Twenty19.com welcomes Dr. Sandhya Shekhar, The Chief Executive Officer of IIT Madras Research Park. A University rank holder from Madras University, Sandhya did her management studies at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and earned her Ph.D from IIT Madras, winning the international award for Outstanding Doctoral Research from the European Foundation for Management Development and Emerald.
Sandhya has held the position of Director with Gartner Inc. Asia Pacific region. Earlier she has held positions as Chief Technology Officer of BconnectB.com, Head of Knowledge Management Research in Aptech Ltd., and Group Consultant in the software division of NIIT Ltd. Read Sandhya’s story, who has been revolutionizing the Research and Innovation ecosystem in India.
To begin with, share with us a brief about your schooling, college, your childhood and family and perhaps a small anecdote describing you as a person?
Sandhya: I did my schooling in Dehradun, which was then a beautiful sleepy little valley nestled between the Himalayas and the Shivalik hills. My childhood is a kaleidoscope of memories – trekking to snow-capped Mussoorie in winter, out-smarting the security guard to pluck leechies from the trees in summer, reveling in the fact that Ruskin Bond whose writings fascinated me lived just a stone’s throw away and learning from my parents that happiness is all about the innumerable little joys from little moments in life.
I am not sure how to describe myself as a person. My daughter (with all the wisdom of a 19 year old) says I am outrageously outdated. I am not surprised – I feel a little bit like Alice in Wonderland – forever discovering how little I know.
You have been in the industry for more than 20 years. You are now CEO of IIT Research Park, what are the significant things you have done and what were the challenges you faced in your career?
Sandhya: It might be a little presumptuous to say that I have done something “significant”. What is significant is that I have had the enormous good fortune to have worked with some remarkable people who have helped me discover my abilities and in the process contribute constructively. It is almost always a challenge to play the game based on your convictions without taking the simpler way out and compromising on the values that you cherish. But if you manage to do that, success tastes a lot sweeter.
When one chooses a career, they see growth, they see money, may be philanthropy, however, you sought to revolutionize the research and innovation ecosystem in India, what instigated you to follow this route, what was the turning point in your life that made you take the plunge?
Sandhya: I would love to pretend that it was all part of a well-thought out grand plan. The fact is that it wasn’t. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time! At a certain time in my life, I had a choice and I simply chose to exercise the choice. The choice was between continuing to do what I was doing in the industry for over two decades and doing something that I thought would help me give back in a very small way to this great country of ours, albeit compromising on certain other parameters of perceived personal success. I chose the latter, simply because I thought it would be more satisfying.
Your independence and story of success is truly inspirational to many gen-next college girls and not to come off as a cliché but still reeling on old Indian Patriarchal thoughts, I must ask how has the journey been as a woman in the business world?
Sandhya: Strangely, I don’t think that the journey has been particularly different to what it might have been for a man. The rules of the game are pretty much the same for everyone. You have to work very hard to be acknowledged and respected by your peers and there are really no short-cuts. Yes, one might face a certain amount of skepticism to start with. The best way to counter that is to prove that you are good at what you do and do it with dignity. It is not what you do but how you do it – it is indeed the journey that matters.
What has been your riskiest decision that you made in your life and how it has impacted you?
Sandhya: I presume you are referring to my professional life (if its my personal life, then clearly it has to be the day I decided to start driving on Mumbai roads!)
My decision to go on a sabbatical and do a PhD at the prime of my professional life could be termed an unusual decision. I wouldn’t call it a risky one, although my friends quite simply thought that I had lost my marbles! It was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. I reveled in the unadulterated bliss of being surrounded by books, reading to my heart’s content and soaking in the pleasure of being in a beautiful environment where knowledge simply flowed – a stark difference from life in a multi-national where it is customary for knowledge to be hoarded.
These days a lot of students are starting their own businesses. How do you think student entrepreneurs can leverage their unique position of more freedom, lesser responsibility as well as lesser capital?
Sandhya: Ah, if you think running your own business means more freedom and less responsibility, think again! In a regular job, you work from 9 to 6 and then you are free. As an entrepreneur, you never quite know when your work day ends! In the former you normally report to one boss. When you run your own business you have multiple bosses and gods to propitiate – customers, suppliers, financers, government bodies… the list is endless. But yes, what you get at the end of it is an enormously heightened sense of confidence, self-worth and satisfaction.
According to you, how should a college student decide on which internships to choose from the vast pool available to them?
Sandhya: Simply choose what interests you the most. Everything else – money, brand name etc is inconsequential.
Many fears come up when students decide not to follow their hearts and instead end up unhappy in their professions, your experience clearly paints a more optimistic future. What suggestions you would give to these students?
Sandhya: I think it is extremely important to choose a profession that gives you an opportunity to do what you enjoy doing. If you like doing something, there is a high chance that you will be good at it. Therefore good outcomes will automatically follow. I find that youngsters tend to hop jobs in search of an elusive ideal job. There is really no such thing. The trick is to be willing to work hard in an area that interests you. The litmus test is – you have to get up in the morning and look forward to your day!
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