This episode of the Strong Women. Better World podcast travels to India, as Belli Chandra (Founder & CEO, B7 Sport Management) and Aparna Popat (former Executive Director, Olympian’s Association of India) spar on court about their passions, challenges, and miracle-making abilities in women’s sports, development, and management.
(00:05) Carole: Welcome to the Strong Woman, Better World podcast series, a global storytelling project, created by strong women using the power of sport, education, and social innovation to create a better world. Each week, we travel to another corner of the earth and we exchange ideas while exploring Title IX’sT ripple effects around the globe. Hello, hello. I am your host and ref Carole Ponchon from Lyon, France. And it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the metaphorical ring as two fearless women spar about their trailblazing journeys in sport. Buckle up and get ready to rumble. In today's episode, we travel to India to hear from two strong women who have successfully balanced their careers as high-level athletes with a shared passion for entrepreneurship. In the right corner is Pavithra Chandra. Belli, as we call her, was a member of India's women’s national basketball team from 19971997 to 2001. Building on her experience in upper management roles with the Paralympic Committee of India and the Olympic Gold Quest Foundation, Belli launched B7 Sport Management in 2008, where she is now the CEO. Driven by a passion to be the change needed in our societies, she knows how to bounce back when facing resistance. Welcome, Belli.
(01:33) Belli: Hello, and namaste to everyone. I’m Belli and I'm definitely very happy to be here.
(01:39) Carole: Namaste, Belli. Thanks a lot. And we are joined in the left corner by another powerful high achiever, Aparna Popat. Known as Apu, this former professional badminton player added numerous titles to her tally while simultaneously spinning a career off court. Her long list of achievements includes competing in two Olympics and winning four medals at the Commonwealth games. Today she contributes to Indian sport and society in various capacities through coaching, mentoring, television commentary, writing columns, sitting on government committees, and until recently executive director of the Olympian Association of India. As you have guessed by now, she knows what it takes to smash all obstacles that life may throw at her. Welcome, Apu.
(02:36) Aparna: Thank you so much, Carole. I’m really happy and thrilled to be part of today's podcast. So bring it on.
(02:44) Belli: Well, I'm grateful to spend this short time with you, Apu and learn from your experiences, but before jumping straight into the deep end, I, I want people to know and to understand a bit more about you. I'm going to start with two fun questions. The first one that comes to my mind is what's your favorite book, Apu?
(03:03) Aparna: My favorite book, I think it's this small, sweet little book called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. And it's really about a reflective little Winnie the Pooh bear who explains the deep Tao philosophy. And that's something that, you know, that I really believe in. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and it's probably going to stay with me forever.
(03:25) Belli: Fantastic. Let me get you on another one. Let's see if we can, if you can smash this out. Would you rather reverse one decision you make every day or be able to stop time for one hour every day?
(03:38) Aparna: Well, I would, I think pick reversing one decision just gives me that much leeway to go out and make as many mistakes as I want and then make them good in the end. So that's the one I’d pick.
(03:49) Belli: Thanks for sharing this, and this is certainly warming our audiences up to a few insights of who you are off the court. Let me now get a bit into the core of this episode. So Apu, you've been the face of Indian badminton at a time when social media wasn’t there. And you were pretty much the name and face of Indian badminton and every Indian household in your stellar career of 17 years. And I think everybody called you the undisputed queen of badminton. Do you think this came at some costs?
(04:19) Aparna: When you think back, of course there were challenges, aplenty, and no question about that from staying away from family, injuries, there were issues with finances, there were failures. And mind you, I think we know in sport that when you fail, you mostly fail in front of a public audience. So that's not easy, but it did happen. So of course it did come at a cost, but I would say an insignificant one and I see that basically because the benefits were so much greater, and also, you know, over the years you've seen stories of athletes or the human beings whose stories are much braver than yours. So in that sense, you know, I find it really hard when somebody asks me that, “Have you made sacrifices through your career?” And it's really difficult for me to answer because I've never seen it in that light. I think it's more about choices and I made those choices happily just to pursue my passion for badminton.
(05:15) Belli: You know, that's, that's very interesting to note because whenever you talk to somebody who's succeeded in any field, they often have something to say about, you know, what they had to sacrifice and so on and so forth. Tell me Apu, how did you deal with that pressure playing at such a world-class level and representing a country of 1.3 billion people??
