When we were drawing up the list of inspiring women to be featured in our POPxo Women Who Win series, the first name that our Founder & CEO Priyanka Gill mentioned was Shereen Bhan, Managing Editor, CNBC-TV18. PG gave us three reasons: “Shereen has been the most impactful and articulate chronicler of the Indian financial and startup world. She is a really nice person, someone you can totally hang out with. She is the perfect role model for POPxo Women Who Win.” Given such a glowing recommendation, we were delighted when Shereen graciously accepted our interview request!
As I got on a call with Shereen, I pictured her sitting behind her news desk surrounded by lights, wires, people and cameras, ready to push through the noise. A few minutes into the conversation, she made me feel at ease as if she were sitting right next to me. That’s probably why bigwigs from India’s business landscape don’t find it difficult to engage in a dialogue with her during interviews and panel discussions. With an ability to think on her feet and strong people skills, Shereen engages in interesting conversations and easily gets people to open up on camera. All of this has made her the most recognised face in Indian media today, and she has gone from strength to strength in building her brand.
Shereen has anchored and edited many flagship shows on CNBC-TV18, including the award-winning daily news show India Business Hour and Young Turks, the longest-running show on Indian startups. In 2009, she was also named as one of the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum. Shereen’s success story has been remarkable to watch over the years.
“I think preparation is the key to success in any field and I feel that there is no shortcut to that and there is no replacement for that so you really have to put in that time and make the effort to be as prepared as you possibly can,” says Shereen. Well, the proof lies in the well-researched shows that she anchors. Because she doesn’t just anchor a show, she owns it. According to her, journalists need to read and read, even during their coffee and tea breaks, so that when news breaks, they are ready.
And life during the pandemic has been no different for her. While the rest of the world moved to work from home, Shereen, along with a few of her team members, was still working from the office. “But, it’s been interesting, it’s been a lot of learning as we’ve been sort of finding ways to do more with less,” she says.
Shereen has a lot to say about being creative, owning what you do and hustling to get your story heard. Over a phone call, we discussed what it takes to become a leader in the media industry. What follows is a lightly edited Q&A.
My workday starts at about 6:30am, when I catch up on what’s making news in India as well as globally. I check Twitter and newspaper headlines and look at what our day plan looks like at CNBC, what stories we are covering, how we should react to the developments that may have taken place overnight. And then I start with my conference call with our reporting team at 8am. Through the course of the day, there’s a series of conference calls with different teams to prepare for the day, from about 9:30am to 9pm. Because of COVID-19, we try to finish a little earlier because it's just small teams that are working. But work doesn’t stop even when you finish and go back home. For instance, if my show finishes at 10pm, I am still looking at what’s happening globally, the stories that we should have focussed on. You have got to be on your feet, on the ball all the time.
The only thing that I use quite frequently and effectively is WhatsApp groups. We do a lot of our calls and planning on WhatsApp group chats as opposed to having to write individually to people or send emails. I prefer doing things in the old school way, which is why I manage my own day, appointments, my calendar and I don’t have anybody else doing that for me. I think that’s the best way for me to be able to plan my day and have clear visibility on what it looks like. And even when it comes to things like research, I do of course ask our research desk for help whenever something specific is required. But I prefer to do my own reading and my own research so I’m well prepared with the content and with what needs to be taken up. I prefer writing my own notes.
A job like ours requires you to be attentive and to react in real-time, you don’t really get a chance for a do-over. So you go in there completely prepared. I think the ability to be flexible, the ability to know how to adapt to situations is also crucial. Because you know if I’m sitting in a studio and suddenly somebody says something that I may not be aware of, I should know how to handle that situation. You have to have the ability to think on your feet and the ability to listen. Very often what happens, especially in the television business today, is that you have lost the art of listening to the other person and you only want to listen to your own voice. That’s not what journalism is about. I think television and broadcast journalism is really about teamwork. And it is about communicating clearly with your team, it’s about coordinating with your team and ensuring that there’s complete alignment, and that results in a good show. There has to be clarity of purpose and thought and there has to be consistent communication to ensure that everybody is working in the same direction. Those are the aspects I focus on.
I’d say I’m a fair person. I have always believed in running an organisation that believes in merit and that supports merit. Hierarchies don't really matter that much as long as people are driven by purpose, by their initiative, I am there to support them. I think as a leader you have to have the capacity to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and to empathise with what they may be going through. And I’d say that I can play different roles. I can be a hard taskmaster when that’s the requirement, I can be a friend when that’s the need and I can just be a shoulder when somebody wants to offload. I’ll give you an example of the last nine months. There was so much anxiety, stress and so much pressure, this was not a normal situation. So you had to ensure that while you were focusing on the result, on the outcome, and ensuring that the operations didn’t suffer, you were also there for each other. You were there to handhold and say, "Hey, we are all having anxious moments and it’s okay!"
