Pinky Lilani: Leadership and cookery are both about passion

Founder of Asian Women of Achievement Awards and Women of the Future Awards, Pinky Lilani is well known for her work on recognising and celebrating women achievers. An entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker and Indian cookery expert, she was honoured with an OBE in 2007 and CBE in 2015 and named as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK in BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List in 2013. She speaks to Shreshtha Trivedi for Indian Ladies UK on championing women, power of kindness and collaboration, and why cooking and leadership are two sides of the same coin.

Q) You clearly seem to enjoy wearing many hats – being a leadership coach, women’s advocate, culinary doyenne and businesswoman. How did your professional journey begin?

Pinky Lilani: I actually never thought I’ll work. I grew up in Calcutta and moved to England after marriage. I had two children fairly quickly and had no real aspirations to work. I thought I’ll be like my mother – throw nice parties, entertain guests and have a houseful of servants. Of course, there were no servants in England and I didn’t know how to cook. In some ways I was a yummy mummy: going to school with my children, being on school committees and making lots of friends. It was only when my older son was around nine that I’d started learning cooking. I’d make trips to India every year and learn new recipes. Soon someone asked me if I would give Indian cookery lessons at an adult education centre. I took it up and would go there once a week with all my masalas.

It was while teaching my students that I managed to articulate the techniques of Indian cooking. had also started getting consulting offers from food suppliers such as Sharwoods. So I decided to take the next step and write my first book Spice Magic.

Q2) What gave you the idea of starting these awards?

Pinky: I’ve had so many privileges in my life, and I thought it’ll be great to share them. From here came the idea of starting Asian Women of Achievement Awards. I wanted to create a platform for Asian women to come together and be part of a larger movement. Asian women work incredibly hard but they were quite few stereotypes about them in mainstream public consciousness at that time. We wanted to celebrate their achievements and build a support network.

We were very fortunate Cherie Blaire agreed to come and support us, and the awards grew from there. We now have sportspersons, scientists, dancers and many other achievers represented from all walks of life.

Then 12 years ago I started Women of the Future awards. I wanted to be more inclusive and shine a light on young women. There were lots of awards for older people who are at the top of their profession but not many to encourage and recognise young women.

Q3) Which led to leadership coaching and motivational speaking…

Pinky: Yes. I started conducting leadership courses – it actually became leadership and cookery together. Companies such as JP Morgan, Aviva, IBM were sending teams [comprising 10 people] to my house for a session on leadership and cooking. The idea was to make sure that employees get to know each other outside of their corporate environment.

We would cook, talk about personal and professional goals, things they are proud of and areas of improvements among other topics.

I don’t see myself as being creative but I have a passion for storytelling. I love people and have an ability to bring people together. And this led to leadership coaching and motivational speaking. Now I speak at schools, universities, companies, charities and corporate events around the world. The key is to be authentic. I speak from the heart and about subjects I’m comfortable with. You have to be yourself…you can only put on an act for so long otherwise there will be leakages.

Q4) Leadership and cookery are very different, though.

Pinky: Actually, they are fabulously synergised. Leadership is about passion and cookery is also about passion. According to Ayurveda, if you cook with bad energy the food won’t taste good. If you don’t put the right ingredients, if they are not at the right temperature or if they are not fresh, the dish won’t be good. Similarly with leadership, if you don’t have passion for people, don’t understand them and don’t nurture them, you won’t be a good leader.

Q5) What, according to you, are the most important traits of a good leader?

Pinky: Passion, kindness and authenticity. My mantra in life is that you have not lived a perfect day unless you have done something for someone who cannot repay you. This is kindness, which according to me, is the most important value. Often, it is dismissed as soft skill in business. However, being nice to people is the most effective way of building relationships and expanding your business.

And of course, not being afraid of failure – tenacity is a must.

Q6) Any message you would like to give to our women readers

Pinky: Don’t be intimidated by the big guns. Big organisations have huge power and resources but even little people like you and me can join forces. We all have something to bring to the table. Collaborations help everyone. I have been able to achieve all this through collaboration and taking people along.

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