By Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya
As the global pandemic wanes, it is highly likely that our future will look very different from our past. To create and support a new normal that is resilient, we need leaders who are themselves resilient, who bring in fresh perspectives, who have the ability to pull in learnings from different fields, and who can comfortably straddle the domains of thought leadership and practice.
I’ve had an interesting vantage point in working with and learning from many different kinds of leaders. My academic training exposed me to those as well versed in Bayesian models as in Kafka and Freud and organizational behaviour. Professionally, I’ve had the good fortune of working with everyone ranging from CEOs of F-500 companies to engineers who have mastered cognitive empathy (in their case, the ability to put themselves in a user’s shoes), and appreciate its pertinence to product design. While the Hustle Fuel ride has given me great exposure to what makes a resilient entrepreneur.
1. The Jungle Gym Leader
“Careers aren’t ladders, they’re jungle gyms,” Sheryl Sandberg said famously.
Jungle gym leaders rarely stay in their lane. At a humble level, this is the philosophy I have subscribed to in my career thus far. I have tried to think broadly about finding and pursuing career opportunities in the early years of my career—to cross-pollinate my learnings and sharpen my peripheral vision across a range of different problems, roles, people and industries. By swinging to opportunities on my left (or right), I have been able to develop a greater degree of resilience, flexibility (in both managing and being managed) and curiosity to spot unexpected opportunities. For instance, collecting and synthesizing the expertise and skills I gained across sectors—from working with a bankrupt pan-American bridal dress manufacturer to a Silicon Valley biotech firm to a public school in rural India—translate into new insights as I think about differentiating factors for a digital transformation play.
Apparently, I am in good company when it comes to this model of leadership and career progression. Meena Ganesh, currently CEO of Portea Medical (one of India’s largest home healthcare providers), brings unapologetic swagger to being a determined jungle gym leader.
Armed with a Physics degree from Madras University and a management degree from IIM Calcutta, Ganesh spent the initial years of her career in the corporate sector—with NIIT and Microsoft India. She then co-founded one of India’s pioneering BPO companies, Customer Asset, which she sold to ICICI OneSource before joining and leading Tesco’s operations in India.
Ganesh then pivoted to ed-tech, co-founding TutorVista, a digital education solutions platform for schools, which was later acquired by Pearson.
These seemingly disconnected experiences across diverse sectors have a connecting theme—the desire to build products or solutions that are “must-haves” rather than “good to haves”. Portea germinated from her personal harrowing experience through her father’s cancer diagnosis, post-operative care, and subsequent passing.
Ganesh was completely new to the healthcare sector, other than her experience as a caregiver. She leveraged her jungle gym career and drew on learnings from her plethora of experiences to keep her ego in check, learn from those around her and look at the 30,000 feet view when convincing hospitals to hand over their patients, convincing patients to adopt a traditionally unknown concept of healthcare delivery at home, and convincing medical professionals to see this as a legitimate career option and help Portea reach a scale of 4,000+ staff that have served over 500,000 patients in 24 locations.
“The way they (Meena and her husband) planned Portea and scaled it up so quickly is impressive,” Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys and former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, said to Economic Times. “What is also impressive is that they enter a new field, put together a team, and inevitably become successful in whichever area they get into,” he added.
Today, Ganesh also brings this passion, attention to detail, and strategic thinking to companies ranging from grocery e-tailer BigBasket to online jewellery store BlueStone to home solutions company HomeLane and food tech company FreshMenu under her venture builder platform, Growth Story.
The art of the pivot is the competitive advantage of the jungle gym leader. Like Ganesh, they make strong leaders because they adapt quickly and easily to new challenges. It’s easy to mistake their seemingly unconventional moves with starting from scratch over and over. But in reality, these moves are greater than the sum of their parts and help blend together the expertise and skills they garner along the way to craft innovative products and businesses.
2. The Creative Coder
A direct outcome of “software eating the world” is the rise of the coder as a creative class responsible for laying the building blocks of future innovation. As every industry turns digital—and a company’s interface to their customers is software—“asking” one's developer is the key to solving business problems and to thriving, not just surviving, argues Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder of cloud communications platform-as-a-service company Twilio, in his book, Ask Your Developer: How to Harness the Power of Software Developers and Win in the 21st Century.
When technical acumen meets user-centric design, we arrive at the transformative power of creative thinkers who can code. Neha Singh, co-founder and CEO of Tracxn, often says being a “VC who can code” is a rare skill set that’s been invaluable in her success. Tracxn is a data analytics startup that tracks every other startup in the world. It helps private market investors look for good startups to invest in.
