Make it a comma, not a full stop– Amrita Chowdhury
Amrita Chowdhury is a lady of many parts and an inspiration to countless women in the world of business and beyond. She is an alumnus from the most prestigious educational institutes of the world, a B.Tech from IIT Kanpur, MS in Materials Engineering from Berkeley, University of California, and MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business.
Her accomplishments are myriad. She serves on the Boards of Mahindra Lifespace, Nesco, and Simmonds Marshal, and the social sector startup Drishtant. She also has 7 US patents for semiconductor manufacturing.
Her recent endeavour is the much successful Gaia, an Internet of Things (IoT) and automation company that creates solutions for smart cities and enterprises. As one of the founding members, she is passionate and involved in every aspect of its working.
Amrita served as the Country Head, South Asia for Harlequin Publishing house, and is an avid reader and writer herself. She has penned two works of fiction- “Faking It” and “Breach” and is a regular contributor to Business World, HuffPost, The Economic Times, Founding Fuel, India Today, Vogue, Femina, etc. on topics ranging from social issues to healthcare and education. She is eloquent in her thoughts and expressions and is always willing to put others before herself.
The Voice of Woman has the absolute privilege to have a whirlwind and inspirational conversation with this enigmatic lady ranging from the challenges of a female entrepreneur to the social woes that we regularly encounter. You can watch her exclusive video here.
You have donned several hats- entrepreneur, business strategist, innovator, author, and as a board member for several organisations- which has been your most challenging role till date? Which role gave you a sense of maximum fulfilment?
What challenges us most, gives us the maximum fulfilment. But being an entrepreneur has brought together every aspect of my life till now from innovation to business, to storytelling, and corporate governess in the way we operate and run our company.
The exciting part is giving shape to an idea and being able to transform it into a tangible business that has products, solutions and an approach to the market and clients. I have always loved weaving stories and a lot of business is really about our ability to connect the dots and build stories.
These stories are about seeing the bigger picture, seeing our solutions for new clients, and being able to convey the same both internally to our teams who are developing and selling the products, to our stakeholders, and partners in the wider market, and ultimately to our end users.
It allows me to bring creativity in many ways from building the brand to building stories around them. Entrepreneurship is very challenging since it requires a lot of tenacity on a daily basis. There is no floor, the floor is you, your effort, your ingenuity to manage the challenges, the ability to face the failures and take the naysayers along the journey with you, and there are enough of them and some might even be on your own team.
When you are trying to sell something you should be prepared to hear more No than Yes. In the face of the challenge, you have to still be able to carry on and grow and be able to believe.
It is also a huge responsibility especially in the current situation, the entire team and their families are relying on us financially. At one level there is the freedom to design my workspace but at the same time, there is no freedom since everyone else comes first- my team, my client, vendor partners- whatever they need, that has to be fulfilled first.
Being an entrepreneur there is no separation from work, it never ends. We work 24/7 and live and breathe our work. But everything can be very refreshing, new clients or win; it can all be extremely invigorating.
Anytime we come up with a new idea there is a lot of hope and a sense of urgency, pride, and commitment- that it is up to me and my imagination, to be able to steer things and be able to make a difference.
You were associated with the Harlequin publishing house who are known for their books on women and massive female readership, do you feel the demands of the female readers have changed over time?
Firstly readers are readers, there is no gender. Sometimes we make this artificial distinction of women authors or female readers and we try to bucket people in a narrow category. Today, we have women authors in every genre of fiction and non-fiction like romances, crime thrillers, philosophy, economics or poetry.
Similarly, there are female readers who are eclectic enough to accept that they like works from across various genres. There are certain changes that are noticed in both authors and readers and their expectation from the story they are writing or reading.
Today, most readers want a female protagonist that they can identify with. They want the girl to have some agency and be able to create options for them. The whole idea of a ‘damsel in distress’ who needs to be rescued or was subjected to the perils and perversion of the society, is no longer acceptable.
