As CEO of Skills Academy Anju and her talented team are endeavoring to bridge the skills gaps that hinder the nation’s poorest, rural citizens from achieving a modicum of a decent life.
“The complexities are much more than we anticipated, when we began this project. The stuff that we were taught growing up and necessities that we take for granted, no longer matters, because caste and gender still plays an enormous role in rural India.”
Running clean water to drink, sanitation facilities, electricity, that we are so used to, are frequently non-existent in the interiors. Sometimes the choice that young men and women have to make is walking kms after making sure it is safe to attend classes to acquire skills and find jobs to earn a livelihood.
While it would be “easy to give up…how one bounces back from failure” is one of Anju’s key hiring criteria; one that she clearly demonstrates as well. So, despite the fact that their original business model is proving rethinking in the face of the challenge, Anju is leading the exploration of innovative ways to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. The same talent and determination that propelled Anju from an entry-level sales position with American Express to a Senior Vice President position at Genpact should yield comparably amazing results.
“They taught me everything…from leading teams to meticulous planning.”
She excelled in the rapidly growing arena of back office operations and outsourcing. Every six to eight months she would raise her hand and indicate that she was ready for more, for a new challenge. And every year to two years she would be promoted; growing along with the organization. Eventually she was the only woman at her level, not only in India but also in the eight-country region.
Attaining this level of leadership involved significant, extended international travel. Initially Anju was reluctant to accept this challenge, but her husband encouraged her to “just give it a try and see how it goes.” Anju did try and she saw that her son developed into a self-reliant and disciplined boy. She tried very hard to get home every weekend, a personal sacrifice she does not regret. Her husband and son had the stability of home and she had the challenging career she relished.
She was offered an opportunity to head up a regional operations center for American Express. But it would require relocation to Sydney, Australia. Anju did not want to relocate her husband and son and reluctantly declined the opportunity. But she wanted that job; running the center was exactly the sort of challenge she was prepared to do and yearned for.
Several months later, a colleague who had moved to GE told her that GE was opening a similar center, in India. Anju knew that she had to “go for it.” This time when she raised her hand it was to Genpact’s management team.
They recognized her talent and hired her. She was the third employee at Genpact (then known as GECIS.) Just as she had at American Express, Anju continued to seek out challenges and meet them head on.
She successfully established operations centers in countries where she did not know the language or the culture. Hiring for “attitude not aptitude” she developed productive operations teams that included both men and women.
Whereas her colleagues complained that “women did not want the third shift operations jobs” Anju found that women who had the “hunger to achieve, the fire in the belly” applied for positions where women were in charge, hoping that (rightfully so in Anju’s case) that the female leader would give them the chance that they needed.
I asked Anju if she had any sense as to what prompted this same “fire” in her own belly. She wondered if it came, in part, from having been raised “almost like a twin” with her closest friend and sister from the School and orphanage she studied and a personal circumstance she was witness to as a young child.
Perhaps it was this same experience that encouraged Anju to tackle the “toughest chapter of my career” joining Skills Academy.
She wanted to
“give something back to India…I could take what I learned in my 28 year career and plow it back.”
The magnitude of the obstacle she faces is daunting. Annually nearly fifteen million people enter the Indian labor force. Employers want approximately five million of them, so they can choose only the “best, the most skilled.” Yet the unskilled, those who would most benefit from skills training lack the resources to pay for it.
As a business, not a government agency or NGO, Skills Academy is faced with the dilemma of how to serve this population. The business acumen combined with the fire in the belly that Anju and her exceptionally talented team (90% of whom are women) possesses, they are geared up to move the dial on this significant issue.
1. This interview has been edited and condensed.
2. Anju’s prior employers' American Express and Genpact are clients of PAKRA.
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