“I think there’s never a better time for women entrepreneurs to jump into this space, because we are living in very exciting times, when it comes to technology and digitization”.
Sharing their entrepreneurial journey, that seemed to be etched by fate, are – Shammi Pant & Jenny Sarang, Co-founders, myJen.ai, a communications skills coaching company. Shammi worked across technology, infrastructure sectors and offshoring services and Jenny is an expert in corporate and executive coaching. Their interview features in She Diaries, under the under the banner – HT Smart Cart.
In this dialogue, they share their early beginnings, important skills that play a critical role in setting up an entrepreneurship, tips for students, who are on the threshold of starting a career, women entrepreneurs setting out and more…
Q. Both of you have worked for GE, so, was it then that you came up with the idea of setting up your own venture – how did it all begin? It would be good to know about your journey.
Shammi: The genesis began way back when Jenny and I used to share a cabin at GE. Jenny was leading the leadership practice for GE’s ACFC – the customer programme and I was heading the Six Sigma practice. Both of us would work with GE’s top customers and suppliers which were all the big corporate houses in India, like the Tata Group, Jindal Group and Reliance Group. And, what I used to enjoy the most was having those conversations at the end of the day with Jenny, where I would talk about my clients, the challenges we are facing, how Six Sigma helps and doesn’t help; Jenny would talk about her accounts and we would invariably end up discussing how leadership skills, soft skills and communication skills your ability to be empathetic, analytical – how all this, at the end of the day, define a successful business,
So, no matter if you’re working with a power plant or a software company (like we were working with TCS & Polaris) or a pharmaceutical company or a manufacturing company, it invariably boils down to what really drives business outcomes and makes business grow. Our conversations were very powerful and we remained friends over the years. From GE she went to set up her own training and consulting business and I went and worked with organizations like Accenture, HCL, WNS in the digital transformation space. Last year, we got back together and it was like fate brought us together for I was in Bangalore and moved back to Delhi. I was telling her about all the exciting things happening in Artificial Intelligence (AI) as I was working with Accenture as VP, RPA & AI, and we realised there is tremendous opportunity for creating a scalable, affordable, personalised coaching solution.
I would joke with Jenny that if there was a way, I would mirror your brain and make thousands of small coaches and pass them on to my team! We all need coaching. For example, just before a difficult negotiation with a customer just after I received a nasty email from a customer, it was a question of – how do I respond or how do I make sure, I don’t react badly? Or how do I have a different conversation with my manager?
So, I think these are defining moments in a person’s career and if at that point of time, you can have a coach help you navigate those moments, it can make a huge difference in how your career progresses. Fortunately, I quit my job and Jenny also did so. We came together and set up the company. It’s been a lot work.
Fortunately, we have a strong technology partner to back us and we have created two products today with AI, which coach people on communication skills.
Q: In these unprecedented times, what are the changes you are witnessing? What are the companies seeking/expecting from you?
Jenny: Companies are seeking more just-in-time solutions and cost is becoming a big factor. Hence RoI or return on investment on training is a very critical matrix. Companies are starting to get more comfortable with virtual training as well and with AI coaching, and they are wanting more animated solutions that can be available when an employee needs it. That is, holistically blended solutions which are a mix of AI coaching, virtual training and measurement are the need of the day.
Q. How do you see the current times, particularly in the perspective of digitization and how are new technologies affecting our lives – especially women entrepreneurs?
Shammi: I think there’s never a better time for women entrepreneurs to jump into this space, because we are living in very exciting times, when it comes to technology and digitization. Let me start by looking at my career. When I started 25 years back, the biggest thing I used to feel as a woman at that point of time, was that the corporate world was primarily a man’s world. I could never break into the proverbial Men’s Club (and for a long time I felt the problem was me!) But then better sense prevailed and I realised that it’s called the Men’s Club because it is meant for men.
Now, the brilliant thing about technology is that you pick up any sphere of life, as it’s a great leveler. It brings in a lot of transparency and it actually underplays or downplays all the middlemen and all these different clubs because it attaches no value to it!
