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People: Chandrika Tandon—In Search of a Higher Way

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
February 2020
People: Chandrika Tandon—In Search of a Higher Way

(Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Entrepreneur, trailblazer, philanthropist, musician. Wife, mother, grandmother. Above all, a seeker of the light. Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon is that rare blend—a woman of substance and spiritual enlightenment. While the Tandons’ $100 million gift to the New York University School of Engineering is a milestone contribution of her life, it is the music and spirituality that defines and consumes her the most these days.

Success stories from the Indian-American community are par for the course, but Chandrika Tandon, with her rich and varied immigrant experience, redefines the word “successful” and adds multiple nuances to it. Balancing traditional roles of daughter, wife, and mother with the demands of blazing a trail in the business world, she’s also an ardent spiritual seeker, musician, and a passionate educational philanthropist. Above all, her every pursuit has been imbued with the search for a higher way of living.

Like many immigrants, Tandon grew up in a middle-class family where both parents and children were deeply invested in the value of education. Her sister, Indra Nooyi, has been the high-profile President and CEO of PepsiCo and her brother, Nandu Narayanan, heads Trident Investment Management.

Nevertheless, growing up the first girl child in a traditional Tamil Brahmin family in Chennai, conservatism ruled. She was told that an early arranged marriage was her destiny, with her mother collecting stainless steel utensils for her dowry from birth. She went on a hunger strike to be allowed to go to college. Eventually, in 1973, she made it to business school, one of only eight women in her batch at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A).

At 24, Tandon arrived in America to interview for a job at McKinsey & Co. She had no American degree, no green card, not even a coat or a Western outfit. She interviewed at McKinsey in a sari and chappals, wearing a borrowed coat. Yet, not only did she land the job, but within a few years she went on to become a partner at this prestigious company, the first Indian-American woman to be selected for the position.

But there’s more to life than the next big business deal. Tandon was the first woman partner at McKinsey to give birth. She’s come full circle now, as her daughter Lita, also an executive at McKinsey, has given birth to her first child, making Tandon a recent grandmother.

In the early 1990s, Tandon risked her savings to found Tandon Capital Associates, a financial advisory company that restructured preeminent financial institutions worldwide, creating billions of dollars in market value for her clients. About why she left a lucrative position with McKinsey to branch out on her own, she says, “In 1986 I worked with a failing bank in Brazil. It was a very intensive, holistic restructuring deal involving every part of the bank simultaneously, in a very short period of time. I ‘lived’ with the CEO and the management team—and restored the bank to profitability, which made waves in the market. That was exhilarating for me personally as I was struck by the very concrete and dramatic impact that one could create with focused attention and the extraordinary opportunity financial services presented, as it was a very inefficient industry with a history of regulation. My goal in leaving McKinsey was to solely focus on this idea and invest in the institutions I worked with to create value, either in the form of equity, phantom equity, or performance-based incentives. I saw a major entrepreneurial opportunity.”

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(Left) Tandon checks out the innovation of the students at Tandon School of Engineering.

Her early belief in education as a game-changer made her take a proactive role in higher education, especially for those in need. Through the Krishnamurthy Tandon Foundation, she and her husband, Ranjan Tandon, have donated to many educational causes, including a transformative $100 million to the New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering, which was named after them.

Chandrika Tandon is Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of NYU, Chairman of the NYU President’s Global Council, and Chairman of NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and serves on the Business School and Medical School/ Hospital Boards. The Tandons’ commitment to education extends to leadership faculty chairs they have established at the Harvard Business School, Yale, IIM(A), and Madras Christian College in India.

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(Left) Receiving the Gallatin medal, NYU’s highest honor.

In 2009, she received the Walter Nichols Medal from NYU Stern School of Business for representing the highest ideals of business, service, and integrity—prior recipients include John D. Rockefeller, Alan Greenspan, and Jack Welch. In 2016, she was awarded the Gallatin medal, NYU’s highest honor. Last year, she received the 2019 Horatio Alger Award, which honors outstanding leaders who have accomplished great successes in spite of adversity.

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(Right) “Music is what I am, everything else is what I do,” says Tandon.

At a personal level, Tandon has pursued her artistic talents through tough situations. She grew up in a home that thrived on music but never followed that path, engaged as she was with building a career. Tandon eventually overcame the constraints on her time, and found noted gurus to learn classical music even as she grew her business and nurtured her family. Thanks to that passion for music, Tandon is now a Grammy-nominated musician, whose albums of chants have transformed many lives. These compositions represent her continuing journey into the light. Her fourth album, Shivoham—The Quest, is a collaboration of over 275 world-class musicians living across four continents, recorded largely in London, and mixed in New York. As she says, “Music is what I am, everything else is what I do.”

A firm believer in meditation, Tandon says, “It took me into the deepest parts of myself and let me experience my own light. Once you even glimpse that place, you are on a new journey.”

Spirituality and chanting have been the twin graces of Tandon’s life, be it starting the day with pranayama or creating a musical choir for seniors at the Hindu Temple Society of North America. She has also founded the Hindu Community Outreach Initiative for youth and seniors, donating buildings and program support for after-school classes, health, and community building.

“My family belonged to the Samaveda lineage, where ancient Vedic mantras are sung with a tune and meter in a most breathtakingly beautiful way,” she recalls. “Chanting was all around me. We grew up in a very simple home in a very old city, where Vedic traditions are performed to this day. All the major prayers like the Vishnu Sahasranamam were chanted in our home every day.”

