Skip to main content Skip to Footer

In Conversation – Achiever

Defying glass ceilings – and cancer – with grit

Gopali Contractor
Managing Director – Artificial Intelligence Practice, Accenture in India

Defying glass ceilings – and cancer – with grit

Gopali Contractor

Managing Director – Artificial Intelligence Practice, Accenture in India

When I look back at my journey—overcoming acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, reinventing my career after a break and leading Accenture’s Artificial Intelligence team—sheer grit and positivity helped me raze every hurdle, succeed and get this far.

After graduating as a mechanical engineer from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, I wanted to take a shop floor job, design equipment and basically be in the thick of things. Despite solid credentials, I was only landing marketing jobs in my kitty. The standard response: “Women can’t take the shop floor job.” Without succumbing under pressure, I turned down these job offers and moved to Mumbai to study computer science and advance my training in bharatanatyam – in hindsight, this turned out to be the best decision ever.

I started off my professional career with an on-campus job in Mumbai for a year, established myself as a trained classical dancer and moved to the United States with my husband.

Everything was working out just fine – until that fateful day changed my life.

Battled the cancer in the American dream

Circa 1996. I was at the World Trade Center for a job interview when I felt short of breath and collapsed in the lobby. I was rushed to the New York Presbyterian Hospital and asked to undergo multiple tests. The next few weeks were daunting. The bone marrow test results revealed I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The whole world around me was crashing down, yet I had just one question to ask the doctors, “Will I ever become a mother?”

Over the next two years, I mostly stayed at home and underwent chemotherapies. Everything was a lot of harder—whether it was looking in the mirror or working out my relationship. But I kept myself positive through exercising, in my limited capacity, and cooking.

Luckily, my chemo was successful. It was time to pick up where I had left off.

Newfound love for Data

1999 was my phoenix year – I had to prove myself, not to the world, but to myself. I got back to Wall Street, learnt a new programming language and joined JP Morgan. Over the next few years, I also went on to work for Merrill Lynch and Furman Selz and MetLife. At MetLife, I discovered my passion for data and developed my data architecture and warehousing skills. With a renewed passion to live and work, I aced the skill in no time. I was flying high and enjoying every bit of it.

Maternity – a career break, not a full stop

Given there was only a one percent chance of conceiving after chemo, it was no less than a miracle that I gave birth a healthy boy in 2002. I decided to work part-time with MetLife and enjoy this new phase in my life. When I had my second baby boy in 2006, I decided to quit work and come back when I’m completely ready.

Four years had passed by, and my boys were older now. I was desperate to get back to work. The big question was – were my skills were still relevant? The IT industry had evolved rapidly in these years, and I no longer had the skills to match the new job roles in the market.

So, I took up the role of a business analyst with a startup. Here, I learnt every new skill—including cloud computing, data mining and machine learning—and proudly filed my first patent. In the next two years, I worked hard, stayed passionate and became the chief technology officer of the company.

I was back, and how!

Let the Accenture adventure begin!

It had been 18 years since I had lived or worked in India. But my boys and I were thrilled to be back home. Between settling my boys in a new country and going through a divorce, I started a new chapter at Accenture.

Back then, I was the only woman in our Advanced Technology Architecture team. Within the first month of my joining, Bhaskar Ghosh, Group chief executive—Accenture Technology Services, asked me to build a ticket resolution system using Watson. I had never seen or heard about Watson before, but that didn’t stop me from learning about it. I took the bull by its horns and, in a few weeks, gave a demo of the solution to Bhaskar. The rest is history. I went on to build the Artificial Intelligence practice in India from the ground up in just two and a half years. Today, we are 120 people strong, and growing.

My journey to the boardroom was not a solitary one – it was with the help and guidance of my mentors, leaders, colleagues and, of course, my amazing sons.

My older son often tells me, “Mom, you push through tough times, each time with grit and positivity” – words that guide me through my good and bad days and make it all worthwhile!