So, I think today, if a woman entrepreneur wants to establish herself as a business woman and network, there are so many technology channels available to do the networking (which are not fortresses like ‘Men’s Clubs’ used to be!). The world today, is more about skills and not ‘you pat my back and I pat yours’ kind of thing. It is more about meritocracy and skills, but I wouldn’t say that there are no challenges for women.
Just jump on to the bandwagon – that would be my message for most women listening out there, who want to become entrepreneurs. Technology and digitization are there to enable you completely and empower you.
Q. When most of the world’s population is working from home, what according to you, would be the skills that will play an important role? Also, how will they impact the careers of students, standing at the threshold of their professional lives?
Jenny: 80% of your success in life is based on your communication skill. In fact 70% of workplace mistakes are due to miscommunication. Now you add work-from-home and you have an even bigger challenge! The important skills are communication – including listening, empathy, probably influencing and presentation skills (especially on video now); collaboration is becoming an important skill for everyone.
You mentioned students on the threshold of their professional lives. An interesting statistic is that 78% of jobs go to people with better interpersonal skills than the ones more qualified on paper for the job! As Peter Drucker says, the ability to express oneself is perhaps the most important of all skills a man can possess. And, that’s really my advice to a student. If I were a student, I would be focusing on my body language, my vocal tone, my word power,my inter-personal and English language skills as well, for it’s really the language of business. Focus on the skills you are gaining and it will take you further when you have to pivot and change careers down the road.
In fact, it is very important to have a network of women. Even though Shammi and I worked together more than 10 years ago, we stayed in touch and I have a network of other women, who I have worked with in my career and stayed in touch.
Q. What have your experiences in running an AI based company been like? Also, how do you see AI and other technologies contributing to the Human Resource Dept. in the future?
Shammi: I think it has just begun and there’s more to come. Especially if you look at AI in HR, there is so much opportunity from looking at how you filter talent at the time of interviewing to how you conduct the whole interview. Now if you look at it as one of the biggest challenges, and it’s really about helping people upskill and re-skill in the right manner. To do that, you need to know detailed training gaps, assessments and this is a very manual and tedious process especially in a large organization. It becomes quite a nightmare! Now AI can play a very critical role because it is intelligent technology. AI is Artificial Intelligence and it can give you customized assessments, depending on the person you need to assess. Each one of us is different, so having standardized assessment never works. And, it will be digital, which is so much faster. You will be able to create an individualized heat map of upskilling and re-skilling. Now, can you imagine what a big impact that will have on your business outcomes!
In my experience of setting up a company, there are many aspects. There is product development, the legal angle, the financial angle. I will talk a bit about product development, which is most critical – to get the solutions of your product right! Collecting the right amount of data, testing it on your algorithms and checking if it’s going to work or not. Defining the problem you are trying to solve is very critical, before you realize it’s not working and you’ve invested too much money – you should not have the ingredients for the wrong recipe! It’s much better that you know it upfront and even if you start slow, it’s better you take time and get your solution right! Also, do reach out to experts all over the world – we did that!!
Q. Please share some valuable advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs.
Shammi: It’s a roller-coaster ride. Entrepreneurship is not meant for everybody. Let me start by saying you have to be very sure that this is what you want to do. It’s pretty lonely and there are days when you will have no idea what will happen next, especially in the early days, when you are still solutionizing your product. Days, when you are trying to create that vision and fructify it to something tangible (which may not happen) and there may be days, when you will fail miserably. But, one day your product will be ready, when you will be able to give an amazing demonstration to one of your clients and he will congratulate you for being the first one to do it, and then, everything will pale in comparison!!
You have to be self-driven, motivated and you have to believe in yourself essentially.
Build resilience in yourself. Being resilient is visualization. Practise visualization and by design, the universe will engineer that, till it becomes a reality!!
Jenny: Find a partner with complementary skills. Shammi and I are both different and are quite opposites, but that is the strength of our partnership. Strengthen each other. Be passionate and persistent!