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Profile: Judi Kilachand

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-02-04

The Asia Society on Park Avenue is about as prestigious a cultural institution as one can find in New York, and its director of business programs, Judi Rachelson Kilachand, is about as quintessential a New Yorker as you're likely to encounter in a city of transients and immigrants.

Tall, enormously self-confident -- the word "beautiful" also comes to mind -- filled with brio and equipped with a finely tuned sense of dealing with people of diverse cultures, her responsibilities include fundraising and persuading some 330 corporations in New York and abroad to support the 49-year-old institution's wide-ranging educational and other programs.

"New Yorkers, as I see it, know what they want, when they want it, and how to get it," Ms. Kilachand said yesterday between staff meetings, fielding a score of international phone calls, and planning the society's 15th annual Asian Corporate Conference, to be held in Bangkok in June (it is co-organized by Dow Jones & Company). The conference is the society's signature business event, and it typically attracts anywhere from 600 to 1,000 participants, including heads-of-government, corporate tycoons, senior executives, entrepreneurs and representatives of small-and-medium-sized businesses. Academics and journalists also attend.

"New Yorkers tend to be sophisticated and very knowledgeable about the world," she said. "They tend to see it as a city where the action is."

"And so, yes, I would certainly see myself as that sort of New Yorker -- cosmopolitan, aware of the international scene, and concerned enough to bring cultures together at a time when all of us need to understand one another better," Ms. Kilachand said, in a voice that had her interviewer at once picturing her making a successful fundraising pitch in yet another boardroom in yet another city.

She draws her New York sensibility from her father, Charles "Cooky" Rachelson, who was a successful restaurateur, and mother, Sonia, both children of Russian immigrants. They encouraged her to always strive to be the best. That meant getting a master's degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies from Stanford University, and a MBA from Columbia University.

It meant becoming fluent in French by spending time in France and Switzerland. It meant learning to be fluid at tennis by sweating on the clay courts of Monte Carlo. It meant picking up Italian in -- where else -- Florence. It meant learning Gujarati and Hindi -- major Indian languages -- during her marriage to a member of an Indian industrialist family. It meant raising two sons, Jay, 18 and Sean, 15, both of whom are "Hindjews" -- progeny of a bicultural marriage between a Hindu man and a New York Jewish woman. Ms. Kilachand says that her children have received the best of both cultures.

Her personal ethos has also meant distinguishing herself at blue chip U.S. companies such as American Airlines, Chase Manhattan Bank, American Express and Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York. And, since joining the Asia Society 13 years ago, it has also meant serving on the boards of the Battery Dance Company and the Akanksha Foundation.

And as if all that weren't enough, Ms. Kilachand is also a member of the advisory board of India's ultra-exclusive Taj Hotels Group and of the Merrill Lynch South Asian External Advisory Council.

So how does this supercharged New Yorker swing it?

"By being at it 24/7," Ms. Kilachand said, matter-of-factedly.

She's accustomed to schedules that are grueling. Consider this: the society's annual conference takes a year to plan and organize. That means visiting different locations several times a year. Since 1992, Ms. Kilachand has helped put together meetings in Seoul (2004 and 1996); Hanoi (2003); Bangalore, India (2001); Shanghai (2000); Manila (1999); Hong Kong (1998 and 1989); New Delhi (1997); Beijing (1995); Singapore (1994); Tokyo (1993); and Taipei (1992).

Yesterday, in fact, she was planning a yet another trip next week to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, where the society will be convening a gathering in June, soon after the Bangkok conference. "I'm especially thrilled about Kazakhstan -- being there gives me a chance to practice my Russian," she said.

Such travel would exhaust anyone, but what Ms. Kilachand has going for her -- in addition to her enthusiasm and disciplined way of organizing her business schedule -- is physical fitness. That, too, makes her very much a New Yorker -- a person almost fanatical about exercise and diet. In the work she does, such dedication to good health isn't a fad, it's critical to generate the energy to sustain her through dozens of time zones, long plane rides, must-eat meals with corporate contacts in scores of countries, and attend to the myriad details that go into flying the Asia Society's flag all over the world.

Flying the flag has also included directing three study missions for the society: Pension Financing: Hard Choices, Unprecedented Opportunity, co-chaired by Marshall N. Carter, chairman and chief executive officer, State Street Bank and Trust Company; Stuart H. Leckie, executive director, the Employee Benefits Forum for China; and Alice Young, chair, Asia Pacific Practice, at Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, in May 1999; Financing Asian Development: Growing Opportunities in Asia's Debt Capital Markets, chaired by Robert Carswell, of Shearman and Sterling, May 1998; India and its Financial Sector, chaired by W. Gordon Binns, Jr., president, General Motors Investment Management Corporation, in March 1994.

This sort of work has made her a familiar -- and popular -- figure in the upper echelons of many corporations in America and abroad. Ms. Kilachand is similarly well-known in the chancelleries of many Asian countries, particularly of India, home of her former husband. When Indian dignitaries visit New York, they invariably wind up engaging her in conversations ranging from geopolitics to business to culture. Jaswant Singh, India's former foreign minister, is a fan. Her fans also include major Indian business figures such as Rajesh Shah, managing director of Mukand Steel, and Mihir Doshi, managing director of Morgan Stanley India. Here in New York, Frank G. Wisner, vice chairman of the American International Group, and a former U.S. ambassador to India, and Charles Kaye, managing partner of Warburg Pincus, also wax enthusiastic about her.

Those kinds of encomiums may spin most people's heads, but Ms. Kilachand seems remarkably anchored in her own quiet self-confidence.
She is quick to emphasize that success in business "is all about building good relationships, not just hard work."

"It helps being a friendly New Yorker," Ms. Kilachand said.

In the aftermath of September 11, it's even more essential that New York remain a "warm and welcoming place to our well-wishers from abroad," she said. "America -- and New York -- must not shut out the intellectual and cultural nourishment we get from maintaining open doors."

She acknowledges that she's a booster of American capitalism and free enterprise, and she points out how much Asian countries such as China and India have benefited by opening up their economies, liberalizing trade, and allowing domestic entrepreneurs to flourish.

Some of those entrepreneurs are invited by the Asia Society to come to New York to mix and mingle with their counterparts here.

"That's one of the best things about my job," Ms. Kilachand said. "It's both an honor and lots of fun to be able to showcase entrepreneurial talent from Asia in this country."

She has invited business stars such as Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, managing director of Biocon Limited to Asia Society meetings. She has organized CEO forums, and speakers have included Charles Prince, CEO of Citigroup, Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, chairman and CEO of AIG, Peter Kann, chairman of Dow Jones, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hong Kong's Hang Lung Group, Rajat Gupta, former managing director of McKinsey and Company, Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, N. R. Narayana Murthy, CEO of Infosys, and Seymour Sternberg, chairman and CEO of New York Life Insurance Company.

Her job and her background have also secured her position in that section of New York society that could be reasonably characterized as affluent.

Ms. Kilachand's investment interests are in media and entertainment, in technology, and in the food and agro-business sectors. She follows the financial-services sector keenly. And, naturally, Ms. Kilachand pays attention to how markets in Asia perform.

She has special words for India, of course.

"In America, and all over the world, it's cool 'to do' India now," she said. "Take retailing, take fashion, take technology -- India has permeated global markets. It's an emerging giant in the world economy. Who would have thought this 20 years ago? India is getting on everyone's radar. Its energy and enterprise are paying off."

Judi Kilachand could well have been speaking about herself, too.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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