General Counsel Coca-Cola India Preeti Balwani Talks Feelings, Failures And Finding Happiness With BW Legal World

In a fire side chat with Ashima Ohri, Managing Editor, BW Legal World, Preeti takes us down memory lane and shares some pearls of wisdom from the treasure trove of her experiences.

#On choosing Law as a Career 

I wanted to study journalism and wanted to be a news presenter as I was growing up and figuring out what I wanted to do with my career. I was very influenced by Oprah Winfrey, growing up, and she was an icon and a role model to me in terms of what women can do and what women can achieve. 

I never thought about a career in law, and I was very passionate about doing journalism. But my father was very strict and he said, No, I don't think you will be able to succeed in a career in journalism and you should probably consider something more academic.

You're good at speaking and writing, but maybe you should try and focus on something that is slightly better paying. So, I did choose to study law, I come from a very humble background. So, we didn't always have the means to live out our dreams. I applied to the National Law Universities at that time, and I know that there was this 40% cut-off, and I didn't make the cut-off. I was the 41st to the 42nd in that examination. 

So, I went to a few of the other colleges that I could study at and gave my application. I went to GLC, the Government Law College in Bombay. But somehow it didn't sort of resonate with me that this was going to be where I would be graduating from law school from and I went to ILS, the Indian Law Society's, law college in Pune. The minute I walked into the campus, I really felt a sense of belonging, 

I felt like this is the place where I'd probably be able to warm my passions. I met our principal, Mrs. Vaijayanti Joshi at the time, and I was really struck by her simplicity, and her dedication, and her passion at this institute. I was lucky, I was offered a tuition fee waiver, a scholarship and that made it possible for me to attend this university, attend this college. In most of the years in that journey, I wasn't always sure that I wanted to be a lawyer. I was studying, I was passionate about what I was doing. But I wasn't always sure that I wanted to be a lawyer. I only discovered my love and my passion for my career and what I do my profession much later in my career. So, I graduated from law school, I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to do a master's program but there was always something in me, I always thought that I'm not sure and I didn't know what my mark is. I used to do a lot of odd jobs in college. So, there used to be sales promotion, sales activities, and I'd always want to earn an extra buck or so, I was always trying to be selling greeting cards at petrol stations or being part of promotional activities for new launches of new products. I didn't know later on in my life, food and beverages would mean so much to me, but clearly, I had a desire to earn some pocket money and do a few things. 

After graduating from law school, again, I applied to a law firm that I thought was the ultimate. I admire Zia Moody a lot. I wanted to join AZB and I thought that it was the place for me. But again, I wasn't fortunate enough to make it to AZB. So, I started my career, and I started my journey in law firms, and I spent a lot of years learning the craft, learning the business, learning the profession. Then, at one point in time, I decided that I wanted to move in house, and I thought that the in-house journey would bring more value addition for me. Personally, I always have a commercial bent of mind. So, I always kept thinking, why is it that we give academic advice? Why is it that we speak in theories, we don't really talk about the practice or the practical aspects of some of these things and I felt that I was missing something. 

So, I moved from one law firm to the other, I failed in some of those ventures. I decided to start or be slightly entrepreneurial, and run a law firm by myself, in Mumbai, of course, it was a part of an established law firm, but I was wanting to start the Bombay office and be independent, we are not a business generator, and I realized that I was competing with people who have very firmly entrenched and very well established, and I didn't really know the business of law. I knew some parts of the law, but I really didn't understand the business of law. 

The journey taught me that I have to be agile and adapt and move and shift and change with the circumstances that come to me. I was young, ambitious, I was a woman, and it wasn't always easy for people to take you seriously and that was some of those experiences that I had. But I was fortunate enough to move in-house at the right time. 

Typically, when I would go for these law firm, or in-house role, interviews, the feedback would be oh, you're in a law firm, you don't have in-house experience. So, it was difficult, I had to find a way for somebody to take a chance on me, give me an opportunity. My in-house journey started when I moved to Welspun, I was part of the Welspun India team. I was looking after some of those areas where we had to deal with a lot of complex intellectual property issues and contractual issues. There were some interesting and difficult challenges, legal challenges as well.  We were able to successfully manage some of those, including, class action lawsuits that were being filed against the organization in the US and that was the first time and I got an opportunity to work on some of those really complex areas of the law. I learned a lot about the retail business, labeling. Those were really interesting areas for me to understand what is it that I really enjoy doing. Then, of course, I got an opportunity to move to Kraft Heinz. 

