Stop feeling guilty about dreaming: Debjani Ghosh, Managing Director, South Asia, Intel Corporation

By Varsha Adusumilli|21st Sep 2013
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Debjani Ghosh is an uncoventional leader. She is a 17-year Intel veteran who heads sales and marketing efforts for South Asia region. Debjani joined Intel India in 1996. Unlike most candidates at a job interview, Debjani was very clear about what she wanted from day 1. When asked where she sees herself 20 years from now, she fearlessly answered that she would like to head Intel in India. And she went on to achieve exactly that in a short span of 16 years.What incidents shape and make this leader? We delve deep into her story, and we uncover some golden key messages for all younger women aspiring to lead and create their own paths.

Unconventional childhood

I was born into a very large family. I was the only girl child in my family, I was the youngest, and I had 12 elder brothers. My childhood was extremely defining for me, because I grew up in a family of boys. My father believed that I could do anything that the boys could do. I heard that every single day of my life. Whether it is – Dad, can I play cricket, can I jump from the wall, or can I ride a motorbike, it was always an yes. My father told me that I could do anything, but it is up to me to decide whether I want to do something or not.

Also, it is great to have elder brothers, because anyone who has elder brothers knows that they completely spoil you. My childhood also was about a lot of travel. It was brought up in many different cities and lot of different countries because of my father’s job. My father did not believe in the hostel culture. We would learn about the world by travelling with him. I studied in 7 different schools. I learned a lot during those years while travelling and meeting new people. So my childhood was about being told that I was as good as my brothers, building confidence in myself, and a lot of travel, thanks to my father for everything.

Childhood experiences that define my leadership

There is a piece by Warren Buffett, where he says that he had very bright sisters, but the very moment he was born, life has changed for his sisters. And that happens in many families, especially in India. The moment the boys are born, the girls become secondary. But in my case it was the opposite. I was the special one. I was the youngest, I was the only girl among so many boys, so I became really important for my family. The thing that stayed with me was that you can be as good as everyone else. That made me compete in the corporate world dominated by men without being apologetic or without being scared. I give a lot of credit to the way I was brought up.

I also think a lot of travel helps because I got used to change as a kid. I always looked forward to making new friends, and building new relationships. Somehow I believe this will help you and train you to embrace change, which is a tremendous asset in the corporate world. Most problems occur when you cannot cope with change. I learned to be comfortable with change during my childhood.

I always wanted to be the best in everything that I do. The motto in my family was whatever you decide, give it your best, and be your best. It was always about being the best you can be.

Initial days at Intel

When I joined, there were only 5 people in Intel India. It was a very small team. The day I joined we doubled the team size because they hired 5 new people. I was one of the new 5. I was the only woman on the team. I was hired to set up the marketing. Again, I have learned it during my childhood that if you are the only girl in the room, it is a big advantage. You have to be confident enough to speak, and come to peace with the fact that because you are a girl you are different. Use the difference as a strength rather than as a weakness.

I was setting up a completely new platform, I had a lot of freedom to do a lot of things on my own. I like to think differently when I am doing something. Intel gave me that freedom and a lot more. I realized the biggest love of my life, which is to realize the power that technology has when it comes to helping people. I am not an engineer. I do not get turned on by how CPUs are made, but I get absolutely turned on by what CPUs can do to people. One of the first programs I did at Intel was “Technology for Education”. No one at that time was talking about technology for education, and setting that up was a great experience for me.

One of my mentors told me early on (I have always had brilliant mentors at Intel), you are so young, so do not blindly make up your mind about what you want to do. Experiment, do everything possible and figure it out. Experiment as much as you want because it doesn’t hurt now. If you look at my career at Intel, the first 5 years were a complete zigzag. I moved from sales to re-sales to marketing to education to Government. I kept doing different things to figure out what was I really passionate about, and finally I found out what I was really passionate about, and here I am today!

Women: Lack of confidence, dropout rates and stereotypes

We have two women at the helm of Intel. One is Kumud Srinivasan who is the President of Intel India, and I, head sales and marketing. Shame on both of us, if we do not have an impact on the overall women development (laughs). We have to do what is the best to develop talent whether it is men or women or different races. My number one focus is creating equal opportunity for all. You should not be held back by factors like gender, colour, race etc. Whether you get the next opportunity or not should entirely depend on meritocracy. Another thing I am focussed on internally as well as externally is, how can we imbibe confidence in women that they can do anything they want.

