Anu Parthasarathy - India’s sought after headhunter

By Varsha Adusumilli|25th Oct 2013
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Anu Parthasarathy is a woman who has charted her own path. Anu joined Wipro in 1983 when Wipro was a startup. After spending 7 years there, Anu seeked change. What did she do with her career? Let us find out!Edited Excerpts:

Growing up in Delhi is like being in front-line sales

I grew up in Delhi. My dad was a government servant. My mother was also working, which is not very typical of that time. In a way my mother was my role model. She used be on top of all things. She never made her work sound like 9 to 5 engagement. She brought passion to her work. At the same time, she managed the household very effectively. She took care of me and my two brothers. She would come to school often to check on what we were doing. I always knew that when I grow up I want to be like my mother, if not any better.

My two younger brothers and I we were brought up in a way that we all knew we had to be independent and stand on our feet. There was never this idea about women having to get married and settle down. We all knew we were solely responsible for earning our living and standing on our own feet.

I went to a really good CBSE school in Delhi. Typically all Tamilians sent their kids to this school. The good thing about schools that time was they were all very egalitarian, they were cheap unlike what you pay for international schools today, also you would see people coming in from all kinds of backgrounds, poor, rich, very bright, not so bright. This exposed me to people from all backgrounds early on.

I think living in Delhi was very good experience for me. I always tell people that you must spend time in front-line sales when you are beginning your career as that completely changes you. Delhi is a similar thing. Delhi ensures you take care of yourself and stand up on your feet. It is a city that exemplifies survival of the fittest theory. It keeps you alert and on your toes. You never get into a helpless state if you grow up in Delhi.

BITS Pilani was a life-changing experience 

BITS Pilani was life-changing experience for me. I am not sure if BITS popularizes or talks about how different it is from other institutes enough. Having gone there, we take it for granted. But now that I have seen so many other places, I think BITS is a stand-out place among Indian universities. Since it is cut-off from metro cities, you have a community of young kids growing together and making their life. The second is the structure. BITS lets you make your own time-table. They let you choose your own classes and subjects. And the fact that attendance is not compulsory, kind of puts pressure on students to make their own decisions. The education system at BITS puts a pressure on students to think about what is it that they really want to do. I think BITS Pilani shaped my worldview largely.

Choosing Wipro over Hindustan Unilever

Wipro was the best thing that happened to me. I joined Wipro when it was a typical Bay Area garage style startup. The office hardly looked like office, it was a few tables put together. You could count the number of people on your finger-tips. But the ambitions were huge, the picture was that we wanted to capture the market globally. It was a company with huge ambition but with limited budget and limited resources. The kind of people they brought on board were fantastic, people who could go out and make things happen on their own, people who could make their own decisions and not wait for instructions from others. They did an excellent job of hiring people early on. I joined Wipro as a management trainee during my last semester at BITS Pilani, and you could choose whatever you wanted to do after training. I chose sales. It was not a well thought out decision. I took up sales because someone told me that there are not enough women in sales. So I thought why not make it happen, and I did. I totally loved the challenge of going out there and convincing somebody to write out a cheque only on the basis of what you were telling them. Even today, I tell many startups that none of the things you do really matter unless you get that first cheque from a customer. I got to learn this early on and what it takes to make it happen. But because Wipro was a startup, I got to do a lot many things. I later on got into marketing. I worked with ad agencies to roll out a campaign for Wipro. I worked with customers in Japan. Then I got into international operations, I travelled to Russia and helped set up operations there. Wipro was a phenomenal experience for me. Just to learn about how businesses were built and scaled.

When I was doing my internship at Wipro, I got a call from HUL for an interview. And it was quite prestigious that time to get a call from HUL. During my internship at Wipro, I got exposed to the technology industry and what is happening in the world of technology. When I went into the HUL office, the feel of the company was so different from what I had seen at Wipro. I knew immediately that I was not going to be happy in that environment. So I took a chance and walked out immediately. I stuck to Wipro. I tell people even to this today that being able to work in a startup and being in a position where you are actually making a difference to the top line of the company, learning these things early on helps you make a career. Which luckily and accidentally happened to me through Wipro.

Why did I leave a dream job and start my own company?

After 7 years I left Wipro. At heart, I am a person who likes to do multiple things and I don’t like getting straight-jacketed into structure. As Wipro grew, this was bound to happen. Second, I just had a child, 7 years meant that I was into middle management at Wipro, the next level meant that I had to invest a lot more physical time at office. Remember this was in the 90s. At that time, there was no concept of working from home or flexi time. What was really expected from you was that you would sit at office from 8:30 a.m till 9 p.m. and come over the weekends as well. There was no question of personal time. This was not suiting me then. I needed to balance. I wanted to be professionally very active, but I also wanted to make sure that I did a good job of bringing up my child. I did not see Wipro offering that future for me. I did not want to stay there and get frustrated with this feeling that I was going to be left behind. I decided to be an entrepreneur and set my own goals and decide how I manage my time on my own terms and not on somebody else’s whims.

