Asha Khemka really defines what it means to reinvent yourself. After all, you have to have more than a little self-confidence to arrive in the United Kingdom with little understanding of the English language and British culture and go on to win the title of Asian Businesswoman of the Year in Birmingham, UK. That too after being a full-time housewife for 20 years. In that respect, Khemka is a trendsetter and a trailblazer.
Khemka’s journey is truly inspirational. Born and raised in Sitamarhi, a small town in Bihar, she was married at the age of 15 to an 19-year-old medical student Shankar Khemka. The couple moved to the UK in 1978 with their three young children; daughter Shalini, and sons Sheel and Sneh. “I remember my first morning waking up and looking out of the window. There was snow. It all felt very strange — a shock. I was in an unrecognisable land with a limited grasp of the English language. I remember I used to regularly fall over on the ice while wearing my saris and flip-flops. It was not long before we went shopping and bought more practical clothing,” says Khemka. Khemka started to learn English by watching children’s programmes, cartoons, speaking to mothers in the playschool and making a point of speaking with her children in English at home.
The plan was to return to India after her orthopedic surgeon husband completed his fellowship. But the taste of independence and freedom was addictive, “I was very reluctant to go back. I saw an opportunity to learn, to grow and live my life without any pressure. My new life in the UK gave me a lot of independence, hunger, drive and energy.” Khemka found a window of opportunity after two decades when all three children were settled at their boarding schools. By now she was itching for a career. So she enrolled for a secretarial course. She recalls, “Initially, I wanted to gain an education so that I could help my husband with his administrative requirements in his private practice. I would never have dreamed that my part-time course would have led me to the success that I have enjoyed. Joining Further Education (FE) as a student showed me the transformative power of this amazing sector, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that I wanted to change the lives of others in the same way that FE changed my life all those years ago.”
Through her dedication and determination, Khemka went on to acquire a business degree from Cardiff University before becoming a lecturer and eventually taking over as principal and CEO of West Nottinghamshire College, one of the largest in the UK. “Once I started to work within the sector, I knew then that I wanted to be the boss. I could see how I might learn from principals that I worked with but (also) how I might do things differently. So even at the start I was ambitious and did have a plan that one day I would have my own college. Ambition is important, often we see ambition as a bad thing, but without it how do we know what we are aiming for,” she explains. Of course, there were challenges and some deep-seated prejudices that Khemka had to encounter, “Sometimes people pre-judge what you are capable of. I always took on the jobs that no one else wanted to do because they were seen as too hard. Even as a part-time lecturer, I took an interest in government policy.”
Changing the world — one student at a time
Khemka is convinced about further education and the massive impact that it can have on people’s lives. Vocational qualifications, whether through apprenticeships or other routes are essential to the success and prosperity of any nation, she believes. “College’s like mine can be and should be at the forefront of a skills revolution. But like in India it depends on changing mindsets — parents still value academic over vocational and we need to challenge that. For some, mainstream education is failing them and hampering their life chances and their ability to reach their full potential. Our challenge as a sector is to enable all sections of our society to find their wings and fly! If we leave one person behind we have failed,” claims Khemka who is widely-regarded as a leading figure in the world of education and skills. Having been a part of several UK ministerial and prime ministerial delegations to India, Khemka sees huge opportunities for UK FE to work alongside Indian colleges. Launching an award-winning software ‘Skills Anytime’ for improving English skills in India was a step in that direction.
Winning hearts and awards galore
Khemka’s career has been on a skyward trajectory for the past decade. She was awarded one of Britain’s highest civilian award in December 2014, The Damehood — making her the first from the community to earn the honour in 83 years. The mother-of-three became the first Indian-origin Dame since Maharani Lakshmi Devi Bai Sahiba of Dhar State in 1931. The Damehood is in recognition of her services to the deprived areas of the West Midlands as principal of West Nottinghamshire College. The accolade came five years after she was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
She also won this year’s Asian Businesswoman of the Year award in Birmingham, UK. “Often we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to challenges. If we feel that something is insurmountable, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy and before we know, we give up before we even try. That is not within my nature — I never take no for an answer, I believe that anything is possible if we put our minds to it,” says the enterprising thinker.
The best of both world
Women can have it all — a great family life and an amazing career, believes Khemka. The key is to work hard and time it right. “You don’t get to have a great family life or a great career without working hard at both and that’s what I’ve done throughout my entire adult life. Success in both requires the same amount of dedication and passion,” she says. The 66-year old educationist makes it a point to spend dedicated time with family. “Often my family provides the much-needed perspective, invaluable advice and counsel,” she says. A simple meal of home-cooked rice, dal and vegetables makes Khemka the happiest as also reading up on her favourite topics — education, politics, fashion and world news.
But what she really looks forward to are her visits to India when she stocks up on gorgeous saris, jewellery, pachak (digestive) and papad. Asha Khemka is living proof that you can be anything you want in life and look good doing it. As a young girl growing up in Bihar, Khemka had her future laid out for her — a traditional homemaker and mother. But all that changed when she came to the UK. “I always say that India made me and Britain enabled me, gave me the opportunity to shine!” she concludes....