We are the dreamers of dreams — the movers and shakers: A conversation with Roopa Chowbey and Savitha Bilgikar

Left: Roopa Chowbey (Founder & President of Formmi Inc.) Right: Savitha Bilgikar (Founder & COO of Formmi Inc.)

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams; —

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

● From “Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1873)

This was to be the very first meeting the Indian Women Professionals were to have on Zoom. I had connected with Savitha Bilgikar on this many months ago, when she and her business partner Roopa Chowbey were featured on the cover of the CIO Review magazine. Not one, but two Indian women on the cover of a prominent magazine…and one of them was right in our neighborhood. So, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for the Indian Women Professionals to meet as a group and interview them. Both women were gracious enough to lend us their time, and after several months where I faced my own personal challenges with time, we had it on the calendar for March 7th. Coincidentally it was the eve of International Women’s Day. Some say that in life there are no coincidences. This was meant to be, and it was meant to be on this day.

We had a list of questions that we planned to ask, and I coordinated the meeting with Savitha. I hadn’t met Roopa before and was really looking forward to meeting her based on what I’d heard from Savitha. I’d known Savitha for a couple of years and knew her to be someone with an always cheerful disposition, always great to talk to and who inspired me to really take a close look at what I focused my time on. Her dedication to Isha Yoga and sharing her learnings from the same, reminded me always of my perpetual goal of self-improvement.

But Roopa I was going to meet for the first time, and little did I know the incredible clarity of thought she would share with us and how together these two women were such a tour de force, it would inspire me to write this article.

We were planning to meet on Zoom, as is customary during these quarantine days. There may be doubters and naysayers when it comes to networking on Zoom, but this was one of the best IWP sessions we had. This was also the first time we were having actual panelists in one of our sessions.

Savitha and Roopa started with an introduction to their own careers, touching on their own backgrounds in IT and how they met. Their company, Formmi inc. is a solution provider in the Identity and Access Management space and they went on to explain what that means. Roopa gave an analogy by comparing it to letting people into your house. Some have the door opened for them, some have keys and even when inside, not everyone has access to the whole house. Things we all know and implement without a second thought in the real world, and which need to be replicated digitally. I thought it was very thoughtful of Roopa to have explained it in layman’s terms, considering that our audience could have been from a wide range of disciplines.

What follows are excerpts from some of the questions we asked Roopa and Savitha. I hope they will be useful to the readers of this article:

Question: Breaking into the market — what were the challenges you saw in breaking into a (my assumption here) male dominated industry?

They focused on the challenges of starting a business without having a first customer. Like any young business, this was hard, but especially hard being women in a fairly male dominated industry. How do you give customer testimonials without a first customer? What was very interesting is how Roopa said they often had to get recommended by (white) males who had worked with them in the past, albeit junior to them, in order for a potential client to accept them. What came next was even more interesting to me: There’s no room for ego here, they both remarked. You must do what you can to make things work.

Educate the customer, they often don’t know what they need. Educate them so they know that you know your stuff, they echoed. This was another piece of building credibility.

Key takeaway: Ultimately it was their hard work and diligence in their past companies that gave them credibility, wherein the networks they had built up, went out of their way to promote them. Build your community and leave the ego out — was the message we heard.

And educate your customer on the things they need to know.

Question: When building up something for yourself, how do you prevent yourself from underselling yourself?

They were aware that their weakness was in the area of business development when starting out. But they had done their homework on the industry and knew the gap they were trying to fill. An important part of what they did for their success was to identify that sweet spot and the confidence from this knowledge allowed them to not be deterred by the knowledge of their weakness. They had seen the way IAM companies worked in the industry and they knew there was an opportunity to provide a solution that saved time and money.

Key takeaway: Do your homework. Play to your strengths and learn from each other. What particularly struck me was that they decided not to feel like their weaknesses were a setback and instead focused on getting the best from their strengths. I feel personally that this, if not anything else, is normally a one of the biggest stumbling blocks we face when trying to move in a direction fraught with unknowns. The perils of one’s own mind.

Two leaders — what areas do you both manage within your org and what helped you decide (key components of your partnership)

They both focused on their strengths, Roopa being more customer relationships, marketing, and sales focused. Savitha balancing by focusing on operations and building partners/vendors, and business peers’ relationships. Again, it was the play on strengths that helped each complement the other. I was especially appreciative of how they recognized that as with any relationship, there was always the chance for things to go south. But what I saw here was an exceptionally levelheaded and respectful duo who seemed to recognize that you needed to go beyond ego to allow things to work. They started with written expectations that they each had regarding their roles and what they hoped to build for the company, what direction they thought things should go in. This helped them lay things out with good clarity and set the basis for all their communication.

Key takeaway: Don’t assume. Write things down. Build mutual trust and understanding in a relationship.

