In 2004, a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton in the US had an idea. He wanted to start a firm that would help businesses separate the signals from all the noise, in terms of information. He had a vision of the kind of people who would work at this company — applied mathematicians, professional analysts and programmers, all rolled into one – to be called Decision Scientists. But starting up would require finances and that would mean selling his home. Dhiraj Rajaram went to his wife and told her about the idea. She immediately said yes.
Ambiga Dhiraj would only be the first in a long list of women who would help craft Mu Sigma into the company that it is 10 years later – valued well over a billion dollars.
Read more: How Ambiga Dhiraj of Mu Sigma leads from the front
Mu Sigma has a lot of women leaders who have played major roles in building and enhancing the ecosystem. Ambiga Dhiraj, the COO, has been at the helm of affairs in Mu Sigma. Before she began work with the company, she worked with Motorola and has a few patents to her credit in the networking space. Ambiga started with a single project and moved on to handling a variety of departments and roles during her stint, including Marketing, Mu Sigma University, Client Services and now heading products. Other women leaders include those leading employee engagement, talent acquisition, marketing verticals, and one of the key products.
Today, HerStory will take you through the journey of five women from Mu Sigma who are helping conglomerates solve big problems and keeping the Mu Sigma flag flying high.
Helping NGOs plug their loopholes with Data and Analytics – Shreyanka Mally
Born and brought up in Bangalore, Shreyanka says that she was an absolute nerd at school. She went on to do her engineering at PESIT, though she wanted to be a doctor first. But it was too many hours of studying, and Shreyanka was far more interested in mathematics than biology, when
she recalls in retrospect.
“Engineering got done, and I joined Mu Sigma. It was an offsite hire.”
The average age at Mu Sigma is 23. For Shreyanka, it was like coming from one college to another. (She joined in July 2011.)
In August, she met a friend, who worked for a not-for-profit, and was doing analysis for them.
“I really liked the idea of impacting the grassroots with the power of numbers. This added to the fact that I was always in favor of giving back to the society and being the change added to the interest even further. I personally think we all have to make a difference by taking accountability for what we are doing.”
Shreyanka approached Mu Sigma with this concept , and the idea took wings. She worked on the project as an individual contributor for one-and-a-half years. She says, “No other organization would have given me this opportunity. They let me follow what I was passionate about. I wasn’t billed. I was not getting revenue for Mu Sigma. But knowing the fact that I was for it they encouraged me to go ahead and do it.”
“The NGO space is lacking in accountability. It’s mismanaged. With so much money, manpower and investments in the sector, no one uses hard data to work together to solve problems,” says Shreyanka.
“I handle their data. I tell them how exactly they have to collect and structure their data, because there’s problem in collecting data in this line of work. There’s no internet, and they don’t have sufficient technology to collect data. They don’t know what they need to collect. They don’t know there are gaps in the data they’re collecting. Someone needs to tell them what these gaps are.”
Shreyanka says she’s worked with four organizations already: Akshara Foundation, Quest Alliance, Dream-a-Dream and Make a Difference.
Akshara Foundation was her first client. She assessed their pre-school program for Anganwadis (kindergarten) in terms of sustainability and consistency. They had huge bundles of sheets of data consisting of community feedback from parents of government school children in the urban poor regions. Field workers had immense amounts of data that they brought back from their investigations. Akshara wanted to build a dashboard to highlight the problems. Shreyanka created a feedback excel template and committee feedback template for the field staff with questions for them, but first translating all the notes from Kannada (the local dialect) to English. This template was in addition to the ones created for school teachers and parents. Shreyanka says that the dashboard is going to go live to the public in a month.
Shreyanka explains how the common population misinterprets the problems and ends up doing more harm than good. “We like donating sweets and a ‘rich’ meal to orphanages to celebrate our lives with the ones who aren’t that privileged. But the fact is that many children in orphanages have bad teeth as a result of the fact that someone or the other is distributing sweets to them every day as part of their meal.” Her work helps NGOs by aligning the impact of data and analytics to their actual goals.
The scale of the problem is huge. And, it’s the chaos and mismanagement that drives Shreyanka. It’s a sad scenario, but she feels there’s no point in just being sympathetic. She is out to find solution to their problems because she believes real people will stand to benefit from this work, if done in the right manner.
“Things will take time to change. But knowing the problem and taking a step towards it is more important than giving up and saying it is going to take time.”
