A Cornell-educated Madisar Mami

25 Apr 2005


Even in the 21st century, it isn't easy for a woman to succeed in the corporate world. But 34-year-old Jayashree Vaidhyanathan, director and unit head of business consulting services at HCL Technologies, has just been voted outstanding woman manager of the year. A profile by Venkatachari Jagannathan

Jayashree VaidhyanathanChennai: Even in the brave new wired world, managers are mostly male. But things are changing. The 34-year-old Jayashree Vaidhyanathan, director and unit head of business consulting services at HCL Technologies in Chennai is setting new trends in this otherwise conservative city.

The Nadia Comaneci of HCL Technologies scores a perfect 10 not only from her male bosses but from her peers and juniors; even from her husband, former journalist Ram Venkatraman, now with Sun Microsystems India. Recently, the Madras Management Association (MMA) selected Vaidhyanathan as the outstanding woman manager of the year.

Gushes senior consultant Akila Moorthy: "For the past two years I have been working under her. She is very considerate, approachable and an easy person to work with." Programme manager Sriram Anantharaman adds: "She can relate to others easily as she is sensitive. It is not a quality that is acquired very easily." At the other end of the corporate pecking order, her boss, associate vice president T S Krishnakumar, concurs: "All the service offerings of the consulting division were thought out by Jayashree. Her key strength lies in consulting and presentation skills."

Not many know that the four-year-old consulting practice set up by Vaidhyanathan has, directly and indirectly, contributed sizeable revenues to HCL Technologies' turnover of Rs1,274 crore. The consulting division directly brings in around $5 million per year, but generates a huge spin-off in terms of software business that results from consulting assignments. Up to 35 per cent of the company's Rs325.72 crore profit could probably be traced to the consulting division's activities.

Vaidhyanathan is now expanding the consulting division; not just the head count but the market as well. She is now targeting the European market. Her ultimate goal is to make the consulting division a standalone company.

Business acumen aside, one thing that most people who know Vaidhyanathan agree about is her genial attitude and her extensive domain knowledge. Her husband Venkatraman, then a student doing a master's in communications in the US, says he felt drawn to her the very first time they spoke to each other. "I had a feeling that I knew her from childhood. I never felt I was talking to someone I had just met," he remembers about that fateful encounter.

Early days
The second daughter of K G Vaidhyanathan — who retired as general manager of Chemplast — and Sundari, she was born in Mumbai in 1971. "The day I was born my dad and my uncle both got their promotions. Another uncle got a job. That's why they named me Jayashree, which means 'goddess of victory'. It also rhymed with my elder sister's name, Rajashree," she says.

As her father's job involved transfers, the girls had their schooling in different cities. "It's unsettling, but there are benefits too," she points out, "it helps adaptability, one makes new friends quickly and, as a child, one tends to pick up new languages fast." Today, Vaidhyanathan knows five languages — Hindi, Tamil, English, Telugu and Malayalam. "I can read, write and speak the first four; the last one I can only speak," she says.

Always at the top of he class, Vaidhyanathan was also a keen debater, excelled at music, essay writing and other cultural pursuits. "From six to 16; those were my musical years," she muses. Her mother, Sundari, is from Thiruvaiyaru and one of her forefathers had started the Thiagaraja Aradana there. It was natural that Vaidhyanathan should learn Carnatic classical music. She was always asked to sing at school functions. After Std 12, she decided to do her graduation in computer science. Her ultimate aim was to get a management degree.

Men are alike; 18 or 38
The initial days at the V M K V Engineering College in Salem, Tamil Nadu, were a bit of a culture shock. It was here that Vaidhyanathan says she learnt some valuable male management lessons: "At the college I woke up to gender discrimination and the fact that most men refuse to accept women as equals." She also learnt that a woman has to do much better than her male peers in order to be accepted as an equal. The other lesson she learnt was is to become friends first and come out with her ideas only later. "Men are alike, whether aged 18 or 38," she says philosophically, but adds wistfully, "life would be very boring in a gender-neutral society."

In college, reasoning out issues before reacting to them became her forte. Though boys dominated the student's union, she made sure her views were heard and acted upon. With her engineering degree in hand, Vaidhyanathan joined Visakapatanam Steel Plant as a management trainee in 1992. "I wanted to get at least three years work experience, so that I could get into an Ivy League business school in America, she says." A year later she flew to US to join the Household Finance Corporation; one step closer to her dream.

It was here that she met and married Venkatraman, in 1994. But the newlyweds were forced to live apart — Venkatraman in India and Vaidhayanathan in the US — because of their professions. "It was a hard decision, but each of us had to pursue our professional interests. We used to talk to each other on the telephone daily," she says. Vaidhayanathan feels she is a 'lucky' wife because her husband has always respected her interests.