I was 27 when I started my first company Nexus Consultants. I had to wear a saree to ensure clients would know that I actually means business. The whole idea of starting Nexus was based on my own experience. Nexus was about working with big companies and helping them find people they need. Today, it sounds like what every second person does, but in the 90s it was not like that. The way companies hired was they put classified ads and then waited for responses or they would do for campus hiring and train people. People would stay forever at companies, and mostly companies would not throw away people as well. While we said private sector and public sector, pretty much the way people were employed was the same. But things were changing. If after 7 years I am saying that I am done with this, I realized that there would be many more people like myself due to the generational change, and with time this number was bound to increase. I realized that since there would be people leaving, companies have to fill those positions. There were hardly any boutique firms that were helping companies hire that time. The only thing that existed was firms helping people get visa and jobs in Middle East etc.

I focused on tech firms, and helped tech firms hire people that were difficult to find and hire. That is how I started Nexus. The good thing was the timing, 1990-2000 was the time when Indian companies really went global and they could not manage their recruitment on their own. They had to work with people like me. My domain experience and understanding of business made me a perfect partner for these companies. I worked very closely with Nandan Nilekani at Infosys. Everybody in their US office when they were setting up, I had hired. I was travelling quite a bit across the globe during that time. Around the same time, many Japanese, European and other Asian companies were coming to India and I helped companies like Epson, SAP and Lucent hire in India.

I always tell companies that finding people is the easier part. But knowing what you are looking for, and why you are looking for what you are looking for, is the critical part. Once you define that, you can really narrow down choices.

Moving to Bay Area and starting a Transformational Talent Search firm

I moved to Bay Area during my Nexus Consultants phase. I lived there for 10 years. I worked with many VC funds there. I think moving to Bay Area was another transformational experience for me. It gave me tremendous scope for learning. It gave me a completely different perspective of building companies and scaling companies. I have a white paper that I presented at Stanford just when I started my second venture Global Executive Talent, and I talked about how the work world is going to change and how leaders from countries like China and India are going to lead global organizations. Understanding what was happening in the businesses in the US, gave me a good perspective of how the organization culture and work-culture are bound to change. Leadership that we would require for these new organizations is going to change massively as well. I found nobody working on this aspect. So I felt I needed to do this.

For example, recently I was working with a semi-conductor firm, a fairly well known name. The key thing we were discussing was how the semi-conductor world is changing. Initially these companies would sell their chips to a Samsung or other big names, and they would choose your chips during the design phase. Today because of DIY and internet of things, anyone can develop a wearable computing device from anywhere. And that individual is my new customer now – how do I reach you? You are not a Samsung. The whole go-to-market to reach the individual is different. As companies you need to look at industries where such go-to-market was happening before and you need to hire from there. I worked with this company to get their CMO. Everyone has to think differently now when it comes to people.

All women team 

I have people spread out all across. I have 8 people and I have an all-women team and mine is a high value and high end kind of business, it is not a number dependent business. One of things I learned over time is that your management style is yours. I used to read a ton of management books and say I should do this maybe because he is saying this. But somewhere along the line, I said whatever they said works for them, but not for me, I need to figure out my own style and go with what works for me. My style is hire women, train them, work with them, mentor them and then they grow with you. Big part of why you start your own company is you can follow your own value systems, you do not have to compromise. You can get to do things the way you want to do them. I want to make sure my team gets this luxury too along with me.

The companies I work with are changing the world

Everyday I get to meet new companies and new businesses that are changing the world. The impact they are having is phenomenal. I look forward to meeting these people everyday. Recently I met with an automobile company that is trying to change the way this industry functions by implementing new technologies. I know nothing about automobile industry maybe a few weeks back, but in a few weeks I would know everything about this industry, about other players in this industry, and what innovation is happening in this space. I get very excited by this scope of learning. In fact, if companies don’t excite me, I may not even be able to hire for them.

Women need to stop playing by the rules made by men

There are less women in top positions than we like them to be, I see it through my profession. But I personally have a different take on the women issue. Why do we have to compete on the rules set by men? The world of earning a living was previously a men’s world, women are new entrants to it. All the rules here were set by men. If they liked going to pubs in the evenings and networking, that is the way networking is done. If we try to follow the same rules, we are going to be poor copy of the men. If we are a poor copy of the men, they are always going to get the top slot. If women want to play a dominant role in the corporate sector, we have to do it our way! I think this will happen naturally. Because if you look at it, the kind of industries today are moving away from manufacturing volume dominated capital intensive kind of businesses to knowledge intensive small scale customized value-added kind of businesses. In the new age women will thrive automatically!

If you are good and people find you good, companies will make it happen for you. So I am not losing my sleep over why women are not getting into top positions today. It will happen for sure. In fact, I am sure if you speak to many men, maybe even they do not want to be that CEO, and probably they want to stay at home, today men do not have that luxury. But this change will happen too, where women run half the organizations and men run half the households.

Final word

The journey is very important. Do something you like and enjoy. Don’t ever get into a state where you are stuck and feel helpless, that is the worst thing you can do to yourself. Second is expose yourself to as much as possible in the early days of your career, do not become too much of a specialist, don’t get yourself stuck into one location. Expose yourself to multiple locations, people, jobs, geographies and businesses – it will make you grow as a professional. And if you can do something on your own, do it, because that is the most liberating thing and it puts control back in your hands.

The conversation with Anu leaves us with many things we should think about as a society. We wish Anu all the best as she helps many more companies make the transformational shift, and we sincerely hope to see a equitable and a fair world for everyone.

 

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