Lighting up the fire of learning in kids through ‘Prayaas’ – Meenakshy AS
Born to a lower middle class family bound with culture and tradition, Meenakshy AS learnt the value of money very early. She spent her childhood in Thiruvananthapuram where her father worked with KSRTC and her mother was a government employee. When she was in the eighth grade, she had to move to a government school from a private one, as it was becoming increasingly difficult for her parents to afford a higher tuition fee. This transition, Meenakshy recalls, was a difficult one for her.
“I was thrown in the midst of reality. The private school had children from similar backgrounds and upbringings. I saw the real picture of our society in the government school. It was very difficult for me to adjust.”
But the love that her school teachers and peers showered on her helped her adjust to the new surroundings. During this time, she witnessed events that affected her deeply and brought about a change in her perspective. She noticed that she was bought new notebooks while many of her classmates were still using their old notebooks from previous academic years. This made her realize she was living in relative luxury. She then started devoting her time to teaching and helping those in need. Eventually, her years in the government school shaped her and her life as it is today.
Meenakshy wanted to give herself and her family a shot at a better financial situation. This is why she decided to pursue engineering, which would ensure that she got a job as early as possible.
“I needed a job. I wanted a better life. I actually wanted to pursue a career in mathematics, physics or chemistry, but I decided to take up engineering.”
One of the primary reasons for joining an engineering college (SCT, Thiruvananthapuram) was to give herself the best chance of landing a job. Her parents wanted to continue her education after education, but she insisted otherwise. “Only after graduating from college I realized the amount of hard work I put in was not necessary,” she jokes. She joined MuSigma in 2012 through campus placement. That was her first time out of Thiruvananthapuram. Her job made her independent, which was a big change from the protected upbringing that she had.
“It made me better. I stayed in a PG. I traveled alone. It is a nice place to be in.”
Prayaas is the internal CSR arm of Mu Sigma driven by employees, and the focus is on education-related initiatives. A year after joining work, Meenakshy immediately became part of the initiative, and her experience in a simple government school gave her a nuanced understanding of the problem.
Through Prayaas, Meenakshy heard of a village 200 kms from Bangalore, in Karnataka. This village has a two-room building for school, without even basic amenities, catering to grades one to seven. Situated 10 kms from MM Hills, it’s a one-hour rocky ride to this remote village from the town. The village is devoid of electricity.
“Once you enter that place, you will realize that nothing is there.”
They installed solar lamp charging points in the school, because people staying there had lamps, but did not utilize it. These charging points were a means to getting children to come to the school and study. Since the nearby well is deep, they installed a solar pump in the well. This has meant that the cooks who’d previously quit their jobs due to the inconvenience of drawing water from the well, now stay put. “In many ways,” says Meenakshy, “Mu Sigma has adopted the school.” Contributions help massively for the initiative of supporting the schools with notebooks and other stationery. With eight people dedicatedly helping the cause others had abandoned, Meenakshy has come a long way: The child who was reluctant to join a government school is now helping children in a remote village learn.
“We should not be supporting them with money always, as it makes people lethargic. We should be giving them permanent solutions. So, we’re in search of people who can train them for jobs.”
Eventually, Meenakshy hopes to become an entrepreneur to help the underprivileged. One of her deepest passions is to help the girl child, especially with education, because she believes that “women maketh a society.”
‘Nautanki’ and Decision Sciences go together for Aakanksha Pevekar
Aakanksha Pevekar, an only child, was born into a family of academicians – her mother was an Economics lecturer, and her father, a Management professor. Neither, though, put undue pressure on her during her schooling in Bangalore. Academics were valued, but it never became an obsession bordering on silliness. They wanted her to enjoy the process, and in fact, there was a lot of encouragement from her mother to participate in extra-curricular activities. But competition wasn’t a driving force here too. As a child, Aakanksha experimented a lot, and to maintain a healthy blend of academics and extra-curricular, she learnt time management early on.
“School and college time was split between academics, literary activities, debates, and lots of singing dancing.”
Aakanksha had to choose between computer sciences and business administration. She eventually became a software developer intern for a top electronics company in Noida. After graduating in Computer Science Engineering from MIT, Manipal, she joined Mu Sigma in 2012.
Even as she was going through the rigour of MSU (Mu Sigma University), Aakanksha received a mail from MuSig, the Mu Sigma band, and Nautanki, the Mu Sigma drama club.“ The work here is challenging. And, we thrive on that. Everyone at Mu Sigma is trying to push themselves to be better at what we do every day. In this atmosphere, having a common space and like-minded colleagues to unwind and pursue interest is revitalizing.”
Aakanksha became a part of the Nautanki group. When work is all wrapped up, it’s time for drama and literary clubs at Mu Sigma, because she identifies youth and energy as the defining characteristics of Mu Sigma. It’s important to channel these energies in as many ways as possible.
