Kaushik learnt marketing at L’Oreal, strategy at McKinsey and now learning product in a tech company. He has also worked on projects for the World Economic Forum (presented in Davos 2016) and Rocket Internet. He graduated from INSEAD with an MBA and is based in London. Kaushik enjoys collecting single malt whisky, geeking out on trivia, and coaching people.
This is his story.
I’ve spent the first 20 years of my life in an India that was changing almost daily – and as a result I saw the problems with a closed economy in my early years, and quickly realised the benefits of a free market in my later years.
I say this because growing up, there were very few career options. We were just moving from an era where government jobs were the epitome of life’s success, to one where the private sector was just about beginning to provide stable alternatives to this employment, particularly in technology. I was decent at academics, and as a result had two options ahead of me: engineering or medicine, as is common among most people who grow up in Indian families. I was interested in technology and hence decided to study computer engineering.
While at engineering school, I quickly realised that my strength was not necessarily in building technology, but in building relationships and selling. I started a few side hustles – which I enjoyed far more than my school, and this made me realise that I’m probably better suited for business than building tech. Back then, information was at a premium and I really didn’t have any role models that were accessible as such, so I tried to learn as much as possible by reading backgrounds of people who had achieved great things in the business world. I figured that all these people either 1) took a huge risk at some point in their career and/or 2) went to one of the world’s best business schools. Not very risk friendly at that point, I decided to go for the latter.
One problem though – my chance of an admit to a top MBA program with a non-elite degree, as an Indian techie was low. So, I decided to ‘differentiate myself’ by getting a bridge degree before my MBA. I researched schools, and I fell in love with MICA. It seemed to be the perfect mix of what I wanted: a good school that specialised in marketing and offered me a career switch. I worked hard and ended up graduating as the best outgoing student with a job at L’Oréal.
L’Oréal proved to be a fantastic sales and marketing bootcamp. I joined at a time when the company was quite small in India – and as a result experienced both the benefits and pitfalls of ‘Big company, small subsidiary’: great growth, small org chart, fantastic mentors, but bad processes, benefits and probably pay. I had the opportunity to do 5 different roles there – from building out the business in remote Sikkim, to working on brand strategy in Singapore, and ultimately leading some key portfolios for Garnier in the new global innovation hub.
By this time, I felt that I’d learnt enough about 1) marketing and sales and 2) consumer. I also felt that I’d achieved my purpose of ‘diversifying’ my career, so almost half a decade later I wrote the GMAT and got into a few schools in the US, and INSEAD. I decided to go with INSEAD and arguably had one of my best years there. I made this choice primarily because I feel that the US is a unique market in that it has ~350M people, all mid to high income on a relative global standard, and hence enough room to play domestically if you’re in business. But that also means that as a market it is quite insular, and I felt that US experience would count a lot in the US, but I’d learn little about the outside. My focus is always ‘rest of the world’ – and I felt going to a INSEAD would make sure I land up in London or Singapore, which just feel like the gateways to the world more than any American city. I learnt a ton there: how to think like a CEO, how to work across cultures, and most importantly learnt enough content to switch from being a marketer to a generalist.
McKinsey came calling – and one does not simply say no to McKinsey (or so I think). I lived the high-flying consulting life – the one that I had read about only in business school cases, and learnt tons while I was there. I think McKinsey is a really special place: I joined as a late stage professional but learning the McKinsey way is invaluable whichever stage of your life you’re at. Almost at the time when I felt that I’d learnt whatever McKinsey had to offer, I got a call from a tech recruiter.
Moving to tech had always been the exit plan after McKinsey – primarily because at some point during the MBA I realised that I wanted to treat the first few years after business school as a training to become a CEO. I felt that to do so I need to learn 1) how to grow a business 2) how to run a business and 3) how to leverage technology as an enabler. If you think 3) is a force fit, I’d disagree with you because I think in the next 10 years if you don’t know tech and you’re in leadership, you’re obsolete. I learnt 1) at L’Oreal, 2) at McKinsey – it was time to head to 3)
My tech gig over the last year has been fantastic. I work on the ads side of the business, and I’m primarily tasked with 3 things 1) Figure out how to grow the existing business 2) Identify what to build next and 3) Bring market context and craft the business strategy. It has been a great learning adventure, and I feel like I’m learning tons about how to grow and scale a tech business, while also being able to bring in expertise from my prior life. I’ve also learnt how tech works so differently than consumer and know more than a regular person should about ad auctions.
I want to sign off by sharing a few things that I’ve learnt on this journey so far:
a. It’s always good to shift industries or functions if you want to learn
b. It’s not good to shift industries or functions if you want to climb up fast: Arguably, if you start doing one thing at 20 and stick to it, you’re going to get to the top faster
c. Plan, but not too much. I left McKinsey earlier than I had planned – yet to see how that’s going to work out, but over the years I’ve realised that planning too much causes unnecessary stress
d. Create a ‘mentor map’: I try to have mentors across different vectors that I’m trying to develop. For instance, I currently am trying to work on my leadership, PR and team management skills – and have a mentor for each apart from a couple who’ve been there for a while that coach me on my overall career. For instance, one of my mentors is one of my first bosses at L’Oreal who keeps me honest as to my intrinsic curiosity. My biggest mentor and inspiration, arguably, is my mother who continues to work 14-hour days at the age of 70, and teaches me the value of resilience, people skills and patience despite having nothing to do with tech or the business world
e. Be kind to yourself: I killed myself trying to get to the top 10%. One of my managers told me this that changed my outlook towards life: Better to get to the top 1%, 50% of the time rather than the top 10%, 100% of the time
My long-term vision is to enable real change in India – either via a successful business and providing jobs, doing something in education, or by helping the public sector – I plan to go back in a few years. I think that its where the growth is, and with incomes rising, it is going to be the place to be in a few years’ time if it isn’t already.
I don’t think it makes sense to go back to India unless you’re in a leadership position though – it remains a hierarchical country and you can only enable real change in India if you’re calling the shots. So, the quest then for me is to get to that position as fast as possible, and its what I spend my days and nights working for and worrying about.
I hope that reading about this was helpful to you. In my spare time, I enjoy coaching people to get into business school (~10 admits so far!) and reading about India – either the economy or history. Hit me up if you think I can add value, and I’ll do my best!