We have a very diverse workforce and we have a lot of women in leadership roles. I have been very clear about the fact that while maternity leave is mandatory as per law, the organisation has to create a culture of letting women and men know that these are your life’s choices and we will support you in making those choices. You don’t have to choose your career over your child or your marriage. We will ensure that there is a culture that ensures you have a meaningful relationship with your work and outside your work with all the other aspects of your life. We have tried to create that culture where people feel motivated to say that ‘okay, I have taken my maternity leave but I do want to come back’. The first option is not to quit. The first option is to return and to ensure that they can continue to build on their careers. That is something we work very hard on as an organisation and as a newsroom where we really stand up for each other and create a nurturing and participating environment.
When I was graduating, I was thinking more in terms of documentary filmmaking and advertising. While doing my master's, I did my internship with renowned television producer-director Siddhartha Basu. We were working on a show where Vir Sanghvi was the anchor, and it was a current affairs programme. That’s when I discovered that I do have a sense and a smell for news. And it was during my internship when both Siddhartha Basu and Vir Sanghvi told me, "You should consider doing this as you’re good at it." That was pretty much the start, that’s how I landed my first job and there has been no looking back.
I have been open to the opportunities that have come my way and I have worked very hard to ensure that I make those opportunities work for me. So there have been many turning points in the course of my career that have changed the direction or that have added on to things. For instance, when we started Young Turks, I thought it was going to be a 13-episode series and that would be the end of it. And then it took on a life of its own and I have stayed committed to showcasing Indian startups. I’m proud to say that we have really been one of the key catalysts in creating and nurturing the startup ecosystem in India over the last 18 years. To be alive and be open to the opportunities that come your way and more importantly to work hard to ensure that the opportunities work for you--I think that’s something that I have tried to do in the course of my career, which took me in different directions and made me a lot more versatile. Over the years I have covered politics, policies, startups, I’m a producer, I can edit my own shows. So it has taught me different things. And that’s what makes me a much more holistic professional today and that’s what I value.
You have to be clear on why you want to do this. If you’re doing it because you think it’s glamorous and you’ll be on TV then that won’t last you for more than six months to a year. Because there’s a lot of work that goes into it. If story-telling is your purpose in life, if you’re driven by wanting to capture important events, provide information, then go ahead and take this forward as a career option. You also have to learn to make sacrifices because as I pointed out, a story is not going to wait for you because it’s your birthday or anniversary or whatever the case may be. I told my colleagues through the course of this COVID-19 pandemic that journalism is like an emergency service and we are meant to provide actionable, accurate, timely and relevant information to people. It is a time-consuming profession, and it is a profession that requires a lot from you, both emotionally and physically. But if that’s what drives you, then it can be very gratifying as well.
I don’t have any routine as such but in the last year-and-a-half, I have discovered yoga. I try to do that over the weekend at least. It is a different kind of challenge. Because it is not something that is in my comfort zone, it is not something that I’m used to. It takes me out of my comfort zone and pushes me and challenges me. And I enjoy that. That’s something I have learned to appreciate now and I have committed myself to it. I’d say that’s one thing but otherwise, there is nothing specific. I just try to let things go as much as possible and this is something that comes with practice. It’s not that easy. You know earlier when something happened, I’d think about it for days. Now, I try not to take things personally, I try not to take myself too seriously either. That’s what keeps me sane and grounded.
I’m a no-fuss person when it comes to food because food is a passion so I enjoy eating. I love going out to eat. And over the weekend, pretty much all of my meals are out. I love experimenting with different cuisines, I love finding new places to eat. But on weekdays, Khichdi is my comfort food. And because I finish work so late, I had to make that switch where I don’t really eat a full-fledged dinner at night. I prefer eating like a full lunch but not a big dinner. I'm not a healthy eater in the sense that I don't do that whole ‘smoothie or berry’ or any of that ritual or regime. Fortunately for me, I never really had a taste for junk food or colas or something. I don't remember the last time I drank a Coke. It’s not something I miss at all as it is not something I ever enjoyed.
No, I'm very lazy when it comes to any sort of skincare regime or hair care regime. I don't remember the last time I oiled my hair. The only thing I do is to make it a point to sort of cleanse well. I use oil to take off my makeup and just cleanse my skin well before I go to bed at night. But that’s it. Moisturiser is pretty much my go-to. I'm particular about not having a very heavy moisturiser because I don't like anything that's sticky. But I’m not particular about any brand, I'm not loyal to any skincare brand. I have started experimenting with a lot of Indian brands. I'm enjoying that. But that’s about it. Moisturise and cleanse. That’s pretty much all I do.
I just finished reading a few books that I have enjoyed quite a bit. And two of them happen to be women authors. An author called Dharini Bhaskar, I really enjoyed reading her work and then I really enjoyed reading Rituparna Chatterjee. My go-to book of 2020 has been The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse. I mean I have re-read that book every time I felt off-centre. I'm currently reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle.
A perfect day for me would be to come to work. To be able to finish early and maybe get a little bit of yoga in, hang upside down a little bit, I enjoy that. And finish it off with a good meal and a glass of wine. I think that will pretty much sum up a perfect day.