Companies should be understanding and flexible, and not stereotype on the basis of gender: InfoEdge CMO Sumeet Singh
If life is made of different and diverse experiences, then Sumeet Singh is living an adventurous, exciting, and fulfilling one. She is an intrepid traveller, a corporate head honcho and a strong advocate of women’s rights in the workplace.
When it comes to travel, Sumeet does not mean the touristy, postcard type of travel. She likes to visit places off the beaten track, even snake-infested jungles, to get a feel of local life.
She grew up in an army family where transfers were frequent, and they moved across geographies. She began her schooling in Czechoslovakia and completed it in Jalandhar, attending many types of schools in several Indian states and countries.
This same hatke philosophy is reflected in her career of over two decades where she’s moved across industries and functions, playing decisive roles each time – from sales for an IT company, to lobbying for an industry body, securing venture capital deals, and marketing for a major internet company.
“Each job has been very different, not only in terms of the sector but also the role. Generally, you play the same role but in a different industry. Here, the skillsets required were also different. It was challenging because I had to stretch and invest a lot of my personal time to learn,” says the chief marketing officer for InfoEdge.
Learning on the job
After completing her BBA and MBA from Pune University, Sumeet started her career in 1997 with NIIT in Sales, where she got the opportunity to work on major projects and with senior industry leaders. She then joined the IT Desk at CII. This role involved lobbying, liaising with state governments and corporates and understanding policy.
“This was in 1999-2000 when Chandrababu Naidu had put IT on the global map and people started looking at India. I got great exposure because once again I was working with very senior leaders from the industry. So you were learning from an Azim Premji or a Narayan Murthy, you were also trying to get investment from the likes of Michael Dell and Bill Gates, and also getting an opportunity to co-ordinate meets for chief ministers,” says Sumeet.
The next chapter in her career came in 2001, when she became the founder and executive director of TiE’s Delhi chapter with Saurabh Srivastava as Chairman.
“Back in those days, entrepreneurship is not what it is today. Neither was there so much venture capital or seed capital available. Saurabh was amazing as a mentor and a boss. We were a two-member team like any startup. I can jokingly say that I was both heading the organisation and I was the peon as well. We worked closely to bring up entrepreneurship in the country,” says Sumeet.
She was also the executive director of the Indian Venture Capital Association (IVCA). Though the roles offered her flexibility, this was also around the time she decided to cut back on her work hours since her daughter was growing up and she wanted to spend time with her.
New beginnings and opportunities
She says she got a lucky break in 2005 when Sanjeev Bikhchandani, the founder of InfoEdge, who was on the board of TiE at the time, offered her a consulting role for corporate communications and alliances for InfoEgde.
In 2006, Hitesh Oberoi, the MD and CEO at InfoEgde, asked her to helm the marketing function for them. “I had never done marketing and didn’t know the world of digital. I give full credit to Hitesh for trusting me enough to do justice to this portfolio. He gave me space to learn and make mistakes, which not many people do. He helped me when I needed it and I haven’t looked back since.”
When asked about her achievements in the role of CMO, she modestly says, “In any organisation it’s the collaborative work that makes a difference, and the marketing team has been able to contribute to InfoEdge’s growth by leveraging search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimisation (SEO) right at the beginning, bringing in good advertising and some important and timely market insights.”
Knowing the pulse of consumers
According to Sumeet, digital marketing has played a significant role in helping build the brand. “We started SEM and SEO in 2004 and kept growing, ahead of others in the category. So we could reap the early movers’ advantage,” she says.
Also, some iconic ads that have helped the brand. But Sumeet adds that these alone aren’t sufficient to grow a business - timely and relevant market insights are also needed.
“As a marketeer, our job is not only about advertising. Our job is to know the pulse of the consumer. As a department we have been able to mine the right insights from the market and feed them back to the business. This has helped us build a good product. Ultimately, a good brand is decided by the product and not just by the advertising.”
Both mentors and mentees should be open and action-oriented
She says she’s been lucky to have had very good bosses, who have encouraged and inspired her. “At CII, I learnt a lot from my boss, the late Piyush Behl. Another person who has shaped my career is Saurabh. I am also grateful to Hitesh who gave me the opportunity to run the marketing department. Not many people running a successful company going to IPO in a year’s time would want somebody who is not trained to come in and take over the function.”
Going by her own experience of having had great mentors, she says, “No doubt it is important for every professional to have good managers and mentors. At the same time, it is a mutual relationship. You can’t have a good boss and not perform well. You need to be action-oriented and have an open attitude to learning.”
Sumeet mentions how she has incorporated this attitude. “When I took over marketing for InfoEdge I used to work 15-16 hours a day because after going home from work I used to sit and learn how to do SEM, how to do display advertising as these were not areas I had expertise in. I have never hesitated to reach out for help. If I did not know something I never pretended I did. Today, there are new things coming up every day and the younger generation is far smarter in some of those areas. I don’t hesitate to ask and to learn.”
‘Companies should be understanding, and focus on meritocracy’
While she says she’s been fortunate to have worked in organisations where there has been no gender bias, not everyone is so lucky. According to her, a number of problems related to gender bias in the workplace start when women move from middle to senior management, and have to divide their time between work and family. She strongly believes that this is when organisations need to be more supportive.
“As a company, you should build an atmosphere of meritocracy which is performance-led. Women are blessed with this ability to multi-task and can give their 400 per cent to a job and do it with maximum commitment. Organisations just need to be a little more understanding and flexible, and not stereotype on the basis of gender.”
At the same time, she strongly opposes the idea of having separate performance criteria for women as bringing them with under a different lens would only create further bias in the organisation.
“I think Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In concept is wonderful. It has not been easy for women who have risen in any industry. They’ve all had to really stretch hard. When you talk to younger women today, they don’t have as many role models. So women in leadership roles have to try and fight it out for them to lean in on us. Otherwise, who’s going to help organisations create an understanding environment?”
No shortcuts to success
Calling her father her biggest inspiration, Sumeet says the values and principles she learnt from him have really shaped her personally and professionally.
When asked about her passions, she jokingly responds, “Work. Friends call me a workaholic.” She also loves cooking, and travel. Music is another way to unwind. “I personally prefer country music and ghazals, but my daughter who is a teenager listens to all kinds of music. Now even I listen to One Direction, Katy Perry, etc,” she laughs.
As for her success mantra, she says, “I don’t think there’s any shortcut to success. Hard work and going the extra mile is important, without which you can’t be successful.”