Bharati Balakrishnan, country head and director of Shopify India, finds invaluable perspectives when conversing with working women. “We are at a unique stage in the evolution of the workplace in India, where journeys of women can be incredibly diverse, depending on the generation they belong to. There is so much to learn from women just entering the workforce in terms of their world-view and self-belief, versus women with several decades of work experience, who have often been trail blazers, and paved the path for many of us,” says the 40-year-old.
An alumna of IIM Ahmedabad and BITS Pilani, Balakrishnan is experienced in both online and offline retail. She began her career with Bain & Company, followed by stints in HSBC, Healthspring, LocalOye, Alibaba Group, Paytm Mall and Future Group India. She took over as the country head of Shopify, a platform that for sellers to manage ecommerce, last year.
Bengaluru-based Balakrishnan speaks to Lounge about her mentor, why it’s important to meet diverse people outside of work, the joys of working remotely, and why she has a special place for Harper Lee's book To Kill a Mockingbird.
Who do you consider your mentor?
I feel special and super lucky to have had the same mentor for almost my whole professional career. Sri Rajan was a senior Partner at Bain India when I began my career in consulting. He very organically became my mentor over the years and continues to be my go-to person for all advice. Sri is generous to a fault with his time, and his ability to always say the right thing is a gift. Having him be my sounding board for over a decade has anchored my values, defined my work ethic, and had a compounding effect on my growth as a professional. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
One major insight you worked on with your mentor's guidance?
Always make the time to get to know people and build relationships outside your immediate workplace — be it former colleagues, customers, partners or strangers. Be genuinely interested. Meeting a diverse set of people cultivates empathy and helps form a nuanced perspective in your daily job. A coffee a week with someone outside of immediate work, is something I try and stick to.
It’s also important to always find a way to speak your mind. But how and when you say something is as important as what you say. Spending the time to understand why someone has a counter view can make this easy, no matter how intimidating the circumstances.
What does being a mentor mean to you? How do you mentor your colleagues at work?
Being a mentor is to pay it forward — to genuinely share all the mistakes you have made and the lessons learnt, and to therefore show your mentee the endless possibilities of his/ her future. Mentors must play the right role at the right time in a person’s life — by turn, you could be the coach, the teacher, the cheerleader or the disciplinarian. We all need a good dose of each of these at various stages.
For me, mentoring is all about spending time — being available, building trust and using context to connect the dots when someone may not see the full picture. I like to invest a lot of time in getting to know people and understanding their life journeys, before I feel I can be useful and help them.
What's your morning schedule like?
I usually wake up around 6.30 am and spend the first hour of the day by myself, with my cup of coffee. I typically end up reflecting on the day gone by, and mentally prioritise the two or three important decisions or things I need to get done on that day. I enjoy the light banter with my seven-year-old daughter on the way to the bus stop for school thereafter, and then get into work mode.
What's the one positive work routine you have developed during the pandemic?
I started my journey at Shopify during the pandemic, and have thoroughly enjoyed the digital-by-design philosophy. We are fully remote and two things especially stand out: the high efficiency that a culture of thoughtfulness, accompanied by process and documentation can bring, and the intertwining of work and life for everyone — it makes all work-time fun and real. Catching a break in the middle of the day for a short walk or a call with a friend can be especially energising.
What are some of the productivity principles you follow that have made your professional and personal life much easier?
‘Make the list, do the list’. Work and life balance each other by turn, and not at the same time. You have to drop balls, to hold onto the ones that matter. So, prioritise ruthlessly. Multi-tasking is the biggest productivity hack. But remember, it is also born of an investment in deep and iterative thinking, and rigorous planning.
What is the one shopping rule that you personally follow?
I love discovering new brands from new entrepreneurs. And if I can buy from an independent small business, I always try to make that choice — online and offline. For me, this is an integral part of the shopping experience.
Any book/podcast you would recommend about mentorship and growth?
This may be an odd choice, but I would recommend fiction — my go to book every few years continues to be To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I find the conversations between the father and daughter full of life-lessons. And every time I read it, it is like unwrapping a whole new present. Throughout the book, Atticus nudges his daughter to think for herself, form tools to solve life’s puzzles, and always leads by example. Great mentors do just that!
How do you unwind? Do you pursue any serious hobbies?
I unwind by sharing long meals with friends, being silly with my daughter, and travelling with my partner to see the world. Above all, music has been an integral part of my life since childhood. I am a trained Carnatic classical singer and play the veena. I now enjoy experimenting with my daughter, as she learns.
Monday Motivation is a series featuring founders, business leaders and creative individuals who tell us about the people they look up to and their work ethics.