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Renu Narvekar: A career in tax – ‘unlocking new opportunities’

Global Head of Taxation at Tata Consultancy Services, Renu Narvekar, discusses her growth in a male-dominated industry and explains how knowledge is the most essential tool for the next generation of tax professionals.

Renu Narvekar was recognised as the winner of the inaugural In-house Transfer Pricing Director of the Year prize at the 10th ITR Asia Tax Awards – a title which recognised her remarkable achievements as the global head of taxation at Tata Consultancy Services, as well as the admiration that she commands from her peers in the tax world.

"While tax may mean different things to different people, for me it has been a wonderland and a path to self-discovery," Renu tells ITR, in a special interview for the first India Special Focus guide.

"I have had the curiosity to learn, develop interpretational skills and keep myself updated and in-sync with the changing tax landscape. A professional never stops learning."

A career in tax

Renu Narvekar

After graduating with a commerce degree from Bombay University, Renu's first encounter to the working world of tax came through an internship during her chartered accountancy course in the late 1980s. She recalls that the stint had left her fascinated by the complexity of legislation and the striking impact that the different interpretations of rules could have.

"The fact that my colleagues found tax to be 'too complicated' and 'too chaotic' had set my mind on demystifying what this little three-letter word could behold," says Renu. More than three decades later, she continues to be intrigued.

"A career in tax offers variety, intellectual stimulation, and plenty of responsibility. There's a lot of moving parts to tax which means that every day is a new challenge."

After a brief stint in auditing and management information systems (MIS) reporting, Renu had a career breakthrough by taking on a senior role in the area of excise taxes – a division that had a considerable gender imbalance in India during the early 1990s.

Over the years, Renu gained experience in other indirect taxes – like customs, sales tax and VAT – and steadily progressed to take on a role as the head of indirect taxes. She subsequently took on additional responsibilities for direct tax, transfer pricing and later was able to take on roles as the group head of tax.

Looking back at her career, Renu feels fortunate to have witnessed India's burgeoning tax framework develop before her eyes. From political shifts and momentous union budgets to India's steady rise to becoming an economic superpower, Renu and her teams have had to correctly interpret the market's demands. She reveals that the arrival of India's goods and services tax (GST) in 2017 was a recent 'taxing' challenge.

"GST came with a bang – and as anticipated – threw the whole business and taxation community into disorder," recalls Renu. "Everything was new and one had to re-learn the taxation of goods and services from scratch."

"I had the great opportunity of learning and understanding new concepts, new provisions, new interpretations and newer set of compliances. The journey with GST has since, only gotten better."

Renu reminisces the excitement associated with the introduction and development of mutual agreement procedure (MAP) and advanced pricing agreement (APA) regulations in India, adding that she became aware of the "political nuances of such negotiations" and that "knowledge of business" was the critical factor in achieving the desired tax outcome.

At an international level, Renu expresses that it has been a "privilege" to have had the chance to present her views on the public consultation documents for the OECD's proposals on pillar one and two, and for dispute resolution. As recently as January 2021, she sat on an OECD panel discussing tax certainty and administration, alongside a number of the world's leading tax voices.

"BEPS is one global tax reform that goes way beyond tax. The project is a business transformation issue rather than simply a rewrite of the global tax framework," says Renu. "BEPS gave me a multi-dimensional exposure of tax and business and mandated that I ensure our tax governance was more conscious of what is happening around the world."

In addition to trailblazing work, she fondly remembers a successful closure at the Supreme Court level of a classification dispute that had been ongoing for over 20 years. The case involved various governmental authorities, and in its time, was heard by several tribunals and courts.

"It included immense research and understanding of the product such as its ingredients and the source of such ingredients," says Renu. "I spent time in research labs with scientists, briefing some of the best counsels in the country. An immensely satisfying experience."

The importance of knowledge

Renu has previously taken on tax leadership roles at British banking giants, an American consumer goods company, and has even dabbled with her own Mumbai-based boutique firm. However, the desire to learn and reinvent herself still stands strong. She recalls encountering a challenging merger and acquisition (M&A) transaction during one of her earlier stints as head of tax.

"The M&A deal shook me out of my complacency. It was such a fulfilling and enriching experience, that I realised I wouldn't be content with the same role anymore," says Renu. "There was much more fun, excitement and opportunities in the world of tax, and I needed to explore more."

Renu stresses the significance of learning about a business's 'know-how' early on in one's career. This includes insight into what the business does, how the organisation functions, and how complex tax regulations could be explained in layman terms to a non-tax audience.

