Annapurna graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, in 1971, with a mechanical engineering degree. She went on to get master’s degrees in Food and Agricultural Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Engineering Management at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. She headed the power tiller manufacturing unit in the family business founded by her father. The unit and its technical innovations thrived under her leadership. Her belief in Gandhian principles of truth and ethics have helped her navigate the difficult waters of commerce in India. Along with a successful career, Anna continues to have a rich family life.
Annapurna (Anna) was born on May 6, 1949, in Chennai, in a family of four daughters. Her father V.G.S.V. Prasad was a businessman. Among his many ventures, The National Engineering Company Madras Private Limited (NECM) is still a thriving one. It is a trading and manufacturing farm equipment and accessories enterprise. He was from an agricultural community and wanted to give back to the community and especially to the small farmers. Her mother, Kamala Devi was a director in NECM and homemaker.
Anna studied in Sacred Heart Presentation Convent, Church Park, one of the best matriculation schools in Chennai, and passed her final exams in 1965. She completed the Pre-University Course (PUC) at Stella Maris College in 1966.
Anna enjoyed dance, music and other extracurricular activities during her school years. Her family was instrumental in her decision to pursue a technical degree. Anna applied to CEG and was admitted in 1966.
Anna was one of eight girls in her class. While most of the girls opted for electronics and communication engineering, Anna chose mechanical engineering with a view to taking an active part in her family’s business. Hence, after the first two years, she was the only girl in her classes.
Second Generation Entrepreneur
Soon after graduating, Anna started working in The National Engineering Company Madras Private Limited, the family firm.
In the 1970s, the small-scale firm traded and manufactured agricultural implements. At the time Anna joined the firm, the manufacturing strategy needed to be energized. The firm decided to manufacture power tillers using technology developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines. These tillers were aimed at small farmers and could be provided at low cost.
Anna obtained a master’s in Food and Agricultural Engineering from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and acquired knowledge on farm equipment. After her marriage, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she studied for her master’s degree in Engineering Management.
Returning to India, she continued her role in NECM. She traveled to Manila, Philippines, to enhance her knowledge and get special training in manufacturing power tillers at IRRI.
Anna’s experience in selling the power tiller was one of perseverance and ingenuity. Her first demonstration was to Dr. Shivasubramaniam, who was the head of the Paddy Breeding Station at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore. In the paddy field, the tiller sank. Anna asked for time to refine her offering and came back with a redesigned tiller with a cage wheel that could float. This led to a successful product.
The Chinese Power Tiller that Anna introduced to the Indian market was very popular. It was low in price, user-friendly, had a long lifespan, and came with a substantial training and servicing network around it. The tiller was versatile and had a number of accessories that could be used for ploughing, pumping, spraying, thrashing, harvesting, and reaping. With an alternator attachment, it could also be used as a generator. Manufacturing the tillers is quite a complex operation. In the 1998 Eve’s Touch (an Indian publication) interview, Anna explained it in these simple terms:
“Manufacturing and marketing of agricultural machinery are very complex. Due to soil differences, standardized equipment cannot be used. Two hundred and fifty-two components, apart from the engine, go to make this tiller, and stringent quality assurance programme with testing in actual field conditions is part of the deal. Sourcing materials, stocking and inventory control, working capital planning and management, design and drawing, accounting and costing, personnel and service are the various segments which I have to oversee, even if it is a Small-Scale Industry.”
NECM has the distinction of being the first Small Scale Industry (SSI) unit in the Ambattur Industrial Estate, Chennai, to have been recognized as a Research and Development organization by The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Government of India. It was also the first SSI unit to get their machinery quality-tested by a third party, The Central Farm Machinery Training and Testing Institute, Budni, before such testing became mandatory. NECM prides itself on service and responds to field problems within twenty-four hours in order to minimize losses for the small farmers and also large industries.
Every year, engineering students from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University visited NECM to learn practical aspects of farming. NECM also had a summer training program for two months that benefitted students from the agricultural engineering department of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
NECM, which is mainly a trading company, has traded in all kinds of products ranging from sugar, cement, motors, pump-sets, tractors, tillers, bulldozers, and alternators. It imported heavy equipment from Eastern Europe for the Indian market and serviced them. It established brands in its product lines before branding was common in India. The manufacturing of agricultural equipment was the offshoot of the importing, marketing, and servicing, of the agricultural machinery such as tractors and bulldozers.
Anna headed the power tiller manufacturing unit of NECM from 1974 until 2012. The introduction of government subsidies in the power tiller business resulted in rampant corruption, and NECM – whose business principles followed strict ethical policies – decided to exit the power tiller.
