5 June 2018
What was your childhood ambition?
I was born near an airport in Calcutta, India and saw aircraft’s flying in and out of the airport, every day. Consequently, as a teenager, I wanted to be a pilot, to fly and experience how others live across the globe.
How did you end up in Sheffield at such a young age?
My eldest brother moved to Sheffield University in the early 1960s and became a professor. I was young when I left India, and I guess my parents thought I would be safer in Sheffield with my eldest brother. Living and working abroad reminded me of who I really am. Stripped of my familiar surroundings, my friends, my daily routine, I was forced into direct experience, which helped me develop a clearer sense of self. My family has always had a global outlook with five of my nieces and a nephew, living in the US, Australia, Thailand and UK. Our family is what you would call ‘global’, or as Theresa May says, “Citizens of nowhere”.
Private school or state school? University or straight into work?
I come from an ordinary background. My Dad was a teacher and my Mum was a home maker. However, fortunately, going to university became a norm in my family, as all my elder brothers and sisters studied at university. I followed the trend and went to grammar school and then University in Sheffield.
Who was the most influential person in your life when you were young?
My mum, she was a true visionary. I remember mum used to say, ‘we have no money to leave, so instead we will equip you all with the best education possible’. In my mum’s opinion, education provides ‘windows to opportunities’, and she was absolutely right. When I was growing up in India, gender diversity wasn’t a topic of discussion, yet, my mum would tell her friends that ‘her daughters were as good as her sons’. She ensured all my sisters had an excellent education and studied at top universities.
In my professional career, I’ve always been driven by a core set of values, embedded by my parents, in particular my mum. It is these values which have guided me throughout my career. For example, I always hired people based on capabilities, regardless of gender or colour. Even in the late 1980s when it was rare to find females in the technology industry, I recruited superb female executives in senior sales, technical support and consulting roles in Oracle.
What was your first job and how did you find it?
I did well at university, and after graduating I started my PhD in “distributed databases”. Soon after starting, I had three job offers: a US technology start-up setting up their business in Europe, British Gas and a Canadian software company based in Ottawa. I was particularly impressed by the two founders of the US technology start-up. They interviewed me in “The Orange Tree” pub in Richmond, Surrey, and they asked me to join. I dropped out of my PhD and joined Oracle in March 1985.
Who is your leadership hero and why?
Timing is everything and I consider myself to be lucky to have worked with some iconic people, many of whom are still friends today.
In Oracle I was inspired by the brilliant Geoff Squire and Larry Ellison. It was Geoff and Larry, along with Bob Miner, who created Oracle to become one of the most successful global technology companies. They created a talent factory in Oracle that no other company was able. Many people I worked with in Oracle went on to create companies worth billions of dollars. At Citigroup, I found the then co-CEOs John Reed and Sandy Weill, hugely impressive.
I’m inspired by leaders who harness their power to get transformational results. I admire leaders who have dedicated their lives to helping others, particularly those who support the development of future leaders. In my experience, true leaders are always inspiring, straight-talking and incredible teachers. I believe that it’s not the person who makes a heroic leader, but their actions and impact on others which do.
What was the first leadership lesson you learned?
My first leadership lesson came from the great Nelson Mandela. Mandela told me real leaders come in all sizes, shapes and colours, and to be a leader, first I need to be true to myself. He taught that to be a trust-worthy leader, you need to ‘observe, listen, learn and understand before acting’. He also told me that successful leaders ‘do more and talk less’.
What prompted you to create the Start-up Clinic?
There are many reasons for creating the Start-up Clinic.
Firstly, founding a start-up is easy, but scaling up is anything but. Journalists, lobbyists and politicians have been saying for years, that London is the ‘start-up capital of Europe’. They remind us frequently that £m’s are flowing into London’s start-ups. TechUK recently announced that UK Tech start-ups drew almost £3bn of VC funding in 2017, twice the level of 2016. However, what we don’t hear, is ‘9 out of 10 start-ups in the UK fail within the first 3 years’, and the few that survive are sold to US companies. This consequently adds no tangible value to the economy and contributes to the UK’s poor productivity.
Secondly, having worked in multiple successful start-ups and invested in more than a dozen start-ups and small businesses across the globe, I saw a common set of traits that set successful companies apart. I also work with several friends who created some of the world’s leading companies. So, I thought, if I could bring us all together, to support start-up founders, it would be a wonderful way of giving back.
Finally, we live in a transactionally minded world, where nothing valuable is free. Investors want equity in exchange for money, advisors impart advice for fees, all at a time when start-up founders are cash strapped. Funding London’s Start-up Clinic is the only place where start-up founders can find real solutions to their challenges for free. The simple objective of the Start-up Clinic is to help founders fly.
If you were not a CEO, what would you be?
A Teacher. All my brothers and sisters either taught or still teach at universities, I’m the only one who hasn’t. My father was very proud of his pupils as was my eldest brother, whose students include the former CEO of Vodafone and the current CEO of Google. So, for me it would be teaching young people and helping them achieve heights they never thought possible. My own life experience has taught me that it isn’t where we come from that dictates our destiny, but where we want to go that makes us who we become. Exceptional teachers and mentors play a huge part in that journey.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Ambition is great but talent will give you longevity. I would absolutely choose quality over quantity. I always find in fragile companies politics and naked ambitions win. However, in strong and lasting companies talented people with the best ideas thrive.
How would others describe you?
I would hope others would describe me as: unconventional, resilient, curious, honourable, straight-talking and trust-worthy.
An example of my unconventional ways is when I was at Oracle. At the beginning of every financial year, Divisional Heads had to produce business plans and organisation structures. All my fellow heads would show their organisational structures as a conventional upside down tree with them at the top. My own looked like a tree with me at the bottom and my colleagues at the top.
What do you find most irritating in other people?
I grew up in Yorkshire, and therefore it’s no surprise that I speak my mind. I dislike arrogance, pretentiousness, lateness and not delivering on promises.
Which object that you lost, do you wish you still had?
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
There are two strands of achievement for me: personal and professional.
I consider helping my brother and nieces to achieve their PhDs at top universities in the UK and US, as my proudest personal life achievement.
There has always been a latent rebellious trait in me that drove my professional life. The greatest professional achievement so far is leaving Oracle to join Citigroup. I gave the most formative years of my professional life to Oracle. I created Oracle’s financial services business from scratch to become the most successful in Europe. I brought the curtain down on my tenure after a decade, during Oracle’s most exciting period of growth. I really didn’t want to be a one trick pony, instead I wanted to move out of my comfort zone and test if I had the bandwidth to make an impact elsewhere. My objective of joining Citigroup was to prove to myself that not only could I grow a Technology start-up but I could lead a global financial services organisation. Within few years of joining Citigroup, I grew the banking businesses within emerging markets (72 countries), to a multi-billion dollars powerhouse, which was far greater in revenue, profit and people than the whole of Oracle.
What drives you?
Core values drive our behaviour and that begins at home, seeing how our parents act. I saw many times my mum give her own food to the homeless to feed their hungry children. I also saw my dad teach 14-18 year olds from Calcutta’s slum for free in his spare time. Seeing how my parents acted taught me the importance of giving back and helping those less fortunate. I learned that some things in life don’t have much purpose and some things really do. I enjoy helping out smart, underrated, driven people achieve their dreams.