(05:38) Aparna: I think all of us face pressures and in our lives at some point or the other, but for me, of course, it was more to do with sport and it was honestly a three point strategy, right? First was awareness; the fact that you know, that you're, you're under pressure and you're feeling it, um, accept it that you are going to be under pressure because no matter whether it's the first match of your career or the last you're going to feel the pressure, there's no doubt about that. And then the third thing is to really know what to do with it. And for me, when I was in high pressure situations, it was listening to music, art, doodling. These were the things that sort of you know distracted me from the pressure, but if it was handling the pressure, I think it was more to do with smart preparation. I'm a firm believer, if you prepare well, you will be able to handle the pressure better. So just smart preparation is something that I really looked at.
(06:33) Belli: That's fantastic because I recall you telling me your experience during the Commonwealth Games, when you were under tremendous pressure, not knowing how many times you had to warm up for your competition, you were getting very stressed out and you just decided to put everything aside and pull out a paper and pen and start doodling and just calm your mind and then just got up and went and won the medal for the country. (Laughs) Something I believe is that being successful, has it sets of challenge, but it's not that difficult. But staying successful and consistently being there is a big challenge and in your case, you've nearly for two decades sustained yourself at the helm of Indian badminton. That takes a lot. So I'm curious to know that if you do have any advice for the upcoming players or the current players and how they can reach the top and most importantly remain there.
(07:29) Aparna: Yeah, I think, you know, first of all, I'm very grateful that I had a successful and a long career. And I think now when you look back, you realize that it was all to do with consistency and consistency not only when you play tournaments, but also the way you practice and consistently, and really staying hungry to learn. I think each and every day, you know, you had to learn something new. Adapting and evolving because situations around you and especially sports is unscripted. So situations change very rapidly and you've got to change with it and find solutions. It's all about problem solving. So that was another one. And the third of course is mental balance because it's hard. I think it's really, really hard to keep your emotions in check to keep your mind in check, especially when you're, when the win and lose sort of ratio is just ebb and flowing and it's difficult, but it's something that you've got to learn to do over a period of time, if you want to be consistent and play for the number of years that I did. And I'm glad I could do that, you know, and it also might sound strange, you know, I'm not a competitive person by nature. So it was really about being better today than I was yesterday. And I think that attitude sort of saw me through.
(08:43) Belli: I completely agree with you that, uh, you know, learn it should be a continuous process. And it's interesting to know that, you know, you were not competitive, but yet you were successful and consistent in what you did. That's fantastic, Apu. Alright, so I'm going to jump into our last question for you. So can you just share with us what your transition process was from being an athlete to getting into sports administration?
(09:12) Aparna: Honestly, it was quite smooth actually for me, because, you know, I retired unbeaten number one in the country. And, you know, I had a good education, I had a job at Indian Oil Corporation, which was then India's number one oil company of the Global Fortune 500 list. I began, you know, working full-time, obviously, I realized I was skilled, I had to pick up and learn, I had to unlearn and, you know, playing sport was so much easier. It was at that point, I also decided to pursue my masters in business administration. And it was a combination of sport and education that really opened up a lot of opportunities for me going forward.
(09:51) Belli: That's fantastic. Can you throw a little more light on what were the skills that you felt were exclusive that really helped you make this transition or that you carried along with you when you came into this off-court life?
(10:05) Aparna: I think that would be confidence, that would be resilience. And, uh, I think the ability and the willingness to work hard and learn quickly. I think these are probably what I carried with me.
(10:15) Belli: Okay. So quickly, I've got one more final question. Could you tell me, who do you consider as the biggest sports inspiration for you and why?
(10:25) Aparna: Okay. So I had two, actually. The first being, uh, Steffi Graf. I love tennis. I loved Wimbledon. And I started playing in 1986 and ‘87 was when she won her first grand slam and then won the golden slam in ‘88. So I remember that very vividly and just her, no nonsense attitude, stoic, determined, confident, and consistent. So Steffi Graf. And of course then Nadia Comăneci. I remember watching her movie on her when I was very young. And just the fact that she could dream and then she could achieve it. And you know, at such a young age. So these two; big inspirations.
(11:02) Belli: That’s wonderful. Of course these young ladies did such a lot for sports. It's good to know that they inspired you. And you should always know that you are such an inspiration to so many girls, not just Indian girls, but so many around the world, Apu. You have really sparked up that passion for many young girls to get into sports and particularly badminton.