Aakanksha says, “A pretty high level of ambition is common among Mu Sigmans, and the company taps into that energy quite well. I have observed a higher percentage of ambitious and go-getter women in Mu Sigma than one would see in a random sample of employees.”
“The blend of working on technical aspects in addition to dealing with clients, which brings in a certain managerial aspect to work, is what I love about the opportunity here. Mu Sigma doesn’t look at age as a barrier. They seek and respect opinions, even from younger employees,” she adds.
Instilling the culture of ‘Learning over knowing’ – Roselin George
The eldest of three girls, Roselin George grew up in Bangalore. Her father an ITI in electronics, worked for Kirloskar. Her mother, on the other hand, came from a pedagogical family, and was a teacher. She fondly recalls her mother yelling at them in Tamil, and they responding in Malayalam.
After school, she went on for her PU in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Computer Science. This was followed by a BSc. in Maths, Computer Science, and Statistics from Mount Carmel College. She graduated in 2001, during the time of the software boom.
For her Masters, Roselin “just didn’t want to go with the crowd.” She says, “So, the next option I had in front of me was either do Maths or Statistics. I chose Statistics, because it was more application-oriented, and I couldn’t see myself sitting and writing theorems.”
At this point, people were still unfamiliar with what one can do with a statistics degree. With only 13 people in her batch, she thought: “What am I going to do?”
She took her old Kinetic Pride to a symposium to give her resume to a pharmaceutical company. “At that time, I was ready to do anything, even without pay,” says Roselin. Ogilvy & Mather took her as an intern for a month for statistical research in 2003. Through O&M, Roselin got a job at one of the top financial services unit of an American conglomerate, where she worked for three years.
“Somehow, there was still something missing. I needed to learn more.”
Her friends connected her to Sayandeb Banerjee, who was employee number one at Mu Sigma. Then, the company was still a young startup, and she wanted to take a shot.
“I took a big risk. I went there and I had an interview. I still remember those interview questions. And, I took the offer.”
Roselin left a big job with perks and joined the 25 employees at Mu Sigma with a yearning to learn and ‘do something different.’ Her parents had given her a free hand in deciding what she wanted.
“I had three years of experience. I joined as a senior business analyst. One of our earliest clients was a Fortune 100 American company, and I joined that team. I worked with that team for about eight months, and then a new project came by, and I was made the team lead. It was very strange. One day, we were just sitting and Dhiraj (Rajaram) walked by. He called out a couple of people and said, ‘Okay! From today you’re all managers.’” She remembers being scared of handling careers of new hires. At this point, Dhiraj told her:
“As long as you have the right intent, you should be fine.”
In 2012, Mu Sigma showed Roselin how accommodating and supportive they could be when she took a sabbatical due to pregnancy. Though Roselin wanted to cut back on her leave and join work sooner, she had to stay back as her mother fell ill. She eventually lost her. “I went through some very difficult times, and I had a lot of support. It was amazing. I made very good friends at Mu Sigma. I don’t have words to really express what I went through.”
Roselin has seen Mu Sigma from the early, simple days to what it is today. She started with active delivery roles and was responsible for setting up several accounts. Most of them are major clients for Mu Sigma today. After several stints and varied roles, Roselin is today an important stakeholder in Mu Sigma as she leads the Mu Sigma University (MSU), the arm that trains the new joinees after they are inducted into the organization.
Roselin thinks it’s important not to rely on people completely to train you, but to learn on your own. The most important aspect of working is practicing the mantra: ‘Learning over Knowing’. New joinees are reminded of this at MSU.
Mu Sigma has given Roselin a lot of productive and diverse philosophies to embrace: Whether it is humility in knowing you do not know everything, so you can roll up your sleeves and figure out solutions to problems, or to set higher standards for yourself, rather than constantly compare yourself to another.
Extreme experimentation is an important culture Mu Sigma fosters, says Roselin, besides the need to ask questions.
“You need to ask relevant questions for you to gain clarity.”
Roselin feels she was thrown into solving diverse problems she wouldn’t have seen anywhere else.
“There’s a nice poem: ‘Road Less Travelled’. And, I’ve loved that poem, just because it epitomises whatever we at Mu Sigma believe in. You can take the easier way and go the way that everybody else has. You know that at some level there is success. But then we get to choose the road that’s less travelled and we get to pave that road. And, that makes all the difference.”
From hating Math to ‘Doing the Math’ – Rajnita Kamath
Rajnita Kamath was born in Mumbai, Maharashtra, and got her name from a combination of her parent’s names (Rajnath + Anita). “The two wanted credit for the joint effort,” she jokes. Rajnita’s father worked for an ad agency and her mother worked at a bank which she gave up to be a full-time home maker. After spending the first four years of her life in Mumbai, the family moved to Bangalore.
