Hustle Fuel started with the search for role models. New-age female role models from the world of technology and entrepreneurship who have used their “hustle fuel” to build meaningful companies and careers and learnt a lot along the way.
After two months, five columns, and one recorded conversation into this journey to uncover untold stories that would be relevant especially for women (but not just for women), I’ve seen some broad themes emerge.
1. If you think of your career as a delicious cake, self-confidence, and the right mix of conviction and adaptability is crucial for baking it.
Self-belief and confidence have been table stakes with every leader I’ve spoken with. That underpins the risk appetite Rooshy Roy and Justin Silver showed when they set up Aavrani, a niche luxury beauty company, straight out of business school, eschewing the security of their high-flying Wall Street careers. That confidence allows Anu Acharya to think big and believe that her genomics company, Mapmygenome, will touch 100 million Indian lives and save a million lives by 2030 through preventive medicine—in a country where the healthcare system is overwhelmed. It allows Krista Kim and Aparajita Jain to persevere to level the playing field for artists by harnessing the power of NFTs.
Women, me included, are often prey to self-doubt—or what’s called the impostor syndrome. We come up with reasons why we shouldn’t try something. So many of us wrestle with confidence, from the time we’re little girls and even when we become role models to be emulated.
A personal story that Adam Grant shared with us during business school deeply resonates with my lived experience. One of the things he is probably best known for is his TED talk several years ago which was met with a standing ovation. However, he confessed to us that he used to get nightmares even before speaking to his class at Wharton—in which he’d trip over the wires and fall flat on his face. He calls people like himself and me “defensive pessimists”, who prepare and work hard to always be our best selves, but plan for the worst possible outcomes. Research shows that channelling this anxious energy actually leads people like us to better outcomes than we would get to otherwise. However, while Grant and I believe that a touch of impostor syndrome might spur better individual performance, it is also equally important to think about how others will believe “you can do it”, even if you don’t!
Several of my conversations have revealed that confidence tempered with humility works really well. Getting it wrong can be the first step to getting it right. The success stories of Aavrani and Mapmygenome are the result of constant iteration and reflection on the part of the founders. Sometimes it’s been lessons learnt from lack of customer connect with the core branding of the products, other times lessons have come from realising that they've tilted too much in one direction and need to correct the balance. Always being honest with themselves, and humble enough to be open with others, has helped these leaders create greater impact.
Anu, for example, realised that they were tending to hire mostly women and needed to consciously hire men to bring in diversity.
And Rooshy led a months-long development stretch using Instagram stories, where Aavrani followers were given a chance to vote, see and learn about what went into recreating the Aavrani brand—from the tint of blue for the packaging, to the recyclable containers and the finish on the lids. Rooshy created a space for direct and honest customer-company communications. She said, “I wanted to open the rebranding up to our followers because I really wanted them to contribute not only in terms of what their preferences are, but I also wanted them to feel like they were a part of building something with me. Which they are. Early adopters, or early fans—I don’t think founders give them enough credit. They’re our biggest advocates. Their mindset, their word of mouth, is priceless. I almost feel like this is a way of honouring them believing in me, and giving them an opportunity to share what their preferences are. And showing them how it actually impacts what we’re doing.”
Crucially, these leaders have set the tone from the top. Whether it’s the be-unapologetic-about-who-you-are and “own your glow” culture at Aavrani in New York, or the open-door policy to Anu’s office at the Hyderabad base of Mapmygenome, each of these leaders have put conscious effort into shaping what their culture stands for. Anu, for example, emphasises creating an inclusive culture. She has cultivated a safe space at Mapmygenome which empowers every person on her team (herself included) to not regret the mistakes they make, but to make sure to learn from them, forgive themselves and move on. This proactive approach to shaping an inclusive culture is probably the reason no one ever quits working for Anu!
2. Surround yourself with people who think differently from you.
I sharpen my thinking at work against people smarter than I am. Whenever I am shaping a straw man argument, I often construct a mental model of how a colleague who thinks very differently than I do would think through the problem and what conclusions he would reach. I try to be as objective and fair as I can be when I think things through from his perspective. I then revisit my own view, and adjust my hypotheses as needed. It’s almost like I have a little simulation of this colleague that lives on my shoulder and we engage in healthy debate very often (actually in-person, or via a closely simulated imaginary substitute if that’s not feasible).
Most of the leaders I’ve engaged with during my research for Hustle Fuel have a similar process. Rooshy brings her lived experiences following a clean and natural Indian beauty regimen to the table with Aavrani, while Justin provides a healthy foil from his days scaling a Japanese beauty company as an investor-operator. Anu stoutly credits the complementarities that she and her husband/co-founder, Subash, bring to the table for the success of their personal and professional families. When I was researching the article on NFTs, Aparajita Jain, owner of Terrain.Art, told me that she was looking for a co-founder with a technology background in product strategy and monetization to complement her art world credentials and help her scale her technology-backed art gallery.
3. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of “having it all”.
An IIT-educated physicist-turned-serial-entrepreneur with a co-founder husband, two daughters and two beagles.
An organizational psychologist whose best friend and inspiration for his advice to career women is a single mother raising her two children while leading Facebook as a COO.
A divorced immigrant artist and daughter of a martial artist and acupuncturist who is revolutionizing how technology and art interact, and manifesting a movement with her characteristic confidence, aplomb, and optimism for the betterment of humanity.
A young Indian-American woman who channels her minority roots to create a successful business in New York and gives back a part of the profits to the Indian community.
An Indian-origin lesbian corporate strategist in a F-500 company who is raising two beautiful children with her Jewish nurse practitioner wife.
These one-line descriptions represent (but do not do justice to) some of the most interesting people I’ve connected with in the Hustle Fuel saga. The one thing that each of these interviewees/guests have in common is that they self admittedly lead very happy fulfilling lives, and truly believe that they “have it all”. If any proof were needed, this is it—“having it all” can come in a range of flavours. It’s something we need to define for ourselves, rather than having society dictate it to us. And to do so without guilt, as Anu said to me.
4. It is an individual choice to view the glass as half full or half empty.
This is the overarching takeaway that has been a reinforcement of my own belief. You can either look at being a woman as “this is so tough, there are unconscious biases, the odds are stacked against me with this uneven playing field.” Or you can turn what’s different about you into an advantage, as the women leaders I’ve spoken with have.
Rooshy turned her immigrant heritage into a product line. Anu leverages her soft-spoken feminine demeanour to excel at crisis management. From the pre-Covid kickboxing class, I have learned to channel any negative energy that I might have and redirect it to my benefit. I might be the only woman in an executive meeting, and it may sometimes feel awkward or like I don’t fit in. But on the bright side, it will certainly be easier for me to be remembered.
Women enjoy other advantages aside from being more memorable. They are considered to be better, more empathetic listeners; and credited with creating more collaborative cultures at their companies. And given that women make up half the population, and dominate consumer purchasing decisions, women leaders can help better attune companies with this valuable audience.
5. Finally, men are interested in becoming better leaders and learning how to create an inclusive environment as well.
As one of my friends at BCG told me after engaging with the Hustle Fuel content, “I can definitely be a better manager if I better understand how the women on my team are feeling.” The Hustle Fuel takeaways about managing your own temperament better, enjoying the process, setting the culture, and being authentic are just as relevant for men as for women. From the standpoint of greater inclusion, I fundamentally believe that every person wants to be the best version of themselves and it is very important for men to be part of these conversations.
I’m excited about all that we will continue to learn on the Hustle Fuel journey. Onward!
(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 will include
- 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.