Profile: Lakshmi Venkatachalam
The career of Lakshmi Venkatachalam is riveting and fascinating, especially her uncanny ability to embrace opportunities that comes her way. It is not easy to forge a career in the US, especially when one does not graduate out of a university there; Lakshmi seems to have managed it very effectively.
It would be interesting to follow the journey of this typical ‘Mylaporian’ girl who did her schooling in Rosary Matriculation and then completed her B.Com in Ethiraj College. She later completed MBA and ICWA and was all set for a great career in India with her first job at Pond’s. It was a job that was doubly exciting for her—as it was in Chennai itself, a city that was her greatest love.
But matters of the heart took priority. Marriage to her classmate, who wanted to pursue his career in the US, took her to Silicon Valley, California. A finance and operations career in an all-tech Silicon Valley seemed a difficult prospect for young Lakshmi as she began her career search. However, she believed in herself and has strived hard to see herself as a Vice President in the $40 billion technology giant, Oracle Corporation today.
“Believe in yourself, work hard, do your best and you will be successful,” she says with conviction. “It was not all that difficult to decide what I would do after my B.Com. I love numbers—I relate to them and understand the story they tell me. With my father being a Chartered Accountant, doing CA seemed a natural choice. However, the challenge of getting into an IIM led me to take CAT. Luckily, I got calls from both IIM Bangalore and Calcutta and I decided to accept Bangalore as it was closer to home!”
The lure of Chennai
“My new adventure of an MBA excited me but I faced the rude shock of having to live away from home. I spent my first six months figuring out how to get home every weekend. I found myself on Brindhavan Express or Bangalore Mail more often than I was on campus. I learnt a lot of management principles during the two years in B-school, but I also learnt the important lesson of how to live by myself, knowing that home and Chennai were not far away,” said Lakshmi.
Over the years, she learnt that everything is a transitionary phase and one will go through many difficult phases in life and evolve to become a stronger person.
A dream job in a company that was ‘home’
“I was extremely excited to do my summer internship at Pond’s. I ended up getting my final placement in the same company and that too in my hometown Chennai, an icing on the cake! It was my dream job; the most coveted place to work for and I was ecstatic to land this opportunity. Now, as I look back, age just does not matter as long as you enjoy doing what you are doing, but I was 21 when I got my job offer and it was an incredible achievement for me at that time!” said Lakshmi. She believed Pond’s was home—a company that challenged her, pushed her, and also cared for her at the same time. She joined the company as a management trainee, and for 18 months, she worked across various functions and locations.
“One of the most interesting projects for me was working around the villages of Etah, UP, as part of our social responsibility assignment. There were villages with no electricity, yes, in 1994. We spent our days interacting with villagers, understanding grassroot problems and helping find solutions. Organizing child immunization camps, talking to the women about health issues or addressing cattle care—we did it all. The village doctor even indulged me and allowed me to inject medicines for a buffalo. As part of a project, my fellow management trainee and I designed a walkie-talkie network across the villages. It was the pre-mobile phone era and it was considered the best way to connect remote villages to ensure information on crops, illnesses, and natural calamities was circulated so that the villagers could be better prepared,” she said.
Lakshmi met her husband in IIM (B), an engineer at heart, who went on to the US for his grad studies and wanted to stay there. Marriage in 1997 took her literally kicking and screaming to the shores of the United States.
“We set up home in the Silicon Valley where almost everyone was a ‘techie’ and very few really understood what finance and operations were,” she said. “I would remember my initial months in the US as one of the worst periods of my life in terms of my career. I still remember sitting in a coffee shop with a recruiter who looked at my resume and said, ‘If you get a temporary job paying even $20, I would be very surprised.’ I went home extremely dejected that day. My husband probably remembers the day even more vividly for the amount of grief he got! I realized two things, a job rejection or failure is not the end of your life. One failure does not evaluate you, you just need to get up and keep going.”
At the right time, right place
“Is everything orchestrated? I wonder at times. I was in a temple one day when I heard someone calling out my name. It turned out to be a senior from school. She told me that Bearing Point Consulting was recruiting. I expressed interest, and thanks to her referral, I found my first job four months after I moved to the US,” she said.