What is the one thing that you ask when hiring?

Being a fast-paced startup, Adaptability and Flexibility is what both Savitha and Roopa focused on. On top of that, they emphasized on the need for enthusiasm and the willingness to learn. Even if the candidate didn’t have the requisite experience, it was important that they could learn.

Key takeaway: Focus on attitude and willingness to learn. Experience and knowledge are often secondary.

What makes you wake up and go to work everyday? What gives you sleepless nights?

By this part of the conversation, I was already scribbling my notes furiously and trying to absorb every word and assimilate the meaning of it all. But here on out is where it started reaching that point where I felt there were greater forces at play. There was something these women were saying that began to strike a deeper chord than before. This is where it started getting more personal.

“Giving my 100% and doing my best” is what makes me want to wake up and go to work, said Roopa. Not putting my entire heart into it gives me sleepless nights she added.

“Look for that intrinsic motivation — don’t let it come from outside. Consider your own motivation as something that’s internally sourced” said Savitha. “You need to feel it internally that you’re doing your best, “don’t look for validation from someone else”! she added.

Key takeaway: Intrinsic motivation is where it’s at. I think all of us women could do with that lesson. Don’t look for validation or approval from outside. We are enough.

What do you think makes women hold back on their ambitions? What would help prevent that block?

Savitha started with a wonderful example of what Reese Witherspoon said in her speech at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards when she declared, “I believe ambition is not a dirty word.”

Culturally ambition is seen as a positive trait for men and a negative trait for women. We all acknowledged how our own cultural confines in fact make it even harder to accept ambition for ourselves without the burden and guilt that it comes with.

“Women leading without authority — Women leaders are often more collaborative and encourage participation and this often makes us seem not confident” — this was another interesting nugget that Savitha mentioned. It’s something to be acknowledged and understood that amongst ourselves, we need to give ourselves permission to be the leaders even without anyone needing to confer authority. Taking on the mantle of leading and doing what must be done. We are good enough for it.

Savitha continued to shed light on how building social capital is key! We all agree that balancing of family and work leaves women with no time to socialize professionally or attend after hours professional gatherings. Effective networking can help keep the pulse on the industry, new business opportunities and collaborations. She chuckled and said, “even if women make an effort to join in, more often than not the networking activities are more male oriented.” Roopa brought up the funny story of how at the end of a leadership event, the folks were invited to go to a cigar lounge. This is both laughably ridiculous and outrageously discriminatory. The fact that she was able to laugh at it was admirable.

She added — Our role models have often not been other women. We have often grown up with the men in our lives as our role models. Do we often give credit to our female role models? Do we recognize them?

We’ve also had many passive variables in our lives, for example we would have seen women leaders in our lives (like the former Indian Prime Minister, the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi), recognizing their accomplishments but not necessarily actively pursuing the same ourselves. We just don’t automatically get inspired to do something. We are not taught to see our potential and often times we’re excluded from the very golf courses, cigar lounges (or for those more inclined this way), the Rave bars that seem to be where the real networking happens, and deals get made.

What works well? What would help prevent that block?

Continuing the conversation Savitha went about explaining what worked well for her –No career is built in a vacuum, hence building a supportive network of allies and champions will give you support and encouragement. Additionally, Know your value! Your value proposition demonstrates how your work and the way you do your work contribute to specific positive business outcomes.

Roopa touched on how there is a lack of a sense of our own potential. We don’t see it in ourselves. When we do reach a certain point of accomplishment, especially if it is one that we don’t see other women in, we tend to jam on the brakes and tell ourselves that we have reached where we need to reach. Without a vision for something grander, how do we manifest it? How do you create something you haven’t imagined? And without that, where is the motivation to go further?

Key takeaway: All the above. I can’t think of any part of it I’d omit.

My story has run long, but it hasn’t ended. At this point things took a fresh turn. We had Vasanthi, one of our members join late, so I asked her to introduce herself. She was breathless from having been in the garden and full of fresh and anxious enthusiasm. She told us her story and her struggles, her Mom being her superhero and how having a young child she found it hard to make time for herself. And yet she had managed to create a book of fashion illustrations and she wanted to do more. Organic conversations are the lifeblood of networking and many of us found ourselves talking of our past experiences and how we made it past similar challenges. This is what we’re here for, and we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing — I thought to myself. Inspiring, motivating and helping each other up. We should call it “Work Life Integration rather than Work Life balance” Heera added. All our life’s work, whether working for oneself or another, becomes what our life is ultimately about, I reflected to myself.

It was a good start to the 100th International Women’s Day. I felt like we were standing on the shoulders of giants.

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Author: Priya Menon, Founder — Indian Women Professionals

Women helping women with career choices, mentor ship and leadership.