From overcoming acute lymphoblastic leukemia to spearheading Accenture’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) practice in India, her sheer grit and positivity have helped her rise to the top and emerge as a true winner.
Accenture’s Gopali Contractor talks about her amazing career journey, her fight against cancer—and why you should never give up on your dreams.
Tell us about the transformational work you do at Accenture.
As a Managing Director for Artificial Intelligence in our Advanced Technology Centers in India, I lead the Asset Development, Technology and Delivery team in the AI capability. I also lead a team of AI industry group leaders who identify business problems that can potentially be solved using AI.
As the Global Talent and Learning lead for AI, I identify and define the best-in-class, role-based training programs to cross-skill and scale capability within the company.
It’s an honor to represent Accenture at various coveted technology forums such as the Grace Hopper Celebration India, Computer Society of India and TechGig. I deliver my first talk as a motivational speaker April 2019 at KJ Somaiya College of Engineering in Mumbai. I also look forward to being a panelist at Indian Merchants Chamber – Digital Awards, and have been invited to chair the SNDT Women’s College Annual Day event.
How did it feel to be the first woman in Accenture’s Advanced Technology Architecture team?
It was a very familiar situation, since I have faced this my entire life. Within the first month of my joining, I was asked to build a ticket resolution system using IBM Watson. I’d never heard of Watson, but I took the bull by its horns and in a few weeks delivered a demonstration of my proposed solution.
I went on to build the AI practice in India from the ground up in just two and a half years. Today, we are a sizably strong practice and growing.
You often say that you opened doors to a new life through Accenture. Why is that?
Accenture was the first company I joined after returning from the U.S., where I lived for 18 years and had recovered from cancer. I also was going through a divorce, right when I joined Accenture. But I was happy to be back home and make a fresh start with my two boys.
My Accenture leaders were very supportive of any and all kinds of help I needed, in terms of flexibility and work-life balance. Coming to work was my haven when I was going through this very difficult time. My team and leaders helped me rebuild my life, mentored and guided me through my career and gave me a positive aspect of life at a time when I really needed it.
Life threw a big challenge at you. How did you stay balanced through the tough times?
In April 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 hospital and underwent multiple tests. The bone marrow test results revealed that I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I started my chemotherapy immediately and took a career break.
Over the next two years, I mostly stayed at home and underwent chemotherapy. Everything was a lot harder—whether it was looking in the mirror or managing the house. But I kept myself positive by exercising and cooking. I wanted to return to work and become a mother. I never gave up on those dreams.
Luckily, my chemo was successful, and it was time to pick up where I had left off. I wanted to prove to myself that I could jump back in. I got back to Wall Street, learned a new programming language and returned to work.
Over the next few years, 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.
You became a mother and, with no fear, took another career break. But you were back in no time—and how!
Given that there was only a 1 percent chance of being able to conceive after chemo, it was no less than a miracle that I gave birth to a healthy boy in 2002. I decided to work part-time and enjoy this new phase in my life. When I had my second baby boy in 2006, I decided to quit work and return when I was completely ready.
Four years passed by, and since my boys were older, I was desperate to get back to work. But 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 where I learned every new skill, from cloud computing and data mining to machine learning, and I proudly filed my first patent.
I worked hard over the next two years and became the chief technology officer. Then came the decision to move back to India, and I joined Accenture. The rest is history.
What’s your message to women aspiring to become great leaders?
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 lovely sons. My older boy 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 can work like magic for you, too.
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