Academically trained in computer science, Singh started her career as a generalist management consultant at Boston Consulting Group, followed by a stint as a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital. Both these experiences laid the bedrock for building the variety of exposure and skills that one needs to succeed as an entrepreneur. When coupled with her techie credentials, this gave her the unique ability to play an outsized role in building and scaling a high-performing tech company—by marrying user-centric product design with the big-picture vision to scale Tracxn as a commercially successful business.
Even outside of Singh (and Tracxn’s) success story, there are several examples of the rise of the creative coder. Take, for example, PlaySimple. PlaySimple makes free online casual games across categories like trivia, word and puzzle which have cumulatively got 75 million downloads to date and 2 million daily active users.
The Modern Times Group (MTG), a Sweden-based gaming giant, recently acquired the India-based game developer for $360 million in one of the largest exits for an Indian startup. “PlaySimple is a rapidly growing and highly profitable games studio that quickly has established itself as one of the leading global developers of free-to-play word games, an exciting new genre for MTG,” Maria Redin, MTG Group President and CEO, said in a statement to TechCrunch. This does not seem surprising, given that the founding team is composed of former Zynga and Walmart Labs software engineers and product managers.
The training and world view of the “creative coder” ensures that they take a highly sophisticated data-driven approach to solving big problems, powered by best-in-class technology and analytics infrastructure—which is critical in all companies today, since every company is a tech company (whether they know it or not). This leadership style results in a design process that’s quick and iterative, and for example, allows a company like PlaySimple to develop multiple game hits especially popular with the growing global audience of female gamers.
3. The Operator-Advisor
The operator-advisor has worked inside tech companies and has experience with product market fit. They use this experience to identify promising tech entrepreneurs, invest in them and advise them.
Shruti Van Dyke Gandhi, partner at Array Ventures in California, fits this archetype. She emigrated from Mumbai to a small town in upstate New York, Poughkeepsie. To fund her way through college, Gandhi followed the advice given to her to get employable skills for a job. She taught herself to type and code and found work at a computing lab at Marist, a local college, and also at a department store. Gandhi’s work in the lab convinced Marist to accept her even without the college admission tests, the SATs.
Some professors (Gandhi’s clients at the computing lab) subsequently employed her at IBM. So, a 19-year-old Gandhi was holding down a 40-hour job as an engineer while in college. Starting out as one of the best quality assurance (QA) testers, she rose up the ranks at IBM, picked up two masters degrees (in computer science and business) and developed relationships with mentors and co-founders for the social data platform, Penseev, that she would later build.
After her startup experience, she decided to “reverse engineer venture capital” as she puts it. Her operator-advisor lens helped her see opportunities where others spotted obstacles. After some serendipitous turns through startup boards and other VCs, Gandhi launched Array Ventures in 2015. Many of her early investors were founders, bosses, and professors whom she had met over the previous 15 years. In her words, “Founders encouraged me to start Array because they liked working with a technical investor with engineering, operator, & VC experience.”
4. The Superconnector
The superconnector would do Dale Carnegie proud—with their supreme abilities to win friends, influence people, and break the internet. They find ways to bring products and experiences to life without writing a single line of code. Instead, they dream up big ideas and bring them to fruition by forging partnerships.
In the midst of the current pandemic, superconnectors have played a pivotal role in helping bring people together online. Several superconnectors have leveraged their superpower as social media influencers with cumulative followers going into the millions to become resource aggregators, information providers, SOS message broadcasters, and in many cases, saviours.
In the US, fewer than half of all Americans ages 18 to 39 are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The White House teamed up with millennial social media influencers to target this demographic with pro-vaccine campaigns. They partnered, for example, with Ellie Zeiler, 17, a TikTok creator with over 10 million followers, as part of the campaign encouraging Americans like those in Zeiler’s audience to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Since joining the campaign, she has conducted online conversations with Dr. Fauci to bust myths surrounding vaccination, and created original content for YouTube promoting the vaccines. In one 47-second video, she spoke directly into the camera, ticking through the reasons she had gotten vaccinated and why others should too. “Reason one,” she declared, was “you can go wherever you want.”
Closer home, fashion and lifestyle influencer Masoom Minawala has one million Instagram followers. She shared critical information through Instagram Stories that was personally verified by her. “My team and I concentrated on our goal to help as many people using our ability to connect over one million people on my Instagram handle in a situation which is so grave and hopeless. While access to resources is all over the internet, our aim is to provide verified information. Whatever I’m posting online has been verified over calls and WhatsApp. At this point, it is critical to be a responsible internet user,” Minawala told Mint.
