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Nita Ambani is now the most powerful woman in Indian media

Analysis by Diksha Madhok, CNN

New Delhi (CNN) — Just a few months ago, Nita Ambani stepped away from frontline business to focus on philanthropy. Now, the wife of Asia’s richest man is back with the biggest job in the ferociously competitive world of India media.

She will be the chairperson of the $8.5 billion behemoth that will be formed through the merger of Disney’s (DIS) media interests in India and those of Reliance Industries, the business empire controlled by billionaire Mukesh Ambani.

The 60-year-old’s new position comes less than two years after her husband set a succession plan in motion for the $236 billion conglomerate, which spans retail, technology and renewable energy. He plans to hand the empire to their three children.

Nita Ambani will not be steering the media giant alone. Uday Shankar, former president of Disney’s Asia Pacific unit, will be the vice chairperson of the joint venture and provide “strategic guidance,” the companies said in a statement Wednesday.

The Disney-Reliance deal is expected to be completed by late 2024 or early 2025, provided regulators and shareholders grant their approval.

Nita Ambani first stepped into the business limelight 10 years ago, becoming the first woman director on the board of Reliance Industries.

That appointment, made months after regulators urged listed Indian companies to improve gender diversity in boardrooms, was criticized by some analysts as tokenism.

She resigned from the board last August to “devote her energies and time” to the Reliance Foundation, which focusses on philanthropic initiatives of the group, the company said in a statement at the time.

Described as an “educationist, philanthropist, businesswoman” by the group, Ambani’s wife already has extensive experience in promoting sports and arts in the country. She is the owner of Mumbai Indians, a cricket team in the hugely popular Indian Premier League (IPL).

Sport will be key to the success of the new media venture. Disney India had been facing multiple challenges before the merger was announced. It was hit particularly hard in 2022 when it lost the digital rights to stream the IPL cricket matches to Reliance, resulting in the loss of millions of subscribers.

Trained in the Indian classical dance form of Bharatnatyam, she founded The Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai last year, which brought India its first major Broadway show, The Sound of Music, in May 2023.

Married to Mukesh Ambani since 1985, she is also a member of the International Olympic Committee and an honorary trustee of the Board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Their three children — a daughter Isha, and two sons, Anant and Akash — have also been playing bigger roles at the family business, even though Mukesh Ambani insisted in 2022, when laying out the succession plan, that he has no intention of retiring any time soon.

“I have never differentiated between Isha and Akash and Anant. Whatever my boys could do, my daughter could do too,” Nita Ambani said last year in a rare TV interview, when asked about promoting women in corporate India.

“All our young girls are breaking, shattering glass ceilings, so give them the opportunity and they will shine,” she said, adding that equal pay is a “necessity” in the corporate world.

The representation of women in Indian boardrooms has improved significantly in the last decade. Nearly 95% of the top 500 companies listed on the National Stock Exchange — had one female board member in 2022, up from 69% in 2017, according to a report by consultancy EY.

“However, less than 5% of companies have female chairpersons, so there is still room for improvement,” EY added in the report, published in 2022.

With her new job title, Nita Ambani has become the most powerful woman in Indian media and entertainment sector, which is worth over $25 billion and growing rapidly.

Reliance will own just over 63% stake in the merged entity — 16.3% directly and 46.8% through Viacom18 in which it has a controlling stake — with Disney holding the rest.

The joint venture is expected to reach a domestic audience of over 750 million viewers, the companies said in a statement.

Mihir Shah, vice president of research firm Media Partners Asia, said the agreement has created a “powerful entity” that is poised to “enhance scale, profitability, and competitiveness” in the country, at a time when global streaming giants such as Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN) are also flexing their muscles in the market.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN-Opinion

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