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A Life Less Ordinary – Dame Asha Khemka

“Managing 30,000 people and understanding nature’s thrilling power: what makes the award-winning educationalist tick?”

Dame Asha Khemka is chief executive and principal of Vision West Nottinghamshire College in Mansfield, which each year has 30,000 students in further education, training and work-place learning. She came to the UK aged 26 in 1978, unable to speak English with three young children. Thirty-five years later she was awarded a damehood for services to further education. In April 2017, she was named Businesswoman of the Year at the Asian Business Awards Midlands, sponsored by Investec Private Banking.

Where do you go to think?
I’m not the sort of person who would go somewhere quiet to get my thoughts together. I’m always thinking: in the car driving an hour to and from work every day, everywhere. Work is life for me and thinking about everything is a continuous process. I love it.

What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
I feel better if I have been to the gym before I start my day, because it gives me energy. The more I do, the more energetic I become. I don’t really have any habits – apart from working. But I do drink about a litre-and-a-half of water in the morning. I boil a full kettle, let that cool, and drink it in the time between waking up and leaving the house.

To whom do you look for advice most often?
Not for advice as such, but I do share my thoughts and ideas with my husband or my daughter. Sometimes I might even change my mind based on what they’d say! People ask me for advice – and they don’t always like what I have to say to them, because my usual reply to someone who feels life is not treating them well is to tell them not to put themselves in the position where they allow that to happen.

I had a reputation for being driven, focussed, task-oriented, even ruthless about achieving my expectations – and it was all true

What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
I’m very proud of the work I do for my charity. When I arrived in Mansfield, I noticed a lot of the young people had poverty of aspiration. They needed nurturing and coaching, a different kind of exposure to make them self-confident. So I set up The Inspire and Achieve Foundation that aims to inspire young people to work towards a positive future by helping them improve their behaviour and attitude towards education, employment and volunteering. We put them in situations where they don’t feel threatened – you praise some young people and they are almost hysterical because no one has praised them before. We also encourage them to engage in sporting activities to build self-esteem and self-confidence. I’m very proud of the focussed work we’ve done. As a result, hundreds of young people have moved to a better, more positive place – further education, higher education, work. It’s very gratifying to see that. Also, in my job, at the college, we have made a difference, bit by bit, mainly by showing people what they should expect from themselves. I have played the leading role but the team make things happen. I am a very demanding person and not easy to please, but once people show me they can achieve the high standards we set, I back off and let them get on, to use their own initiative to make their own mistakes and learn from them. By doing that, I have created a great team.

What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
I got married when I was barely 15. It was an arranged marriage and my husband [consultant orthopaedic surgeon Shankar Khemka] was a pre-med student at Nottingham. I came to this country and I didn’t speak English or know anything of the culture. My self-belief has got me to where I am, but my husband has been a rock, supporting and encouraging me. I am indebted to him. My ambition is in my DNA, the way I was brought up, so I have to give credit to my family, too.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where my husband and I took a Jeep trip up Tiger Hill. You get up at the crack of dawn. As the sun started to rise, the rays reflected on the mountains and I could see the magic. The performance of the sunrise as it emerged was mesmerising. I have never experienced anything as breathtaking. That was 20 years ago and it is imprinted in my memory.

What’s the best thing you can cook?
Our family’s staple meal of boiled basmati rice, dhal, dry spinach curry and maybe another vegetable curry, like okra. If I’ve got time to make chapatis, I will. That gets cooked very fast and very well because I am a very good cook.

How do you make yourself happy?
When I’ve done something good at work. I like to be praised and to be the centre of attention. It’s where I perform best. There are times when things don’t go well, so when they do, I’m happy. And my granddaughter makes me absolutely delighted.

Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you?
When I see art done by my students. Their creativity, imagination and thoughts transformed into artwork as well as listening to them talking through how they did it can be really inspirational.

Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
I love my house. We have invested a lot of time, energy and money to make the home we like. It’s just the two of us at home now, and we are equally fussy about having everything just right.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
When I first became college principal, I had a reputation for being driven, focussed, task-oriented, even ruthless about achieving my expectations – and it was all true. What pleasantly surprised me was that I went on to discover that I wasn’t exactly that person any more. I became more and more a people person. The people around me were my responsibility and my approach changed in terms of dealing with and understanding people. I could gauge their starting points better, and a nurturing role started to develop. I never had any issue with what people thought of me – I’m still a hard taskmaster, but I do things differently. I’ve mellowed and people are my main responsibility.

When was the last time you made or created something?
It feels like I’m always making or creating things. I have designed a lot of the things in my house, as far as going to the factory to see that things are being made properly. Units, worktops, all kinds of things. It’s an ongoing process. And with the college, there’s been £50m invested and I have been creative in spending that. Everything inside and outside, the look, the furniture. We made a spa, run by students who are training to work in that sector, and I chose the tiles behind the ice fountain. We have a commercial restaurant run by students. I designed the mats, crockery, cutlery, the wallpaper, the lot.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
So far, you mean? There is so much to do in life. I’ve never had a list of things I wanted to do, I do things as they come along and I have ideas. But maybe my greatest achievement at this point in time is my contribution to Mansfield. Regeneration of cultural and economic prospects for young people there and the surrounding area.

What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
To be humble, to understand and respect others and doing things not for self-interest but because they’re the right things to do.

Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
I have not had first-hand experience of people who have been great leaders because of their sacrifice and courage, but I did go to Robben Island in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was in prison. Seeing the conditions he was exposed to and the way the cruelty happened, and then understanding that he rose above it to fight for what he believed in… he was like Mahatma Gandhi in making sacrifices to achieve his nation’s freedom. This is something very, very special and courageous. For any human to behave like this is extraordinary.

What song could you sing most completely right now?
The Indian anthem. I get the chance to do it quite often, on international delegations when there are events. Here at home, I go to functions at the Indian High Commission or the Indian Consulate in Birmingham and would sing the anthem – these are the events that celebrate India.

What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
We went on an Alaskan cruise. I was on the treadmill in the gym, and I looked up out of the window and there was a huge iceberg, blue, black and white. On the whale-watching trip we saw 11 different whales. The ship’s crew put a microphone in the water and played the whale song to us passengers. We took a seaplane trip into mist and clouds, and when we emerged we were over a stream full of huge salmon. Everything about the trip was amazing.

If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
I’m always challenging systems, processes and people. But I am always positive, with positive energy, and I like to see people around me with that in abundance. Negativity puts me off, I really don’t like it and the world as it is has so much negativity. So I would make everyone’s glass half full, like mine.

You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
Back to my childhood. My memories of it are very precious, and it would be wonderful to be able to relive them, to try and feel and understand more about why things happened the way they did.

If money were no object, what would you buy?
There are things money can never buy. Money comes and goes. I’m lucky to be able to afford things, but happiness and fulfilment, living the life you enjoy through contentment and helping others around you feel that contentment. Money can’t come close to that.