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IBM’s Seema Kumar on how the right opportunities and the right champions help women evolve into leaders

Sindhu MV
7th Feb 2017
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It’s not often that you hear someone say that their comfort zone lies in the midst of challenges. But Seema Kumar, Country Leader, Developer Ecosystem and Startups at IBM, is unique that way. She says, “I am never content in a predictable environment. I need newer problems to solve.”

For the last 13 years, her career at IBM has been giving her ample opportunities to solve tougher challenges in newer roles. This quest to learn and grow saw Seema working in contrasting work environments – solving deep technical and engineering problems in a software lab or sitting alongside the Managing Director and getting a 360 degree view of how organisational strategies are defined. Seema says,

“At IBM, we are given the freedom to choose our career path. You can choose to grow in technical or a business role or both, like I did.”

Seema has led a global mission to engage and enable the Global System Integrators (GSI) on the IBM Commerce and Security technologies, served as the Executive Assistant to IBM India MD Vanitha Narayanan, owned the product design, management, strategy and roadmap for growth markets for the IBM Worklight Mobility Platform and taken the geo-level responsibility to grow business in the India, South Asia and ASEAN regions for the WebSphere Application Infrastructure portfolio of products.

Do women showcase their work, enough?

Despite taking on several key roles, managing various portfolios spanning product consulting, product management, business development, strategic alliances and partner development, ask Seema what her biggest achievements are and she has to pause to think.

She admits, “It’s only when you are asked about your achievements that you realise that as women, we often work hard but don’t talk about it much. We are yet to learn that vital business skill of showcasing the brilliant work that some of us do.”

According to Seema, her biggest achievement has been to “work in transformational roles, some of which have been first-of-a-kind within the organisation. While this is a good thing because you are the one setting a precedent, it also brings a lot of challenges and complexities – working with multiple stakeholders, too many variables and inculcating a risk-taking approach. To have worked in such demanding roles for me is a personal achievement – because I never thought I could do it.”

Championing women leaders

Terming her career as one that took “a fairly accelerated path”, Seema says, “This would have been even more challenging had I not got support from my family, peers, mentors, teams that I worked with.”

Today, women-friendly workplace policies, outreach programmes within the organisation and the industry at large have become de rigueur. But, what works as a key differentiator is the role of a leader at work, especially that of a woman leader. Seema says, “I believe we need both men and women leaders. But, that said, exposure to working with women leaders definitely helps you get a varied perspective and instils more confidence.”

Seema shares her experience of working very closely with an industry veteran like Vanitha Narayanan. She says, “In addition to assisting Vanitha in the day-to-day activities, I had the opportunity to be part of the team that was defining organisational strategies. It was a very big learning and networking opportunity.”

Seema agrees that today the industry is more welcoming of women leaders, across levels. She says, “There is more awareness and recognition that there is a need to enable more women to take the lead. A conscious effort is being made to design and implement the right kind of programmes in that direction. Yet, parity continues to exist. So, as women leaders, we need to do more. Women should come out to help other women. The advantage that we have as women is that when we come together we are an unshakeable force.”

How women are leading India

Be it while speaking on stage at a conference of at a meeting in a boardroom, Seema first scans the audience to see how many women are present. She says, “It’s a mental exercise that comes naturally to me,” and adds, “Women stand out with their ideas, in spite of being a small number.”

Seema says that this low number is just one part of the story, because you also have women leaders who are accelerating India’s vision of a trillion dollar digital economy. “Today, if you look at the corporate sector or even the government, you see women leaders doing a phenomenal job. In fact, the top positions in India’s leading banks are owned by women. If fintech is a big revolution in India today, you have to give them credit too. The fact is, we do have a lot of established women leaders to look up to.”

Seema believes that the contribution of women leaders in corporates or startups, and those who actively contribute to the economy by being part of the workforce, is not always tangible. “It’s not just about the monetary value that women bring. Women leaders bring in empathy at workplaces, which builds a differentiated workplace value system that helps to accelerate growth.”

The correlation between technology, digitalisation and development

As someone who has worked extensively in the Indian sub-continent, Seema believes that the kind of innovation that is emerging now is far better than what it used to be earlier. She attributes this positive trend to the advent of cloud, open-source programming and the democratisation of technology.

 She says, “Today, young engineers and developers can choose the kind of programming language, tools or technology platform they want to work on. This is a stark contrast to a decade ago when the hardware and software tools to build products were predefined by the company. Small businesses don’t have to depend on expensive proprietary software or hardware. The inhibitors to innovation are much less today. And young people are coming with amazing home-grown products and solutions, which is driving the domestic economy on a fast-lane to growth.”

Seema also believes with the wave of digitisation that is sweeping the country today, a lot of structured and unstructured data has been accumulated which, if mined, will unearth valuable insights.

With data being the foundation for Artificial Intelligence, Seema believes that AI-infused technology is exactly what a country like India needs. Sharing an example, she says, “If you look at the number of qualified oncologists in India and the number of cancer patients, you will find a big gap. Further, doctors face an increasing battle to stay up to date about best practices in treatment and care management. This is a where a solution like IBM Watson for Oncology is making a breakthrough in cancer care in India. By analysing data to identify evidence-based treatment options, Watson is helping oncologists at Manipal Hospitals provide cancer patients with individualised and evidence-based healthcare.”

Staying relevant to a new audience in a new role

In her current role as the Country Head of the Developer Ecosystem and Startups, she leads the programme to connect, build relationships, and engage with “new technology influencers.”

This group consists of the developer community, open-source community, and universities on one hand, and the startup community on the other. Seema says, “Through the programme we aim to build their skills, share our knowledge, and help them with key emerging technologies around IoT, Blockchain, and deep tech. We work closely with the startup community by not just providing technology but also helping them make the right decision – even something as basic as choosing the architecture or scaling up their solutions or infusing AI into their applications. We also help startups from a go-to market standpoint, by providing access to newer markets, business leads through industry connects and visibility in IBM’s marketing initiatives.”

Talking about the challenge in the current role, she says, “The challenge is that now I constantly interact with a new generation of audience that is young, uninhibited and refreshing. Because, I am a couple of years older, I now have to unlearn my old ways and relearn to stay connect and stay relevant to their needs and interests.”

And if there’s something more that Seema enjoys than dealing with challenges, “it is the opportunity to give back to the community and this role helps me to do just that. As a person, I believe that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. As I a leader, I believe in helping them grow by accentuating their strengths.”

Ask her what’s her biggest strength is and pat comes the response: “Being fearless. I don’t get rattled easily. I tend to stand ground and stay calm when most others would be wondering ‘how will she do it now?’”

Today, leading key initiatives at IBM, and being a mother to two boys – a five year old and a thirteen year old, takes up most of her time, and Seema says that there’s hardly any left to pursue her hobbies or interests. But she does make it a point to travel. “Also, as a family we are all movie buffs. So we often catch up on movies during the weekends,” she adds.


 

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