While India may have the precedent of female prime ministers, it is harder for women to break through the gender gap in business. Yet one Indian entrepreneur has shattered the glass ceiling.
Roopa Unnikrishnan, gold-medal-winning sports shooter and innovation consultant, has been elected president of TiE-NY. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) works to foster entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking and funding. Founded by a group of successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives with roots in the Indus region, it largely serves the Southeast Asian community.
At TiE, two women have joined the board over the last two years, and the executive director is female. Now, Unnikrishnan is its first female president, leading an organization and field that is predominantly male. Sometimes, all it takes is someone to break the glass ceiling to inspire everyone to join. That’s why we’re excited to tell her story.
Unnikrishnan leads a busy life as the founder of Center10 Consulting LLC and Senior Executive Advisor for Center for Talent Innovation. She is also married to Sreenath Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has two children. When the board was having conversations about who would be the next president, Unnikrishnan says she realized exactly what she was getting herself into — the late nights and time-consuming work. But as a mother, she feels it is important for her to show her children the example of a woman who is fully engaged and able to hold her own in business pursuits.
Unnikrishnan was born in southern India and grew up between there and Sri Lanka. She became a skilled rifle shooter and represented her city, state, and country, and eventually earned medals internationally. Her sports experience taught her some important life lessons she later applied to entrepreneurship.
“In sports, you realize you always need to continue evolving. Your mind is always on: how can I keep improving? Also, the best sportspeople learn how to lose. There’s a way to come out of it, which is key in entrepreneurship,” she said. “It’s about being able to go back and start practicing the next day. After I lost, I always redoubled my efforts.”
Unnikrishnan also applied herself with the same rigor academically, earning a Rhodes Scholarship and completing both an MPhil in Economic and Social History and an MBA at the University of Oxford. She decided to move to the United States due to her positive impression of American cultural acceptance of people as multi-faceted, whether it be those who have multiple talents or women who want to have long careers.
Unnikrishnan started her career with seven years in consulting at Katzenbach Partners LLC (KPL), where she specialized in managing people and technology in the context of outsourcing. Roopa’s financial services experience includes her time as the strategy director at one of Citibank’s CitiCards division and as deputy COO and HR lead at BlackRock. Roopa was also with Pfizer Inc. for five years, as vice president of corporate strategy and global head of Pfizer’s worldwide talent and organizational team.
As an immigrant, Unnikrishnan says, there’s always an element of never fully fitting in. For some people, entrepreneurship is a way of fitting in. But for her, entrepreneurship is about creating unconventional breakthroughs, enabling products and industries to be seen in new lights. It’s her way to push boundaries, break barriers, and lead by example.
Just as she stepped up to the plate, she feels that other women would, too — if given the opportunity. Amidst a culture in the field of entrepreneurial enterprise that is male-dominated, it can be easy for females to be overlooked. Unnikrishnan urges organizations to intentionally seek out qualified women for open positions.
Currently, Unnikrishnan and the TiE-NY team are busy working on TieCon, the annual professional conference which is held in 15 chapter cities and is regarded as the largest entrepreneurial forum in the world. It will take place in New York on June 3, with the theme, “Invention & Reinvention: A Celebration of Global Entrepreneurship,” inspiring the city and hopefully countless female entrepreneurs.
Richie Hecker is an entrepreneur and political activist. He is the CEO of Traction and Scale, an incubator and investment firm that builds transformative businesses. (www.tractionandscale.com)
Deborah Fishman works in community building as a writer and network-weaver. She is also the founder of the FED social club (www.fedsocial.co)