Born in Madras, India, in 1954, Chandrika Tandon grew up in what was then a small town, with a younger brother and sister (Horatio Alger Member, Indra Nooyi ’09). From her earliest days, Chandrika was groomed to be a wife and mother, drilled in how to care for a household and maintain the family honor. “From the beginning it was about learning the traditions of running a house and respecting my elders, but it was expected that I would work hard in school and get the best grades I could. Whether I ever used my education was not the point.”
Chandrika’s mother was a trained musician, and their home was filled with music from 4:30 in the morning, when the family’s chores began, until bedtime. Only two radio stations were available, so whatever was being broadcast that day is what they enjoyed. Like her mother, Chandrika possessed an intense love of music. “I sang before I could speak,” she says, “and I sang before I could walk. Music is what I am. Everything else is what I do.”
Chandrika’s tasks as a child included rising at 5 a.m. to supervise cow milking, washing floors, and doing laundry. Throughout all her chores, she sang. She hummed while ironing her school uniform and while walking to school. When the electrical power was unavailable for several hours each day, the family gathered and sang. “When I sing,” says Chandrika, “I am in the music, and the music takes me to a very different place within myself. It gives me pure joy and that radiates from me and touches everything around me.”
Chandrika’s childhood was greatly influenced by her beloved grandfather. Each evening, their ritual was to sit together while he read her the classics and poetry. “I memorized so many poems,” she says. “‘Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.’ A line like that was a profound statement for me. I lived a very sheltered life; the words on the pages, from writers of other lands, filled the air with possibilities. Books and poems eventually convinced me that I could not go into a life that someone else planned for me.”
Intelligent and dedicated to her studies, Chandrika dreamed of pursuing a degree in business. Her parents finally gave in when she staged a hunger strike. After graduating in 1973 from Madras Christian College, Chandrika’s next goal was to attend graduate school. She applied to the most prestigious business program in the country, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. An extremely competitive school, there were 100,000 applicants for around 100 slots—and only 8 of those went to women.
“I grew up in an environment that had so many social restrictions, it was difficult to even dream of following a different path,” says Chandrika. “I had to break boundaries without destroying my family, who was so dear to me. Those were tough battles.”
Chandrika received her MBA in 1975 and was immediately hired by Citibank, where she worked as a trader in Beirut after completing her training program during Lebanon’s worst civil war in modern history. “To get to work, we drove through streets that were burning,” says Chandrika. “It was a very traumatic time, physically, but I was learning so much and thoroughly enjoying the intellectual challenge.”
In 1978, following three promotions, Citibank sent Chandrika to New York on business, where she had a chance meeting with people from McKinsey and Company. This led to an interview in India with a senior partner. “What I thought would be a one-hour meeting turned into a two-day interrogation!” Shortly thereafter, McKinsey flew her from India to New York for a week of interviews with more than 20 people. She was wearing a yellow sari and open-toed slippers, and carried a too-big winter coat that she had borrowed from a friend. That day, New York was in the middle of one of the biggest blizzards in decades, and Chandrika was woefully unprepared for the extreme weather. “One of the things I loved about McKinsey,” says Chandrika, “was that they paid no attention to my nontraditional clothes. They were interested in me as a person and what I could bring to the company intellectually. They saw more potential in me than I saw in myself.”
When Chandrika migrated to the United States at the age of 24, she became the first Indian woman to be hired by McKinsey and Company. On her first day, Chandrika walked into the office and was told that she had to go to New Jersey at the end of the week for a client meeting. “I didn’t even know where New Jersey was, and I certainly had never driven a car before,” says Chandrika. “I took driving lessons for four days and on the day of the meeting, got up at 4 a.m., even though the meeting was not until 8. On the way, I would drive and stop and drive and stop—all this in the fast lane. People would pass, waving their middle finger at me, which I did not understand. I just waved back and kept going. I finally made it to the meeting on time.”
It was challenging for Chandrika to learn a new culture while simultaneously working in a heavily male-dominated environment, but her dedication, perseverance, and focus on client impact paid off when she became one of the company’s first female partners. Her dream was to invest in the major transformation that was happening in the financial services industry. In the early 1990s, she risked her life savings and founded Tandon Capital Associates, which restructures preeminent financial institutions worldwide, creating billions of dollars of market capital. Her clients have included Chase, Unibanco of Brazil, and Bank of Boston, now part of Bank of America.
Tandon Capital flourished. However, one day, while completing a contract on one of her biggest deals yet, she found she couldn’t sign. “I was paralyzed,” she says. “I started to think, ‘What am I doing? What am I trying to accomplish? Is this what my life’s going to be, doing one deal after another? Is this success?’ I was having what I now call a crisis of spirit. I knew I had to think carefully about what I wanted the rest of my life to be.”
Chandrika abruptly turned down what could have been a signature deal, beginning her self-exploration by trying to define her greater purpose. She thought about when she was happiest in life and quickly realized those times all had to do with music. She went to India and persuaded music masters to teach her to sing. She also trained under an Indian master who taught at Wesleyan University. By then, Chandrika was married and had a two-year-old daughter. The weekends were precious to her, but she was willing to rise early each Saturday and drive two hours for her 6 a.m. singing class.
For her father-in-law’s 90th birthday, Chandrika made a CD of Indian chants. In 2011, her career was catapulted by a Grammy nomination for Soul Call, on which she produced and sang lead vocals. She has four albums to her credit, proceeds of which support community building and wellness through her not-for-profit label. Her most recent, Shivoham—The Quest, was produced with more than 250 musicians across four continents, bridging Eastern and Western traditions, genres, and instrumentation.
Chandrika’s music has been a vehicle for her service. She continues to spread music around the world, performing benefit concerts at Lincoln Center, World Culture Festival, and the Smithsonian, among many others. She also supports the arts through organizations and initiatives like the Berklee-Tandon Global Clinics, which helps young artists pursue careers in music worldwide.
In parallel with her business and music careers, Chandrika decided to apply her considerable management expertise and resources to higher education. Beginning in 2002, she worked as a Distinguished Executive in Residence and on the Board of Overseers at NYU Stern, teaching classes on business strategy, leadership, and transformation for many years. From there, she served on many NYU school boards—Wagner School of Public Service, NYU Langone Health System—and is vice chairman of the University Board of Trustees and chairman of the President’s Global Council. She cares deeply about empowering women, transforming STEM education, and promoting economic and social well-being. In 2015, she and her husband, Ranjan Tandon, donated $100 million to the New York University School of Engineering (now NYU Tandon), where she serves as chairman of the Board. Her commitment to education extends outside NYU to her two alma maters and to faculty chairs at Harvard and Yale.
When asked to define her own version of the American Dream, Chandrika says, “In America, you are unfettered by where you came from or what your beginnings are. What matters most is how much you care and what you are prepared to put in. At the end of the day, you have to believe in and realize your own unique possibilities, so the journey is a happy one.”
Chandrika works to empower a generation of students through public addresses, project work, and intensive mentoring. She says, “I hope our youth understand that they are perfection—just as they are. Negative self-talk and insecurities are self-defeating. Music taught me that perfection comes in many forms. Really, the universe wants us all to succeed. If you care about what you are doing, work hard, and believe in yourself, with a little luck, opportunities and success will come to you.”
Proud and privileged to become a member of the Horatio Alger Association, Chandrika says, “It’s the beginning of an exciting journey for me. It is a chance for all of us who care about young scholars to join hands and work together. United, we can accomplish so much more than as individuals.”