Anna was a standing committee member of the Tamil Nadu state planning commission of agriculture.
She was also active in many industry organizations. She was a member of the Power Tiller Manufacturers’ Associations (PTMA); a committee member in Andhra Chamber of Commerce; Tamil Nadu state board committee member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII); Chairperson, Small Scale Industry (SSI) Panel; and Chairperson, Panel on corporate social responsibility. In 1998, Anna became the first woman to head the All India Manufacturer’s Organization (AYMO).
Anna’s niece Deepika, who is an entrepreneur, has this to say about her aunt:
“When I was a child, during school holidays my aunt took me to visit her tiller factory now and then. These visits influenced me as I grew up thinking it was only natural for women to run their own businesses. My grandparents were extremely encouraging and supportive of the endeavors of their children. As a second generation entrepreneur running a tiller business in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, my aunt had to work really hard for the government procurement. My aunt was guided by the moral values of my grandfather and won her business by merit. Her gutsy and risk-taking style of doing business has inspired us, the next generation, to go out and do our own things.”
Anna’s training and interest in Carnatic Music, Bharatanatyam, and Kuchipudi propelled her to become the secretary of the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai.
After Anna’s mother passed away in 2008, Anna decided to take care of her father, and she and her husband moved in with him. When he became ill, she was his full-time caregiver from 2012 until 2016 when he passed away.
Anna’s CEG classmate Dwarak Ethiraj has this to say about Anna:
“In CEG, I discovered Anna’s family and mine were known to each other, and we have remained in touch all these years. Anna’s dedication to her father surpassed the devotion a son might have for his father. It is amazing that she fulfilled multiple roles of being a loving wife, a devoted daughter taking care of her father while his health was deteriorating, and taking care of the business along with her sister. She balanced all of these roles with so much ease and finesse. When I relocated to Chennai in 2006 to take care of my parents, she was very helpful as she was on a similar mission herself. Our fathers passed away within a few months of each other and I still admire how well she managed it all.”
Anna’s sister Sai Rani is the Administrative Director of NECM. She studied law and management. Her husband P.S. Kumar is a managing partner of Brahmayya & Co, a leading audit firm. Another sister Sheela is director of Karthikeya Spinning and Weaving Mills and is an active member of several school committees. Her husband, G.R. Karthikeyan is Chairman, Planning, and Growth, as well as Founder Trustee of PSG Institutions, Coimbatore, among other leading roles in the industry. Their daughter Deepika is an entrepreneur and is the founder and CEO of a BPO company called RND Softech Private Limited that services three continents and currently has seven hundred employees. Their son Narain, who has the distinction of being the first Formula One Racer from India and the fastest Indian, is currently racing Super Formula in Japan. Another of their son, Rajiv, is managing director of Leap Green Energy, a leader in renewable energy.
Anna’s younger sister Asha is also a CEG alumna and went on to study business in the USA. After working at NECM for a few years, she shifted her attention to philanthropy and women’s groups. Asha is married to Dr. S.B.P.P. Rammohan, an industrialist. Their daughter Nithya studies architecture and runs her own design studio in Sri Lanka.
Anna married Dr. Vijay Shankar, a cardiothoracic surgeon. A practicing surgeon at the Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, he is passionate about providing surgical care for the poor. Anna says his passion parallels that of her father who wanted to provide affordable power tiller to the farmers.
Agricultural Engineering Entrepreneur
Anna carried on the wishes of her father to provide affordable agricultural machinery to farmers by her leadership at the company he founded. The business flourished under her technical leadership, as well as the family’s support of one another in the venture. Anna is very proud of her niece Deepika’s entrepreneurship and cherishes their collective sentiment of women’s financial independence while still maintaining family bonds, and core values, and beliefs. She also believes that the most powerful women in the world have a strong financial management background. She recommends that engineering women go on to get a master’s in business administration specializing in finance and marketing and become successful entrepreneurs. Her call to action to all women who want to pursue technical education is to dream big, dream to become an entrepreneur, stand tall and be independent, and make their families and country proud.
Anna was kind enough to share with me her life story in emails, document, several newspaper articles, and pictures. I am thankful that she trusted me with the writing of her life story.
Anna’s niece Deepika and Anna’s classmate Dwarak were both kind enough to give me their input for this story, and I am very grateful for the same.
This is story number twenty-nine in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.
My goal is to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. Women face a lot of critical moments in their lives that make them want to leave the workforce. I am hoping the stories of the CEG women will inspire them to stay in it.