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The blooming of Cisco’s Daisy

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On a sultry summer afternoon in Bengaluru, I meet with Daisy Chittilapilly for a luncheon at the Oberoi. In spite of the perennial traffic chaos outside, which plagues the city and the numerous new-fangled competitors, the hotel has retained its old-world charm and a sense of calm, from a bygone era.

Having tracked the evolution of the tech industry for more than 25 years, I mention to her that it is unfortunate that there have been only a handful of women leading tech companies. While Nasscom says that women constitute 35 per cent of the Indian technology workforce of five million, there are still very few of them in leadership positions, though thankfully that is changing.

We exchange views on it and even as we order some drinks to beat the summer heat – ginger ale for her and fresh tender coconut water for me –I ask her whether she is related to Kochouseph Chittilapilly, the Kerala business baron who heads the V-Guard and Wonderla group.

Daisy laughs and says no, before adding that the extended Chittilapilly family broadly hail from the Irinjalakuda-Thrissur belt of Kerala. In spite of her Kerala roots, the first six years of her life were spent in Mumbai as her father worked for Air India in its accounts department. However, in 1980, she and her three-year-old brother, along with their home maker mother, moved to Thiruvananthapuram, when Air India had an opening for her father in the city.

Always good at studies, she confesses her original aspiration was to get a doctorate in physics, as she was fascinated by the subject, though there were some murmurs in the family about her becoming a doctor. However, encouraged by a convent sister who had taught her at Holy Angels School, she wrote the entrance exams for engineering and obviously qualified. “My father was always supportive of whatever we did. He was very liberal and would say, will support you in whatever you want to study. I was also very clear that I wanted to study and work, the north star for me was always independence,” Daisy adds.

Serendipitous moments

It was serendipity too that she landed in the IT industry. When campus placements happened in 1995 at College of Engineering, Trivandrum, (as it used to be called then), the now electrical and electronics engineer was initially selected by HCL. No, not the tech company, but Hindustan Construction Ltd. However, when they took more than a month to send her an offer letter, Wipro picked her up and gave her an appointment letter on the same day.

From a quiet, studious girl at college, Daisy says she jumped into the domestic sales business at Wipro as she moved cities to be in Pune. Of the 32 sales persons Wipro hired that year, three were women. A major part of Daisy’s mandate was to sell Apple products as Wipro was its reseller in the country and some low-end ethernet products of various brands to mainly government customers like the police, NIC and some mid-sized corporates including manufacturing companies as well as just emerging IT companies in the city.

“As a Pune-kar it gave me a different experience. The city had a very student vibe-ish thing being an education hub and for somebody just out of college, I loved the freedom of staying in a hostel which was close to Symbiosis and enjoying the atmosphere. The 18 months spent there, I picked up a taste for Jolada (Jowar) Roti which is also common in North Karnataka.”

With the reminder of food, we decide to order some. Daisy says she is a foodie and loves to try all cuisines, though her petite form indicates that not only she is a conscious consumer but also ensures she stays fit. “Food is a great way to connect with people and experience cultures. Some of us, unfortunately, even when we go abroad, order Indian food. What is the point of traveling and experience then?” she ask. Since I am a vegetarian, Daisy too decides to opt for the same. We end up ordering a veg kebab platter, some lasooni saag plus paneer makhani to go with our tandoori rotis and garlic naans.

Continuing to reminisce on her Pune days, Daisy says how some of her hostel friends continue to be close and even now meet every year and do a trip or an outing together, though most of them are doing different things and even in different parts of the world. “Also while everybody talks about inclusivity and diversity now, Wipro was practising those things back then, by offering women like me opportunities.”

Eighteen months into her stint in Pune, she received a call from KS Vishwanath, who now works for the Nasscom foundation, and at that time used to head Wipro Infotech’s Bengaluru operations who, she says, just said, “Pack your bags and move here.” Her work in cracking the tough government deals and especially ensuring the company was paid after sales, had not gone unnoticed and bigger challenges were awaiting her. So, move she did.

This was late 1990s and with the Y2K boom and unprecedented growth of the IT sector opportunities were dime-a-dozen. “One had to pick and choose what battles one wanted to fight, what customers you wanted to engage,” says Daisy as she became account manager in the much larger and more dynamic market of Bengaluru which was then emerging as the IT capital of the country. “Since then I love this city so much, I have never moved out,” she says, laughing.

