Accolade for a mother who means business

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2007, 12:00am

Whenever corporate social responsibility expert Shalini Mahtani hands out her resume to the media, she always includes one of her prouder accomplishments - 'mother'.

She finds it interesting that of all the details they leave off when describing her, it is usually this one.

Ms Mahtani has never been able to fathom why, as if work and being a mother are entirely separate from each other.

So, for the record, Ms Mahtani is a mother of Zubin, 17 months, and is seven months pregnant with her second child.

She is also the founder and chief executive of the non-profit Community Business, which educates local companies on corporate social responsibility, a concept in many ways still at an early stage in Hong Kong.

Earlier this month, she was named one of 35 women of outstanding achievement under the age of 35 by World Business magazine.

The global magazine is produced in conjunction with Insead, widely regarded as the world's top business school. The publication targets top executives and chose Ms Mahtani, 35, for her work in providing corporate social responsibility advice and training to multinationals, as well as her efforts on discrimination against women, race and ethnic minorities.

The first time Ms Mahtani knew about the award and the fact that she might be a nominee was when a journalist, who was part of the selection panel, rang her.

'I've heard about you, and I've done lots of research about you but I need to know your date of birth,' Ms Mahtani said, recounting what he had said. Born in April 1972, she fitted the remit for the list and the journalist, Michael Backman, nominated her.

She could not make the award ceremony in Paris but said she was delighted to have this new network of young leaders from around the world. 'They are very interesting women with totally varied profiles. I would love to meet them,' she said.

Others on the list include a Malaysian film producer, an Egyptian manufacturer, an Estonian business consultant and an Indian eco-entrepreneur, but Ms Mahtani was the only one named from China.

Before setting up Community Business five years ago, she worked in accounting and banking. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics.

Ms Mahtani - a fourth-generation Hongkonger - is also a founding board director of the Women's Foundation in Hong Kong.

This year, she and her colleagues have been researching work/life balance in Hong Kong - for all workers, but also looking at where companies succeed and fail in terms of the city's women. They examined leave options that went beyond the statutory maternity leave, programmes that encouraged mothers to return to the work force and firms that provided nursery care.

She wrote a research paper on 22 women leaders in Hong Kong in 2005, including Civic Exchange head Christine Loh and Civic Party chief Audrey Eu Yuet-mee. 'I asked all of them, do you see yourself as a leader? And they all said 'no'.

'When I'm invited up to a podium and someone else is talking about me, I feel really uncomfortable with the praise. And these women said the same thing. I don't know whether it's a women thing, or an Asian thing, but I think a male leader would be much more comfortable in his own glory.'

She asked all the women whether despite their successes in public life, they would have changed anything, and they said: 'Yes, we wouldn't have chosen this path because the price of personal growth was too high.'

Many expressed regret on a personal front about insufficient time spent with their children or partners.

'I wonder if men feel the same way,' Ms Mahtani said. 'How do you rate failure and success?'

This is the third award for Ms Mahtani in recent times. Earlier this year she was named an Asia 21 Young Leader by the Asia Society in the US, which recognised exceptional people under the age of 40. In 2005 she was awarded the chief executive's Commendation for Community Service by the Hong Kong government.