Even if the characters are in trouble themselves, readers expect that through the course of the book there is a chance at improving themselves and breaking away from the negative situation. Also, there are the characters of what traditionally was known as ‘bad girls’, who weren’t bad per se but fell under the notion of what was considered “bad” by society.
So, these would be the characters of young girls who would experiment, break rules, find themselves, and challenge the norms, basically, the everyday modern girl. These are the relatable characters that have the most readerships.
Even the mythological characters are being reinterpreted in a way that is modernising them by finding their strength and character’s ingenuity that wasn’t there before. The big difference is that girls are creating and consuming books in multiple different formats and digital channels like Wattpad where readers are becoming writers themselves.
So, there is not necessarily an editor whose perception needs to guide and shape the stories. This allows for certain rawness to the writing and people are willing to consume that. Difficult topics like abuse, discrimination, or mental health, are approached with a sense of urgency or militancy, and candour rather than a sense of despair.
It has thus led to the opening of new genres that are being acceptable even by traditional publishing houses.
Regressive comments and objectification are common to women, how can we handle such misdemeanour?
Today, on social media both women and men can be objectified but that being said girls face it more. This doesn’t depend on your age, physical appearance, what you wear, your achievements or profession. Women face it everywhere- on the streets, on the various media platforms, in colleges or corporate offices and even in boardrooms. Sometimes it is given straight and sometimes it is cloaked in humour or it is done in a paternalistic manner.
The difference is how we deal with it. In my generation, we were taught earlier on to stay quiet or ignore it. To be invisible so that such words don’t affect you or people don’t talk about you, but they still did. Today there is a lot more awareness and activism and girls today are extremely vocal about it. They no longer accept such behaviour.
Even though I have started unlearning things from my early days and I have learned to respond back, sometimes it might be with humour or sarcasm. But it is important to react and respond and make my displeasure known about the regressive comments that I might encounter, especially in the professional arena.
I was reading a book called “Nervous Conditions” with my daughter and it deals with challenges that women encountered in Rhodesia in the 1970s. Some of the instances from the book are even relatable to our contemporary Indian setting. Some of the instances that I read and could relate to: an outspoken woman was called unnatural and uncontrollable as the society expected her to be silent and submissive.
Another was when an emancipated woman in an emotional outburst asks “what does it mean to be a loose woman?” Sometimes it can be someone who walks the street or an educated woman or she is just someone who is beautiful. How women by the virtue of being different can be labelled as “loose”.
We might not be able to relate with this in the urban ecosystem but there are many India within India where things like this still occur. What is needed in such a scenario is a lot of self-awareness and being able to respond back, and take it in your stride and not let it affect your self-esteem.
In the 21st century, women are still made to choose between career and raising a family, how can we successfully manage this societal prejudice?
Girls today are getting educated and joining the workforce in a higher number than ever before. But the challenge is that they have to often step back from their career within a few years.
Some women face societal or family pressure, for some it is social conditioning and self-directed towards the self, and for one fraction of the society they feel that they don’t need to work if they are economically well off and that work isn’t a means of self-expression but as an act of necessity.
In my perspective, it’s about embracing the disbalance of life and not necessarily seeking a balance. A lot of conversation in corporate circles happens around this balance that women seek. In my mind balance is about mediocrity. Women are born multitaskers and are able to do each task properly. But it is not possible to do 8 or 9 things together, after all, we are humans!
Personally, I always had something known as Spider chart from the time I joined the workforce at a fairly young age. There are certain things which are important to me like work, learning, family and kids, spending time with friends, being on boards and associations, and following my passions like writing (it is a parallel path and persona), crafts, baking, travelling, fitness, yoga, and finally some personal time to relax and unwind.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed I create spider charts of where I am and how I rate myself in a particular segment and at any given point there are 2-3 things on which I have my full attention. I have learned that it is not possible to have all things at once. At every stage or at any particular moment in time things will be imbalanced.
