Against all odds

Twenty-five years ago, while in her early twenties, Veena Ramagopalan had the courage to explore the unexplored. She joined the first batch of women officers in the Indian Navy. And ever since, she has continued to push the limits through the decisions that she has taken in her life and career.

Veena transitioned from the Indian Navy to the corporate world. She went on to work in various strategic and leadership roles across industries. After a building a successful career, she moved out of her comfort zone yet again. She became instrumental in the foundation of Inroads Leadership Development where she joined as a director.

Veena is a qualified coach from Erickson Coaching International and International Coach Federation-accredited training program. She is also a certified Scrum Master, Six Sigma Green Belt holder and Prince2 practitioner. She enjoys working with women leaders to help them realize and accelerate their leadership abilities and believes that the right guidance can make all the difference in a woman professional's career.

ACCENTURE: Veena, you started your career as an Indian Navy officer and since it was the first batch of women officers, it surely must have been a revolutionary choice. What inspired you to make this decision?

Veena Ramagopalan: There is no one thing, which I can say helped me make this decision, but I think my childhood and my overall upbringing had a lot to do with it. I was born and brought up in Chandigarh around people from the Indian Defence Services. So, I always had this fascination with the uniform. My father and grandfather were in Defence Research. I also heard a lot of stories from my grandfather related to war and the ways of the forces. Somewhere I used to always feel, why are there no women mentioned in these stories? I still remember some of the essays, where I had written about what I want to be when I grow up and it always used to be a fighter pilot!

A: Tell us something about the environment at home in your formative years.

VR: We were five sisters, and in my extended family, there were these typical biases and stereotypes. Many times, my mother had to hear things which I didn’t like. The typical expectation during that time was that a girl had to study and then get married, but my parents were clear from the beginning that our education and career were very important. Somewhere, they raised us differently. So, probably, we too pushed ourselves to establish that credibility for ourselves and our parents. Personally, for me, it was always very important to do something where I could prove that women are no less. The only way to prove it was through action. So, when an opportunity came up, I applied without even discussing with anyone. Later, of course, everyone was very encouraging and proud.

A: Your journey as a first batch woman officer must have been quite a challenge. What were your key learnings from this journey?

VR: The experience in the Indian Navy actually laid the true foundation of my life. It completely transformed me as a person. It removed all my fears, limiting beliefs about myself and the whole thing about creating my identity and standing out. It built my overall confidence and connected me to my inner self that I was not even aware of. In the Navy, there was no time to think, you were just pushed into things and change was the only constant. This changed my attitude. One important thing I learnt was that there will be challenges in life, but you have to take them head-on. There is no looking back, else you will get lost in analysis.

A: You switched over from the Indian Navy to corporate life. Tell us about it.

VR: I think the transition was pretty smooth. When people heard about my background in the Indian Navy, there was this perception, “oh Veena, she is a tough lady and a no nonsense person”. But ultimately all this played up to my advantage. Also, I believe for any transition, it is more about the mindset you approach it with. I came in with an open mind and willingness to learn, so it became easy. Understanding the corporate nuances and jargon was a bit of a challenge initially, but again I was able to pick it up quickly.

Besides, the Indian Navy had groomed me well with skills that matter a lot in the corporate world, like self-confidence, professionalism, discipline, time management and communication. My willingness to learn, adapt and be flexible also helped me to settle in quickly.

A: Women in India hold only 17 percent of senior roles. What is stopping us and what can we do to overcome this?

VR: More than anything else, I think the reason for these numbers is because of a woman herself, her self-doubt and mindset. This stops her from taking up opportunities that come her way. It is also related to how women are wired—they will not pitch for an opportunity, unless they are 100 percent ready, whereas a man will go ahead confidently even with 40-60 percent readiness.

Another aspect is the work-life balance that stops them from taking up more ambitious opportunities. Biases and stereotypes also have a big impact on our careers. So, if you are a mother, people will assume on your behalf, that you cannot do it. I remember, once I was working with my colleague to get budget approvals for this large project. Once the project was approved and the responsibilities were decided, I realized that I was given a very small piece. I, of course, questioned the rationale behind it. I was told that they thought I had too much on my plate. Perhaps, this because at the time, I was also talking about some flexibility in working hours but then I had never said that I could not take up more responsibilities on this project.

Things like these are common and have an obvious impact on the careers of women, especially at the senior level. What can help is that women speak up, as I did in this case. You need to speak up for yourself because no one else will!

A: Do you see any changes from then to now?

VR: I do see the needle moving, provided the hunger is there in women. They need to take their career very seriously. Yes, there will be biases and work-life balance challenges. The environment around us will not change overnight, but we need to constantly navigate through these and make meaningful choices and be at peace. Even at home, instead of getting influenced by all the people around, women need to make their own choices and decisions. Wherever needed, they need to negotiate with confidence.

A: As a trainer and coach, what are the common areas where you feel women in India need extensive coaching or training? Any trends and if yes, why?

VR: Usually, where women need the most support is around building the confidence to take bigger steps. This in itself is a very broad area and includes things like developing the right mindset, confidence, coming out of one’s comfort zone, creating a presence, speaking up in meetings and networking. I see all these coming up as a pattern. The usual focus in organizations is on building a pipeline and getting woman ready for bigger roles. This is where all these skills play an important role. Some organizations are going beyond these softer skills to include some functional skills such as innovation, design thinking and financial management to help women take up senior roles.

For organizations that are focusing on inclusion and diversity goals, it is not enough to just focus on training and coaching women. They need to create an environment where women can be themselves and thrive. For that, it’s also important to sensitize the men.

Instead of getting emotional about biases at work, it is important to give back in terms of action. Only that can change people’s mindset.
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