Dr. Aparna Santhanam is a renowned dermatologist and cosmetologist based out of Mumbai, India. She also works as a strategic consultant with several skin and hair care brands. She has authored two books ‘Skin Deep’ and ‘Lets Talk Hair’. At the time of our conversation, she was working on her third book! She also believes in inclusive development fervently and is the secretary of a unique NGO “Apnalaya” which specialises in community development. She has her hands full and likes them that way!
Please take us through your life and career so far
My father had a transferable job with State bank of India. So till Grade 6, we lived in various small towns in Tamil Nadu. When I moved to Mumbai along with my parents, I went to St Anne’s High school in south Bombay. I dreamt of being a journalist. My father was keen that I take up medicine and he suggested that I could always write, no matter what profession I was in. I was in St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai till Grade 12 before pursuing medicine.
Dr Aparna S was the first doctor in her family. Her undergraduate degree in Medicine/MBBS is from Grant Medical College, Mumbai.
I chose to specialize in a clinical field, in a field that demanded interaction with patients because I enjoy interacting with people. I did my MD post having a baby and in spite of balancing the two, did well in my field.
She obtained her Masters degree in Dermatology from Nair Hospital, Mumbai in 1998 and set a university record for the highest score in any specialisation by securing 17 points out of a possible 18!!!!
I have had a private practice for over a decade at Chembur, Mumbai where I work with patients. I worked as the Head of Medical Services at Kaya for a brief period of 5 years from 2002-07. I was entrusted with setting up the entire department. I remember writing Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) for doctors who were brought on board. It was exciting and challenging. We had to insist on certain practices with the consultant doctors which were not very intuitive to doctors at the onset, to ensure that patients hear a unified message from every single doctor at Kaya. I encouraged doctors at Kaya to continue their private practices along with working with Kaya to bring in diversity and knowledge into the Kaya system.
I have had this habit of walking every patient to the door at the end of the visit. The patients at Kaya loved this gesture. It has now become ingrained into the Kaya culture. The stint at Kaya has taught me a lot and also let me discover that I have a flair for marketing. I learnt about the ‘hows’ of converting service communication into marketing communication, learnt about consumer insights.
I ended my full-time association with Kaya to be able to spend more time at home with my daughter who was in Grade 9 then. In 2008, I was approached to consult on a few brands and that was the foundation of my consulting career. I continue to work with various brands with companies such as Marico, Cipla & HUL in their brand communication messaging activities across different mediums, as well as with their R & D.
Dr. Aparna S was also seen as the skin care expert at the Ponds Miss India beauty pageant in 2013.
I would write columns in magazines and the media, but always dreamt of writing full-fledged books some day! My first book ‘Skin Deep’ was released in 2010. The book is a rebellion against interventional cosmetology, the idea being that beauty care must be accessible to everyone. It covers natural ways to beautiful skin. I am grateful that it was well-accepted and became a bestseller. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process! My second book ‘Lets Talk Hair’ came out in 2013. It’s a handbook on everything to do with hair. I am currently working on my third book which moves into the general health space of 35+ women. Writing is a passion and I have been tremendously fortunate in receiving encouragement from my family, my lovely agent Priya Doraswamy and my patients and readers in pursuing this actively.
I work with Apnalaya a 40 year old NGO founded by Ms. Annabel Mehta, which works in the education, health, rights awareness and women’s empowerment space. Our philosophy is to build self-sustaining communities. It is very fulfilling.
I have come to realize that all the work I am doing boils down to women’s health and empowerment. I believe that beauty empowers. I believe that everyone can look their best.
What do you love about what you do?
I love the fact that by choosing to not take up a full-time commitment, I have been able to be a full-time mom along with having a fulfilling career working on various projects in various capacities.
What are the challenges to the roles you play?
Time management. I am involved in numerous things which are not related to each other significantly. I wake up each day and plan and allocate time for each of the work areas. I am also a voracious reader; I finish about 4 books a week! So, I allocate time for reading too!
I also feel that for someone who works out of home, it’s important to stay motivated and maintain a disciplined schedule. If it works for you, wear your work clothes and sit at your work desk at home!
We women in India want to be involved home-makers and moms. It is important to think innovatively about our careers. You can get a lot of work done along with managing a home while you are working out of home. It is heartening to see a lot of women-friendly changes in the corporate world. Not too many men think about work-life balance, they have sharply defined career goals and are not always stricken by guilt of doing less, in spite of doing more which is typically the way women feel.
What have been some of the most memorable moments in your career so far?
While working with Kaya, I would come at 8 in the mornings and leave at 4 in the evenings, which were unusual hours for a vertical head. I had a team, spread across geographies and would stay in touch with them through both formal and informal processes. The fact that a diverse team can be managed innovatively was proved when during a companywide team engagement and performance satisfaction survey, my team scored the highest. It validated my belief that one can work effectively by setting dedicated time for work and home.
My first book release was a tremendous high and of course, becoming a doctor was special.
Please tell us about your dreams for the future
I want to work towards empowering women and improving women’s health to enable us to harness our talents and potential. A recent Harvard survey result states that among four groups – single women, married women, single men and married men, the healthiest were married men and the unhealthiest were sadly, married women. I want to continue my work in the space of health, beauty and wellness.
I also see myself continuing to write – would love to publish a work on fiction.
Dr. Aparna S strongly believes in pursuing one’s dreams. Sometime post her Masters Degree, an interest in radio jockeying led her to join Xavier’s Institute of Communication and pursue a certificate course in Announcing, Broadcasting, Compering & Dubbing. Subsequently, she did a show on AIR along with some road shows and quizzes for about a year or two.
Who or what are your inspirations?
My father’s confidence and expectation of excellence, my mother’s steadfast support and solace, my husband’s incredible tolerance and support for all my shenanigans and my daughter’s “Go for it amma” for every one of my hare brained schemes are my biggest strengths. I am blessed in my friends who believe I can do anything. I read an article on Six friends every woman should have and realised that I have all six, a couple of best friends from your early college days and some newer, dear friends you make right through adulthood who know you as a different, more matured person. My teachers Dr.Wadhwa, Dr.Khopkar and Dr.Joshi helped me excel in dermatology. Annabel Mehta from Apnalaya is a huge source of inspiration and mentorship as is Harsh Mariwala of Marico Industries Limited.
What career advice would you like to give?
To those considering dermatology, I would say, today, dermatology is one of the most sought-after specializations. There is cutting edge work happening in the fields of dermatology and cosmetology. To a budding doctor – remember, that you are a doctor first and must keep your patients’ interests above everything else. It’s easy to slip into doing more and even more intervention with a patient. You must know when to put an end to interventions and educate your patients.
If you pursue what you truly love, the financial reward will come to you. But money shouldn’t be the primary motivation. Be passionate about what you do, it opens up several possibilities. Try something new regularly. Experiment. Work and learning in any form never goes in vain.
Always keep your dreams alive. Life is full of possibilities and we all have unexplored talents. If you wish to write, write now. If you wish to paint, paint. There is a never a perfect time, the time is now.
Image Courtesy: Dr. Aparna Santhanam
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