Debjani Ghosh is currently paving a path for seamless tech innovations in India. As the first woman president of NASSCOM, she has been instrumental in ensuring that women across the country are an integral part of the many developments taking place at the turn of this century.
“The future is ours (women’s) and we have 50 percent of it, if not more. So, we cannot and should not take a seat at the side anymore and must be at the centre of the table to ensure our voices are heard,” said Debjani, while addressing a group of over 4,000 women at the GraceHopper Summit in Bangalore.
For women in the workforce, the root problem that’s hurting their ability to grow personally and professionally lies in their inability to acknowledge their talents, said Debjani. She asserted that women possess the right talent and leadership qualities, citing a Harvard Business Review study, which assessed 19 parameters of leadership qualities.
The study may have concluded that women perform better than men in 17 parameters of leadership qualities, but another piece of data in the same study revealed that when the same questions and parameters were run through women alone, they rated themselves poorly, Debjani noted.
Speaking at the 10th edition of the summit that brings together women in technology in India, Debjani urged women to win over the little voices of doubt inside their heads. Recounting her own experience of over two decades in the field, the technology industry veteran shared her five biggest lessons that guided her way. Here are five key takeaways from her address.
Chase what you want to do
Having grown up in a family with 12 brothers, one of the most important lessons Debjani learnt was asking the right questions.
In fact, she recounted how she’d always end up being the umpire whenever her family played cricket — which was often. Bored of the routine, she recalled sulking in a corner once. When her father noticed this and probed, the then-six-year-old Debjani told him that she wanted to play too. Even though her father welcomed her to join the game, Debjani remained unsure because she had never seen a woman do so.
At the time, she was told, “The only question you should be asking whether you want to do it.” This was one of the lessons that changed her life.
“I went and played cricket, and also realised that I didn't like playing. But I also realised that I absolutely can play. And if you want to do something, speak up because nobody can read your mind,” advised Debjani.
Ambition gives you purpose and direction
A firm believer in technology for social good, Debjani’s love for technology dates back to 1996 when she was an MBA student at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai.
Among the many placement interviews she sat for at the time, her interaction with Intel left a long-standing impact. While most panels of interviewers were male-dominated, Intel had a female leading its sales and marketing, a fact that left Debjani in shock.
This is what led to her to join the company where ‘women could grow to leadership roles’.
When the panel interviewing her for the role asked her what her goal was during the interview, Debjani had responded matter-of-factly, “If I spend 20 years in this company, then 20 years from now, I better be leading the business in India.” And sure enough, in 15 years, she became the first female head of Intel India.
“Until then, I thought ambition is a bad word and I started to realise ambition gives you a purpose to and a direction in life,” she said.
Over the years, she has won several accolades, including being named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in UK-India Relations.
“Not fitting in is perfect”
The Nasscom president remembers beginning her career at Intel with cold feet as every other employee was an engineer. Debjani spent a lot of time questioning her own decision. She recalled meeting a senior person at the company and told him she “stuck out like a sore thumb”.
And there was her next lesson:
"Sometimes, in a room, when you're the one that sticks out, you're the one that everybody looks at. So, you decide what you're going to do with that attention,” he advised her.
From then on, Debjani began to take pride in her difference, be it as the only woman or the only non-engineer in a room, which eventually led her to more opportunities.
Debjani added that one should unapologetically have their voices heard and not fitting in is perfect.
“Guilt is not our friend, neither is denial.”
Next, Debjani dived into the persistent dilemma among working women – managing their homes and careers together.
“I would just find solace in that guilt a bit because it helped me just feel good about myself a bit,” she commented, on women worrying about whether they are as good a daughter, or mother, or wife, as they are working women.
She likened the situation to women holding two bowls – one made of crystal and other of rubber.
“If you drop them, the crystal shatters while the rubber bounces back, and so you have to decide which of the two bowls is your home and work,” she added.
Whatever the situation, Debjani urged women to talk about it, rather than be trapped in guilt or denial.
Convince no one but yourself and stand proud
Last but not least, Debjani asked women to walk the path of convincing ‘only’ themselves in every decision and fully own it. One should do away with self-doubt to the extent that you can stand in front of a mirror and scream, “Yes, I am sure.” Self-talk, she said, is a good way to boost confidence.
“Because if you are not convinced yourself, then it gets tiring, frustrating, and it is extremely rude to yourself,” she said, adding that these are the small ways women can make a change today and pave the way for the next generation.
She signed off by assuring the audience that it is normal for a woman to be ambitious, have a work life, and yearn for higher positions.
“You owe it to yourself,” were her parting words.