Dame Asha Khemka (second right) receives the Asian Businesswoman of the Year award. (From left), Kalpesh Solanki and Ramniklal Solanki of Asian Media & Marketing Group and Sherelle Singh of sponsor Investec Private Banking Image Credit: Swani Gulshan

Asha Khemka has bagged two titles in the UK this year. She was designated Asian Businesswoman of the Year in Birmingham, and has also been made the Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Staffordshire.

In the New Year Honours List 2014, Khemka, 66, became the first India-born woman in 83 years to be honoured with the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) — the female equivalent of knighthood — by Prince Charles at an investiture ceremony. In 2009, she was awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. Both are awards for service to further education and were given at ceremonies held at Buckingham Palace.

Khemka’s journey, from Bihar to Birmingham and on to Buckingham Palace, has been truly inspiring. Born in the small town of Sitamarhi in Bihar, she was married to Shankar Lal Khemka, a 19-year-old Patna Medical College student who belonged to a traditional Rajasthani family, even prior to finishing her schooling. Her husband went on to become a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon. In 1978, when he got the opportunity to join the National Health Service in London, the couple moved to the UK with their three children — a daughter and two sons.

“We were both excited about moving to a foreign country and even though suddenly living away from home was difficult, we took it in our stride,” Khemka tells Weekend Review. A positive person by nature, she looked at the brighter side of the move and explored new avenues that had opened up for her. Still, her main focus was her children. “I could not pursue my university education but always understood how education could change lives and tutored my children at home, ensuring they learnt to read and write,” she recalls. “The result was that all of them got admission in good schools on scholarship basis.”

Educating herself

As her English language skills were limited, she started educating herself while managing household chores. She would watch children’s programmes, cartoon films and made it a point to speak with her children in English. By the time they grew up and went to boarding schools, she had spent 20 years of her life as a full-time housewife and mother. But when her husband began his private medical practice, she decided to help him with administrative tasks and joined a secretarial course.

“At that time, I had not dreamt that my part-time course would lead to the success that I have enjoyed,” Khemka says.

She joined further education as a student and was amazed to find the transformation in herself. “I began considering bringing a change to the lives of others in the manner education had changed mine,” she says.

Khemka acquired teaching qualifications by doing a Bachelor of Education and then obtained a business degree from Cardiff University. “I began to like the feel of being independent and started my educational career as a part-time lecturer at my local college while living in Oswestry, in the county of Shropshire. But once I started working within the sector, I developed ambitions to be on the top. Facing numerous challenges and prejudices, it took me 15 years to become the principal and chief executive officer of the college, upon joining West Nottinghamshire College in 2006,” she recalls.

Under her leadership, the college has become one of the pre-eminent in the UK. Rooted in the communities of Nottinghamshire, it is the largest college provider of apprenticeships in the country, comprising more than 26,000 students — including 12,000 apprentices. With world-class education and training facilities, it works with over 3,100 employers to provide apprenticeship training across a range of industries and occupations.

“Our mission is to provide students the right skills for their preferred jobs and we have made a significant contribution in raising the prosperity level of the local community,” she says. “We need to change mindsets and parents must understand the importance of vocational degrees over academic degrees for their children.”

Having been a part of UK ministerial and prime ministerial delegations to India, she has contributed to promoting the critical importance of vocational education and training. “Creating a global workforce who is skilled in the sectors and the jobs that are needed for economic prosperity is essential to both the UK and India,” she says.

During her visits to India, she had a number of meetings with officials of the Skill Development ministry, discussing the importance of a triangular approach to skills development where government, industry and individuals come together and witness the progress.

Two years ago, Khemka opened a skills centre in the Indian city of Chandigarh as it is the focal point of call centres. She developed her BKSB technologies to assist call centre workers — and BKSB are online materials that help people improve their English listening and speaking skills.

“We tailored our BKSB products especially to the Indian market and came up with Skill Anytime, based on our two decades of experience,” she said.

Asked whether she felt an additional responsibility on winning the Asian Businesswoman of the Year award for her educational institution, Khemka says delightedly: “If at all there’s a feeling of additional responsibility, it is the desire that this award inspires women throughout the world, demonstrating that whatever your background, you can achieve your dreams by working hard. The award is in recognition for the job I love doing. It is proof that colleges are no longer seen as just education providers when they are so much more. Colleges play a major role not only in providing skills to thousands of students, but also offer commercial facilities such as restaurants, sports halls and theatres for their communities. My own college is a multi-million pound business in its own right.”

On her appointment as Deputy Lieutenant, Khemka said, “I cannot express how humbled I am by the honour. My role as a Deputy Lieutenant is to assist the Lord Lieutenant (Queen Elizabeth’s representative in the county) with ceremonial duties throughout the year, including representing him at civic and voluntary events and activities within the lieutenancy. Having been a resident of Staffordshire for the majority of my life in England, I am passionate about playing my part in its success.”

She is the chairperson of India’s Association of Colleges, an organsation aimed at progressing links between educational institutions in the UK and India. She is also a board member of several national bodies that have been set up to support the government’s commitment to deliver three million additional apprenticeships by 2020.

For her efforts in transforming the lives of youngsters, Khemka has received several awards including Asian Women of Achievement, National Jewel Award, Business Woman of the Midlands and Inspirational Woman of the Year.

What’s life like when she visits her relatives in India?

“We are a very close-knit family,” she says. “Though living thousands of miles away, the sense of bonding is very strong. When we get together, life is all about fun and food. In the UK, I miss the hustle and bustle, the chaos, the smell and the foods of India.”

Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.