Nobody says no to a party hosted by Nita Ambani. They are glittering affairs, where the A-list—top-flight CEOs, Bollywood heartthrobs, sports stars, familiar TV anchors, politicians, the list is endless—congregate. But what makes her special is her willingness to pull in the same sort of crowd on someone else’s behalf.
In July 2016, at a debutante’s book launch, the guests, thanks to Nita’s generosity, were no different. They included Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, Godrej Group chairman Adi Godrej, HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh, Piramal Group chairman Ajay Piramal, then ICICI Bank MD & CEO Chanda Kochhar, Tata Trusts trustee R.K. Krishna Kumar, AZB & Partners cofounder Zia Mody, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, and dozens of other leading entrepreneurs, bankers, and CEOs. Also present was Nita’s husband and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) chairman Mukesh Ambani.
“Nita’s organisational skills are honed to virtual perfection. She can put together a large-scale event overnight.... [and] with a personal touch,” says Zia Mody of AZB & Partners, a close business associate of the Ambani family. HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh, who has known the Ambani family for decades, says Nita’s obsession for detail and excellence is something that is evident in everything she touches. “Philanthropy, education, art, healthcare, sports, and cultural activities are some of the ones that most know about.”
Nita is a woman of many parts. She is founder and chairperson of the Reliance Foundation and the Dhirubhai Ambani International School, co-owner of Mumbai Indians, a trustee of New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and holds non-executive directorships at RIL and EIH Ltd. This year, she also addressed RIL’s 43rd annual general meeting for the first time.
The Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai, which she set up in 2003, was Nita’s first big move. Regarded as a premier school in the country, it is among the few to be jointly accredited by the Council of International Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Ajay Piramal, chairman of the Piramal Group, who too has known Nita for a while, and whose son Anand is married to her daughter Isha, says Nita’s drive for excellence is best evidenced in the school: “Most take several decades, if not centuries, to establish themselves as elite institutions but the Dhirubhai Ambani school did it in just about 10 or 12 years, and its quality is recognised not just in India, but abroad as well.”
Wearing multiple hats is never easy, but then Nita isn’t about embracing what comes easy to her. She is willing to tough it out, and give a difficult situation a second shot. And she wants to pass on that confidence to the students of the Dhirubhai Ambani International School. “It doesn’t matter if you’re average academically; the school encourages you to find what you are good at and then chase that,” says Urvashi Datwani, a Mumbai-based executive whose son attends the school. “At her school’s yearly event, every child participates in the annual day and the whole school is on the stage at the end of it. Complete inclusion.”
Nita is relentless about setting global standards in every project she runs. Says former investment banker and businesswoman Radhika Haribhakti, who is also a family friend, “What is remarkable about her is that any project she takes up has the vision to be world class and to set new benchmarks. To make that happen, she does all the necessary homework and gives it her all.” Beyond the school, Haribhakti points to the way Nita has reimagined the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre. “What was an old hospital is now completely transformed.”
“She gives generously to so many what is life’s most precious currency: her time,” explains Mody, whose firm looked at the legal aspects of RIL’s $20-billion fund-raise into Jio Platforms.
Though Nita is married to the world’s sixth-richest person, she has her own entrepreneurial targets and social impact goals. Indeed, the school would be a precursor of things to come. In 2010, she set up the Reliance Foundation to channelise RIL’s philanthropic initiatives across health, education, sports, arts and culture, and according to its website, its initiatives have impacted more than 38 million people across the country.
Parekh believes that “her sensitivity to calamity, hunger, pain, and misfortune has touched hundreds of lives all in the hope that there will be better times,” adding, “Kudos to her outreach across all the states of our nation.
With all of the social work, business hasn’t taken a back seat. In 2011, Nita joined the board of EIH Ltd, which runs the Oberoi hotels, and in which RIL has a minority stake. And she joined the RIL board in 2014.
In India, where corporate power circles are dominated by men, Nita stands out in her own right. That makes her an inspiration for millions not just in India but around the world. Perhaps, the only husbandwife partnership that’s similar is the one between Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda.
Far from the gilded world, Nita is willing to tough it out in areas which are completely new. For example, what started as a passion project for her billionaire cricket-loving husband soon transformed into a fulltime job for her. In 2008, Mukesh Ambani purchased the Mumbai Indians, an Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket team franchise, for over $100 million, and handed it over to professionals. The poor performance of the team in IPL matches for the next couple of years was a dampener for the Ambanis. On cue, Nita took over and things transformed.
Says Mody: “She has the god-given ability to multitask and manage to perfection, with an uncanny understanding of both the macro and micro.”
With team Mumbai Indians she firmly set her sights on the endgame. Her weapon: focus and grit. She was closely involved not just in the business side of the Mumbai Indians, but also in providing moral support to the players on the field. In 2010, Mumbai Indians reached the IPL finals for the first time. Since then, the Nita Ambani-led franchise has won the tournament four times, and has a brand value of a little more than `800 crore, according to a 2019 report by consulting firm Duff & Phelps.
Her influence on the Mumbai Indians is evident in a public video. In 2019, Nita was seen giving her players a pep talk after they lost to the Kolkata Knight Riders. “I’ve seen Mumbai Indians doing the impossible over the years. We have been part of a team that has lost five matches and then won the championship. And I believe in each one of you,” she says in the video.
This commitment to sports goes beyond local borders, and has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee. In 2016, she was elected as an individual member to the sports body, becoming the first Indian woman to join it. Other members include Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan, Prince Albert II of Monaco, and champion pole-vaulter Sergey Bubka.
Nita's early years were all about family. A commerce graduate from the University of Mumbai, Nita is also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. In fact, she caught the attention of her future in-laws during a local city hall performance and the rest, as they say, is history.
But not before an encounter with her future father-in-law Dhirubhai Ambani, the RIL patriarch and business legend. Before she got married, the RIL founder called her home to find out if he could meet her with a view to finding a match for his elder son. She banged the phone down on him twice, thinking it was a prank call; she told him that if he was the famed industrialist, then she was Elizabeth Taylor. The third time the senior Ambani called, her father picked it up. Realising that it was indeed the RIL founder calling, her father got her to speak with him.
The prospective groom and bride met, got married in 1985, and in due course Nita settled into the Ambani home. That’s when her training started. While she has no formal degree in management, her learning was at a different kind of school. Her father-in-law became a guiding force, giving her a ringside view to being an entrepreneur, and all the successes and failures of running businesses. The tutelage centred around current affairs, world politics, the stock market, and RIL, and led her to study up and prepare every day. “Those were growing up years,” Nita would later say in television interviews. She credits her understanding of business, her attention to detail, and building a company with a sharp focus to the times spent with her father-in-law.
Nita Ambani may have been facetious about being Elizabeth Taylor when her father-in-law first called. But today, she is well on course to building a legacy that goes beyond business, not just for Reliance but also for India.
(This story appeared in Fortune India's November 2020 issue)