Turkish Tea And Other Perks Of Working With Your Spouse
BioNTech Chief Medical Officer Özlem Türeci (right), and Chief Executive Officer Uğur Şahin. (Image: BioNTech website)

Turkish Tea And Other Perks Of Working With Your Spouse

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These days in our house there’s another question that’s as loaded as that ‘Have I gained weight?’ perennial. The husband freezes like a deer caught in the headlights when I ask him casually, “What’s it like to work with me?”

In two decades of being married, we’ve often worked for the same employer, but during the pandemic we linked up with people to launch two entrepreneurial ventures. Never ever work with your spouse, I told a friend just weeks before I signed up for our second joint idea.

Turkish Tea And Other Perks Of Working With Your Spouse

As Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin—the Turkish-German scientist couple who ride bicycles to work—make headlines for developing what is so far one of two most effective Coronavirus vaccines across the world, it seems only timely to reexamine the phenomenon of married couples who are brave enough to work together.

It doesn’t always work out. Some endings—like that of ShopClues co-founders Radhika and Sandeep Aggarwal—can be extremely messy. “Stay home mom for six years and prior to that only 18 months as entry level business analyst and straight away getting vice-president's job from once husband,” Sandeep wrote on Facebook after they were done. If you’re not careful, your marriage might even be the subject of a question on Quora, every overcurious Indian’s favourite platform.

Tureci and Sahin seem unfazed by all the publicity around their work. When the remarkable data about their vaccine came in, they celebrated with some Turkish tea. Their work ethic is like my father’s. On the day of their wedding, they returned to the lab after the ceremony. They named their first company Ganymed, which translates to “earned by hard work” in Turkish.

Also read: Here’s to the Immigrant Heroes Behind the BioNTech Vaccine

Many have compared them to Marie and Pierre Curie who, with Henri Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for discovering radioactivity. At first, only the two men were nominated, prompting Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler to write to Pierre telling him what had happened. Pierre replied simply, “If it is true that one is seriously thinking about me (for the Prize), I very much wish to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our research on radioactive bodies.” And that was that.

It’s nice when your spouse has your back.

Kiran Jonnalagadda and Zainab Bawa, once described as India’s geekiest couple, went down this road nearly a decade ago. Jonnalagadda founded HasGeek in 2010 and a year and a half later, Bawa, now the CEO, joined him. “In any professional relationship you have to hold the other person accountable and that can sometimes be at odds with the unconditional emotional support you expect from your spouse,” says Jonnalagadda. “That was one of the first casualties of working together as a couple. It took us some time to understand and work through this.”

For Bawa, an early challenge was battling the everyday sexism the world threw at her. “It takes some time to recalibrate the expectations of other people, that the woman is not the secretary of the man. That each of us has a different role,” she says. “This was the struggle for the first three years.” Bawa recollects the time she had a second work meeting with someone. The first time, the couple had gone together. “She’s come without her boss,” the supervisor was told.

Jonalagadda makes some more points: “Do your colleagues recognise that they can advance their career or do they think it’s a family business where nobody else can move up?” Often guests who visited their office, a converted bungalow, wanted to know if the couple lived upstairs. “It also extends to investors who say it’s a lifestyle business—you work when you want—and not a professional business.”

Zainab Bawa and Kiran Jonnalagadda, founders of HasGeek. (Image: Kiran Jonnalagadda)
Zainab Bawa and Kiran Jonnalagadda, founders of HasGeek. (Image: Kiran Jonnalagadda)

While he works on structure and technology, Bawa manages operations. “One of the things that have worked well with us is having distinct roles and different teams. We reached a stage in the organisation where people didn’t even know we were married.”

Says Jonalagadda, “We both have equivalent roles and that’s particularly tricky. There’s my side of the company and her side of the company. It’s hard to have one person being a boss.”

It helps when you’re each other’s biggest fans. I’m inspired by U.S. soccer captain Megan Rapinoe and her fiancee Sue Bird, both brilliant athletes who are even better together. “We are huge fans of each other….,” Rapinoe said in an interview. “I think it is just the understanding of what we have to go through and the appreciation of, you know, each other’s skills and lives is really special. … Neither of us are jealous or weird about each other’s careers. We are just kind of there to support each other.”

When I press my husband to respond, he admits that there’s a “great charm” to working together. “It’s exciting, exhilarating to exchange ideas, to break for a sudden snack or a drink, joke, or tickle you in the middle of a serious discussion. It’s also very efficient, there’s no delay, no confusion, things can be sorted out immediately,” he says.

Then he pauses before continuing cautiously. “Disagreement is a problem. The lines between work colleague and partner get blurred.”

That’s also usually when I’m texting friends furiously about not working with one’s spouse.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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