next important thing is that how do you protect data and then comes your privacy. In the last year, you would have also noticed Ashima that the individual became center stage as far as data was concerned, simply because we were talking, we were living through a pandemic we still are in some ways, it was all about the individual, health of the individual, his management, how do we know whether he's vaccinated or not, how do we know how many people have got COVID or not, it was your personal data that was being looked at by the government, by the regulatory bodies and I remember when they first made the Aarogya Setu App and there was so much of a roar and discussion as to, are you going to be violating the personal data of people or not, and how much the government had to go out there and build that confidence in people that it would be safe. So, I think, data privacy was important, and we found the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulations that came in Europe. And, our data protection bill is also kind of fashioned on quite on the same lines. It is yet to come out but we do have a measure of regulatory sort of oversight within the IT Act the existing IT Act, but of course it is going to take a whole new level when we get the Privacy Act laws. Besides that, I think, organizations are looking at, we are also currently in Maruti also we are doing a lot in terms of understanding and getting our arms around digitization and understanding things like in the artificial intelligence boards, blockchains, digital twins and 3D manufacturing and how it is revolutionizing the world and now it will continue to revolutionize the world. And one of the serious challenges that comes or risks that comes out of that is how do you protect your data? So, data protection and data security are mutually exclusive, they can't be read as one data protection is all about looking at collecting data, how do you collect it and how do you store your data, how do you manage your data, and how do you share your data so you got to get your arms around that. The New Act or the Existing Regulations also talk about certain rules and regulations that all individuals as well as organizations have to keep in mind to make sure that is protected, specifically when you deal with people. People means there is a certain privacy attached to certain data that you have, whether you are an organization, or whether, for that matter, even as individuals when you deal with each other. You got to be more sensitive to people's personal data as organizations your liabilities can be huge if there is a breach in the way you handle data of your employees, of your customers of your suppliers and how do you protect all of that and that is becoming a big challenge. So, I think, management systems and using more technology to get your arms around that is going to be one very important thing, and data security is the measures that you take, the mechanisms you put in place as an organization to make sure that there is no breach of data, and no breach of privacy, because if there is going to be an area of focus going forward, even as a lawyer if you asked me what would be the challenges, amongst many others, data management, data privacy and claims around data security are going to be the next big thing, and as organizations as people we really need to stand up to these challenges and also work our way around them and put in place the right kind of protections, and the tools and also keep a watch on what's going to come out in the regulatory framework. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Thank you so much, Ms. Chowdhary! You mentioned GDPR. We have these other jurisdictions as well that have their own data privacy laws, some are stricter than the others. Now, when they have these kinds of laws around the world. What has been your experience, as a general counsel what goes into the compliance process when you're working with these jurisdictions and what do you look out for?  

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  Good question. I think you have to see where is your data stored and where is your data accessed from, your interactions as a business, are they spread outside of your jurisdiction, outside of your own country. And when you do that you have to see that people whose data you are collecting or anyone who's there, they come from a different jurisdiction and they are governed by the laws of that jurisdiction. So therefore, you got to be extremely cognizant that you should know, and people like us and others who have over extraterritorial jurisdictions and you have data that you're using across the board, then you’ve got to be very cognizant of the various jurisdictional regulations and frameworks and see that not only are you managing your own but you are not falling foul of any other of those, and you got to create that seamless Bridge, which means that if means that you have to do certain additional things to manage that, then that is something that we will have to keep in mind. I think that's the best way to do it. And even when you have a data breach or everything. I think you got to look not only within your own jurisdiction but you have to see that the data you think that is breached, that has been breached or there have been security concern around it. Does it impact overseas, does it impact people overseas, does it impact data which was secured outside, and therefore what are going to be the regulations and what jurisdictions they fall into and keep in mind that I think you can't look at this in isolation. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Absolutely, I think those are going to be some of those constant mapping activities that companies are going to have to put in place. Before we end this conversation, Ms. Chowdhary, I'd like you to coach our women leaders and lawyers, everybody who would like to know from you: What is it that the lawyer of the future needs to have in today's time, and how do you find your way up the ladder in current times? 

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  I think, current times of course, become very relevant to people of today. But I think in any time, there is no easy way to going to the top really, I mean everyone has to walk their pieces. I think what stands or what I can only talk of my experience of what perhaps if to a certain degree, I can call myself a bit successful or at least having achieved a few things. In all my humility, I feel that a couple of things have been very important I think you always need to be extremely relevant, you got to be with the times, you got to understand, like we just discussed about data privacy and as lawyers, if I was to look, you got to be relevant, we are in a role where we can't escape, studying and we can't escape, it's labor intensive kind of a job, you always have to be on top of it. So, remaining relevant because if you are relevant you contribute that much more effectively to your business, to your companies, if you are into your law firms and even in law firms when you're dealing with your clients, even as individual lawyers, I think it is quite important to remain relevant, to give them the right kind of advice. The second thing is be extremely perseverant and resilient. The life is never fair and every situation is not to your liking. Oftentimes, it never is. And so how do you keep your chin up, how do you persevere, how do you remain resilient in those times. One thing that pandemic has taught us is resilience, that it's not the most intelligent of the species it's the most resilient of the species that survives, Darwin said that, not me. But it is true even today, so being resilient and perseverant is very important. I've always felt that if I'm not interested in doing something, i would rather move on. I mean, you got to be passionate about what you do. Sometimes the passion, your external environment does not lend itself to you feeling passionate, sometimes you have to draw upon your inner strength to remain passionate and excited and self- motivation is also a lot to do because external environments are variables you can't control what you can do, you can control. So, passion and being happy about what you do, and having some fun along the way and it should be a journey to talk about at the end of the day. So, I think these are just small little things and help, I think it's not only about your own self, but it is also at some point of trying to mentor, trying to give back, there are people younger to you who are looking up to you and when you become leaders, be worthy of that and also try and mentor and give the right guidance, that little thing from you can make so much of a difference to someone else, and I believe that's creating a legacy. 

MS. ASHIMA OHRI:  Thank you so much, Ms. Chowdhary for sharing your wonderful journey and thoughts with us. I'm sure our viewers have enjoyed knowing how you changed gears from teaching to litigation to corporate. What a fascinating journey there! It has been wonderful learning your thoughts on what's coming next, and what's the big news on data privacy. So, thank you so much for being with us on GC Talks and giving us so much food for thought. Thank you so much! 

MS. MANJAREE CHOWDHARY:  Thank you Ashima and thank you for having me over. It's my pleasure being here today and I do hope that the audience found the conversation, useful. Thank you! 




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