Inspirational Woman: Sanjam Sitara | Director, Sitara Shipping & Founder, Maritime SheEO

Sanjam Sitara

Sanjam Sitara is a director at Sitara Shipping and based in Mumbai. She is founder of MaritimeSheEO, nominated in the Top 100 Women in Shipping by All About Shipping UK, set up Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) India while also sitting on the board of WISTA International.

Sanjam also contributed to the International Chamber of Shipping’s Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for Shipping publication which recently launched.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role

Born into a wonderful family, my father Capt.S.S. Sahi is an entrepreneur and shipping industry veteran. I inherited two great backgrounds – my father’s business acumen, and my maternal side values education. We have so many PHDs and Professors in the family. My sister and I were both raised to believe in ourselves and pursue our dreams.

I grew up as a shy but plucky, happy-go-lucky child who loved reading and writing poems. I was empathetic and liked making friends and helping others.  I’ve learnt ballet, was an avid gymnast, an athlete and assistant games captain at school. Though I was painfully shy, I soon realised I was good at leading teams, and the shyness disappeared once I got engrossed in my tasks.

Life was simple, and my parents instilled in me courage and confidence at the same time, being very grounded and down to earth made sure I had my head on my shoulders. There were tough times when my father was cheated out of his first business by his own brother; despite all that, he believes in the good of people and always does the right thing. So much so that work is worship for him. He’s highly disciplined.I tell everyone that even if I do half of what he’s done, I think I will be happy!

However, that being said it was my childhood dream to work with my Dad in maritime. I remember declaring as a six or seven-year-old that I was “going to grow up and work with Daddy!”

I’ve been working full-time in the family business under the name of Sitara Shipping since 2001. We are an Indian NVOCC specialising in over-dimensional cargo and I look after the Marketing and Business Development.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

It had been my childhood dream to work with my father in maritime so more or less it was a done deal. I pursued my MBA – the family managed the business program from SPJIMR – that time this was a new concept and I was in batch three where there were just three girls. However, it was an enriching experience and I owe so much to the institute and my Professors. Especially Prof VK Murti ,my guru who believed in me and always encouraged me. It was at this time I debated getting into education – I wanted to start a chain of play schools however I must admit despite my father’s support I was too “chicken” to set up my own business. So I joined the family business and there’s been no looking back!

You have been working for the inclusion and upliftment of women in the corporate sector (especially the maritime sector). Can you briefly describe from your career instances where you faced any acceptance issues from your male colleagues?

When my sister and I started working in the business, we had a few male managers who were not happy due to our gender. This made life very difficult for us despite us starting at the bottom rung of the organisation. We had to work twice as hard to prove ourselves.

We also found that customers were hesitant to negotiate with us and were more comfortable dealing with male executives and once I was asked why there wasn’t any “responsible” (read male) person at the meeting!

At Industry gatherings, and association meetings, women are increasing in number. I find Mariners most liberated and the industry has been welcoming. Yes, there are instances where we were “talked down to”,  spoken to in a patronising manner, and sidelined. However, for each of these people, there are many more who are very encouraging. I used to hesitate to speak up at meetings and there were gentlemen who would ensure I gave my opinion and had an opportunity to speak. There were and still are those who champion the cause of gender equality and I’ve had some fantastic mentors, one of them being Anil Singh, who was earlier heading DPWorld in India. It was people like him that went the extra mile. The same for Mr Venkat of Goodrich Maritime, Capt.Unni at Synergy and Mr Dinesh Jairam at Seaspan who have always supported my endeavours in the industry.  There are several more and I am thankful to each one of them.

You’ve recently contributed to the International Chamber of Shipping’s publication ‘Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for Shipping’, how do you think this will help inspire change and raise awareness to maritime businesses?

The Toolkit has been developed by the ICS to create greater awareness of D&I and inspire change in strategies, policies and practices to support the maritime industry with addressing the needs of the diverse global community it employs, both at sea and onshore. The Toolkit deals with all the important issues and gives vital guidance. We need to focus on the business case for diversity and we’re at the stage where everyone is talking about diversity but unless we do studies and prove there’s a business case for it, I don’t think we will see change. Pushing for more women leaders from all backgrounds is vital and will automatically accelerate the change. This Toolkit will make a huge difference to both smaller businesses as well as larger organisations which plan to broaden their activities. Users will find it well-designed as it’s a ready-made guide.

What are the primary objectives of Maritime SheEO? How do you think it can further the cause of women’s inclusion in the maritime sector?

My personal goal is to increase women’s participation and eliminate all forms of biases against women in the Maritime Industry. As a result of this, the idea for Maritime SheEO was born.

Maritime SheEO offers a bouquet of services focusing on the business case for diversity. It aims to create solutions that can impact the maritime and allied industries – with a focus on diversity and inclusion (D&I), leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship and competitive advantage.

We work with organisations to create a level playing field for women and an environment conducive for women to rise to leadership positions. Our team of experts employ D&I initiatives to address and eliminate unconscious bias, conduct gender sensitisation programs and help with the smooth transition of women from ship to shore positions.

We have conducted important research to highlight the business case for diversity. Our goal is to increase the participation of women and eliminate all forms of biases in the Maritime Industry. By highlighting the best practices in the Industry, we aim to build a robust list of resources for the industry to use related to diversity, create recommendations and guidelines for increasing the capacity of women in the industry by promoting diversity, inclusion and open-mindedness.

What are your major achievements in these 20 years of professional career?

I’m very passionate about driving change in the industry and I’m blessed to have been able to work towards these goals.

In 2012, a big one was setting up Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) India. This provided a platform for women in maritime and gave them a voice.

Thereafter in 2013, I was elected to the Board of WISTA International, where I have served for three terms in the last six years and set up WISTA associations in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other countries.

In 2014, the International Womens’ Leadership Forum awarded me ‘Leading Woman in Shipping Business’ and was also awarded in 2014 by SPJIMR Business school as Outstanding Family Business.

A big moment for me in 2017 is when I was appointed to the Executive Board of Directors of the World Maritime University, Malmo, Sweden – by the SG of the IMO. Thereby becoming the first Indian woman to hold this position and the first person from the private sector.

As an Ambassador of Sailor Society in India, as I’m committed to Seafarers welfare – I was a major force in bringing out the “Diversity Handbook” in 2018 and its second version in 2022 along with ISWAN and Anglo Eastern.

In May 2018, I was the recipient of the Sandvik Gender Award –for my outstanding contribution and commitment to gender equality. As part of my award, I conducted India’s first survey for gathering data on women in maritime.

Glenmark Pharmaceuticals awarded me “Woman of the Year 2019” in March 2019.

In June 2019, I was invited as part of a High-Level panel initiative by The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, comprising a group of world leaders from coastal states committed to ocean action in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. This panel will advise 14 heads of government across the world that will drive the transition to a new and sustainable economy for a healthier and wealthier planet.

I have been invited by the United Nations body in Maritime – the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to speak at various panels and conferences.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

In one word passion. I am extremely passionate about everything I do – I never do anything in half measures. I also believe in the value of hard work as there is no substitute for hard work.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring is an extremely important part of one’s professional development and I have been a mentor and a mentee. I have had amazing mentors who have supported me in my career and really lifted me up. It’s important to give back by helping the younger women entering the industry and also one’s peers by mentoring them and by sharing one’s strengths so that we can empower women on our shoulders.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Mandatory gender sensitisation training for all would be the one change I would like to see. This would help change behaviour and mindsets.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Be brave and always follow your instincts!

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