5 years of TalentNomics India …. My Journey to Somewhere Meaningful

Ipsita Kathuria, Founder and CEO, TalentNomics India shares a heartfelt account of her personal and professional journey to this day

I am 5 years into leaving my well-paying, respected, and comfortable job in the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, and starting a not for profit across many oceans – in India.

That’s the same year I became a grandmother and my attraction to spend time with the little one who lived in the US was very strong. So, I travelled between continents, stayed away for months at a stretch from my husband and children who live in the USA. I incorporated TalentNomics India, without ANY idea about how to run my own organization.

I had always worked in safe and well-established organizations, be it in the large Indian public sector, Steel Authority of India Limited; or in a smaller, fast-growing private sector IT company, Xansa; or finally in a highly intellectual, overly formal international organization – the International Monetary Fund. All these organizations have been fantastic to me and I rose to head HR in Xansa at 40 – very young for those days to head a function!

These organizations had provided me with one thing in common – awesome male mentors who thought I was as competent as any of my male counterparts. I was given many challenging opportunities, and I also got due recognition and credit. Nothing was made easier for me because I was a woman but no additional hurdles were stacked against me because I was a woman. I thrived and I got my paycheck on time, every time, for the last 30 years, as well as promotions, in many cases ahead of time.

However, I was always the only girl/woman around the table in meetings, in teams, in assignments, for many, many years. I was the only woman in my Management Trainee batch in SAIL, the only woman in the Management Committee in Xansa. I had no female role models I could look up to or share my challenges with. Even in the IMF, very few women held the top departmental head roles – not for lack of highly educated, smart, and competent women. This did not change significantly even when we had a woman MD – a real advocate of women leadership – during my last few years in the IMF.

I look back at SAIL. Not one woman had made it to the Director’s position until 2015. I had many competent women colleagues in SAIL who had stayed on. It used to bother me to see so much lip service to women leadership across the globe and so little real action. Something was amiss. Women were not less ambitious or competent and male leaders were not all chauvinistic macho men who always held women back. Yet globally, not enough women rose to leadership roles. In India, we saw less than 1% women in CEO roles in 2015 and around 6% in Board positions. Less than 15% of entrepreneurs were women.

I left my corporate career at the age of 57 to follow my passion to see more women in leadership roles. Has it been a tough 5 years? Yes, but it has also been the most exciting and rewarding time of my life – which is saying a lot as I am one of the lucky ones who almost always loved her job, her colleagues & her work environment!

Along with my friend and ex-colleague in the IMF, Neeti Banerjee, TalentNomics was conceptualized in 2014 and we both left IMF in 2015 – much to the dismay of many family members and good friends – with just a dream in our hearts and registration papers of our organization in our files. However, neither of us could have done it without the full support of our husbands, close family members and friends. I remember that my daughter was instrumental in convincing my mother who worried about my giving up a well-paid secure job with fantastic retirement benefits, to start a not for profit organization by investing my personal funds! She said “Aei (that’s what we call maternal grandmothers in Orissa), you should be proud of your daughter. She has the courage and the conviction at this age to follow her dreams”.

While Neeti and I were very good at generating ideas and formulating plans to address the issue in our unique ways, neither of us liked marketing or asking for money, nor were we good at it. But we plunged ahead anyway! Neeti’s focus was global and for me India and South Asia had always been my calling – not only because the issue was more dire there but because I related better to the issues of career women in South Asia, having worked there for almost 19 years before moving to the US. And TalentNomics India was born.

I am stage shy and I am camera shy but am not people shy. I reached out to my ex-mentors and role models. My social capital was strong enough that in no time I had an excellent Advisory Board and a strong Advisory CouncilI surrounded myself with people with knowledge, ideas, connections, reach, and most of all people who believed in what I was doing and were my advocates. I was no more alone in this journey. A friend offered me free office space in Delhi and one intern to help me set up my internet and solve other technical issues. She loved the idea of TalentNomics. She was my first volunteer and TalentNomics India got rolling!! To date, she is a huge supporter of our work and one of our most reliable advisors.

Looking back today, 5 years have flown by ! Even the social distancing of CoronaVirus did not give me space to feel lonely or boxed-in. Baby-sitting my now 5-year-old grandson during the day, to help my superbly competent daughter-in-law who is a doctor, and my brilliant scientist son to pursue their careers, and running TalentNomics India remotely with my awesome India team, has been a most fulfilling experience.

Our one-year integrated women leadership learning program, CRUCIBOLD, has received rave reviews. More importantly, it has enabled many of the participants to move to the next levels of their aspirations, be it promotions, more regional/global roles/more visibility in their sectors. We have worked with almost 80 potential women leaders who in turn are impacting the ecosystem for other women to rise to leadership roles. A couple of our cohort members from GSK convinced their management to bring the program in-house to enable GSK to build a stronger pipeline of women leaders. It was an exciting journey for us! One of the GSK leaders notes that “All the participants I spoke to had great learnings and experiences with the various mentors. So thank you indeed for your wholehearted support.”

Our 4 international conferences have drawn more than 600 men and women thought leaders, potential leaders, students, and academicians. I could not have asked for a higher level of engagement to discuss issues around what can be done to create a gender-equal leadership pipeline. One of my mentors, who is a global leader noted “I attend hundreds of conferences but the quality of discussions and engagement at TalentNomics India conferences is a world apart”. Moments like this I feel all the hard work is absolutely worth the effort.

We have also tried to impact the broader mindset around this challenge through our blogs, publications, research etc. We published the book “Bold and Untold”, depicting leadership lessons from the journeys of some amazing women who were born in less fortunate circumstances than many of us. We have brought out a toolkit for professional women to successfully navigate the current difficult times.

More than 40 top global mentors are giving their time and valuable guidance to the potential women leaders and us! Each one of them is busier than the other but they make time to do their bit to help us reimagine the leadership canvas!

This May I turned 62 – two years older than the retirement age for SAIL, full pensionable age for the IMF, but here I am, looking forward to many years of working, free of any remuneration and financial rewards, to build a better future for our daughters and grand-daughters! Trying hard to make TalentNomics India more sustainable so that we can continue moving towards our dream. With your good wishes and blessings, we hope that we can accelerate our journey towards achieving our dream of seeing significantly more women leading organizations and building corporations.