(11:25) Carole: And that's the end of round one. We are now moving to round two with Apu interviewing Belli.
(11:33) Aparna: Well, Belli, it's my turn now. And I can't wait to ask you some deeper questions and I also want the audience to discover a bit about your personality. Just to start off, I'll start with the easy one, right? I know you're a real foodie. So if there's only one food, just one mind you, that you had to pick that you could eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
(11:54) Belli: (Laughs) You certainly know me, Apu. Well, the one food that I would eat for the rest of my life would definitely be chicken. (Laughs)
(12:05) Aparna: That's good to hear. And the second one, what influential woman in history would you like to spend a day with?
(12:13) Belli: I would definitely love to spend a day with Mrs. Indira Ghandi, the first woman prime minister for the largest democracy in the world, India. So she definitely was a, game-changer, a trailblazer. Contradicting to all the other stories or opinions that politics may bring along, if you look at many developed countries, they yet to uh, have their first woman president or prime minister, uh, and we were able to crack that way long back. Uh, so in that sense, I really admire and appreciate her. And if I could spend a day, she's quite a sharp lady, I would love to spend a day with her and pick on her brains. Yeah. So I would say Indira Ghandi.
(12:55) Aparna: Absolutely., I think politics aside, just her personality was something that really attracted people from all over the world, if I may say that, and that's really interesting for you to pick somebody from India and that's brilliant. So, moving on, there's something that we share beyond our nationality and our passion for sport, which is a fact that we both grew up in very supportive families where sports was encouraged. Do you believe that you would be where you are today without the support from your family?
(13:28) Belli: Without a doubt, no. I, and I know the same goes for you, that we wouldn't have been where we are or done what we have done so far without the support of our family and parents. And certainly I'm very grateful and thankful for my parents. I have an older brother who’s a commercial pilot and 25 years back, we both chose very unconventional professions of him going into flying and I had to choose sports, which is a bit unheard in India because any Indian, the only two professions they had was either be a doctor or an engineer. So to talk about something out of these bounds was not very welcomed. So in such a scenario, when your parents allowed you to be and bloom into your own passion, it was a, it was certainly a great booster for us to, you know, go see what we liked. Answering to that question is certainly yes, it's a great support that helped us to be here.Aparna (14:21): No doubt.
(14:22) Aparna: Yeah, absolutely. I think it really does take a family to raise a sporting child. And our story is a bit of an exception when it comes to Indians because the cultural pressure to prioritize academics over everything else, be it teenagers, male, female, where they actually will end up dropping out of sports because of the lack of support. So how do we change this existing pattern in India?
(14:48) Belli: The Indian parents and most of the Asian parents, if I may say so, are very, very academic driven and they have a reason because they believe that academic background leads you to a successful life. And it's the wish of every parent to see their child successful and bloom into their better self. But in the run to this, parents sometimes forget, and I don't necessarily say parents of India or Asia, it applies to parents everywhere and all the listeners right now. If you are a parent, you would know that at some point we get emotionally involved with the children and we start making decisions for them. And somewhere unknowingly, it becomes a very controlling pattern. And in India, kids have kids and then still their parents take the call for them, so we know how it goes. But what most of the parents need to understand is that when a child comes out of you, you are just a medium and the process of bringing another life into this world, your job as a parent is to nurture, to identify what is that unique quality that this child has come into this earth with and nurture that talent rather than trying to live your dreams through them. That's what happens when parents try to force the kids to do things that they believe is right. We need to educate our parents about the priority of having some kind of a physical activity for a child, because playing is very natural. It's a fun aspect, and it is so important for their emotional wellbeing and their mental strength. I certainly hope that we will be, as a country, being able to proceed to make sure that we are able to give the children the opportunity to live their dreams.
(16:32) Aparna: Well, absolutely. I think there is a shift happening in India for sure. And, and there are a lot more parents willing to put their children into sport. Yeah, and speaking of sport, you know, Belli, really, it boils down to having good academies, good centers for children to come and play. And, you know, we've had multiple conversations about your company, uh, 7 B7 Sports, where the emphasis has been on health and empowerment of kids and women, because they're really so neglected in our society. As an entrepreneur and an advocate, what has been your experience so far with regards to public perceptions and government authorities towards your work as a female entrepreneur? And what is the number one challenge you've had to overcome?
