Many Indians have made it to the top jobs in the US, wading through a maze of biases. Here's how two of them did it.
Dipak C Jain was 17 minutes into his first presentation as the Dean of Kellogg School of Management when the world changed. This was 8.17 AM Chicago time, an hour behind New York. The date was September 11, 2001.
It would have been easy to wallow in this most inauspicious of beginnings. Instead, Jain, the first Indian to head a top-flight US business school, quickly got down to writing letters to the school’s alumni seeking their help in placing the graduating students.
“I could see that the global economic environment would become tough and placing the students would be equally so. So I wrote to our former students many of who were in decision-making positions at small and medium enterprises that did not recruit from the top business schools,” says Jain. He was criticised for demeaning the Dean’s position by “going around with a begging bowl”. However, after Kellogg reported 91 per cent placement rate, the best among all B-schools in the country, in that troubled year, this went on to be become standard practice among the top B-schools.
That’s Jain for you. Born and brought up in Tezpur, Assam, he has devoutly followed the age-old Indian ethic of accepting one’s fate and moving on to address the situation at hand.
“There are biases everywhere. I may have very well faced them. But even if they became obstacles for me, I did not notice them,” says Jain. He says he faces more bias in India. Some time ago, in the breakfast queue at a five-star hotel in New Delhi, the man on the counter wanted to bypass Jain and serve the foreigner behind him. A five-star hotel in Hyderabad put Jain in a dingy room while allotting spacious suites to each of his three American companions, little knowing that they wouldn’t have come to India but for the lure of spending time with the Kellogg Dean.
About a month after Jain had become the Dean, Philip Kotler, the marketing guru who is a member of Kellogg’s faculty, persuaded Jain to fill in for him at a seminar. Jain resisted by saying that Kotler was being “product-centric”, that he should be customer-centric and that in this case the customers were the seminar’s audience. But Kotler wouldn’t listen. His son-in-law was undergoing surgery that very day and Jain simply had to step in for him. Jain does not know how to drive and Kotler often dropped him home in those days. It was difficult to refuse.
Now, Kotler is a celebrity all over the US and Jain was not exactly known to the organisers. In fact, in Jain’s words, the organisers were clearly disappointed to see “this man of colour” as Kotler’s replacement. However, Jain does not harp on this colour bit. The highlight of his anecdote is how the seminar’s chairman introduced Jain to the audience. “All of you know Philip Kotler,” he said, “I give you Kotler’s boss.”
It’s not surprising that Jain places attitude as the most important quality in a professional, way above talent and qualification. He defines attitude as the willingness to work. “Beyond a point, the technical qualifications do not matter, attitude does. If you are trying to build a ship, do not tell your workers to go to the forest, chop wood, and build a ship. Instead, instill in them the desire for the sea. They will do the rest.”
It may have helped that at many of the life-turning junctures Jain found someone to guide and help him. That’s how he became a professor of marketing. After finishing his masters in mathematical statistics from Guhawati University, he taught in Guhawati for five years before going to the University of Texas in 1983 to pursue PhD under Frank M Bass (his PhD was on data base marketing, which later morphed into customer relationship management, better known as CRM).
Bass told Jain to get into marketing, but the mathematics scholar was understandably reluctant. It was then that Bass convinced him that the best way to learn was to teach and sent him for an interview at Kellogg.
It’s not a surprise that Jain does not mind having the middle seat in an aeroplane. “You can get to know two persons, one on either side of you,” he says. “Reach out to people, make friends. It is an investment.” He would often get an email from someone he exchanged cards with at a seminar. That someone turned out to be a businessman seeking suggestions on the marketing plan for a new product. Jain would make his suggestions and forget about it. One fine day he would see a story in Chicago Tribune with the details of how the Kellogg Dean was instrumental in the success of a new product.
However, the mathematician still lurks inside Jain and keeps popping out every now and then. “Data is accounted, opinion discounted,” says Jain, and applies it to the smallest things in life. He is the Dean during the day and a marketing teacher in the evenings. That makes him leave home at 6.45 in the morning, to get back only at 9.30 in the evening. But when his wife complains to someone that her husband comes home late, Jain is quick to correct. “Don’t say late, say your husband comes home at 9.30. It may not be late for the listener.”
Just like the mathematician, the Indian too is a constant presence in Jain. He appears to be in love with the US, the opportunities it offers to everyone, and its work culture, but does not hide his Indianness, and wears his arranged marriage on his sleeve.