Somethings will take priority and others will fall back but over a period of a few years things do balance out and that’s the beauty of life. You don’t need to give into binary choices- I can or I cannot.
I recall one of my former bosses has said about an accomplished female executive that makes it a comma and not a full stop. There will be moments in life when you require flexibility and step away for a little bit and not a lot, that it becomes impossible for you to come back.
You have to be able to negotiate with your bosses, and parents or in-laws. Always compensate for your time and never waste it away. Never compromise on your dreams.
You have been part of the corporate world for the last two decades, what are some of the significant changes that you have noticed?
There has been a lot of changes and yet not a lot has changed. Some numbers have improved like there are a lot many women who are studying engineering and many who enter the workforce.
There are enough female role models in every industry and most companies have diversity programs to enable women to succeed. There is a lot of awareness about practices that are conducive for women’s safety.
A lot of legislation has come in, especially to include women at the board level. But some in spite of all this some numbers are still the same as there are still huge drop-offs after the first few years.
Number wise there are still fewer women in middle and senior management. There is a lack of advocacy to champion women to climb the rungs of the corporate hierarchy. This is a global phenomenon.
The challenges are two-fold. Firstly, male leaders need to transform their understanding of the challenges faced by women and I have personally noticed that the perception of men changes when their daughters enter the workforce but it doesn’t happen for their wives or female colleagues.
And one can only hope that it had happened a little earlier. While the MeToo movement has shed light on the predatory practices which exist at offices and it has created a safety net for many.
Secondly, one needs to continue to step in and stay there. Women stay away on their own accord because they worry about balancing everything and have constraints over travelling, extended hours, and societal prejudice.
When put in such hard spots, they often don’t negotiate to attain the flexibility that they seek and be able to make a contribution. Since they don’t ask, it is not offered to them on a platter. They fear that they have no choice but to step away. All of it needs to change from both men and women.
With the advancement of technology, invasion of privacy has become a common occurrence, can you please tell us how can women safely navigate web browsing and social media profiles?
Social media has 2 sides- one that is fun and helps us to stay connected and be able to express our personal views on a public platform. But there is a downside that anything on social media remains forever. Based on what we publish, people can gather information and form a perception of us.
There are four things that any girl should be careful of. First, is safety, as we often post pictures and other things with our locations and then people can stalk us and reach us. We thus make ourselves, our loved ones, and our homes vulnerable by posting without any discrimination.
Secondly, is IP protection or identity theft, people can steal our identity and use it for nefarious activities. Often the passwords are easy to crack or one password for all accounts, thus, making it easy to hack. The third thing is about perception control and we might not care about it because it is about self-expression and not care about what others think.
But often employers, admission officers, or colleagues check our social media updates. I had senior colleagues say that my social media image wasn’t serious and I had to change those posts. So people read a lot into it and it can lead to unnecessary trouble and altercation.
Finally, mental health, as social media can be extremely vitriolic. People can use your own words and ideas to get back at you and hurt you. So, it’s important to maintain your sanity and balance of the time spent online.
For youngsters, especially, your mind, memories, and perception often get fractionated by the amount of time spent on social media and it is critical that certain tasks require your full attention and during such times you need to take a step back.
Feminism is one of the most mistaken phenomena and is usually labelled as “male-hating”- what according to you is the true essence of feminism?
For me feminism means having a choice, a choice of what I want to do, who I want to be or say, and a sense of complete freedom. Feminism has been through multiple phases, during the turn of the last century it was about women’s suffrage movement. The second phase occurred during the post-world war era, where women were seeking access to education and work.
The third phase of feminism in the late 80’s and early 90’s period and continued for a long time. It was a diffused movement as it was more about seeking balance rather than taking a harsh stance.
It was equal opportunities and pay, as gender pay gaps are very common and still continue to be so globally. In the last few years, with the rise in social media activism and a certain vocalism of the present generation, there has been the MeToo movement to uncover predatory behaviour.