Business, arts, and philanthropy have all percolated into Tandon’s life and she has embraced each of them into a balanced lifestyle. She serves on the Board of Trustees for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Council for the Berklee College of Music. She has opened new musical worlds for students through the Berklee Tandon Global Clinics that offer workshops, artist residences, scholarships, and courses in contemporary music—many pilots have occurred in India, impacting thousands of students.

For Tandon, the joy is in being able to mentor so many young people in the schools and colleges she supports. She points out that NYU Tandon, with over 5,200 students, has many students from first generation immigrant families, many students on aid, and many female students. She says, “We are changing not just individual lives but we are changing generations.”

For this high achiever, nurturing a rich inner life is as important, if not more so than material accomplishments. “If I had to rewind my life, I would add more compassion to it. For me, it’s become almost a meditation. I try to apply it in everything I do. It really changes the way you think about people, how you spend your time. It changes relationships within the family and it changes the relationship with yourself. Compassion allows you to give completely of yourself.”

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(Right) Chandrika Tandon performing Shivoham at the Kennedy Center. (Photo: Yassine El Mansouri)

Q&A

with Chandrika Tandon

At a recent performance of Shivoham at the Kennedy Center, Chandrika Tandon spoke to Khabar about life, music, and spirituality.

How do you reconcile your business world and spirituality?
Naturally, my view of business is altered by spirituality, but the two worlds are not in conflict except in terms of time commitments. Business, social, and philanthropic commitments occupy a lot of my time, and it’s often very hard to allocate that.

On the other hand, my spiritual practices have changed the way I view people, problems, and relationships; they have altered my view of success and perfection in both life and business. I have become a lot more centered and able to let go of outcomes and concentrate on the work and the journey. My spiritual practices also make me realize viscerally how much the Divine is of everything we do.

How is music a spiritual practice for you?
The best music comes when I don’t exist. I see this again and again—in myself and others. I am on a quest to lose myself. It is accelerating the inner transformation to find the light inside, and stay in. And it affects all parts of my life—my business, my family, my friendships, everything.

Music harmonizes me as a person. It is hard to be down when you are singing. Intensive practice is meditation. It is like quieting one’s mind and internal chatter for concentrated periods of time. It permeates all aspects of my being. Keeping a focused, calm, and centered mind is, to me, the most important attribute of living my everyday life. Music enables me to get there most of the time.

Music has made me understand perfection in a wholly different way. Having spent a lifetime striving for perfection, you really understand you are perfection today, right now, right here—that different people make different forms of music, and they are all beautiful and perfect. If the forest were only filled with nightingales, it would be a very boring forest indeed. This has become the prism with which I view my whole life and others around me—there is no judgment!

Shivoham has been your passion for several years. Can you share with us the journey, beginning with the idea and its birth?
The album is really the musical expression of my personal journey over the last twenty years. It manifested in bits and pieces, based on what I was experiencing in my life at different phases.

I would keep notes about melodies and lyrics on little pieces of paper everywhere. For example, “Song of Blessings” emanated from a ten-day silent Vipassana retreat, and “Song of Compassion” was originally composed for the Hindu Community Choir, which I founded and led for many years.

While the Sanskrit prayer, “Om Namah Shivaya” was part of my first album, for Shivoham, I added several lyrics in English to express the important idea that chanting these five syllables—Na mah Shi va ya—also known as the Panchabhootam or five prime elements of the universe (earth, water, fire, air, and space), can help get rid of negative emotions.

You took many performers from New York, London, and India. How did you decide which performers went to Kennedy Center?
Choosing a great sounding choir was really important. We auditioned intensively and ultimately selected a mix of students, faculty, and alumni from NYU, as well as a few other talented singers from New York City. They hadn’t necessarily sung together before, so we needed a lot of rehearsals. I appreciated how much each singer grew vocally throughout our journey and how the group created a joyful common experience for themselves and the audience. Once we had the arrangements figured out, I collaborated with musicians, most of whom I had already worked with.

You had many performers on the album and recorded it on three continents—how did you manage to fine-tune it for the stage?
The original album was comprised of 279 musicians and artists from different genres and countries. Adapting it for the stage at the Kennedy Center was a complex reimagining. We had to think of how to simplify complicated arrangements and produce similar sounds with fewer instruments.

When recording the album, we used an extensive string section, and instruments like a harp and viola da gamba, as well as over 100 choir members from both Kolkata and London. I wanted to keep the essence of the music for the stage but also highlight the talent of the musical maestros with whom I collaborated for this production—the likes of Kenny Werner, Snehasish Mozumder, Jamey Haddad, and our musical director, Matthias “Teese” Gohl. As we worked through rehearsals, different ideas emerged about what worked on stage. It was an iterative and very collaborative process, which was extremely rewarding.

What place will Shivoham hold in your heart as you move on to other things?
This kind of journey is really about searching for something, getting a glimpse of it, and trying to stay in that space for as long as possible. It’s something that happens once in a lifetime.

My hope is that with the narrative that accompanies this album, I will be able to help others start their own journeys, in finding the light much sooner than I did.


Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist. She blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com.
Follow @lavinamelwani and www.facebook.com/LassiwithLavina/



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