Most of those who know him, and several seminar audiences, would know that Jain did not see his wife before he agreed to marry her. One fine day in 1989, when Jain’s family thought he was getting on in years, he received a letter from his father talking about this girl he wanted Jain to consider for marriage. “I have visited her place and met her,” read the last line of the letter. “I really like her.”
Jain’s reply was immediate and positive. “If you like her, she must be really special. I will marry her.”
By that time, Jain’s father had become completely blind. That’s acceptance.
When Punita Kumar-Sinha graduated from The Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, as a chemical engineer in 1985, she was aghast to discover that many companies did not want women engineers. Several would openly say that women need not apply.
“I carved out a career on my own,” she says. That is why she finds it baffling to hear sometimes that her father-in-law Yashwant Sinha’s position in politics and government helped her career.
She met the former finance minister’s son, Jayant, at IIT and they got married in 1986. Around the time that they got married, Yashwant Sinha was somewhat drifting on the political waters. He had quit the Indian Administrative Service to pursue a career in politics, and promptly lost the elections.
“When I got married, my in-laws had no money to finance our wedding,” she says. In any case, she was not living with her in-laws in India. “Who really cares about a politician’s daughter-in-law? Maybe their sons or daughters would have influence. But a daughter-in-law? Probably, very little! It was not like I was living in India and running the household here. I was away, far away.”
That far away place was the US, where she moved to build a career in the world of finance and investment (Jayant was climbing the ladders at McKinsey & Co). Over there, she had to fight another perception; in addition to being a woman, she was also an Indian.
“Perceptions have dogged me wherever I have gone, even in the US, the land of equality and opportunity. I understand that. There are biases in every society.”
That has made her firm in her opinion that women have it harder. The relationships they build in their profession are more formal.
For men, if they get along, it sooner or later becomes a boys’ club, with frequent rounds of golf and other networking events. Not so with women. “Yet such networks are very important for women as well, because women like men need to get their name out and known."
Despite having won The Lipper recognition for her performance as the best performing closed-end fund (including all categories, not just India), she still finds it challenging to raise money. According to her, the rigours and sentiments of the profession are such that women have to work harder at building relationships, raising money and closing deals.
She thinks herself lucky that she often found people who helped her along the way. She has enjoyed the support of an all-male board of directors in crucial decisions. It helped that many of the directors were academicians or foreign policy experts.
She found a supportive boss in Alan Rappaport during her stint with Oppenheimer, another investment house. Rappaport gave her the opportunity to manage the India fund. However, it is only now that she calls this an opportunity and begins to smile when she thinks about it.
At first when she was asked to spend more time on Indian funds, she went into the job — to exaggerate slightly — kicking and screaming. She was managing international and Asian assets and did not want to do just India. She thought she was being asked to do this because of her nationality. That may not have been untrue, but still turned out to be the defining move of her career.
“I was enjoying doing international. India was a very small market. I never really wanted to work on India initially. I did not want to be pigeonholed as an Indian doing India. They kept telling me that India would be important.”
That was 1994. Soon after, India began to grow in importance as an economy in the global scheme of things and Punita Kumar-Sinha’s career grew even faster. “That gave me one of the biggest advantages. It has become my strength. I was made a portfolio manager at a young age.”
In her experience, it is generally men with successful career women as wives who tend to appreciate driven and accomplished women. Rappaport’s wife was a Harvard MBA. As a corollary, Kumar-Sinha’s husband took the extra step to support and help women when he was at McKinsey.
In general, she says, women do need the extra support, either from women mentors or cosmopolitan, mature men who take the extra step to support women.
However, she has learnt to rationalise things. “I do not think people deliberately, or consciously distinguish against women. It is just a matter of mindset. The standard perception is that women are emotional and cry a lot. If women are aggressive, they are branded emotional. Many men find it difficult to relate to women.”
Other than fund raising, she thinks succession planning puts women at a disadvantage. People like choosing someone with a similar personality type, gender and race as their successor. As it is, most of the top jobs are with men, who tend to think of other men as better replacements than women.
She is careful not to project herself as holier-than-thou. “It has got to do with my mindset, too. It works both ways. There are barriers in my mind, too. As it is, though I have had several years of education in the United States, I am still culturally very Indian.
This works to my advantage while investing in Asia. Perhaps, if I were a ‘Hi, buddy!’ kind of person, it would have been easier in the other areas of business as well.”
Her method to counter the biases was to educate herself and add to her skills. She counts joining IIT as her biggest achievement, but did not stop there. “I overachieved in education and, technically, became very qualified. I have a PhD and a Masters in Finance from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. The kind of skills I have, not too many people have. My education has been my biggest ally in this world, as I have often found myself battling perception.”