Who is Dr. Kamla Chowdhry?

Dr. Kamla Chowdhry was an educator and a social psychologist. She was one of the founding members of IIM-Ahmedabad in 1961 and the defacto director of the institute until 1965.

Dr. Kamla Chowdhry was an educator and a social psychologist. She was one of the founding members of IIM-Ahmedabad in 1961. She was born in Lahore to a Punjabi Khatri and was introduced to liberal ideas from a young age. Her father was a leading surgeon in Lahore and her mother came from a family of engineers involved in the building of the Sukkur barrage on the Sindh river. Kamla attended Shantiniketan and learnt to play the Sitar. In 1940, she earned a BA in Mathematics and Philosophy from Calcutta University which was a rare degree for women at the time. 

After completing her Bachelors, she married civil services officer Khem Chowdhry. In an unfortunate series of events Khem was murdered while the couple was asleep in their home. Post this incident, Kamla turned to studies to cope. In 1943, she earned an MA in philosophy from Punjab University—she was first in her class. She went to Michigan University and received another MA and a PhD in social psychology which would prove to be very useful for her future. 

In 1949, Kamla landed in Ahmedabad and met with renowned engineer Vikram Sarabhai. At the time Sarabhai was busy trying to launch the Ahmedabad Textiles Industry Research Association(ATIRA). Dr. Chowdhry joined ATIRA as the head of the Psychology division which would later come to be the Human Resources division. However, setting up ATIRA was not easy. Sarabhai faced a lot of backlash and resistance from the textile workers as they felt he was going to replace their livelihoods with machines. If not for Dr. CHowdhry, ATIRA would not be where it is today. Her negotiations and collaborations with the textile workers contributed to both their acceptance of ATIRA and a higher level of productivity. 

In the late 1950s, Dr. Chowdhry had many jobs awaiting her in Delhi and Hyderabad. She was also ready for a change. Vikram Sarabhai made many attempts to stop her from leaving. In 1961, he revealed to her his biggest project yet— the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A). Kamla joined IIM-A in 1962 and soon became the defacto director of the institute owing to Sarabhai’s frequent absence. She was responsible for marketing the institute, hiring faculty and initiating a collaboration with Harvard Business School. 

In 1965 it was time for the institute to officially choose a director. Dr. Chowdhry was the obvious choice but over 1963 and 1964 a student at Harvard had stirred up some trouble. A doctoral student debuted at Harvard wrote a series of letters to Harry Hansen, the director of the IIMA project in Boston, and accused Kamla of bypassing and undercutting him. This, he said, made her unfit to administer and teach at IIMA. Kamla was promptly vetoed for the position of director. In 1965, IIMA appointed Ravi Matthai, a young faculty member from IIM Calcutta for the role. 

Kamla continued to work at IIMA and laid the foundation for the prestigious MBA program at IIM. She continued to work for the upliftment of women in her place of work by changing rules of recruitment and employment.