Srimathi Shivashankar is Associate Vice President of Diversity & Sustainability at HCL Technologies. During the last two decades of her professional journey, Srimathi has seen many ups and downs. But the thing that most accurately defines this leader is her spirit of ‘moving on and marching ahead’.
Formation of leadership abilities early on
Srimathi was born in a small village in the district of Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu. Her father was in the mining business. She was enrolled in a Tamil medium school in her village, and would be embarrassed whenever her English-speaking cousins visited. At that young age, Srimathi understood the importance of speaking in English. “I somehow knew that speaking in English would make me more assertive. Initially I used to cry because I could not keep up with my cousins. But later, I decided that I would instead learn English.”
Srimathi moved to Trichy to study in a convent school. “I had actually lost a year because of this move. The school principal thought that I was not ready to move to class six yet. It was actually hard for me to grasp concepts in English, especially science and maths, as the terminology was completely different. However, the school teachers were extremely supportive. I was a bright kid in my earlier school, and my teachers did not see a reason why I had to lose a year. My English teacher used to stay back after school for an hour to help me translate every word from Tamil to English. I owe a lot to her,” says Srimathi.
She passed the fifth grade in the new school successfully and that boosted her confidence. Srimathi finished class 12 as one of the toppers in her district, and she proudly says, “Though I converse very fluently in English now, I still think in Tamil.”
Srimathi attributes a lot of her business success today to her forward-thinking father. “I joined my dad’s business at the age of 12. The incentive was a visit to a bakery in town. I joke with my father even to this day that he bribed me with a sweet bun to form my views about the world. I believe that through my professional life those experiences at the grassroots level have come very handy.”
Not so rosy beginnings as a career woman
Srimathi studied computer science from REC Trichy. “In those days, people did not know what a computer was,” says Srimathi, adding, “In fact, my father was always very worried about what I would do with a degree in computer science.” After graduation, Srimathi took up her first job at Techno Commercial in Chennai. Recalling her first job experience, she says, “My first job was to sell industrial computers. I used to go to LRD and DRDO as a sales girl. The scientists there would be expecting a man to demo the computer, and instead here I was a single woman setting up the equipment by myself. They would stand mute gawking at me. I hated it and would wonder how I would cope.”
After working at Techno Commercial for two years, Srimathi moved to the United States to pursue her MBA. “I had never stepped out of Tamil Nadu before this. It was a wonderful experience,” says Srimathi.
Taking a break & teaching scientists under Dr. Kalam
Srimathi has two children, a son (19) and a daughter (14). She had to take a break in her corporate life for a year-and-a-half after her son was born. “My son has multiple disabilities. I could not even step outside my home because my son needed me around always. During this phase, I helped my father grow various aspects of his business. It was a good way to bust stress during that period,” she reveals. Being flexible and being open to change has brought Srimathi some very good things in this tough phase as well. “One of the colleges in Trichy reached out to me to teach there, and I was more than happy to do it. That is when I met Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and he asked me to set up an MBA program for scientists, focussing on marketing. I loved the idea. I started teaching scientists under Dr. Kalam. That was an experience I cherish.”
Re-starting her corporate career
After her son turned three, Srimathi moved to Chennai. She started teaching there too. Luck got her a chance meeting with one of the headhunters, who reached out to her at an event and said, “I am a headhunter and you are in the wrong job.” That is how Srimathi re-started her corporate career. “I helped create one of the first BPOs in the country. We grew from two people to 1300 people. I worked day and night during this phase and learned a lot. Later, I was headhunted by Hema Ravichandar from Infosys. That is how my long journey with Infosys began.”
Taking on the big role at HCL
Srimathi was the first Diversity Officer in India, and also the first Sustainability Officer. She worked on some extremely forward-thinking projects at Infosys. Says Srimathi, “I loved my time at Infosys. The challenge at Infosys was to take the company to the next level from a people practices and governance perspective.” In 2010, she met Vineet Nayyar of HCL. “Two hours of conversation with him changed my perspective about HR.” She joined HCL thereafter and today, leads a team of 130+ people. Srimathi leads HCL’s entire diversity, inclusion and employee engagement initiatives world over.
Women at workplaces
Srimathi believes that different types of engagements are required at different phases in a woman’s career. “For women who are just starting out, we have sessions of career progression. But when women grow up the ladder and become managers, they realize that there are not many like them out there. They may be leading an all-men team. At this stage, counselling is required for both men and women. Things also change when women go on maternity leave. We need to counsel men and women alike to help them understand that a woman who goes on maternity leave is exactly the same as a man who goes on a short-break. There is a lot of bias that tends to creep in at this stage.” Srimathi also adds that networking with peers and seniors is very important for women.
Statistics on women at workplaces in India
Srimathi recalls that the idea of women in industrial workforce started very late, and that her entire generation grew up with moral science classes where women were associated with home and men with career. “In my generation we did not have any values of working women passed onto us. The whole career discussion in India began only in 2008.”
“In 1995, the percentage of women enrolling in colleges was five to seven percent. In 2004, it became 14-20%, by 2010, it had become 30-32 percent. But now as much as 45% percent of women are in college. We may have been late in starting the career movement for women, but we are surely catching up fast. Also, now there is a paradigm shift in the support system for women to pursue a career.” Srimathi insists that we should not be compared to the West. “We should not forget that we started off late in business. We did not start off late in politics where we have a lot of women at the top today. We also have a lot of women leaders at the grassroots level. Professionally, we may be a little late, but we are surely catching up.”
Careers highs and leadership advice
“My real high was when I took the Infosys job. Moving to a large company that was well known for its people practices, and being one of the six people who were hand-picked by Mr. Narayan Murthy to lead their global initiative was a real high for me.
The second big career moment for me is what I do at HCL in collaboration with Vineet Nayyar and the Chairman to lead the Foundation’s efforts in a highly sustainable manner. This gives me immense pleasure.
My drive comes from the fact that I bring a personal touch to everything I do. I learnt a lot from my son, the way he deals with things and the way he manages himself. Whenever he has a setback he doesn’t sit in one place, he moves forward even when he is uncertain about what will happen next. As a leader, I may have setbacks, but the only choice is to move forward. Keep moving on. You don’t wait for choices to appear, but you move on by making your own way. And also learn to enjoy and cherish this moment. This is what makes me flexible and open in life.”