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Debjani Ghosh: Falling forward to win

  • Nasscom’s first female president, Debjani Ghosh, talks to Mint about Digital India, innovation culture, and the importance of mentorship
  • Digital talent means you have to be good at technology as a domain, and soft skills—you can’t have a coder who sits alone in a quiet room today, believes Ghosh

Debjani Ghosh is Nasscom’s fifth president and the first woman head in the three-decade history of the IT software trade lobby.
Debjani Ghosh is Nasscom’s fifth president and the first woman head in the three-decade history of the IT software trade lobby. (Jayachandran/Mint)

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I am meeting Debjani Ghosh at the sprawling Nasscom campus in Noida, near Delhi. Ghosh has not had a full night’s sleep for three days but, surprisingly, does not look sleep-deprived. “I love to travel. I travel 260 days out of 365 in a year, perpetually living out of a suitcase, but I would not have it any other way. I get cranky if I am in the same place for too long,” she says.

As the president of the National Association of Software & Services Companies (Nasscom), a not-for-profit industry association that supports the $154 billion (around 10.7 trillion) IT-business process management (BPM) industry, Ghosh is passionate about accelerating technology adoption in India and working towards the Union government’s vision of Digital India.

She is Nasscom’s fifth president and the first woman head in the three-decade history of the IT software trade lobby. This is a big deal considering that none of India’s biggest software firms has been headed by a woman and the IT sector has been struggling with the issue of gender parity.

According to a Nasscom study, women now make up over 30% of the IT workforce and the majority of them are under the age of 30. While the number of women in leadership positions has increased and companies are hiring or promoting women to senior leadership and C-suite positions, the study points out that the number of companies with gender parity at the C-suite level has seen relatively little increase. Ramping up diversity efforts in the IT industry will result not only in more revenue but diverse perspectives will lead to greater innovation, the study says.

Ghosh’s love for travel goes back to her childhood, when she led a rather peripatetic life owing to her father’s work as a consultant to glass manufacturing factories. She changed schools every year. “My parents were firm believers that we would have the best education if we travelled the world, and it was the best thing that happened to me,” says Ghosh. She says it helped her develop a problem-solving and analytical approach, and she learns best by doing and seeing. “I just cannot mug up,” she confesses. “In fact they (her office) give me speeches to mug up but by the time I get to the stage, I lose that piece of paper.”

Ghosh, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Osmania University in Hyderabad and an MBA in marketing from the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai, loved physics, maths and statistics in school but drifted towards management.

One of the defining stints of her career was with tech company Intel. When she interviewed with Intel initially, Ghosh entered the room and saw a woman—this was the first woman leader she had ever seen in a business interview. She was Deborah Conrad, then head of marketing and sales at Intel for Asia Pacific. “She is super-powerful, someone who knew her stuff and was asking me brilliant questions related to my goals, aspirations and career. She did not ask me the usual questions like when I would marry and have kids,” Ghosh recalls.

By the end of the meeting, they were on first-name basis, calling each other Deb (a shortening of both their names). “Conrad asked me: ‘Deb, do you want this job?’ I said, ‘Deb, I don’t care about this job but I want to work with Intel and I want to work with you,” says Ghosh.

She got the job and cemented her relationship with Conrad, who remains a mentor. But things did not start off well. At the time, Intel India comprised all of five people. The initial few weeks were tough: “I felt like an outsider because firstly, I was a woman, and secondly, not an engineer. I stuck out like a sore thumb.” Ghosh remembers mentioning this to a senior colleague, who gave her a piece of advice she has not forgotten: “When you are in a room and you stick out like a sore thumb, remember that everyone is looking at you, so you need to decide what you want to do—either hide under the table or turn the situation to your advantage.” She opted for the latter.

From 1996-2017, Ghosh held diverse leadership roles at Intel across South and South-East Asia, including five years as the managing director of the company’s India operations. She had an integral role in developing Intel’s “DigitalNation” strategy to support the country’s digital transformation.

Driving India towards becoming a digital nation has always been a passion with Ghosh, and this was one reason why, after a long and illustrious career with Intel, she moved to Nasscom in November 2017. In a way, it was a leap of faith—moving from a cushy corporate job to a not-for-profit organization that is a kind of melting pot where all the different participants in the ecosystem—government, academia and industry—converge.

