#WITW India

Zarina Screwvala: “The more ridiculous and impossible a task, the more exciting”

The co-founder of one of India’s foremost entertainment conglomerates on how she deployed her expertise on behalf of social innovation in rural India

In July 2012, Zarina Screwvala, co-founder of Indian media giant UTV, found she could not get out of bed, no matter how hard she tried. Screwvala and her husband had just sold their baby, UTV Software Communications to Walt Disney Co. for $454 million, and despite Disney asking the Screwvalas and their team to stay on after the merger, Zarina was paralyzed by a deep sense of loss.

“I’d never describe my decisions as ambitious,” Zarina told a business reporter, several years after UTV had established itself as one of India’s biggest and most successful media conglomerates, “but I was always excited at the prospect of being challenged. The more ridiculous and impossible a task was, the more exciting it was for me. I’m still that way.”

At UTV, there had always been enough challenges to keep Zarina occupied. Between 1990 to 2012, UTV would expand to creating content for corporations, introduce India to its first ever game show contest and its first soap opera, launch the country’s first and then most successful entertainment channels for children and teenagers and, finally, begin producing movies. Zarina, at the helm of every new decision, had grown accustomed to handling a new project every few years, nursing it until the new team could function smoothly without her, then moving on to the next thing. “I knew Disney would nurture what we had built,” she told Women in the World in a candid interview today, “but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something had been taken away from me.”

Screwvala was experiencing something many women face at the end of their working lives: a loss of purpose, resulting in a crisis of identity. Fresh out of college, Zarina was 22 when she first met her husband, Ronnie Screwvala, while handling backstage production work for veteran Mumbai thespian Pearl Padamsee. The two had virtually no experience in media or advertising, but plenty of entrepreneurial spirit, and soon joined forces to create UTV (along with close friend Deven Khote).

At a time when Indian television was transitioning from a single, government run channel to opening it’s doors for multiple cable operators, UTV’s vision to create smart, fresh advertising and content for corporations and channels was exactly what a burgeoning industry needed to grow.

Once the merger with Disney came through, 53 year old Zarina was left at sea. Her first life raft came in the form of the New Acropolis in Mumbai, an organization that explores the origins of Greek, Roman and Indian Philosophy in a non-academic environment. On her first day at philosophy school, she spotted a tiny sign at the corner of a wall, with a quote from Lao-Tze: “When you stop being who you are,” the sign read, “You discover who you might be.”

Zarina left the class charged with purpose. After a brief teaching stint, on Ronnie’s suggestion, Zarina decided to repurpose SHARE (Society to Heal, Aid, Restore and Educate) as the SWADES Foundation.

“We began with the idea of lifting a million people out of poverty. Then we set a deadline of five years. I decided I didn’t want to stop there, so I made our purpose to lift a million people out of poverty every five years,” she said.

SWADES’s aims are lofty — it enters rural spaces, builds toilets, provides sanitation and clean water, and creates opportunities for jobs and education. After studying poverty and other philanthropic ventures extensively for a year, traveling the length and breadth of the country, the Screwvalas decided to focus on their home state Maharashtra, where they had already built pockets of trust and intervention was easier.

“Helping people is a two way street,” she said, “I have three rules: you cannot change someone’s life for the better unless you know their dreams and aspirations intimately. Two, just because we’re doing philanthropy, doesn’t mean we will ever settle for second best from any of our 33 partners, and finally, treat those you help as equal partners. Only if you learn to collaborate, will you actually move forward.”

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