Soon, she joined Cornell University's management institute, majoring in finance and strategy in 1996. She also completed a chartered financial analyst's course. Her dream of becoming a Wall Street investment banker came true with an offer from CIBC World Markets to join the company as an associate.

Breaking into the investment-banking circle is tough, as one has to cross seven rounds of interviews. "Not only is our subject knowledge tested, we have to prove that we can discuss anything under the sun; any topic that would interest our client or prospect," she remarks. Having a basic engineering degree meant she was already oriented towards technology, while her management and accounting qualifications gave her proficiency in strategies and numbers. She was assigned to scout and execute merger and acquisition (M&A) deals and, within six months of joining the company, got her first promotion.

"I didn't do any deals for dotcom companies," she recalls. Sizing up a dotcom company presented a big dilemma for investment bankers during the early '90s. At CIBC World Markets, Vaidhyanathan negotiated a number of multi-million dollar M&A deals, but mostly in old economy companies. She exceeded her target by a handsome 25 per cent, and started her climb up the corporate ladder.

Life was hectic, but one silver lining was her journalist husband's decision to move to the US. They decided to start a family. Even though she had risen to be a director, Vaidhyanathan remembers losing her annual bonus in 1999 because she went on maternity leave. In the world of finance, a bonus can be as much as half or more of one's yearly income. The insensitive corporate culture, perhaps, made her think about switching jobs. The couple also toyed with the idea of coming back to India. "We both got our US citizenship, while our son Pranav was a naturalised American," she explains.

It was then that she met HCL Technologies CFO Arun Duggal in London. She sold him her idea that HCL Technologies should get into the business consulting space. He was impressed by her credentials and her plans and, when others in the company also bought into the idea, she was hired.

From investment banking to consulting
For the next year, she studied the US markets to decide on HCL Tech's offerings and its positioning in the consulting space. With her investment banking background, the obvious choice was financial strategy consulting. And, to start with, she took on HCL Technologies software engineers who were on the bench.

Vaidhyanathan's eyes light up as she talks about their first assignment. "It was from a $6 billion financial intermediary, Thomson Financial," she recalls. Determined to bag the account, the team worked on their presentation for two weeks. Finally, they prepared five charts spread out on 6-feet by 4-feet wall. They depicted the strong and weak points of the prospect, where HCL Technologies could come in and what they could do for Thomson Financials' bottomline, and bagged the contract.

Says corporate vice president-strategy Sourav Adhikari about Vaidhyanathan's uncanny ability to clinch contracts: "Her US experience and Wall Street background help her to get deep insight into a customer's business processes, and to come out with a unique solution."

Home again
In 2001, the family flew back to Chennai. "We wanted our son to know his roots. He is already a US citizen, and can always return if he wants to. But for me, moving from 18-hour days to an eight-hour schedule is a steal," she reasons.

Soon consulting assignments started to come in steadily. She also spotted an opportunity in compliance consulting for the Sarbanes Oxley Act, applicable to US companies. Her team developed a specialised suite of offerings to help US companies comply with the legislation, especially section 404, which requires senior management assessments and effectiveness of internal controls. At one point of time, her team was simultaneously providing consultancy to nine companies about the Act. "Compliance and process consulting is a growth area," she says, pointing out industry trends.

Breaking male stereotypes
Vaidhyanathan firmly believes that traditional leadership theories and styles are tailor-made for men, whereas the 21st-century corporation requires empathetic leadership, to which women are more suited. Not an aggregator of authority, she believes in freedom based on trust. She gives the big picture to her consultants and other juniors, so that they know what is expected of them and how they can contribute.

"She is a good team builder and always thinks positively," remarks D Davidson, vice president. Programme manager Anantharaman says, "Whenever it was needed she would take charge and personally lead the team." But it is not 'all work and no play' for Vaidhyanathan's team. At HCL Technologies she has been instrumental in putting together an orchestra called Jugal Guindy — Guindy happens to be the Chennai locality where HCL Tech's consulting division is located.

How does she balance office and home? Though she says is not so difficult, husband Venkatraman reveals that she has made significant sacrifices for family's sake. Despite a hectic travel schedule, Vaidhyanathan still finds time to watch comedy films and take the family out to her favourite Chennai restaurant, NewYorker. "My favourite actor is Arvind Swamy," she laughs. Her other passion is music. Travel with the family is her way of relaxing, and she is planning a holiday trip to Italy and Germany.

Though not ritualistic, Vaidhyanathan is very religious and visits the Ganesh Temple everyday on her way to work. "I pray two or three times a day," she says. Her husband calls her a Cornell-educated madisar mami. Madisar is the orthodox Tamil Brahmin nine-yard saree and mami in Tamil means an aging aunt. But he respects her sentiments: "Her faith gives her a lot of strength," he says.

Vaidhyanathan's ultimate personal goal is to make it to the Forbes list of women achievers. If that happens, she will be the first madisar mami to figure in the list.

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