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Wisdom Stories Ep.42: Milind Sarwate

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Cultural expectations surrounding the elderly are being challenged today, and with good reason!

While it was the norm to slow down and retreat into a quieter life post-retirement, more men and women are finding purpose and joy in doing the opposite.

WisdomCircle honours such men and women by shining light on their journey through an inspiring series called “Wisdom Stories”. These people have successfully smashed stereotypes, and their stories remind us that life should be lived to the fullest, no matter what age or stage.

I began my professional journey in the mid-eighties, after completing my formal education- I am a Chartered Accountant (1983), Cost Accountant (1983), Company Secretary (1984) & Commerce Graduate (1979).

I started in 1983 with a 2-year stint as a Finance Executive with Hoechst (now Sanofi), a Pharma Company. Then came two long tenures with FMCG Companies- 13 years with Godrej, and 16 years with Marico. During this period, I played various roles ranging from Finance Manager at Godrej Soaps to the Group CFO and CHRO at Marico.

I was fortunate to get opportunities to work in not just Finance (my primary expertise) but also in functions other than Finance- Product Supply at Godrej, and Strategy & HR at Marico.

It was also fortuitous that I could get an opportunity to be an independent director early enough in 2005 when I joined the Geometric Software board as an Audit Committee Chairman. This was serendipitous, but it did build a new capability in me, which I leveraged later.

My professional journey was rewarding in several ways- financially as expected, also great from a self- development angle- I learned a lot in each of my roles, and I believe became a better individual and a consummate professional. I also received formal accolades like the ICAI CFO Award (2011), the CNBC TV-18 CFO Award (2012) & CFO India Hall of Fame induction (2013)

In 2014, after this first career in executive employment spread over a little more than 3 decades, I decided to turn entrepreneurial for my second career. I set up Increate – which means “Uncreated” or “Undiscovered”. My focus has been on providing advice & mentorship in value creation, capability-building, and the governance & social aspects of ESG. The objective is to help organizations & individuals discover, develop & deliver business & social value.

I contribute in multiple ways- Independent Directorships, Advisory work, and investment, leveraging my experience of 40 years including long stints as CFO & CHRO in Marico & Godrej (3 decades) and independent directorships (past nearly 2 decades).

I have been on listed company boards since 2005. My current Directorships are across BFSI, InfoTech, Omnichannel Retail, Health Care, and Chemicals sectors, all with an audit committee involvement.

  • 6 listed companies- Asian Paints, Mahindra Finance, CEAT, Nykaa, Matrimony.com, & SeQuent

  • 4 unlisted companies – Hexaware, OmniActive Health Technologies, Eternis Fine Chemicals & WheelsEMI.

I have previously been on the boards of Mindtree and Geometric (InfoTech), International Paper APPM (Paper), Glenmark (Pharma), House of Anita Dongre (Apparel), and CARE Ratings (Analytics).

I help Investors enhance Business Value, through building Capability in finance-HR -strategy, optimizing IPOs- M&As- corporate structuring, and mentoring promoters- corporate leaders. I also play the “middleware” between social and corporate sectors, guiding CSR strategy and execution & helping not-for-profit organizations grow & widen their social impact. I invest venture/angel capital in promising businesses/ social enterprises, especially MSMEs.

My focus on board work and other work keeps changing. Currently, the bulk of my occupation is with the Boards I am on.

We interviewed Milind Sarwate, one of the honourees of 58 Over 58, a collaborative endeavour spearheaded by WisdomCircle and INK. The mission is to spotlight the narratives of 58 remarkable individuals annually, individuals who are meaningfully engaged in their post-retirement phase.

image of Milind Sarwate

What was a key moment that defined your current path?

I took my current path in 2014 when I was 54. I did not wait for the formal retirement to kick in at 58.

The key defining moment for this came 4 years before that in 2010, when I faced a near-death situation, through a mysterious illness that quarantined me for about 2 months. That solitude was a great experience and helped me redefine the way forward.

I decided that I would never retire from active work. It followed that I would have to set up something of my own so that I could keep going on- on my terms- as no one would employ me for my lifetime!

The NDE- Near Death Experience- thus triggered me to commit to a lifelong pursuit of meaningful work and independence.

 How would you define your purpose? And why did you choose it?

The concept of a “Purpose” for personal life first entered my mind in 1996 when I read Stephen Covey’s book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Over the years since then, my purpose has kept on evolving- I am still not able to define it in so many words- but it has all been in and around adding value. I have chosen this space because right since my childhood I have felt the most fulfilled when I have made a difference- to people, organizations, and situations. And as Covey famously asks- what would you like your epitaph to say- work for that throughout your life. So, simply and expansively stated, my purpose is to “add value”. And from that comes the name of my firm- Increate- which means “Uncreated” or “Undiscovered”.