This first job of hers in management consulting helped shape her in many ways. She, along with her team, working directly with CXOs, was looking to solve problems that were cross-organizational and sometimes global. It trained the mind to quickly filter down to the problem and make the changes required. She travelled from one end of the country to another and was exposed to multiple industries and cultures.
While most of her projects were interesting, a few stood out. She enthusiastically spoke about them.
“My first project was for a company that sold musical instruments and was looking for a plan to expand their stores across the country. We made a proposal for the probable locations based on census data, demographic and economic profiles of the areas. We also set up complex mathematical models that minimized stock holding and transportation costs and optimized warehouse locations. Another project was for a food co-op that made canned food. Though very popular and successful, they were on the verge of bankruptcy due to poor cash management processes. We just took over the entire finance operations and helped prevent insolvency and brought the company to a cash positive state. We also set up e-commerce stores for companies, because the Internet had gained prominence and was opening new channels for them.”
Though work was very interesting and exhilarating, after four years of constant travel, and waking up some mornings wondering where she was, Lakshmi decided it was time for a change.
My time in a startup
Change came in the form of an opening with a startup called Veloz Global Solutions, which focused on creating workflow automation solutions.
“It was local, a known team and an opportunity for a stint that could make it big! We were less than 20 employees and I had the opportunity to do everything from process design to office space hunting to hiring to VC presentations. The founder and I have continued to share a great personal and professional bond—but I learned that I was not best suited for a start-up life.” Lakshmi went on to explain. It was also the time when her son was born and she decided to take a year’s break.
Career after a break
“When I was ready to go back to full-time work, I started the job search process. It was deja vu all over again.
After several rounds of interviews, I was close to joining Infosys in the US when I received a call from a recruiter one day. I did not make much of it initially but on his persistence, I went to attend the interview at Portal Software and ended up with an offer letter. It was meant to be,” she said. It laid the foundation to her career with Oracle; Portal was acquired by Oracle in 2006.
The Oracle sayeth…
“Oracle is where I have spent more than 14 years of my career. I was part of the core team that managed the acquisition and the integration of Portal into Oracle initially and this helped me build key relationships within the company. I work with a wonderful bunch of people and have had progressive opportunities with global exposure. I understand how the company works and have a deep network that sets me up for growth and success. In terms of assignments, I ran operations for the consulting business and as part of that, I got to build an offshore delivery center across four cities in India. We grew the team from about 40 to 250+ in a year and it is a key contributor to our consulting capacity globally. It was new, challenging and very gratifying for me personally. And of course, the attraction of visiting India and working with teams there cannot be missed. Having worked both in India and in the US, I was able to balance both work cultures well. The work I did and the lessons I learnt from my consultancy days also came to my rescue. I have been deeply involved in multiple acquisitions and have integrated them into our business. Every acquisition brought unique needs and challenges which required equally unique solutions.”
Recently, she has taken on a new role in Oracle. As Vice President of Operations for the Communications Applications Business Unit, she heads end-to-end operations. including strategic planning, sales, engineering and consulting operations and learning.
“I am often asked if there are differences between working in the US vs. India or in different companies. Probably, yes. But the fundamental truth remains that all successful companies in any country are driven by strong processes and exceptional people. And for you to succeed, do your best and do better than your best the next day!”
The best is yet to come…
“My biggest achievement? That is yet to come. I cannot look back and think of a single achievement and say that it has been the most important and valuable. I believe that at every stage we set a goal and achieving that goal seems like the biggest challenge at that point in time. Then you realize there is a next step that you want to reach.” she says. So, what is Lakshmi’s next big goal—to become a COO of a global company.
As a woman who had the ability to dream big, take up challenges as they come without being overwhelmed by them, we have bigger hopes for this Chennai girl—that she joins the ranks of Indian-born CEOs of global companies! Best Wishes, Lakshmi! n
Ramyaa Ramesh, author, had interviewed Lakshmi Venkatachalam for this series.