7 Questions With Cisco’s Aruna Ravichandran
We are back with the next edition of our 7 Questions WIT blog series–another blog full of advice and experiences from one of our 2020 Women In Tech Award winners. As a refresher, this blog series is meant to teach you about the success, obstacles, and advice that these talented women have to offer.
In this blog, we hear from Chief Marketing Officer at Webex by Cisco, Aruna Ravichandran. Aruna won the 2020 WIT award in Marketing. We asked her 7 questions, and you can read her responses below!
1. Please list your 3 qualities or personal characteristics that you are most proud of.
I’m devoutly outcome-driven – I’m always asking myself and my team ‘how can we make the biggest impact?’ When I was younger, I used to say that “I have a degree in getting sh** done.” With a bit more wisdom under my belt, now I say that “I have a masters in getting sh** done, with the collective power of my team.”
The next generation CMO must make it their core marketing philosophy to be as much about their customer’s growth as they are their own growth. The customer experience doesn’t rest on the shoulders of sales, or any one department. You must act, every day, as one unified team, as if your success is contingent upon your customer’s success.
I’m a storyteller at heart. Customers buy into the story, and the way you connect with them at an emotive level, before they buy your products and services. Storytelling needs to be in service of the customer, not in service of your own agenda.
As someone who cares deeply about understanding the customer’s perspective, I pride myself in being able to build authentic connections by speaking in the voice of the customer, in a way that makes them the hero. Building strong relationships with clients comes down to trust. If everything that comes out of your mouth is about yourself, and not about the customer, you’re not going to build trust (or sell anything). The stories you tell must strike the right chord, by listening, empathizing, inspiring, and then demonstrating what is possible, in that order.
Balancing the technical aspects of engineering with creative storytelling that inspires on a human level is the secret sauce to building any successful customer relationship.
My personal philosophy is not just aspiring to be better, but to aspire to be exceptional. I’m always looking for ways to improve my game, beat my best performance, and take people with me on the journey. Just like an Olympian, who always strives to push past his or her own personal best, that’s the attitude I try to embody and instill in my team. I used to be a kickboxing / body combat instructor for 10 years until I injured my back.
The discipline I learned with martial art, pushed me to always pursue my own personal best, and never rest on your last performance. This ‘personal best’ principle I learned in kickboxing guides me in business every day. It translates to being courageous, pushing limits, experimenting, failing smarter, and bringing a spirit of competitive integrity.
Deep down, I believe that what drives this philosophy is the desire to have meaningful impact in my work, as a parent, and in my community – being compassionate, and having the courage to respectfully stand up for my values and beliefs.
2. What do you enjoy or find interesting about the technology field in which you work?
Technology, like education, is one of the great equalizers in building a more inclusive world. With technology, we’ve created new opportunities for business ventures to be born, new ideas and innovations that improve quality of life, and propelled the workforce to innovate and grow in new fields.
I’m an unabashed tech geek, by education and by trade. For me, technology was always magical. However, even with my deep background in engineering and computer science, technology was more about the impact I could make for businesses and for people. It was about the customers, not the code.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was also a storyteller at heart, so I needed to find a way to marry my passion for technology with the art of communicating with customers. In practice, that meant taking complex problems, applying the right technology solution, and then translating this into simple, meaningful, customers experiences that result in real-world business impact.
That’s why I decided to make the big, somewhat risky, career pivot into marketing, as I knew I could make a far bigger impact. I believed that the symbiotic marriage of technology and marketing, together, was an untapped supercharger for innovation and growth, not just for my career, but for business in general.
Now that I see the world through the lens of a CMO, I believe even more that technology can change the world and connect us in new ways – to create a more equitable and inclusive playing field where no one is left behind. AND I believe technology can help us to reimagine marketing for the 21st century – as a growth partner to the business, and as a mar-tech market-shaper, not a cost-center.
3. What changes have you noticed in your work-life balance since the shift to remote work?
The pandemic has brought about many teachable moments, for all of us. I went from an executive traveling 250,000 miles a year, to finding more equilibrium at home as a mom and as a wife. I realized that you can find balance – continue to deliver at work and be a lot more present with family. I realized that if I could re-discover my connection and presence at home, I would show up as a better version of myself at work.
I’m still a ‘work-in-progress’ and recognize there’s a gravitational pull to workaholic tendencies, if I don’t check-in with myself, set boundaries, and be disciplined about always striving for that balance of work and life outside of work. I recently took a vacation to a yoga retreat and learned to meditate, which has been game changing for me.
But the biggest lesson that has emerged for all organizations that experienced the sudden move to remote, and now the new transition to a blended hybrid model is: that in giving people the independence to forge their own path, to work in the way that works best for them, from anywhere, we are creating a space for folks – family or colleagues – to be the best, independent, but deeply connected, versions of themselves.
4. What is a major challenge you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
There are two big challenges that were game-changing for me.
The first was transitioning from software engineer/engineering leader to a marketer and CMO. It’s a continuous journey of learning, and that’s the way you have to think about it. As an engineering leader, you think about the features in your product, but you are not programmed to think about the larger picture. As a marketeer, you have to learn the art of distilling between the “forest and the trees.” But having an engineering background gives me the ability to message product and as a marketeer gives me the ability to look at things at a portfolio level and also adding a market lens to it and simplify the message.
The second challenge is a common one that many have faced as they advance in their careers and move into senior leadership roles – that transition from a management role to executive level, or the C-suite. When I was promoted from senior director to VP and CMO, I experienced a bit of ‘fish out of water’ syndrome, that required an entirely new set of skills, and letting go of many of your previous responsibilities, delegating and trusting in your team. No one really prepares you for that, so you have to be fearless, and driven to learn on the job.
