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Lessons from one of the world’s most successful businesswomen on running a global company

Anu Aga, former company chair of Thermax Global and one of the wealthiest businesswomen in the world, joined Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, for a discussion about running a family business as a woman, a mother, and a widow. Screenshots by Northeastern University

Anu Aga had no background in business or engineering. But when her husband, Rohinton Aga, died unexpectedly in 1996, she found herself at the helm of one of India’s largest engineering companies, Thermax Global

In her eight years as company chair, Aga transformed the energy and environmental engineering business, which manufactures equipment to produce and conserve energy such as boilers, generators, and turbines.  

During her tenure, Thermax Global was labeled one of Asia’s best small businesses, and she became one of the world’s wealthiest businesswomen.   

But that wealth, Aga said, does not define her success.

“To quote my husband: ‘Profit is not a set of figures, but a set of values,’” said Aga in a Facebook Live interview on Tuesday with Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. 

Aga, who is currently in Pune, India, discussed her path to success, beginning with her initial anxieties.

During a meditative retreat following her husband’s death, Aga realized: “I can’t be my husband. It would be like going to an apple tree and asking for oranges. You will never get oranges, and you won’t even enjoy the apples,” she said. “I knew I needed to use my own strengths.” 

“You are a remarkable human being,” said Aoun. “You accepted that the start was difficult, but you were very successful. What was the secret for your success?” 

One of the keys to her success, she said, was her willingness to ask for help. “I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I don’t know,’” she said. 

A year after she took over the company, India’s economy took a turn for the worse. She knew she needed to seek expert financial advice, despite reluctance from the company’s board members to seek outside help and pay for the services. 

“But I was determined,” she said. Eventually, she hired Boston Consulting Group and made drastic changes to the company. 

Making the business run more efficiently wasn’t easy, though. “It meant asking a lot of people to leave,” she said. “If I was asked to cut off my hand, I would say, ‘Of course not,’ but if that hand gets gangrene, it must go.”

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, greeted the incoming class of Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders program, which comprises more than 100 recent graduates who advise university leadership and help to strengthen Northeastern’s network of international alumni. Screenshots by Northeastern University

When asked if she had any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and future leaders, Aga said: “Success means having peace with myself, and whatever I do, I do with passion. I don’t believe, as my husband did, that success at work is at the cost of your health or spending time with the family.”

Today, her daughter is chair of the company, where she continues the family’s business philosophy: “Business cannot survive without growth and profit, but if that is the sole purpose of business, it deserves to die,” said Aga. 

Like her mother, Aga’s daughter was hesitant to accept the position at first. But once Aga publicly announced she was stepping down, her daughter changed her mind and became the next chair of the company her grandfather founded in 1966. 

Aga’s story about loyalty and legacy paired well with Aoun’s words of encouragement earlier Tuesday for the incoming class of Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders program, which comprises more than 100 recent graduates who advise university leadership and help to strengthen Northeastern’s network of international alumni.

 “You’re the future leaders of this university, and the future leaders of the world,” Aoun said in a Zoom meeting with new members.

The incoming class of leaders consists of entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers of various ages from 13 countries spanning four continents. 

Their main goal is to expand Northeastern’s global network through philanthropic endeavours and student outreach, and, much like Aga’s daughter, they, too, will one day rise to the occasion when leadership positions become available. 

“25 years from now, my tenure as president will be over,” Aoun said. “But the YGL will outlast me by a long time. You will be the leaders of this university.” 

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