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Shattering stereotypes

Lamudi leader demonstrates brains not brawn is key to winning

Three times a week you will see Bhavna Suresh practicing Vinyasa at one of Makati’s yoga studios. When she walks into a class, people expect her to be an expert. “That’s the biggest bias, because I’m Indian.”

She is quick to warn her classmates: “Guys, I’m the worst. Don’t look at me.”

Suresh, 30, sheepishly admits: “I didn’t discover yoga in India. I did not enjoy working out until I moved to the Philippines. I now do boxing, yoga and hit the gym as well.”


Fervent field worker

While many millennials are hooked to fitness, Suresh is no ordinary millennial. She’s the CEO of Lamudi Philippines, a branch of the global online real-estate classified website established in 2013 and now operating in over 30 countries. Born to Indian parents, this only child grew up in Dubai and Oman. As a young girl, Suresh yearned to be a merchant navy captain. She recalls: “I wanted to sail. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to do things, which no woman was seen doing.”

Her engineer-father convinced her to take the more practical course of Mechanical Engineering. Returning to India for university, her course classes had 300 students, only two of whom were women. It did not intimidate Suresh, rather, it motivated her. “Initially, I stood out like a sore thumb. But soon, I made really good friends and it was great.”

Mahindra Rise, India’s biggest car manufacturing company, hired the fresh graduate. Suresh was the first woman after-sales manager to become part of the 132-member national team. In the first 12 months of training, part of her job entailed testing vehicles to discover what their issues were. After a year, she was asked to move to headquarters to take care of Processes.

But this headstrong woman loved working in the field. “I literally put my foot down. I had to fight my seniors,” she says. “They were trying to put sense into me.” They thought that a woman would appreciate working in an office environment much more than in a workshop with 200 to 300 mechanics.

Her bosses were also concerned whether she would get the work done. They even went to the extent of asking a senior male colleague to talk to her about the wisdom of her choice.

Instead of convincing her to move to headquarters, the executive challenged his superiors, saying: “Why don’t you give her a chance? She thinks she can do it. If she can’t, then she will tell you she needs to go back to a Processes role.” They finally assigned Suresh to a field job. She was quickly promoted to launch a new territory in Goa, eventually being recognized for having achieved the fastest turnaround time to set up a fully operational market.

Suresh made her gender an asset. “There was a sense of empathy nobody realized that I woulad build with the mechanics,” she says. “Because I was not the regular middleman they worked with, they were intrigued. They listened to me. They helped me.”

Think MBA

Two years into working with the automotive company, she met the founder of a start-up in Bangalore. Happily working with her current company, she had her blinders on for a new job. But he insisted on meeting for coffee. He convinced her saying: “Try it. I think you’ll fit in. You’ll have a great time.” So, she did. “I don’t think too long when there’s an opportunity. I just give it a shot.” She gauges the person in front of her. “If I feel they are energetic, have the confidence, it’s something that’s intriguing and I have not too much to lose, I would say ‘yes.’”

In 2012, she began working with 22feet Tribal Worldwide, a digital marketing start-up. She welcomed the move from a male-dominated formal corporate office set-up to a bright, young concern with 23-year-olds running around trying to do stuff. The change in company cultures shocked her. “You mean I don’t have to call you, sir, anymore. I can call you by your first name. We can wear anything we want to work.” It was definitely a different vibe, but also entailed working longer hours.

From 15 to 20 people in the team, it is now a company of 400 to 500 people.

A year and half working with 22feet Tribal, Suresh fell very ill. “I had a tumor, and a large section of my face was paralyzed.” This health scare became a turning point in her life, she says. “I realized life is short. I don’t have 60 years ahead of me. Anything can happen tomorrow. That’s when I started taking larger bites of life.” The surgery required her to take 45 days off from work. While recovering, she applied to HEC Paris for an MBA. She returned to work with a vengeance, brimming with more energy than she ever had.

22feet Tribal was acquired by international marketing communications group DDB. In the midst of the acquisition, she received notice of her acceptance into the MBA program in Paris. Not expecting things would happen so quickly, she apologized to her colleagues. “Oh guys, I didn’t mean this to happen. But it happened.”

The US or the UK may be the typical choice for an MBA, but Paris proved perfect for Suresh. The course, which consisted of 120 people, was a very diverse class. “I liked that everybody came from a humble background. We had social workers, film makers and very different professions.” Forty-five days into her MBA, Suresh started Style Bank, a clothes rental business in India.

While packing for the European sojourn, she realized how much stuff she had accumulated over the years. “Oh my God, why do I have 12 short black dresses that look alike? Why do I own so much of the same thing?” That began a conversation in her head and she left for Paris with only one suitcase of clothes. She did not go to business school wanting to start a company. But in 45 days, everything shifted. “Every class I took, I explored the angle of how does this fit my business?”