For Ghosh, this was the perfect platform to convert her Digital India dream into reality for the IT services industry, which includes small and medium enterprises (SMEs), start-ups and multinational companies (MNCs). And since Ghosh became president of Nasscom, she has been focusing on three things: talent development and re-skilling, working on the innovation culture in the country, and working with governments across the world to open new opportunities for the Indian IT industry. Nasscom’s FutureSkills platform, for instance, offers training in new technologies like robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) and expects to train around two million people in the next four years.

Ghosh is optimistic about India’s potential in terms of innovation and talent. “India is seen as a leader of STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) talent, and the world is looking for STEM talent,” she says. “But the challenge for us is how do we convert this to digital? Digital talent means you have to be good at technology, the domain, and soft skills (design thinking, communication)—you can’t have a coder who sits alone in a quiet room today. You have to interact with the customer to understand the problem before you can figure out the solution.”

“India has a tremendous opportunity to strengthen its position if we can help our STEM talent evolve to the next level, and that’s the commitment Nasscom has made. Innovation goes hand in hand with it,” she adds.

Ghosh believes innovation can only thrive in an environment of shared learning and collaboration and cites her recent visit to Israel, which follows a culture of strong interconnection that is then able to drive innovation and entrepreneurship. From universities and the government to MNCs and even venture capitalists, everyone is connected to the start-up ecosystem, with a shared mission to strengthen innovation. “Israelis treat innovation as their most precious natural resource and want to ensure that every child has that (attitude). It is a mindset that gets created at school and is nurtured every step of the way. You know, while other moms worry about marriage, the Israeli mom has one obsession—her child must win the Nobel prize,” she says.

What impressed Ghosh most was that the Israeli tech ecosystem is built on one key value—that the inventor is the hero and the most crucial part of the tech value chain. Ghosh says this is not true in India and interconnectedness across stakeholders still comes up short.

She says: “The tech start-up ecosystem is growing well in India but the mindset and the culture of co-creation has to grow. We need to build a stronger culture to scale innovation where the government too plays a role.”

Ghosh is passionate about mentoring women. She has mentored over 50 women from diverse fields and enjoys these interactions. She is proud of colleagues in the industry who have broken the glass ceiling. “We have women leaders like Rekha (Rekha M. Menon, chairperson and senior managing director of Accenture India), Nivruti (Nivruti Rai, country head, Intel), Aruna Jayanthi (CEO of business services at Capgemini Group) and Vanitha Narayanan (former chairman of IBM India), and, thanks to Nasscom, we are able to come together and shake things up,” says Ghosh. She believes Indian corporations are relatively gender-agnostic compared to those in many other countries, and women who are good at their job are taken seriously.

She tells the women she meets not to be shy, to reach out to people, make friends and have mentors—advice she has often relied on herself. She remembers what her mentor N. Chandrasekaran, former Tata Consultancy Services head and now the chairman of Tata Sons, once told her about failure: “What happens when you fail? You have to fall—and you have the option to fall forward or backward. When you fall forward and get up, you have moved one step ahead, and this learning is more valuable than any wins you may have.” Falling forward, Ghosh believes, has helped her achieve more goals than she may have otherwise.

When Ghosh is not travelling for work, she travels to South-East Asia on short breaks. She knows the region like the back of her hand, having worked there during her stint with Intel. She loves Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia—the people, the culture and the food. A food enthusiast, Ghosh is a committed non-vegetarian. “Don’t give me the greens or the yellows,” she says.

An avid reader, she can pick up anything from Nordic crime writers to papers on the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and new technologies. Observing people is another pastime, given the amount of time she spends at airports.


Your advice to young girls

Maintain a good relationship with older women in your family because they will be your support system.

Your favourite book

Thomas Friedman’s ‘Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide To Thriving In The Age Of Accelerations’.

Your mantra for success

The more comfortable you are being uncomfortable, chances of success are way higher because you will start thinking differently.

Food you do not like

Fish curry and sweets! My family says I am a fake Bengali.

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