5. The Academic Practitioner
Some academics find new roles as practitioners in industry. And these academic practitioners are in a unique position to merge their deep expertise with industry experience to become innovative leaders.
IMF chief Gita Gopinath, who trained as an economist, says that her favourite part of the job is to “work on not just one country, but 190 countries” and “apply all the research I have been doing to devise solutions for the economic challenges countries face.” Talking of her vantage point as an academic practitioner, Gopinath says to her alma mater, the Princeton Economics department, “The world is complicated. An understanding of economics gives you the tools to help simplify that complexity. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Great Lockdown that followed is unlike anything we have seen before. But economics helps distill the channels through which the pandemic can affect economic activity and what the right policy responses should be. It is not perfect and there is tremendous uncertainty also because a lot depends on the behavioural responses of individuals. Nevertheless, the combination of theoretical and empirical models in economics have been essential to understand this crisis and tailor solutions.”
In a vastly different realm, one of my professors at business school, Kartik Hosanagar, successfully straddles the worlds of academic research and entrepreneurship. At Wharton, he is the faculty lead for the AI for Business programme. His research work focuses on the digital economy, especially the impact of analytics and algorithms on consumers and society. On the entrepreneurship side, Hosanagar has co-founded and developed the core IP for Yodle Inc, a venture-backed firm that was acquired by Web.com. He is also a cofounder of SmartyPal Inc. And he has served on the advisory boards of Milo (acquired by eBay) and Monetate and is involved with many other startups as either an investor or board member.
His latest venture is a startup to make Hollywood more equitable—he wants to use data science to derisk media projects from lesser known creators. “How do you make a bet on underrepresented voices or underrepresented stories?” he asks. “While there’s awareness, there’s no action, because nobody knows how to do it. So that’s what got me into Jumpcut. It’s this rare company where 20 years of my work on data science and entrepreneurship meets with who I am outside of my work,” he told TechCrunch.
Jumpcut uses an algorithm to scan hundreds of thousands of videos from platforms like YouTube, Reddit and Wattpad to identify creators who have great stories that connect with new audiences. The creators with ideas that test well with a wide audience (of over 100,000 potential viewers) become part of the JumpCut Collective, an incubator programme that helps them move from concept to pitch in six weeks. The data on audience engagement helps creators prove to funders that their ideas can sell.
In less than two years, JumpCut has 12 TV and film projects underway, many in partnership with industry heavyweights—all of it using hard data rather than Hollywood’s old boys club.
6. The Community Builder
We need innovative products and services to advance the world. We also need leaders to advance the potential of those who advance the world. The community builder builds platforms that help other leaders start and build their own businesses for the future.
The mounting costs of the Covid-19 pandemic are demonstrating how essential it is to build more diverse, inclusive and resilient communities and economies. The community builder is committed to taking on the urgent work to minimize the near-term impacts of Covid-19 on local businesses, while simultaneously engaging in the longer-term work of economic recovery.
For some, like SaaSBOOMi, that takes on the form of direct assistance and building a roadmap to recovery. SaaSBOOMi, a community of 1000+ Indian SaaS companies and founders, has tied up with fintech startup Indifi to provide collateral-free revenue-based loans to help SaaS startups tide over their cash flow crisis. Vinod Muthukrishnan, Chief Operating Officer at Cisco’s Contact Center / Customer Experience Business, along with other seasoned entrepreneurs in the network, is helping vet the startups, guide founders to take the loans on reasonable terms, and mentor the founders in navigating the post-Covid era. An initiative like this could help extend the runway for legitimate startups that would otherwise flounder in the backlash of the pandemic. “So we’re looking at startups with solid fundamentals solving real customer problems and growing in a healthy way," Muthukrishnan told Mint.
For others, it might extend to cohort-based learning and virtual engagement. The Guild is Sequoia Capital India’s new startup that has been co-created with founders across India and South East Asia. As a venture capital investor, it’s an incremental step in their pursuit to “help the daring build legendary companies, from idea to IPO and beyond”. In order to help founders succeed and build enduring companies for the future, The Guild brings founders together on a regular basis to share their experiences, learn from each other, and hear from other world-class speakers.
(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)
About the Hustle Fuel series: Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal. Especially for women—but not just for women. It demands ‘hustle fuel’—which is precisely the attitude any entrepreneurial leader needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.
This series looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a women's lens. It includes
- A column that takes a wide-angle view of the changes at the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation—and what they mean for women leaders.
- And candid conversations with a new generation of women who have ‘made it happen’ in business and industry.
The columns and conversations will be archived here as they get published.