She recommends that anyone wanting to start a business should land an MBA: “You get so much free help. My finance colleagues helped build our financial models and business plans. I had my marketing professor sit with me and work on marketing plans for investors. My dean got me meetings with actual investors.”

Style Bank advocated why buy when you can rent clothes. Suresh points out: “These days with Facebook, you don’t want to be seen in the same dress twice.” She devoted one year to raise the money for the company, and 15 months for physically running it in Bangalore, alongside her partner who specialized in fashion. Eventually, they realized it was not the right time for this business model in India, so they gracefully bowed out.

Strength in diversity

Before she could shut down Style Bank, however, the CEO of Rocket Internet Ventures had seen her CV and requested to chat with her. That same evening she got onto a call with him. He put her on two other calls. She remembers the whirlwind process, saying: “I did not know if they had me in mind for the Philippines or Indonesia. All I knew is we spoke and in three days, I was meeting with them in person. In a week, I was asked to move to the Philippines to be the CEO of Lamudi.”

Suresh happily reports the Philippines is one of the easiest countries to move to. “English is spoken everywhere. I think I understand the culture a little bit more because it’s very similar to India: family, the way people are, and how warm and nice people are in general.” Nearing her second year as CEO for Lamudi Philippines, her transition has been easy with the help of the previous CEO staying on for two months and the strong management team who held ground with her.

Leading a young company of 120 employees, with a median age of 24 years old, Suresh feels like a mother to them. “Our strength is that we are very different people. No two people in the company are similar. We thrive on the fact that we’re so diverse. I think that’s what I’ve learned about management.

“You have to let people understand what their strengths are. And as a manager, you need to quickly figure out, whom to give what to and you need to know when to give people space to go do it. Give them complete ownership to make it happen. You also have to identify when someone is struggling and will not ask for help, and you have to step in.”

Right now, Lamudi takes up 85 percent of her life. Suresh recognizes she is not a multi-tasker, “I don’t try to do many things at one time. Lamudi takes up all my energy and my mind space. Unlike other people, I can’t do 20 things at once. When I’m passionate about something, I do that fully. So, for me, right now Lamudi has my utmost attention.”

Just do it

Nothing gets in the way of her focus, not even her upcoming wedding. Suresh will be away for a total of four days. There’s no big Indian wedding, only going to the civil court in Bombay, multiple meals with their families and one night in Goa. She is marrying Varun Mundkur, her former colleague, the same one who believed she could do field work in the automobile industry. There’s no honeymoon for them. Instead her husband will join her for a couple of months in Manila. She smiles, saying: “We’ll figure it out. I’ve lucked out and found someone like me who said: ‘Yes, let’s do it and we’ll figure the rest out.’”

Being a woman has never been a limitation for this spunky CEO when it came to reaching for her dreams. She advises women not to get intimidated quickly. “I think as women we have the ability to think a lot more. We ask three or four more different questions than men do. The advantage most men have is they don’t process things as much as we do. That is both our strength and our weakness.”

She observes this happening all the time in meetings. “If there are 50 percent men and 50 percent women in a room, men usually speak up quicker. It’s not that they have something more important or less important to say. It’s just that they don’t internalize an answer as much as we do. Sometimes, women miss the opportunity.”

Suresh believes that “we need to care a little less about what other people will say and stop worrying what the repercussions will be.”

She adds: “Give yourself the chance. Women should stop thinking too much. We just have to do it and everything else will fall into place.”

When asked where she sees herself five years from now, Suresh answers: “I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to answer that question. I don’t make plans. That is the only truth… the only plan. I only know the next month in front of me.

“But that’s how I like to live my life.”

* * *

Successful, simple, focused

That’s what you’d like your life to be, right? Try Suresh’s ways, they might work for poor, harassed you.

• I have no Facebook on my phone. I have WhatsApp and Instagram. I’m contemplating deleting Instagram from my phone. I think deleting Facebook on my phone last year was the best thing I did for myself. I don’t know what’s happening in anybody’s life and I like it. Before, I knew what happened in everybody’s life and this took up too much mind space.

• I’m not driven by ownership. I don’t own real estate. I never want to own a car. I think it is damaging the world enough. My dream is to take everything off the road. I take Grab to get around.

• Audiobooks are something I’ve discovered. I listen to history books and autobiographies. I just finished Michelle Obama’s and Jack Ma’s books. The thing with audio books is you can finish them quickly. I listen to audio books while I’m in traffic, in the gym and before I sleep.

PHOTOS BY GEORGE TAPAN

LOCATION SHOOT AT MARCO POLO ORTIGAS MANILA

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