Founders on Fire: Neena Dasgupta, CEO, Zirca Digital

This year, we are honoured to have two winners of the Female CxO Trailblazers Award. Chief Trailblazer Rose Ross had a fascinating conversation with Neena Dasgupta, CEO and Director of Zirca Digital, about the secret to her success and how she balances the competing facets of her life whilst still managing to strike a “great balance”.

With diversity and inclusion being ever more brought into the limelight, Neena talks about her ethos of how to get the best out of a workforce that would normally be forgotten about.

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Interview transcript:

RR: Good morning and hi to Neena Dasgupta who is the CEO of Zirca Digital, based in Mumbai. Hello.

ND: Hi Rose, and hi everybody.

RR: Thank you for joining us. Last month you were named as the Co-Female Tech Trailblazer, and Zirca Digital has been a winner as a Big Data Trailblazer in the past, so, double congratulations are in order.

ND: Thank you.

RR: It’s great that you’re able to join us here and share a little bit of your experiences. So, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself, and what you do.

ND: I’m a mother of two. I am an extremely ambitious career-minded woman who has managed to strike a great balance, and I never use the word ‘perfect’ because it doesn’t exist, but a great balance between managing a life with my family, doing things that I love doing, and building a business that I’ve, up to now, successfully managed to grow. And also chase spirituality, whenever I get some time, I read a lot.

So, that’s me in a nutshell, ‘I am me’, is what I say, and these are the other avatars of me which is a mum, a professional, a wife, a daughter.

RR: And as a female entrepreneur, because aside from the work you do for Zirca, you’re also an adviser as well on the other side of that. Could you tell us a little bit about the other side of your business activities?

ND: We have a broadcasting business called AIDEM which one represents a significant amount of small TV broadcasters within the country, and as their monetisation for them works on their sales strategy, GTM, the trade marketing. It also brings into the country great broadcast technology, for instance we’re the exclusive partners of IMD headquartered out of London, in fact, for digital distribution of Beta tapes which is now digital assets, [containing a] TV commercial.

So, I in fact am not only an adviser, I’m now actually the group CEO. I’ve taken on that mandate as well, to help the company grow. So, as an adviser or now as a group CEO, I’ve given them strategic direction in terms of what to anticipate in the market in the future, how to deal with broadcasting challenges and constraints, and still strive to grow and continue to grow. It’s more focused on solution packaging, one of the different kind of solutions, and creative solutions that will succeed and work. So, my role as an adviser has been to enable growth in revenues, and enable growth in profits for the organisation.

RR: As an entrepreneur, particularly as a female entrepreneur, what have you found particularly challenging?

ND: The challenge is to get good and stay consistently good at what you’re doing. I think that’s a challenge, moreso for a female entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter actually whether you’re a man or a woman I’d say, but as a mother of two children, the only constraint for me is to finish my work in the least possible time within office hours. I see that as my biggest positive challenge, how do I organise myself? And how do I finish my work on time so that I can get back home to be with my family? You don’t have the luxury to get to the soft work. You cannot do things like extending the discussions. You have to be super-focused on what the agenda is, what you are doing. But this has also made me super-efficient, sharp, and sometimes extremely demanding of my colleagues, and that’s where I’ve seen at times the challenge as a woman entrepreneur.

As a woman I’ve learnt that the male colleagues will often take your strong views as an emotional response, even if they’re backed by the strongest logic, and even if there’s tremendous prudence in them. They’re just attributed to societal stereotypes, if I might use the word, and I don’t know if I can be proud about this, because it’s kind of sad, but to get my way I’ve learned to implement social skills that make my being a woman impervious to men. We all have to learn, basically, and fine tune our brain to survive and succeed.

I’ve kind of stopped focusing too much on the fact that I’m a woman entrepreneur, and I think being an entrepreneur comes with its challenges. What I experience, I experience them as challenges. When I see the odd behaviour, I make sure that I respond in the right way, because these challenges are going to continue to be there.

RR: Well, being an entrepreneur is not easy anyway. What are you particularly proud of that you’ve achieved on your journey so far?