Thus, my purpose revolves around adding value, a philosophy cultivated over years of professional growth. Increate embodies this ethos, striving to unearth untapped potential in organizations and individuals.

What is your flex today? How is it different from a decade or two ago?

My flex today is that I am independent. I run my outfit from my own office. That feeling of professional freedom is precious to me. With the grace of God, I also enjoy adequate financial freedom.

Freedom enables me to lead a seamless life across my work and other interests – Cricket, Movies, Music, and politics. I love listening to the radio & tracking News. I read widely, in both English & Marathi & am an avid social media user. I love that “free bird status”!

A decade or two ago, I was in the same state of independence emotionally or in my mind, but that was being diluted a lot by the trappings that typical employment brings. Being on my own has certainly helped!

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would have been much better off if I had been more focused. By nature, I am a very curious person. I am interested in everything under the Sun, including the Sun. while that makes my life interesting, it does result in some defocusing on some priorities. So, my advice to my younger self would be to be more purposefully curious, and to sequence curiosities and interests in a more meaningful manner. I would have also advised my younger self not to presume perpetuity of personal health.

I have a feeling that my younger self will not take this advice!

Is there anyone you look up to, to help chart your post-retirement journey?

The question is partly not on target in that I do not see any post-retirement journey for myself! But yes, there are many people whom I look up to in my second career. These are the people who have not retired and have pursued an active life after their conventional first careers. It may be that I am suffering from People-Like-Me syndrome and am looking for and up to the people who do not want to retire! However, I do draw inspiration from individuals who continue to lead active lives beyond traditional retirement, embracing new challenges and opportunities.

What are the current gaps in the post-retirement eco-system? Where is the pressing need for attention?

There is a big gap in the understanding of the term “retirement”. Ideally, it should be interpreted as the end of the first career and the beginning of the next career. This is necessary because of a major demographic change that has been occurring over the past several years. Life expectancy has been going up steadily but surely, whereas the retirement age has not moved up much from 58-60. Add to that the phenomenon of the modern competitive work- life that prefers the young to the not-so-young, leading to a cutting short of corporate careers well before the formal retirement age. These have led to a situation, where many people in the 40 to 60 age group find themselves stranded in life and emptily staring at the next 20-30 years. If there is a realization that work-life can and should stretch to 70-75 years, there will emerge institutions that find gainful occupations for such people. That could lead to second and third careers being considered normal.

To summarize, the concept itself of retirement needs a redefinition to accommodate longer lifespans and changing career dynamics. Institutions like WisdomCircle can bridge this gap by offering guidance, employment opportunities, and resources for individuals embarking on second or third careers.

What would your advice be to WisdomCircle, to help plug these gaps?

WisdomCircle can be that marketplace for advice, ideas, employment, and business opportunities for people seeking a fresh career or careers after their first one. There is a range of facilities that Wisdom Circle can provide- starting with counseling and ending with fruitful conclusions. This can be done in a commercially meaningful, collectively beneficial manner.

Why is leaving a legacy important for you? What would you like yours to be?

Leaving a legacy is desirable for many reasons. The simplest reason is that one would like to be remembered for quite some time after one has passed away. A life story can be an example of Do’s and Don’ts to people who follow. It can be an example or better still an inspiration for future generations.

I would love to leave behind a life story that can positively impact the lives of others. It would be great if I could create a body of knowledge- concepts, frameworks, structures, theories- that others can use after I have gone.

I am, however, quite realistic. I have no illusions of being great. I am happy at being at a level where I am remembered as someone who excelled, but who can be emulated. (I do believe that fascination comes in the way of emulation.)

3 words that describe your life right now.

  • Busy– I always have something to do. I am constantly working on projects and tasks. I tend to create some if there is none!

  • Curious– I am always learning new things and exploring new ideas. I am fascinated by the world around me, and I love to discover new things. I keep looking at things from different lenses- new ideas and new ways of doing things. I love to think outside the box and to produce unique solutions to problems, and sometimes solutions that await problems.

  • Helpful– I love to help others and make a difference in the world. I am always looking for ways to use my skills, knowledge, and networks to help others.

Thus, Busy, Curious, and Helpful—these three words encapsulate my relentless pursuit of growth, exploration, and contribution.

What else would you like to say, that we haven’t covered yet?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was one of the 58 over 58 identified by WisdomCircle. The concept is a pioneering one. It appealed to me, not just because I am one of the people recognized, but also because it is relevant to the changing times. As the cliché goes- 60’s are the new 40’s.

Thanks for this renewal trigger!!

Read more Wisdom Stories on WisdomCircle

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