I see this phenomenon (women lacking in confidence) across industries and across teams. And this should not come as a surprise, because especially in India, a girl is brainwashed from the time she is born that success for her is marrying right, and a guy is brainwashed that success for him is being an engineer or a doctor. Ask women about who their perfect woman is, and they will point at someone who can cook well, someone who is a great mother or a homemaker. When you are growing up with that mind-set, you want to be a domestic goddess as well as have career ambitions; you are trying to figure out how you can be the kick-ass professional while you continue to be a goddess at home – that is where the guilt trip starts. You feel guilty about giving too much time for work, sometimes about not giving enough time for work; because of that you start doubting yourself, you start undermining yourself, and then you do not step up and stop being ambitious for yourself. It is something that is inbuilt into our societal value systems, into our value systems, and hopefully ten years from now, it is going to change for better!

My advice to all young women is, ‘Do not worry about what others think, but what do I think. What do I believe?’ That is the starting point of change. You have to stop feeling guilty about dreaming, whether it is climbing the corporate ladder, or whether it is becoming an entrepreneur, you have to own it. You have to accept that the definition of a perfect woman is a moving target. Yesterday, maybe, the perfect woman was a domestic goddess, but today maybe it is a great professional, a leader, a CEO, and your perfect woman may not be my perfect woman. We have to grant each other the ability to be different. It is extremely important for every young girl out there to be at peace with what she wants out of life. And accepting that it is all about trade-offs (and you have to make trade-offs, whether you are a woman or a man). We need to be make this change and acceptance at a societal level. And the change will take time, it is not that today you do a workshop and all women will become super confident, things are going to take time.

The stereotypes in India are so strong. Basically if you look at why stereotypes exist today, some extremely lazy person came up with it to simplify life, because stereotypes simplify everything and kill differences. But is that not such as shame, because we are all so different, we are made different, we have our own character, we have our own strengths. This is the big task ahead of us, which is how do we leverage diversity to our advantage. The day we start celebrating diversity, this country will make real progress. Half of the country lives believing that women are inferior which does not make for a healthy composition.

My drive at Intel

The role at Intel right now is my dream role. When I joined Intel, I was asked what I wanted to do 20 years from now. I said I want to run Intel in India, and I am so glad I did it in 17. India is a magical country for me. I have lived outside for very long, my entire childhood was out of India, I spent last 8 years out of India, but each time I come back I fall in love with it. For me, India is like this untapped opportunity. You scratch a little bit and the opportunities show. India is like a diamond in dirt, you need to sharpen it and dust off everything, but the diamond exists, and I believe India’s future lies ahead of us. I am a strong believer in the India story. I also believe that technology will play a key role in defining that story. I dream of an India where every citizen has access to education, healthcare or governance services, and that will enable all to earn more. Given how vast our country is, we cannot do it physically; technology has to play a key role in enabling that. Imagine, today girls do not go to school because of lack of bathrooms, the privacy is not there, and that is the biggest reason why girls do not go to school. I don’t know when we will be able to build enough schools with bathrooms in this country, but I know that if we have broadband, we can take education to their homes. I love India, it is a puzzle that you can unravel as much as you want. And I believe there is immense amount of power in technology to bring about change in this country. Intel is very well-positioned to do that. Marrying the two is the dream job that I can ever have.

Being listed among the 25 most powerful women in India

I am very honoured and thankful. It forces me to be more accountable. If other young women are going to look up to me and think ‘what has she done to get there,’ then it forces me to act responsibly. It forces me to support, mentor and inspire these women. Building confidence in women is something that I love to work on in my free time. Intel is very good at developing women, we walk the talk. We have a lot of senior women in our team; that puts us in a great position to build the pipeline and encourage other women to leadership.

The lighter side of Debjani

I am an avid, avid, avid reader. I am always in love with the book that I am currently reading. But the standard ones that I would go for on a rainy day are by P G Wodehouse. I love Ayn Rand, I think she really understands human beings. Some classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, I have read hundreds of times, and will keep reading many more times I guess.

We spoke to a few members of Debjani’s team, and each one displayed immense amount of respect and confidence in her leadership. Debjani is able to bring a certain empathy and rigour to take the table, and certainly the world needs more unconventional leaders like her.

We are sure this story will hit the spot with many young women, and we thank Debjani for taking the time to share her story with us.

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