Renuka Kirpalani is not just the suited-booted lady in a corner office. She is a Boss of a different kind. She rules the roads, is in complete control behind the steering wheel and pretty much a boss lady of the motoring circuit. I wasn’t even sure she would agree to do this interview since she is a veteran media person herself – what with being an Editor of the very famous The Autocar Show. But well, she agreed and I couldn’t be more flattered. So contagious is her attitude… you just must read to know how it’s time to stop the bad woman driver jokes, coz’ Boss… Women are ruling the roost when it comes to getting behind the wheels. Presenting, the very charismatic – Renuka Kirpalani 🙂
- Dispelling all myths about Women Drivers, you are pretty much the Boss Lady in this field. Tell us more. How did it all start? The motivation, the drive, the passion … we would love to know it all.
Well I grew up around cars. My father built, tuned, modified and raced cars. He also used to restore vintage cars. So the passion began then. I was always mechanically inclined repairing things that broke and fixing gadgets at home. As I grew up although I should have done mechanical engineering, I landed up in a BCom degree and hated it. Went on to do a bunch of other professions like interior design, hairdressing but my heart was always in cars. Then one day Farah Vakil who was rallying then connected with me and asked if I would like to navigate for her. I agreed and we went on to win… and the will to be in this world became even stronger. At that time, my Dad wasn’t convinced that working with him was the best plan for my future. He was also selling some of the older racing cars. I bought one of them and entered my first race. This was when the races were still held at Juhu Aerodrome. I was so nervous and just went and drove my heart out, not focusing on anything but the road in front. Suddenly I saw yellow flags calling me in to the pits. I came off the track and Farah pulled me out yelling excitedly “You know what you’ve just done ? From the stands I could hear the voices of the crowd, as I pulled of my helmet saying “Aiyla yeh to ladki hai”. For a couple of seconds my mind was a blur and my heart sank thinking I had messed up my only chance to convince my dad. Then through the din with her arms wrapped around me jumping up and down I could hear Farah say “You’ve won. You’ve won!” I had won against a field of 18 men.
I never looked back from there, and went on to race, rally, navigate and gathered many accolades while working at my Dads’ workshop as a grease monkey. So learned all there is to know about cars ground up, opening up cars and putting them back again. I also learned about tuning cars alongside my dad.
After I had my first baby, I stopped working with my father. ( Did my last rally pregnant without knowing it BTW) Spent a couple of years looking after home and hearth. My husband was building his garment export business then and needed my help. I joined him and once again learned something new. About 7 years later, Hormazd Sorabjee a dear friend and the Editor of India’s most successful automotive publication called me to ask if I’d be interested in anchoring a car show. Hormazd has known me since my rallying days and he has been also known to pull elaborate pranks. Through the screen test I wasn’t sure if this was a prank or not, so I was pretty relaxed through the test where I had to talk about a Qualis.
That was the beginning of my automotive Journalism career.
2. Who are your racing idols or inspiration?
Unequivocally its Ayrton Senna and Michelle Mouton.
3. Women get a lot of flak for not being really great on the road. This is in spite of an increasing number of women driving in India these days. What do you think is the problem? Or rather what are the challenges that women drivers face?
How many cabs have you been in where the driver is male and you have honestly feared for your life? There are probably more bad male drivers out there. Women have the tag because they are over cautious and tend to drive gingerly instead of with assurance. I’m not saying all women drivers are great. There are few I would never sit in a car with but I think its now more a sort of mind-set because it’s something they have heard always.
4. Tell me Renuka, do you think there is a lack of opportunity for women in Motorsports or is there a lack of women who are interested in Motorsports? Or are things getting better for the modern day woman?
Oh things are definitely getting better for the modern woman. We are seeing more women in Motorsport than ever before, more womens’ biker clubs and recently TVS chose a woman to be a part of their team for the Baja Aragon in Spain.