ND: I’m tremendously proud of two lovely kids I’ve raised, despite being someone who has given equal preference to a career. My kids are now 18 and 13. My son is 18, my daughter is 13, and have turned out really well, they’re independent, they’re smart, as far as academics is concerned they’re way ahead of the curve. They are creative, both of them are hugely into music, into sports, into fitness, and they have always encouraged me to go the extra way. They have always felt so proud of what I am and what I do, it makes you want to keep going. So, I’m tremendously proud of the way I’ve actually managed to handle myself at work and at home, of how I’ve had tremendous support and encouragement of my family.

I must have done something right when they were growing up, because they take immense pride in what their mother is doing, and contribute so much around home to make sure that I don’t get bogged down, or caught. Even now, I don’t have a very big house, but I’m working from home and they’ve given me total space to make sure that I have completely my professional time while I’m working from home. So, I am extremely proud of that, and I’m also proud of my resilience, the attitude of not giving up. I’m someone who’s always been extremely positive, I always tend to the good side. Having said that, I’m not foolhardy. I’m also conscious of the down sides, but I’ll always choose a part that tells me that there is an opportunity. Therefore, I’m also extremely proud of my resilience which is why I’ve actually managed to build Zirca, and I can take it to this heightened scale today.

RR: Great. From your perspective, diversity and inclusion, why are they important for startups in particular, but for business in general?

ND: I think it was, it is, and it always will be important, startup or not. I think it’s our diversity as human beings that brings a specific value to any organisation. Each one of us brings our own strengths. Each one of us brings our own abilities and life experiences to the workplace. I think without diversity we would be dead or stagnant, it’s what makes great ideas bubble to the surface. I think it’s what gets different perspectives to an argument, it leads to a better solution, and diverse organisations tend to be more successful, simply because of the contribution that comes from these people and individuals.

However, we’ve been talking a lot about diversity and inclusion. Some of the things that I believe in significantly in the inclusion part, is that we always take differently-abled people, and we take people from different segments of the society who are not otherwise offered a job very easily. So, there are two examples in our organisation, one is of a man who is recruited as a driver, who we trained and he now runs the operations for one of our key businesses, doing extremely well. We made sure he studied, he got his college degree, he’s been with us now for about 8 or 9 years. For us inclusion meant providing opportunities to people who otherwise won’t get opportunities.

There was another girl, we did the same, she came from an extremely impoverished family but was highly creative and she’s also differently abled. So we trained her creative part. We gave a lot of her a courses. We provided her mobility, by giving her a vehicle. She today is a significant contributor in our art department. So, I believe inclusion is more from giving opportunities and getting the best out of people. We bring women back to the workforce after they’ve taken their a maternity break. We usually go and hunt for them, people who have had a great past and bring them back.

So for us, inclusion is about making it work for the organisation, and for people who haven’t had opportunities in the past. We have, as a company, always followed diversity and inclusion; whether it’s capability, whether it’s religion, whether it’s differently-abled people, whether it’s male-female ratio, we’ve always believed in it, it’s come inherently we haven’t had to plan it.

RR: No, but embracing that.

ND: Yes.

RR: Obviously you’ve been named our Female Trailblazer this year, along with another wonderful lady. So what words of encouragement would you give to other female entrepreneurs, CxOs, in startups, as they’re weighing up whether they should enter these types of awards?

ND: One of the key messages and words of encouragement I will give from my side is, love yourself, believe in yourself, and do not give away the authority to someone else to approve you, or approve of the things that you do. I think that is where second-guessing comes in, if you take control of yourself totally, your second-guessing will go, and more than 80 percent of your problems, your confidence issues, all of that will disappear. So, believe in yourself, but more importantly love yourself.

Keep your authority of judging yourself to your own self. Do not keep going and seeking suggestion and advice from people, because you know what? You’ll never get the right one, what is the right one is right within of you.

Go ahead and always place yourself in the limelight. You may be asocial but these are behaviours that can be changed, don’t say, ‘I can’t do it’, or don’t say, ‘I wasn’t born with it’, because there is no such thing. Of course you’re born with a personality but you can bring some changes to your behaviour. So, seek the limelight, do not play small, ever.

