[Women in STEM] In a career spanning 29 years, how Chandrika Kasturi of P&G delivered breakthrough innovations in R&D
As Senior Vice President, Global Skin and Personal Care R&D leader at Procter & Gamble (P&G), Chandrika Kasturi is responsible for delivering top and bottomline growth across multiple iconic beauty brands through innovation. She has developed and led cross-functional teams and champions strong collaboration between R&D, supply chain, and market/competitive dynamics to deliver winning propositions.
Born in the US but raised in India, her father was a professor with a PhD in chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
“My father’s career had a huge influence on me, he encouraged experimentation, and I was always surrounded by his students, conducting lab experiments and the like. Importantly, he made it fun! Watching him and his interest shaped my path into science, and I went on to graduate top of my class with a bachelor of science in physics, chemistry and mathematics from the University of Bangalore, Mount Carmel College,” she says.
In a conversation with HerStory, Chandrika Kasturi takes us through her career journey, talks about being a woman in STEM, and leading R&D during the pandemic.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
HerStory (HS): What drew you to STEM?
Chandrika Kasturi (CK): My father’s career and passion for science were likely the strongest influence that drove my interest in STEM. Olay’s #STEMTheGap campaign talks about the unconscious biases faced by girls which teach them that STEM isn’t for them. This certainly resonates with me, and I myself have experienced such bias. However, I also consider myself to have been incredibly fortunate to have had such a strong role model and supporter in my father, who always encouraged me to pursue my interests.
Beyond that, however, I must also credit some of the incredible teachers I had in school who made the journey of learning tough subjects more fun and enjoyable. To this day, I still remember some of those teachers as they played an important role in furthering my interest in science.
HS: Please take us through your career journey.
CK: I joined P&G in 1993 after completing my PhD at Ohio State University. Throughout my long career, I was fortunate to take on roles of increasing complexity across disciplines within R&D, and across a wide variety of brands and categories. This included working on chemistry-based businesses, which are more formulation-based, as well as paper-based business that are more mechanical, and working in different roles from upstream technology to product development and packaging. Ultimately, P&G offered a diverse set of scientific challenges and having the ability to leverage scientific critical thinking enabled me to work across these, making a difference through the creation of innovations that enable us to win in the market.
HS: Tell us about your current roles and responsibilities.
CK: I global P&G Beauty R&D organisation, with a focus on skin and personal care innovation. This includes product and packaging development for brands such as Olay and Old Spice. Taking Olay as an example, scientific credibility and deep skin understanding have been critical for the success of the brand. We work to select ingredients that are safe and efficacious, working side by side with dermatologists to offer the best science, enabling women to reach their skin and transformation goals.
HS: Tell us about working in a team. How many people do you oversee and any interesting experiences?
CK: I lead an organisation of 600 people across the globe, with roughly 50 percent based in Asia and 50 percent based in the US. Naturally, this means that I oversee people with different styles, cultural, and educational backgrounds. I fundamentally believe that diversity is a great strength, and I am constantly seeking to see how to best leverage this to enable the business.
Diversity brings new ideas and new ways of approaching problems, as well as a broad network of potential external partnerships such as universities or suppliers across the regions, all of which are critical to creating breakthrough innovations.
HS: How did you face the challenges of working in a pandemic?
CK: One of the main challenges during the pandemic, especially in the beginning, was balancing work and home life, as things blended with ‘work from home’. Given half of my team are based outside the US, there would often be very long days. To be highly effective and efficient, however, it’s important to define boundaries and so I worked to ensure that I had time to decompress. Another challenge was how to continue the scientific lab work that is core to R&D.
We were able to establish the right protocols, rotating and sequencing work for people to be able to come into the labs, yet be safe. We focused on setting the right priorities, and adjusting, such as asking people to analyse their results at home, rather than in the office, meaning we could rotate more.
HS: What can be done to attract more people into STEM roles?
CK: Role models are hugely important. I believe that if you see someone like yourself succeed, you are more likely to want that same success for yourself. Having a role model that can demonstrate how they are able to balance the two is critical to show that it is in fact possible. When it comes to balancing family life and work, I also believe it’s important to show people that they can succeed, even if they take a break for personal reasons. I have someone in my team now who has chosen to work four days a week, yet I am very intentional about the fact that this shouldn’t take away from their success.
HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?
CK: I would say that being in R&D, there is never a linear path. That’s the nature of science and the beauty of experimentation, something will always go wrong! My biggest successes would be delivering breakthrough innovations in the marketplace. A great example of this is our recent innovation on Olay – the new Olay Collagen Peptide 24 Collection. The range is powered by scientifically advanced bioavailable Collagen Peptide that is specially modified so that it can be easily absorbed by the skin. This means it can penetrate more effectively for plump and bouncy skin all day long.
HS: What challenges did you face building a global STEM career within an MNC, especially as a woman of Indian origin who would have been in the minority in corporate America?
CK: The most important thing is to understand the cultural codes of engagement, as well as influence, and smartly adapt to those in a way that feels authentic. Having been raised in a culture of respect for authority/elders, one of the biggest challenges for me was finding my voice in a male-dominated, and primarily Caucasian organisation. Understanding and observing these cultural codes allowed me to speak up in a way that was respectful whilst also making myself heard. I learned how to be effective and not intimidated, whilst also still being my authentic self.
HS: Why do you think there are very few women in leadership positions in STEM?
CK: I believe this comes down to two things: lack of role models, and of institutional support. If women don’t see other women like them who can inspire and champion them, how can they believe in themselves to succeed? As more women navigate to the top, more progression will come, an exciting prospect! It will take time, but it has to be intentional. Secondly, it’s so important that organisations actively make gender equality and supporting women in their careers an imperative, with the right systems and policies in place.
At P&G, we have introduced family-inclusive policies, like better paid parental leave, and a ‘flex at work’ policy. We are also deliberate about having better representation of women in the slates for senior roles.
Of course, the decision will need to consider who will be the right fit for the job but ensuring a more balanced representation in the options considered is an important step forward. There’s a difference between equity and equality, and it’s important we give women a leg up.
HS: Why should every organisation have an equal opportunity mindset?
CK: Getting to the best solutions requires diversity of skills and thought processes. An organisation that is unidimensional will never get breakthrough results. This is true for any organisation, but particularly critical in science because we are always looking to challenge the status quo with different ways of approaching a problem and new ideas. In today’s dynamic and ever-changing world, ideas can and should come from anywhere. The more ideas, the greater the chance of making a meaningful impact.
Edited by Teja Lele