Sucheta Mahapatra

Vice President Strategy

Enjoy the journey

I am a little bit of a hybrid. My parents belong to Orissa, I was born in Haridwar, grew up in Hyderabad, went to business school in Ahmedabad, where I met my husband (who is a Sikh) and we now live in Gurgaon.

My early influences came from my family – my parents and my extended family. My mother, a banker, had a huge role to play. She gave us confidence while constantly challenging us to do better. My father, a passionate engineer – didn’t let us take shortcuts. We had to work hard for whatever we loved. I remember having to win a few matches with a borrowed racquet before I was allowed to buy my own! My extended family has freedom fighters and authors – so there were lot of inspirational influences as I was growing up.

To be honest, my choice of a major was a little bit of an accident. I was all India Rank 1 in the 10th board exams and so there was tremendous pressure to become an engineer. I might have done something different, if I had thought about it. But then those 4 years of engineering definitely cleared my head up. Post my engineering I worked for Oracle for a couple of years and though I had taken exams to study abroad, I realized I wanted to be in India. I then went on to do MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and worked for the Tata’s briefly - before joining Bain & Company where I worked for over 8 years. I spent some time in the US, but came back to India when Bain opened an office here.

On mentorship

One of the top reasons I succeeded was because I have had great mentors. I’ve had really demanding bosses, but they also thumped the table loudly for me when it mattered. Now, I actively seek out people who I respect and who would be willing to invest in me. I had underestimated the importance of mentorship – as a lot of women do. It is a two way relationship, we cannot expect people to look out for us, if we don’t invest in the relationship in the first place.

On leading teams

Managing teams is not always a natural skill, it comes with practice. It is an apprenticeship job - best learned from good managers and good leaders you have worked with. You need to be willing to admit your mistakes, be fair, transparent and a good communicator. You want to be someone that your team wants to learn from.

On career breaks

I took a break, little after my daughter was born. I used to be a consultant and consulting demands that you are on a plane every week, no matter how senior you become. I liked the work, but it was daunting to do a travel intensive job with a very young baby at home. I must admit I did enjoy getting a break. At the same time, I was very clear that I wanted to come back. Incidentally, my husband who was also a consultant, also moved to a different role around this time. It wasn’t like I had a baby – ‘we’ had a baby so we both took a conscious call to switch careers.

On young mothers

I am a first time parent, so am learning a lot myself, every day! As young mothers, we should be prepared to work really hard, and not give up until we absolutely have to give up. Demands of motherhood along with balancing work can be daunting. I haven’t cracked the code on work life balance as yet. I don’t have one. I think about it as managing my energy – rather than managing my time. I prioritize all the time. I make choices. I create time for things and people that energize me (while trying to ignore those that don’t). I ask for a lot of help, lean tremendously on my family – my husband and parents. I also lean on my friends, even those that are in different cities for advice and help. In return, I invest back in those relationships. Thanking and valuing people who are my support system.

On women entering the work force

My advice to people entering the workforce is that, the corporate work is fundamentally demanding, so aim to be very good at what you do. Don’t expect things to come easy. I don’t think this is a man-woman thing. This goes for both.

Airtel is a fantastic employer. I am thrilled at the amount of commitment the top management has around the topic of diversity. There are serious efforts around hiring and retaining women – and diversity is one of the GPS pillars for the year. We need more companies in India to think like this.

On inspiring women leaders

Orit Gadish is a woman leader who I find inspiring. She started her life in the Israeli army – her’s is an incredible story. Among books, some that I’d recommend would be, Agassi’s biography Open, The last lecture by Randy Pausch and some of Ramchandra Guha’s titles.