"In this information age, staying on top of the latest developments – even in a field you're an expert in – is non-negotiable," declares Renu.

"As head of tax, I have needed to be aware of the business strategy and build the tax strategy from there. I choose not to wear the 'tax hat' at all times but be more adaptable and able to communicate in a simple, yet effective manner."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Renu has actively encouraged her team members to take advantage of e-learning courses and webinars to upgrade their skills, and potentially even reskill.

"Technology has been at the centre of pandemic-related challenges, as well as the opportunities it has presented," notes Renu. "Leveraging technology and innovative processes will definitely go a long way, even in the post-pandemic world."

"For tax professionals, the pandemic and all its related changes is a prime opportunity to look at whether work really needs to be done in the old ways, or if it's time to move forward into a new, tech-enabled work culture."

Paying it forward

Renu admits that there are fundamental challenges faced by young female professionals trying to enter the working world of tax in India. In addition, she acknowledges that finding a mentor can be difficult when there are a lack of senior female role models.

She stresses that female tax professionals may have to deal with gruelling and sometimes unpredictable hours, while still faced with the challenge of trying to have a family or a social life.

"While men may not be questioned about choosing a career over a family, women face questions and scrutiny their entire lives, resulting in a struggle between their professional and personal life," says Renu. "These circumstances, very often influence the woman to quit her career in favour of the family."

She feels that in spite of the right credentials and education, young women are also often underestimated and treated as though they are underqualified. She cites that this prejudicial treatment is capable of eroding one's self-confidence.

"One of the biggest issues facing people early on in their careers is a lack of confidence," says Renu. "Even if you have great ideas and valuable insight, you often feel like you're too inexperienced or haven't earned the right to speak up."

To combat this, she calls for direct action from aspiring female tax professionals.

"This was one of the biggest mental hurdles I encountered when I first started my career. What I have come to realise is that expressing good, well-thought-out ideas gains more respect. It might sound clichéd, but it's true," reveals Renu.

"It's much easier for others to believe in you once you believe in yourself. If you speak up when you have an insightful comment or idea, you'll not only make yourself look good – you'll likely unlock new opportunities for yourself."

Renu feels that a positive and proactive mind-set is also vital.

"This is a challenging career – so, don't be overwhelmed by difficulties; be confident. When it comes to standing out from the crowd, determination and enthusiasm go a long way – as does resilience and confidence in one's own abilities," she says.

"You will often be expected to turn around large amounts of work under tight deadlines. Being able to stay calm and focused is critical."

Work in the pandemic era

Renu has had to manage the tightrope walk of balancing home and career commitments during the pandemic.

"At the start, I assumed that working from home would provide greater flexibility and an opportunity to spend more time with family, as my commuting time was eliminated," recollects Renu. However, as the pandemic progressed, she states that the demands of managing both home and work became a challenge.

"This pandemic has disturbed this ecosystem. Working from home resulted in an increased workload, especially without any help with household tasks. There are no boundaries when it comes to timings, the working hours now seem to have no end," says Renu.

At work, the focus of her team has been on adding value and building resilience in an uncertain climate. This has included taking advantage of any tax payment deferrals, reducing external budgets, exploring liquidation and restructuring opportunities and finding new ways to automate.

"We have witnessed a sea of change in the way in which we interact with the tax authorities, appellate forums and regulators," says Renu.

"E-hearings and virtual presence is being considered as a de facto norm. We've experienced this first-hand having virtual conferences with counsels, involving preparation of case files, case laws, and paper books."

Renu feels that given this 'new normal', there is a need to recalibrate the approach and the expectations in terms of engaging with the revenue authorities and the impact on existing tax litigation, refunds and other proceedings.

"A general 30 minutes 'across-the-table' discussion with a counsel, now takes us a couple of hours, across a couple of days, and is followed by virtual online hearings," she reveals.

Outside the office, Renu keeps herself equally busy with hobbies that help continue her everlasting quest of learning. From being a cinephile to an avid painter, she ensures that she is able to recharge during her time off.

She calls herself a 'wandering soul', who enjoys visiting new places, travelling new roads, trying new cuisines and studying new cultures. Reading is another downtime favourite.

"What I truly treasure about reading, is its power to transport me to different locations while I'm still on my couch. It is a low budget travel option that I often take," quips Renu.

Before the pandemic, Renu also used to volunteer at a local NGO on Saturdays to teach children art and craft, read stories and play games with them.

"It is truly a rewarding and enriching experience".

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