Role of bureaucrats

Both of us then exchange notes on some of the veteran bureaucrats who played a key role in Karnataka emerging as an IT power, including the late IAS officer Sanjay Das Gupta who set up the Bengaluru IT.com to showcase the potential of companies in the state, K Jairaj, a well-known retired IAS officer, apart from Rajeev Chawla, whose land digitisation efforts not only fetched him awards but also was replicated across the country. Given her hectic sales calls on a daily basis, Daisy recalls, “My mother said why don’t you get a desk job instead of beating the street every day. But, I thrive on people interactions and loved being on the frontline.”

By then her go-getting attitude had ensured that she had climbed the ladder from being an account manager to a regional sales manager to a team lead and finally responsible for the entire Kerala – Karnataka – Goa territory. Wipro tried grooming her for bigger roles by making her a part of the internal innovation council to play the role of an influencer. Even as several of her peers moved to the USA in evolving roles within Wipro, Daisy says she was not attracted. “My brother, a banker, had moved to the Middle East and I wanted at least one us to stay in India, if our parents required, especially as my father had retired by then.”

Eight years into Wipro, several companies – most of them MNCs and partners of Wipro which was then a system integrator – tried to woo her. Daisy says Cisco which she had known well as it was a Wipro, reached out to her. “It was an ex-colleague, Natarajan Rajkumar, who now works with Microsoft and was then at Cisco, who had asked the company to look at me. There was no dearth of opportunities and I had been approached by several companies earlier. But having seen closely how Cisco works – I had seen its vision, passion, ability to spot business adjacencies, its speed of execution, and a lean, mean machine – all of that attracted me. Even then I took three months to even send my resume,” she recalls with a laugh.

By now having polished off a few rotis myself, I point out that she has hardly consumed anything as she continues to nibble at the kebab platter. What has also intrigued me is unlike most technology professionals in her 26 years of professional career – she has worked only with two companies, her first job at Wipro where she stayed for eight years and now the current one at Cisco for 17 plus years. “That is because both these companies are such wonderful places. Ethical, straightforward, ahead of the technology curve and good places to work,” she adds.

However, having tracked Cisco India for nearly two decades and interacted with at least five of her predecessors apart from two of its global CEOs, I push back and ask her, “While Cisco has been all that and more, it also had had a reputation for being a very demanding, hard-charging place, aggressive culture and high-pressure environment where senior people get laid-off if they didn’t meet quarterly numbers.”

Daisy doesn’t bat an eyelid and says, “Yes, I had heard that about all American MNCs too, but one of the things for leaders is about mental strength and resilience. Leadership is not just about being a postman and passing on things down the line. But providing direction, inspiration, help and ensuring that things get done.” Under her leadership Cisco India today has evolved more to a lifecycle partnership with customers rather than mere transactional ones.

Many mentors

She says there have been so many mentors who have helped her grow as a leader including Jeff White who had briefly come in as the India country head. “Several of them early on saw me in roles which I did not see for myself and help evolve and get there. Apart from that, role models like AHP (Azim H Premji), John (Chambers former CEO of Cisco), Chuck Robbins (current CEO, Cisco) are people I look up to.”

Given the dynamism of the Indian market, she is gung-ho about prospects. “Cisco spends more than $6 billion on R&D; India has our second largest R&D centre, unicorns are now minted on a weekly basis, our large companies are becoming global behemoths. So as a sales organisation too the opportunity is huge,” she avers.

To pay forward for all the ‘help and guidance’ she has received Daisy says “she tries to talk to people and act as a sounding board both internally and outside.” Daisy was also an English tutor at a government school near Commercial Street twice a week before Covid struck. “Education is a great leveler and I contribute both in personal effort and kind.”

Being single she says gives her the freedom to enjoy two things she loves the most – travel and reading. She sometimes prefers to travel alone and before the Covid curse struck, she visited Paris for the Da Vinci 500 years’ celebrations of his work at Louvre with a friend and regrets that the cruise liner cancelled a planned trip to Antartica in February earlier this year. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is the current book Daisy says she is reading. One can well say that Cisco is where Daisy bloomed as a top manager.

Published on May 09, 2022

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