Aradhna Dayal, Vidya Shah, and Padmasree Warrior, at the Kalaari Annual Summit - Breaking Stereotypes

How to shatter the glass ceiling, make your mark while being yourself, manage stereotypes and more were the insights from three industry leaders — Aradhna DayalVidya Shah, and Padmasree Warrior, at one of the Kalaari Annual Summits.

As India leapfrogs to a phase of high growth, exploring newer frontiers and economic dimensions, they shared how one can stand out and contribute to the economy. Setting the tone for the discussion, Aradhna recalled when she took over her family office — AccessAlts Asia — a couple of decades ago. She said,

“When I first started, I remember walking into events and rooms filled with men, and they wouldn’t take me seriously at all. This is a truly male-dominated world and I had to truly earn my stripes.”

AccessAlts Asia is a specialist investment club with about $2 trillion in represented assets for allocation to the Asian alternatives space, including co-investment, direct deals, hedge funds, private equity and VCs. Padmasree has served as the CTO of Motorola and Cisco and was the CEO of the electric vehicle company, NIO US, which she helped take public. She also sits on large public boards like Microsoft and Spotify. She is now the Founder, President and CEO of Fable. Vidya heads and runs the EdelGive Foundation, a part of the Edelweiss Group, which focuses on women’s entrepreneurship with charters globally.

Breaking Stereotypes – Why Fit In?

Having lived and worked in Silicon Valley for most of her career, Padmasree has seen it all. She is also a strong believer that in every company, there should be 50 per cent women in the workforce.

She, though, concedes that stereotypes and prejudices have always been part of every woman’s work life. Speaking about how she changed that for herself, Padmasree said,

“There is a stereotype that if you are technical, you cannot or shouldn’t dress well. And if you dress well, you are not so technical. I decided to forget the notion of fitting in and wanted to be who I was. I started in the semiconductor industry, and yet I was able to focus on dressing and being who I wanted to be, authentic to my identity. It is important to develop a personal style — the way you dress, the culture you build and lead, a total package of what enables you to succeed as a leader!….. I happen to love fashion and I am also a geek girl.”

Padmasree Warrior and Vidya Shah on stage at the Kalaari Annual Summit

She added that whatever one’s personal passion is, pursue that and not force yourself to fit into a mould that others create. She said,

“If you want to code in high-heels you should be able to do so.”

~ Padmasree Warior

Taking Women’s Entrepreneurship Deeper

Talking of the perceived differences in the social and corporate sectors, Vidya said the challenges of running an NGO and for-profit are the same.

“The challenges of growing up and scaling also exist for non-profit startups. But they don’t have an ecosystem of mentors and VC firms like Kalaari to help them with these pain points. Our idea was to try and build that ecosystem. We started offering pro-bono services around strategy and planning, systems and processes, HR and financial intelligence. We focussed on building a philanthropy ecosystem that helps build the social sector.”

Vidya went on to talk about inspiring women entrepreneurs and founders from rural India for breaking stereotypes. “The common thing was that they all lived precarious lives and came from families below poverty lines and were farm labourers during the Kharif season. All of them had limited education. They all got married between the ages of 12 to 14. Admirably, they built platforms for social empowerment for women in their community.”

With her embroidery and applique work, Ruma Devi from a village in Rajasthan not only makes a living for herself but has also helped and encouraged other women artisans to upgrade their skills to make a living. She was even featured on the cover of a leading news magazine, where the editor described her as an “Outstanding example of the success of empowered women”. one line for each woman.

Vidya noted how these women have, quite literally, transformed their communities, showing that entrepreneurship isn’t restricted to women from the cities, but women even in every pocket of India, no matter how remote it may be.

Breaking Stereotypes – Women in Leadership Roles

All three women noted that India needed more women in leadership roles Talking from experience, Aradhna noted that there are very few women on corporate boards in India, with about 18 per cent representation, while the global average is at 20 per cent. Padmasree who sits on Microsoft’s board noted that it comprised almost 30 percent women. She added,

“I choose to be on boards that value diversity. I don’t join a board unless I see a commitment from the Chairman of the board and Nomination committee to bring more diversity into the board, not just in terms of women but also diverse viewpoints.

Aradhna Dayal and Padmasree Warrior sharing a light moment off the stage

Padmasree noted that conversations around diversity are encouraging but there is a great need to mentor more women to take up leadership roles.

Vidya dove deeper and noted that the reason there aren’t enough women in leadership positions is that there aren’t enough women in middle management. There are comparatively higher women in junior roles but they disperse in higher roles for a variety of reasons. Vidya believes that sponsorship of women is the key. She said, “There is a great need to identify women who can be great leaders and help them build their careers. Given the kind of obstacles women face, we have to be realistic. Women have cultural challenges and other challenges to move into middle and senior management.”

By advancing women’s equality we are not just breaking stereotypes, the economies of Asia Pacific could boost their collective GDP by $4.5 trillion a year by 2025, according to a McKinsey report. The largest relative GDP opportunity of that is in India, which could achieve an 18 per cent increase over business-as-usual GDP, or $770 billion. Advancing women’s equality is not only important from a moral and social perspective, but also delivers from an economic perspective and women will play a key role in shaping the face of a new India — Hindustan Hamara.

Disclaimer: The article is the independent opinion of the author and does not represent those of Kstart or Kalaari.