(17:17) Belli: Well, yes, it's been a challenging journey without a doubt, because any new idea, any change is always met with resistance, and there's no doubt about that. But when I decided to get into being a sports entrepreneur and be the change that I wish to see there, there was a divided opinion. There were people that were very welcoming, they were very supportive because this was something new and they liked the idea that there are women coming up, particularly in India and Bangalore, if I can say for myself. But we also had a segment of people that were not very happy because of the unfamiliarity of seeing a woman in, you know, a little more powerful positions or decision-making positions, it was not very welcomed. And as you rightly said, even when we put up our Academy, there were sets of challenges that we had to face, which went into very aggressive threats, threats for life ,involvement of police and even the government authorities is where I felt, let us down a bit. But to anyone who's listening right now, and if they are having any such similar issues within your life or in your journey to being the change, you must remember that this is going to happen. People are going to stop you, or there's going to be a set of challenges. Doesn't mean that they're wrong or they're your haters. It just means that they think differently, unfortunately, it doesn't align with your thought process. So if you change your mindset to that, and you become a little more resilient and focused, that's what we did. We were very focused and we said, we wanted a basketball court in the neighborhood. We needed to get women out, we needed to have a safe place for children to play and we needed to make it happen. The challenge was to convince the authorities, but we overcame that.
(19:05) Aparna: Great to hear. And you've always been a great inspiration. Your story really needs to be told much more. You know, you've just highlighted a few of the challenges and I know there've been many, many more of them, and you've been extremely brave. Just through your experience, Belli, the last question is building on this idea of paving the way for others through your experience, and what do you think are the future growth areas for female entrepreneurs in and around the sports industry in India?
(19:32) Belli: Apu, just not for female entrepreneurs, any entrepreneur and not limited to India again, to anyone anywhere in the world, I would say the sky is the limit. The opportunities are great. I mean, if you're someone who's more inclined towards management, then sports management is a field that you should pick up if you think events is your forte, then there's an opportunity through sports events, uh, you know, a hosting of events like the leagues or the Olympics. But if you are somebody who comes with a mindset of policymaking and governments, then you should focus yourself into sports governance. That's another field which has great potential and very untapped, the sport science, where there's a lot of R and D work, which is happening for technology innovations, sports medicine, or injury management or physiotherapy. You know, these are forums, which I've not really seen many women coming to, uh, not just in India, but everywhere around the globe. So there's a great scope for that. So it's not limited to just being a player or a coach, the spectrum is wide. If you're listening then pick one of these, we need more women in all of these fields.
(20:40) Carole: That's the end of round two. We are now moving to round three with ladies discussing about empowerment.
(20:48) Aparna: Okay. I'm afraid we're running out of time, but let's do a lightning round before our buzzer sounds. So what's your definition of empowerment?
(20:57) Belli: Well, Apu, for women empowerment my definition would be, I believe that a woman should be smart enough not to live under a man's shadow. But also she could, she could be sensitive enough to be able to rest under it, and they should know that it's man and woman versus the issue or the problem. And it's not man versus woman. What's yours, Apu??
(21:21) Aparna: I think for me, empowerment is really just having the freedom and the strength to make your own choices, to make your own mistakes and miracles and make a better world through sharing and giving.
(21:35) Carole: Ref speaking here. I could not help, but end this friendly fight, with a sincere thank you to our audience. And guess what? The winner of today's episode is: communities around the globe who are benefiting from greater equality and inclusivity. Thank you ladies for your priceless time and energy. You're the stars here and today. So I leave you with the final words.
(22:00) Aparna: Well Belli, it was wonderful to share this episode with you and thank you for stepping into the ring and thanks to our audience for tuning in to this week's episode. We hope you learned something new about women's sports, development, and management in India, and that you leave feeling inspired to make a difference in your own community. Social change is a team sport, and we're counting on you to join us as we celebrate the global impact of Title IX. And here's some easy ways for you to get in on the action.
(22:30) Belli: Click the “like” button, subscribe to our channel and share this podcast with your family, friends, and colleagues. And don't forget to leave your questions and comments on our social media. And remember, you can listen to more episodes of the Strong Women, Better World podcast series on your favorite podcast platform.