She is a fighter. She is a winner. She is a top HR expert with the heart of a philanthropist. Monika Navandar is a brave-heart who pulled herself out of penury by sheer hard work and a desire to excel in life. Despite the extreme circumstances of her early life she fought her way out and rose to become a woman to reckon with. Her life story is the stuff legends are made of.
Born in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, her family was so poor that her parents could not even feed and clothe their children. “Our poverty forced my parents to send us to live with our maternal uncle’s family. That turned out to be a bigger hell for us because they not only treated us like domestic help but also abused me and brutally tortured my brother,” Monika remembers with a shudder.
“When my mother heard about this she brought us back home immediately. My father’s deteriorating health forced my mother to work. She came from a conservative Marwari family and had never worked before so she started stitching clothes for people and making shampoo at home which she would sell for some money. The hardships we had to endure were inexplicable,” she says.
“I was only 16 when my father expired and with a younger brother and mother who needed care, I took the mantle of being the head of the family. My first job at 16 was collecting cable TV dues from houses but the money I earned from that job was not enough and since I was a good singer and dancer, I performed at various shows to earn more to support my family and my education,” she reminisces.
The only thing in their favour was the siblings’ brilliant academic minds. “We had nothing, the only reason we got an education was because we were very good in studies and our teachers and friends helped us,” she says.
Her first mentor was her English teacher in school. “She was a very graceful and impeccably dressed transgender whose name was Karishma (Miracle) Thakur and she indeed was a miracle for me because she made me quite proficient in English and Hindi. In fact, it was this proficiency in English which got me free tuitions in Mathematics from one of the best and most expensive tutors in Aurangabad because he was very impressed with my language skills,” says Monika with a smile.
It is not only academics that Monika excels at; she is also an avid sportswoman. She has competed at the State and District level in many sporting events like Badminton, Short Put and Discus Throw. In fact, she still continues to participate in competitions. She has also won many awards. “Sports in a way moulded my personality. It taught me discipline, competitiveness, team spirit and never to give up till you succeed mantra,” she reflects.
It was this zeal to never give up and merit in studies that got her an admission in Engineering College. She did her Bachelors in Computer Science Engineering from Aurangabad. In the final year of her engineering she met her future husband. “He is my soul-mate, my strength, my guide and my biggest support. In fact, he did not even take up a full-time job with any company as he wants to be flexible to accompany me wherever I go and has been consulting with start-ups and developing his own app to be able to do so.” says the proud wife.
Right after her engineering degree she started working in a BPO in order to earn and shoulder her responsibilities. Despite having a B.E. degree in computer science she has always worked in HR and the reason behind that choice was, “I wanted to work closely with the management rather than being a software programmer. So I chose to work as a trainer, a decision I am very happy with. Always a keen learner and analyst, my work sparked my interest and curiosity towards ‘the how and why of a business’, and the strategies and processes that shape successful businesses globally,” asserts Monika.
“I was working with HSBC GLT when the company’s talent acquisition head Mr. Osborne Pereira suggested that I get a Master’s degree in HR if I wanted a more focused career in that field,” she remembers fondly.
“After considerable research I decided to do my Masters in Human Resource Management from Rutgers, it is one of the top five HR programs in the USA. Rutgers was an amazing experience, since it’s a research based university, they teach you what should be in the industry 15-20 years down the line, so you have so much to contribute to any organization within different functions under the HR umbrella. I worked with the Dean and Director of the Grad and Undergrad HR programs as their Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant. I also worked on a book called Cultural Agility with Prof. Paula Caligiuri, it deals with global work force management,” she explains.
Always having people mentoring her to further her career she now mentors students from Oxford, Wharton, Rutgers, Cornell and Michigan universities to name a few. “I mostly give them sound career advice and if possible connect them to the right people in the industry. I am also reverse mentoring some senior leaders in the Pharma and Biotech companies,” she adds further.
Monika believes the factors that have helped her in her journey through life has been her family and friends, the mentors who always guided her in the right direction and her networking skills along with her insatiable thirst for knowledge. “In fact, my current manager at Johnson & Johnson primarily hired me because she was impressed with my networking ability,” she smiles.
For the last three years at Johnson & Johnson she has been working in the Global Office of Diversity & Inclusion and is shaping, driving and delivering on key global strategic initiatives for the J&J workforce around the world in partnership with senior leaders based in the World Headquarters (New Brunswick, New Jersey).
She has been a HR professional for more than a decade now and has worked with companies like IBM, HSBC and Volkswagen among others. Her exceptional work in the HR management field is being recognized by the World HRD Congress. She was invited to be a Keynote speaker as well as a moderator for one of the D&I sessions on their 25th anniversary and also received the “Diversity Leadership Award” at the World HRD Congress in Mumbai this February.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Monika plans to build an education trust fund in her mother’s name to sponsor education for the underprivileged children. “My mother has been my inspiration in life as she battled all sorts of adversities for her children. She taught me and my brother to be good human beings and always aspire to do better in life. Our hard work and perseverance has paid off and both me and my brother live in our own houses, travel the world with our mother and have friends all over the globe,” says an elated Monika.
“Ever since I started working full-time I have been contributing to various organizations like Teach for India, Operation Smile for cleft lip and cleft palate conditions, Helpage India, Prayatna – for people with special needs and a few other non-profit organizations,” Monika adds.
With fire in her belly and kindness in her heart, this millennial is raring to go and conquer new horizons and make this world a better place to be for as many people as she can help.
Rohini Sharma is a former journalist who has worked with leading print and electronics media groups. She is currently associated with environmental communication.