The first time I was featured in one of the ‘Top 50 Women in Business’ lists, one of my colleagues asked, ‘Did you always know what career path you would chart and was it always a goal to get onto one of these lists?’ The answer was, ‘Of course not.’ I did not know growing up that I would pursue an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, that I would decide to go to the United States for my master’s in Engineering, and that I would stay in the US for fourteen years—initially working on the engineering side and, after my MBA from Stanford Business School, moving to the business side with product management. I had no idea that I would eventually move back to India to take on my current role as the Managing Director of Facebook India.
I was born into a middle-class family, the younger of two daughters. My father was the oldest son, born seven years after my grandparents’ wedding and after many pilgrimages. When my older sister was born, there was some disappointment amongst my grandparents that it wasn’t a boy but the dominant sentiment was that of happiness at the birth of their first grandchild. When my mother was pregnant with me, the whole family was convinced that it would be a boy and had chosen the name ‘Karthik’ after Lord Karthikgayen, a family deity. When I was born, my grandparents refused to come to the hospital to see me because it wasn’t a boy. As my mother wept, my dad consoled her saying, ‘If we have a third child, I want it to be a girl, and we will name her Kanchana.’
For most part, my parents raised us no differently than they would have raised two sons. One delta was the belief that daughters would stay with their parents until they were married. My father moved cities every few years as part of his several decades-long tenure at Lloyds Steel, and we moved with him. We lived in large metros like Chennai and Mumbai, mid-sized cities like Nashik, Nagpur and Tarapur, and small towns like Dandeli and Nanded. From my dad, I picked up his strong work ethic, the value of ‘planning my work and working my plan’, and the spirit of making the most of opportunities given to you. My mother gave me spirituality, the ability to see cheer no matter what the situation was, and a can-do attitude. My sister and I fought cats and dogs growing up, like most siblings, and became best friends as we grew older, especially during our college years.
The Indian societal norm of following a career path in engineering or medicine led me to choose the former. I did not have the domicile needed to apply to state colleges and hence went to a small private college called MGMCEN in Nanded, which offered me full scholarship. When I graduated second in the university with the ’Jewel in the Crown’ award from the college for all-round excellence, it was a recognition of the impact a small group of committed academicians could make and an affirmation of making the most of the opportunities given to you. My father’s work took us to Nagpur right after graduation. It was here that I landed my first job with Yashawant Kanetkar, author of the book Let Us C—still a bible in many engineering colleges. We developed anti-virus software, delivered training courses, and I also had the opportunity to partner with him on the software featured in subsequent books like Exploring C++ and published articles.
I began to think about getting a master’s degree and hesitantly spoke to my parents about my desire to do it in the US. My father was thrilled that I would be the first one in the family to go abroad. My mother said, ‘Go for it! But just get married before you go .’ Thereon we began the search for the perfect groom. I was engaged to Dev four days after we first met and married a year later. In him, I found my soulmate.
After completing my master’s degree in computer engineering from Syracuse University, Upstate New York, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, California—the place to be for technology roles. I accepted a job with Silicon Graphics, then a two-billion-dollar worth, 9,000-employees strong, high performance computing company known for great technology and exceptional people. One of the best pieces of advice I received early on in my career was from my manager, Betsy Zeller, who said, ‘Krithiga, focus on the success of your clients, your organization and your team. Your success is but a by-product.’ This was liberating. Job descriptions became largely irrelevant. It really became about doing whatever it took to make our clients, organization and team successful. One often wonders how much to push a certain cause and this framework gave me the conviction to be persistent about things that mattered because the goal became clearer. This philosophy was key to my success, and I soon became the youngest Director of Engineering in my organization. I was twenty-eight years old.
As Director of Engineering, I began to get more and more involved in business decisions and it was a world that fascinated me. I decided I wanted to get an MBA as a way to hone these skills further. It wasn’t an easy decision to make—it would involve leaving a job I had worked hard to get. I spent several sleepless nights wondering if I should do a full-time MBA, a part-time MBA or an executive MBA. But Dev was firm in his support and conviction. ‘It’s better to look back and regret having done something than looking back and regretting not having done it. What’s two years in a several decades-long career?’ he said. I will always look back on my decision to apply for the programme as one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I had the privilege of studying at Stanford Business School and it gave me the foundation I have today.
After business school, I knew I wanted to work for a startup in a growing space. While it is assumed that after graduating from one of the best business schools in the world, a title or a compensation raise is expected, I took a 40 per cent pay cut and went from being Director of Engineering at Silicon Graphics to being a Senior Product Manager at a mobile software startup called Good Technology, which was a Kleiner Perkins, Benchmark Capital company. This was another hard decision to make. I sought the counsel of Jana Rich, managing director of Korn/Ferry International , on whether it would be detrimental to my career and whether it would be seen as a step-down. She asked me if it was a short or a long-term investment. If it was short-term, it was absolutely the wrong move. However, if I was looking to bet long-term on the success of the company, I would learn and grow quickly with the organization. Four years later, we were acquired by Motorola for half a billion US dollars. I was the Director of Product Management then and I had absolutely loved the journey of building, learning and growing with the company. The pay-off was also much higher than what I would have received had I chosen a role that was a more natural progression after business school with an associated compensation raise. Of course, this wasn’t a given when we started. Hence, it is important to work with an organization where you can build skills and relationships that will stand you in good stead in the long run—even if the business itself fails.
The next phase of my career was an opportunity with Motorola to relocate to India and lead the cross-functional Good Technology division in a general management capacity. By this time, Dev and I had our two girls, Ashna and Ariya. With almost all our extended family based in India, it was a perfect opportunity to experience being back in India. However, while we had mentally considered this to be a temporary move, it rapidly transitioned to being a long-term decision as we found our professional and personal worlds coming together back here. I began to yearn for my early startup days – the pace, the environment of high growth, teams working cohesively and closely on a common mission and it was then that I was introduced to Sheryl Sandberg by a business school classmate. Facebook had become an integral part of my life after my move to India as it helped me stay connected to my life of fourteen years in the US and to reconnect with friends from India. It was at the top of my list of companies that I would be privileged to work with. At that time, Facebook did not have concrete plans to open an office in India but Sheryl and I decided to keep in touch.
Instead, I joined a turnaround company, Phoenix Technology, driving P&L for their SaaS (Security as a Service)-based business unit and leading a global team located in the US, India, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Just about the time the SaaS unit was sold, Facebook announced its intention to open an office in India. It almost seemed meant to be. A set of grueling interview sessions and many months later, I was offered the position of Director and Head of Facebook India—an offer I was glad to accept. I hence became the first employee of Facebook India. 2014 marks my fifth year at Facebook, and each day continues to be the best day yet.