Rajnita was enrolled at an all-girls’ convent school in Malleshwaram. A multi-talented grandfather (weight lifting champion, interior decorator, mathematician, and pole acrobatics trainer etc.) was all the source of inspiration that Rajnita needed. She was encouraged to participate in many extra-curricular activities. “I went for Bharatanatyam dance, music, painting, and gymnastics classes which helped channelize my energy constructively.”
She got elected as ‘Head-Girl’ in class 10, and Rajnita credits the title and the pressure to live up to it, to her discipline. “I distinctly remember my grandfather rigorously training me in sports for some inter school events. He said to me then, ‘Pain is a sign of gain’, when I complained about not wanting to wake up for practice as I was hurting all over. This line stays with me till date – and I tell this to my students/mentees when teaching dance or at work.”
Heeding her parents’ advice, Rajnita chose to take up Science in class 11 and 12. It took her some time to adjust to the new Pre-university school.
By this time, Rajnita had become very passionate about dance and music. “I was on cross roads as to what to do after class 12.” She was very keen on pursuing just dance and music, but her parents advised her to study further. During the same time, the family had to move to Delhi.
Strangely, she ended up pursuing a Bachelors in Maths (Hons) from Lady Shri Ram College (LSR), a subject that she dreaded as a child, and a fear that her grandfather helped her overcome. Adjusting to a new culture, learning Hindi and other activities ensured that the three years of fun passed by in a jiffy.
After graduation, Rajnita was even more determined to take up dancing as a profession. On her parents’ insistence, she pursued her Masters in Operations Research. It was here that she got an offer from Mu Sigma. “The offer meant moving back to Bangalore, living by myself, leaving college friends behind and starting a new life.”
Rajnita joined Mu Sigma on July 14th, 2008.
“At MSU we had assignments, training sessions, projects to work on, etc. which kept us on our toes. It felt good to actually understand and see the applications of hypothesis testing and regression modeling, theory of which I had learnt in college but never truly understood.”
In her first role after training, Rajnita would go on to directly impact one of the world’s largest retailers. She vividly remembers staying up late nights in the office and working with her onsite counterparts to resolve issues and coming in early the next morning to present to the client. Within a year-and-a-half, she had the opportunity to travel to the US for a short term assignment. She loved the new culture, a new sense of extreme independence, different work ethics, balancing work and other activities. Six months later, Rajnita was presented with an opportunity to make a more permanent move to the US. “I moved to the US in October, 2010. There has been no looking back ever since.”
At present, in the Bay Area as an Engagement Manager at a large e-commerce retailer, Rajnita is managing a team of about 15 members (onsite and offshore). Even after six years, she says there is something new to learn each day. Mu Sigma recognizes and encourages people’s passion outside of work. Rajnita continues to pursue her passion for dance by teaching kids and adults, even after moving to the US.
“For ‘Women at Mu Sigma’, the opportunity, exposure, and learning that one gets are tremendous. We have been blessed with a CEO who understands and believes in women playing a pivotal role in structuring and helping pave the future path of the company.”
Rajnita credits Mu Sigma for shaping her as a professional. “I have been excited and glad to watch the company grow as I have grown along. I feel encouraged, m(u)otivated and look forward to many more experiences in the journey ahead.”
From hating Math to ‘Doing the Math’, and from being indecisive to helping with ‘Decision Sciences’, Rajnita Kamath sure has come a long way.
Dhiraj Rajaram, CEO and Founder of Mu Sigma, defines Decision Sciences as a combination of Math+ Business+ Technology combined with Design Thinking, essentially using both the right brain and the left brain or combining analytical thinking with creative mind.
“Women by nature are very creative and have an analytical bent of mind,” he says. And women at Mu Sigma seem determined to prove their CEO right.
“I believe they are extremely good at harmonizing both their left brain and right brain, which makes them very good decision scientists.”
The women we met came from varied backgrounds but the one thing they all had in common was determination and a sense of purpose towards the common goal, that of institutionalizing data-driven decision making.
Widening the scope a little further, you will find the scene in the Indian tech industry as a whole is not too different. Some Indian tech companies have women in key positions and CEOs like Dhiraj have recognized this trend.
Women at Mu Sigma make some of the best employees at the company, he says. It is time that others too realize the power-packed impact of ‘Women-in-Tech’.
You’ll like to read: The Billion Dollar Mu Sigma Story – with Founder Dhiraj C. Rajaram