5. You gave up Racing after marriage and children but have continued to be associated with your passion for cars as an Editor of Autocar Show. You have also dabbled in Interior Design, Garment Export and Hair Dressing. You are so multi-faceted. Talk us through it all. Did it never bother you to shift gears and branch out into so may different kinds of work? I know of people who wouldn’t try doing anything else beyond their comfort zone.
I guess its about finding what you really love and settling on it. I’ve explained the journey above and it was a path I had to tread to arrive at my true calling. Luckily life gave me the chances and Hormazd gave me the opportunity to be where I am today.
6. Tell us about Roadtripper.
The dream of Roadtripper was born after I did the ASEAN rally in 2004. This was a 13000 km plus trip that we did from India to Singapore. And Indonesia. India to Singapore was all overland and through the ASEAN countries. I have always loved driving and being out on the road but this was exceptional. Seeing the world through your windscreen is an indescribable experience. Like they say, its not about the destination but more the journey and road trips offer the best. So it got me thinking about getting more people to do these overland trips. Rahat another friend, who was also in hairdressing school with me shared my passion for travel and begged me to take her on one of these long road trips. So when the SAARC rally came up she joined in, after which, the bug for road travel also bit her. We jointly set up Roadtripper after that. It now curates roadtrips for companies, organizations, groups and people who want to go to off- beat destinations or cross border travel. We recently had a group of people from Malaysia travel 34 days with us and with an age group of 50 – 80 it so amazing to see their enthusiasm and energy!
7. You are a successful woman and a known face in a field lesser known for women. Did you ever have to face gender biases of any kind?
Not really, most of the fraternity whether in my racing days or in the auto journalism field have always treated me the same. In fact most of the time, to all of them I’m just one of the boys. I’ve faced competition but never discrimination.
8. What was your personal path of empowerment? Did you have to prepare yourself mentally and psychologically to be tougher, more steadfast, firmer in what you set out to achieve?
Yes, women carry more roles than just bread-winner. You have home, children, parents, in-laws and other things to manage as well and I have been lucky to have a supportive family, but it still requires double the work most of the time. Its been 15 years in the automotive journalism industry and for 13 of those years, I juggled between the family garment business, this and some part Roadtripper. It was hard and there was a lot of guilt for being away from the kids and home and then the compensation for it. So it left very little time to just relax. I think my mantra is always deal with a challenge head on. The more you run away the more will come at you. So yeah I tend to take the bull by the horns and just plough through whatever life throws at me. Emotionally you get stronger having to fend for yourself and juggle multiple life roles always.
9. What is your idea of an empowered women? How would you encourage more and more women to be empowered?
My idea of an empowered woman is one who is sure of herself, happy with who she is and the way she is. Doesn’t need external factors or other people to feel better about herself. An empowered woman is one who is willing to follow her dreams and yet be a mother, a wife and a daughter.
10. What or who inspires you? Why?
I cant really single out one person, but different people have come into my life and inspired me in different ways. For example if you talk of the automotive journalism part of my life then I can think of two or three people who have inspired me. Hormazd Sorabjee with his undying passion and infective energy. Anuradha Sengupta – who taught me a lot about facing the camera and giving the audience what they want. So like that, in each walk of life there have been a few people who have brought me to be who I am today.
11. How do you take care of yourself? There is a lot of talk of how women never prioritise themselves and are forever in the martyr mode. How do you think women can lead more balanced and focused lives and make themselves a priority?
Well, that’s a lesson I have to learn as well. I’m not a martyr but I forget myself often enough and tend to devote my time to either family or work. It’s important though to take time out and it rejuvenates the mind and body and I’m slowly learning to do that.
12. How do you keep yourself so focused? Grounded and motivated?
That’s a tough one. There are days when I get wiped out and think I should retire and then another project or test drive comes along and the new challenge brings me back. The business of journalism has widened so much and my role has also expanded. I love a new challenge and in today’s fast changing world there is always something new to learn and adapt to so that keeps me going. The biggest factor though is that I love what I do.
Great read Renuka!!