As we did last year, we’re extending International Women’s Day throughout the month of March to celebrate female leaders within customer experience in this 4-part profile series.
When Sangeetha Rai was a little girl growing up in India, her parents wanted her to be a doctor, just like her father. But when she was 12 years old, she imagined a different plan.
“I was fascinated with space and dreamed of becoming the first Indian woman to go into space. I told my dad, who was amused, but listened patiently. He said, ‘Okay. You don’t want to become a doctor. How about a dentist?’”
“So, throughout my teens, the plan was that I would be a dentist,” Rai laughed.
With days to go before she was off to dental college, she reflected on what she really wanted to do with her life and realized that her passion was for business. “I wanted to be more creative, work with people, and do something outside of science.”
This time, when she told her dad about her dream, he supported her decision. In quick order, she earned an MBA in business management with a double major in HR and marketing. When she graduated, she had her sights set on becoming an ad executive in New York City. “It seemed very glamorous.”
[Related read: 4 ways customer support agents can make a career pivot]
Embracing the unpredictable future
In 2000, Rai flew to New York and quickly realized that most of the business opportunities were in tech. Over the next 20 years, she would work as a systems engineer, QA analyst, project manager, and director of QA and customer success. Today, she leads a team of 600 as VP of Technology Customer Success, at Northwestern Mutual, a life insurance and financial services company.
“My current job did not exist 15 years ago, and it may not exist 15 years from now. The lesson for me is that who you are supposed to be, who you are today, and who you are tomorrow is unpredictable. The only constant is change and how you adapt to it. That’s the mantra I follow,” she said.
When Rai first arrived in New York, she had no experience in technology, no education in the U.S., and no professional contacts. She knew English but had a strong accent, which made conference calls a challenge early on. Yet she persisted with a tenacious spirit and a work ethic that knew few boundaries.
"My current job did not exist 15 years ago, and it may not exist 15 years from now. The lesson for me is that who you are supposed to be, who you are today, and who you are tomorrow is unpredictable." - Sangeetha Rai
She remembers a line that helped galvanize her during this time from “The Inner Circle,” a lecture C.S. Lewis gave at the University of London in 1944: “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”
“Many times, I have been the only woman in the boardroom or the only woman on a panel. Or I was a developer trying to be a QA analyst or a QA analyst trying to be a project manager without leadership experience. I’ve carried that C.S. Lewis line with me to remind me not to be afraid to be an outsider and instead be the leader I wish to see,” she said.
Leading with a personal touch
The reminder worked. At Northwestern Mutual, she works to ensure her massive team of support engineers, analysts, and customer service agents spread across every state in the U.S. and multiple locations offshore feel connected. Once an outsider, she now has the power to bring this organization of disparate teams and individuals together to provide cohesive and exemplary customer service.
The foundation of this goal was to create a relatable vision and define the values that the whole team can share. Communication is critical, so three years ago she instituted a weekly newsletter for all 600. In addition to recognizing team members and sharing news and information, each newsletter includes a personal story straight from Rai.
Once an outsider, she now has the power to bring this organization of disparate teams and individuals together to provide cohesive and exemplary customer service.
“It could be a service experience I had or something I read, saw, or learned from that week. But the story always ties back to our vision and values. This connects the team to me and what we’re working to accomplish,” she said.
She says her staff often reach out to her to share their experiences or comment on hers. “I respond to every single one of them because it’s just as important to hear others’ stories and ideas.”
Another significant focus is shifting the mindset of support as a feeder organization into one where you can have a long and meaningful career. Rai and her leadership team have been working to provide cross-functional and upskilling opportunities that help keep employees engaged and excited about the work they do. “Now I have people in other parts of the organization who are applying to work on our team and that in itself is a great accomplishment,” she said.
Be the leader you wish to see
One of Rai’s passions is mentoring other women. Last year, she attended the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, to learn and share her own wisdom. It was there that she realized that mentoring doesn’t need to take a ton of time.
Rai and her leadership team have been working to provide cross-functional and upskilling opportunities that help keep employees engaged and excited about the work they do.
“Our team hosted an exercise called, ‘Speed Coaching with a Leader,’ where attendees were invited to spend 10 minutes with one of our leaders for 1:1 coaching and advice. I noticed that at the 7-minute mark women’s eyes would light up and a lightbulb would go off. And I found I often learned something by that point, too.”
As she advises women about leadership, she reflects on the axiom, “You can’t be what you can’t see” and tells others to turn that on its head.
“When you think about it next to my favorite C.S. Lewis line about being an outsider, I believe it’s imperative for women to be the leader they wish to see. Be an example for women. Get comfortable with aiming high and taking big swings. I think one of the reasons I’m here today is my determination to succeed. I was open to finding alternate paths and adapting to change. Anyone can do that,” she said.
"I believe it’s imperative for women to be the leader they wish to see. Be an example for women. Get comfortable with aiming high and taking big swings." - Sangeetha Rai
Indeed, flying across the world to start a new and wildly successful life takes guts. Now that she’s firmly established in America, Rai gets her adrenaline rushes through travel and new experiences. With her family, including a daughter, 15, and son, 12, she’s been skydiving in New Zealand, canoeing among Caymans and piranhas in a Brazilian swamp, and has had dinner with the Masai in Kenya. Having visited six of the seven continents, she has her sights set on Antarctica.
“As a family, we try to pick a country every year and meet my family from India there.”
And what does her dad think of her not-a-doctor and not-a-dentist career? “I think my dad couldn’t be prouder of me. Especially since he asked my daughter what she wants to be and she answered, ‘A doctor, just like you.’”
As long as it’s a big swing, it’s okay with Rai.