As with any major career transition to the next level, no one shows up on day one, automatically knowing everything about leadership, or is pre-programmed with all the answers like a computer. I learned that you have to show up with humility, but trust your gut, and carry the same confidence in yourself that got you to where you are.
For a woman who is new to VP or C-suite level, or aspiring to get there, you must be deliberate and proactive about differentiating yourself and playing to your strengths as a leader. I have this analogy that explains what I mean. At the executive level, you can make weather, or you can report the weather. Basically, if you make weather, you have the ability to see the big picture, to forecast opportunities, and to set the vision and strategy that will advance the business. People who report the weather take somebody else’s strategy and report it and then execute it. At the C-suite level, you need to be able to do both effectively.
5. Are there enough opportunities for women in tech? How would you assess the progress women have made in the tech industry?
The short answer is ‘no’. We need to accelerate opportunities for women. It is encouraging that there’s a growing awareness in the corporate world that walking the walk on diversity and creating more opportunities for women in tech have huge advantages – for business performance, innovation, and growth. Representation of women on boards has seen modest gains, and the number of women joining the C-suite is slowly moving upwards. But we still have a lot of work to do to create more inroads for women to develop, to advance in their careers, and to have equal opportunities to contribute. This is particularly critical for women returning to the workforce after raising children, or who took a leave of absence to care for an ailing parent.
The most concerning number to me is that four out of ten women are leaving STEM careers after their first child, despite engineering and computer science jobs being some of the most in-demand and highest paying in the world. We need to invest in women at every stage of the career lifecycle, and in young girls, and we need to be intentional about how we do that.
Women have long been unsung pioneers in technology. The term “software engineering” was coined by computer programmer, Margaret Hamilton, who is credited with leading the team that landed Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969. Hedy Lamarr, a self-taught inventor, was awarded a patent in 1942 for her “secret communication system” that would inspire and inform the development of Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technology. While there are many women who helped create the field of computer science, one of them being the co-founder of Cisco, Sandy Lerner, the number of women entering technology fields has declined in recent times – from 27% since 2018, to 25% in 2021 — despite making up half of the U.S. workforce.
The data shows that a myriad of factors is causing this shortfall of women in tech, but armed with this data, businesses now have the power to take informed, well-intentioned steps in changing this trajectory. An obvious problem to crack is the gender pay gap, which despite its narrowing slightly over the last few years, persists in the tech industry.
6. What are some things you think should be addressed on macro, peer, and educational levels to encourage women to feel empowered in the tech industry?
Women not only have the aptitude, intuition, and propensity to problem solve complex and technical problems and think big picture, but they bring a unique perspective and disposition to the field of STEM, that if omitted from the diversity mix, will only be a disadvantage for businesses. In a highly competitive industry, where the war for talent seems to be a common topic in boardrooms, no business can afford to be handicapped by the absence of talent capabilities.
So, what can be done? At a macro level, it’s about leveling the playing field by creating new ways to bring more women into the mix at every level. There are many talented women out there, making a difference, perhaps unsung heroes in the trenches. The onus is on business leaders to look beyond their immediate networks, outside the usual pool of candidates, and really create a pipeline of talent with the greatest potential, not just technical skills.
Next. More than ever, there’s an urgency to re-assimilate women back into the workforce. Long before the pandemic, the number of women that the tech sector lost during the formative parenting years was an Achilles heel. Since the onset of COVID-19 over 2 million women have left the workforce. We need to act now.
One thing we have just announced is that Webex has partnered with Argent #TimesUpNow and LinkedIn to launch the BackToWork initiative—focused on supporting women and connecting female jobseekers with meaningful work. We are calling on everyone in the industry to join us in supporting this campaign to ensure safe, fair, flexible, and dignified opportunities for women.
Flexible working is critical, and while not a new concept, it may become a bellwether for how business will successfully return to physical offices, or some variation of a hybrid workforce. The latest study shows that women with child-care needs are 32% less likely to leave their job if they can work remotely.
Last, but definitely not least, we need to reach out to girls in schools early and often. Investing time, energy, and resources into cohort programs, for grade school through to high school, is going to be critical to bringing more women into the field, and in nurturing the next generation of technology thinkers, inventors, and leaders. For the last decade, I’ve tried to get out and talk to young girls in the Silicon Valley schools as much as I can, as I believe that we can and must influence, inspire, encourage and mentor the next generation of women leaders in tech.
7. What would you say to younger generations of girls or women that are interested in entering the technology industry?
My first piece of advice would be, don’t focus on the job title or limitations of a job description as much as on the outcome or impact you would like to make in the world, or the problem you would like to contribute to solving. There might be multiple different roles and avenues that deliver on that aspiration, that you’ll miss if you’re only searching by job title.
Second, as I’ve always encouraged my daughters, believe in yourself. Don’t doubt yourself. Don’t listen to other people’s projections that limit who you can be, or what you want to do.
Third, find mentors and sponsors who you can learn from and who can guide you. Leverage LinkedIn and peer groups. Your network is an important currency in business. Think of it like a financial nest egg. If you’re smart and proactive, it will continue to grow and increase in value as you progress in your career.
Finally, a few interview tips. How you show up matters. That means everything from dressing professionally, to your preparation. Do your homework and learn as much about the business (beyond the job description) before the interview – i.e. financials, its origins, competitors, innovations, and culture. In the interview, be confident and show that you are hungry to learn. Come armed with a list of observations and questions to demonstrate genuine interest and give them a sense of your thought process. Leaving the interviewer with a strong sense of who you are, that you operate with integrity, and are a team player will be the clincher in landing you that second interview.
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