For me, feminism is about making a choice of staying in the game and not stepping away. Sometimes, we might need to pause for a variety of reasons like family, or following alternate passions or just that you might be burned out.
There might be obstructions but we need to accept it and flow along with it. We have to make sure that our efforts count and our voices and opinions count and we are heard, that for me is feminism.
As a female entrepreneur, what are some of the challenges that you faced?
Being an entrepreneur in India is challenging irrespective of gender because the way the government and enterprises buy innovations or work with start-ups can be tough, payment cycles are long, and value consciousness is high.
As a female entrepreneur, we have to think about the perception of proving yourself and being taken seriously with every client and interaction. The way to achieve that is to go the extra mile so that when we are dealing with the clients we come across as knowledgeable and being able to add value so that we are appreciated for what we bring to the table. It holds true for our internal interactions too.
Your team looks up to you, so you need to motivate them by words and actions, and would have to be on the job continuously. While I might not be the expert at every aspect of the business but it becomes very critical that at every discussion I add a certain value to it and being open to collaboration with experts.
As a woman, we shouldn’t fall prey to stereotypes like a nurturing boss or a demanding, bitchy boss. We all have multiple aspects to us and different situations demand different reactions. So, we need to be able to switch and I often play tag team with my founding team members.
Sometimes I have to be the tough one while they are the soft ones, and at other times I am the mediator, and vice-versa. It is important to have a support network with your senior leadership.
If we demonstrate that we expect a lot from ourselves and being able to deliver that, it is only then we can expect the same from our team. It is about having the perseverance, passion, and commitment to get the job done.
As the director of Gaia, how do you create an egalitarian working environment in your offices?
At Gaia, our culture is very open and flexible and we are a very agile and innovative team. Flexibility is built in the way we operate. It is derived from the ethos of every member of the founding team.
Like it is said in Spiderman with great power comes greater responsibilities, so with flexibility comes accountability. We don’t expect a different set of accountability from our female team members. As a company, we are a start-up that serves large enterprises and top tier government organisations.
We have women engineers who work on the sites and deal with technicians and we enable them to often make tough decisions with the clients. In the sales or management end of it, every team member has to engage with clients in 24/7 operations that we provide through tech-enabled solutions.
Challenge can come at any point of the day and if critical escalations occur then they have to rise to the occasion. We have a very supportive team and we do understand that people go through various phases in life.
But we create the space to allow our team members to take care of responsibilities beyond work but when at work we expect 100% commitment. It is a situation where you contribute and yet there is enough to take away.
Can you please share a message for young women who are looking to start their own businesses through the platform of The Voice of Woman.
My message for aspiring women entrepreneurs would be fourfold: passion, partnerships, purpose, and perseverance. As entrepreneurship is a long-term commitment you need to be really passionate about the idea.
You need to consider that if the market is viable enough and if there is the ability to scale it to a certain extent or if there are enough people demanding that particular product that you are trying to sell. You would need to develop, sustain, and create a level of passion for your business, so you need to be prepared for that.
You need to have a vision and ambition for your company but you need to also know who you are impacting and whose life will be transformed, what problem are you solving by your product or company.
Are you one more in a crowded category or are you distinct? It defines the purpose with which approach your business. If you align your idea with a purpose for a larger transformation then it becomes easier to tell that story.
Partnerships are important, as you cannot do it alone. We need people with complementary skills around us and early adopters who believe in our vision- like advocates, clients who will vouchsafe for us, and all of this requires partnership.
There are no easy answers in entrepreneurship, as everything takes time, for a business to grow, develop, and sustain. It is important to have the stamina as it isn’t an easy journey. Also, the inner ability to motivate ourselves and get up from the hard knocks.
In business, you will hear more No than Yes. A No doesn’t mean our idea doesn’t have takers, but that we need to knock on more doors and that requires resilience.
All the best!