#On Listening to instincts and feelings

When I moved to Kraft Heinz, I think, within the first 20 days of me joining the organization, there was a change in the management, there was a change in the leadership and we were being sued for running an advertisement that was disparaging. We were going through the motions of this litigation, and we were appearing in the Delhi High Court and I had the sense that there was something wrong, there was something that didn't sit right with me. We had released our advertisement. Our advertisement was very famous. It said one cup of Complan is equal to two cups of Horlicks. The ad was stayed and it really felt like we were losing. I think at that point in time, one of the things that really struck me was that the change in litigation strategy, which included the change in the litigation team. I think we need to rethink and relook at our entire litigation strategy. It was a tough call, I was new in the organization, I really didn't have that much of a buy-in. But at this point in time, the ad had been stayed and it was important for us to really see what is the best we could do to get that ad up and going, a lot of money had been spent on developing that advertisement. We really believed in our product and we really believed in what we were saying. 

So, I think I took some tough calls. At that point in time, I changed our litigation strategy, I changed our team, that that was managing the status strategy. We were eventually successful to have that stay lifted. So, one of the lessons I really learned from that experience was that you have to go with your instinct, trust your instincts, your instinct is never wrong, and sometimes it will guide you in the direction that will give you the right compass or the right path forward. There is this very famous author, Daniel Pink, who said in a book, a whole new mind, that we live in a conceptual age where, we're not just using our left brain, but also our right brain. We need to combine our feeling, our gut and our instinct with our logic and analytics. So, the first thing, that I can share with you is that my instinct served me well in this particular situation. 

#On Managing Failures

Life is not perfect, we're going to have challenges, we are going to succeed in some, we're going to have areas of improvement, We're going to have failures. I believe in the philosophy of stoicism. And as a philosopher, we always tell each other, I wish you a year full of adversity so that you can learn and grow. For me, the biggest learnings came when I decided that I was going to start a law firm, It wasn't really easy for me, I gave it my best shot, I was able to run and sustain that business for a year. But at the end of the year, it was important for me to stop and say that look, this is a colossal failure, I haven't really been able to manage running this independently. It's probably time that I moved to a more established organization so that I can continue this journey when I have better resources. So that was a learning that I had from that failure. And that failure really taught me something. One of the things that I learned, was when you're in a difficult situation, don't give up, but take responsibility, take ownership, and surrender to the tide. And give it your best shot but also let things flow in its natural and due course. In a New Heart, it was said that surrendering to the problem is not giving up, but it's taking ownership and responsibility. So, that was a key learning that I had from that particular incident. 

#Thoughts on happiness and trend for the future 

When I found my space in the food and beverage industry, and when I was able to join Coca Cola, I recognized that finding my happiness was working for brands that I am passionate about, doing the things that I'm passionate about, and paving the way for others who will follow suit. So, I participated in the diversity and inclusion initiatives at our organization and we rolled out lean-in circle associates in the law department. The lean-in circle has been really well accepted and it's growing and we now have more women associates outside the law department who also joined us, so that really helped me find my happiness. I’ll just like to share in passing, I know you have been our co-panelists about what you think are other risks or trends. And this is something I'm really passionate about. And I agree with what Deepak said that data privacy and cybersecurity is going to be something that we're all going to be very, very interested in. But along with that, I'd like to say technology is a new trend, data analytics, this is a data-driven world, this is a paperless world. This is a world where the COVID pandemic has taught us that we need to work virtually. So, if I'd like to, if I'd had to place my bet on a trend that will become important, it’s data and technology. I hope that covered everything.

Note: The automatic transcription has been lightly edited for a better reading experience. Some names and parts of the transcription may carry inadvertent errors that we are in the process of editing. Thank you for your understanding.

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