These awards will do primarily, according to me, do two or three things for you. One, it will actually tell you where you stand in your category, it doesn’t matter which award, it doesn’t matter what kind of award, but every award will tell you where you stand in your category. It will always encourage you to keep going, because there isn’t much of that coming; every morning when you wake up, you usually wake up with challenges as an entrepreneur. So it will always encourage you to keep going, and it will always turn the focus on you. The minute you put yourself in the space of an award, which always helps the business, invariably helps the business. So, go out there, seek your award and stay happy.

RR: That sounds like good advice for startup leaders generally. Obviously we’re facing very interesting times, to coin a phrase. What do you think is going to help people to survive in the current economic climate, with all the uncertainty we’re seeing?

ND: Well, each of you will have to determine your own solution, your own system of trying to brace this economic downturn. But I’ll tell you a few things that I’m looking at very clearly. One is we have to very critically focus on conserving cash, because profitability needs to remain key. But given that, there is revenue impact expected:-

1. Become extremely conscious of your cashflow, significantly conscious, because what happens today is going to impact your cashflow three to four months down the line. You will not feel its impact because your money is coming in, but it will stop coming in after a while.

2. Fast and effective adjustments are the key. Remain agile, try and anticipate what you see are the economic opportunities, because with every downturn comes opportunities. Try and anticipate what those opportunities are, what are the industries that are going to come up on the back of these opportunities, and how is your solution relevant for those industries. Get a solution up and running, tested, and have a market outreach plan to make sure that your cashflows don’t get impacted in the long run, so that you have some new business that you’re bringing in, thanks to the opportunities that the downturn has provided.

3. Your leadership. How are you steering the ship, and how are you conducting yourself in the wake of the crisis, is going to be very, very critical. Your leadership at this point needs to be very strong, very calm, very resilient. There is a huge amount of instinct that will play, but there is a significant amount of actions that are going to play a role now. You have to define your outcomes that you desire in the next, according to me, 18 to 24 months plan, but with three month planning windows. Make sure that you keep doing something, and make your teams do something consistently, because it’s consistency and its action that’s going to make you come closer to your outcomes that you desire. So make sure that you put your outcomes out there as a leader, and keep sharing that with your team, so that your team stay aligned.

One of the most critical things is that a person who is at the bottom of the organisation chart, make sure that even that person knows what your plans are for the organisation. You may believe they don’t play a role, but every individual plays a role in the organisation. Make sure that everyone is informed of your plan, and is informed about what the organisation is going through, and make the teams a part of your entire agenda. They may be mundane in their roles, but they’re critical in your success.

So this is my advice for general entrepreneurs, especially at this time of Covid.

RR: Very good. One of the things I shared with you is, Sequoia Capital gave advice to startup leaders, and I think one of the things that came out of that is to look at the Darwin premise of those who survive are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change. They’re important words at this time, and very much to look at cashflow, look at expecting to see some possibly significant drop in turnover and revenue, and general costs are kept in check, So keep the organisation healthy, as it were, while there’s this particularly turbulent storm.

ND: Yeah.

RR: So, looking beyond that, looking to the future, what’s next for you Neena?

ND: Well, there are a few things. One is, of course, this business itself. We’re expanding, we’re launching in other markets very soon, South East Asia and London. Actually, I may have to delay it a bit given the current situation, but that’s there on the cards. And I’m also now working on my next business plan, which is to bring back women in the workforce by ensuring that we don’t lose them to maternity. I have managed to do it well. My assumption is that one out of two of everyone who drop out will be able to do well, if we can provide them with the right support and the right help. Sometimes they need a comeback plan, and it’s something where we’ll work with HR of the organisations and provide for counselling, provide for direction, and also provide for childcare.

So, that’s next, that’s one of my dream plans, and let’s hope I can bring it to life in the next couple of years.

RR: Well, it’s definitely important, and certainly what I’m seeing is, one needs to get women into the tech industry, then you can keep them in there. As I say, moving forward that’s an important thing as we all juggle our various responsibilities, and very nice duties and challenges they are too.

Fantastic. Well thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate that. Do keep us posted on how things progress, and wishing you the best of luck in your new and your existing endeavours.

ND: Thank you so much Rose.

RR: Thank you very much to Neena Dasgupta, who is our Female Tech Trailblazer of the year. We’ll speak to you soon. Thank you very much.