Restless. Resilient. Irreverent. Fascinated by people and the choices we make, Shafalika Saxena understands the upsides of risk and the downsides of playing it too safe. Born on Waikiki beach; raised in Delhi and around paddy fields in the Philippines; educated in Italy and the US, worked in NY, London, Frankfurt and Delhi – Shafi truly is a citizen of the world. She speaks five languages and has lived and worked on three continents. She has a B.A. in Journalism and International Business and an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics.
Her work experience runs the gamut from blue chip FMCG companies to her own entrepreneurial venture. She began her career with Procter & Gamble where she marketed several product categories and grew two brands to record volumes/shares before moving to PepsiCo in the UK.
Intrigued by the adventure of new ideas, and identified as an `inspirational optimist’ by the book Spontaneous Optimism, Shafi left Pepsi to launch Better Botanicals in the USA, a personal care brand based on Ayurveda. Better Botanicals combined her Indian heritage with her love of all things natural. She established a natural brand with international distribution and widespread media coverage. Upon selling the company, Shafi joined the team at Unilever as Global VP Brand Development for Dove Skin as she was enthusiastic about the brand’s mission to make more women feel more beautiful every day. Shafi is currently CMO at Microsoft India.
You have successfully straddled a diverse portfolio of brands in your career, what would you say is the mantra to push newer boundaries and not get stuck with stereotypes?
Be curious. Be engaged. Be brave.
At Microsoft, what have been the key challenges and how have you faced them?
I was new to tech as all my previous work experience was in FMCG. So I had a lot to learn in this industry that moves at the speed of light. I was also new to Microsoft and had a lot to learn about its culture, its products and its processes. I joined at a very exciting time, when Microsoft was launching innovations across its entire product matrix. So there was never a dull moment. Nor a spare one. I have dealt with the challenges by being unafraid to ask questions – even seemingly foolish ones, being genuinely interested in learning and reaching out for help as needed. At Microsoft, I am surrounded by smart & supportive people who are always willing to bring a colleague up to speed. Their enablement has been key to helping me deal with any challenges faced.
You have been an entrepreneur as well, so what really is the difference between working in an MNC and being your own boss?
The two biggest differences are speed and scale. One offsets the other. The smaller you are, the fewer stakeholders there are, the faster you can move. But you play on a smaller canvas. I loved being an entrepreneur – the passion, the energy, the no compromise idealism of it. But, I missed the global scale and the world class talent you work with in an MNC. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to enjoy both worlds. I think my entrepreneurial experience helped me develop a keener, more holistic business sense. Once you have been responsible for everything, it is hard to go back to thinking in silos, which creates a truly collaborative approach to all you do. Everyone’s success matters, not just your own.
Do you think women naturally make for great marketers?
I don’t think aptitude is gender based. I believe it is personality based. Anyone who is genuinely interested in people makes a great marketer. It is not enough to be passionate about product. Or about ideas. To be a great marketer, you have to be passionate about people.
What is your take on the way tech advertising is being done in India?
India is one of the most interesting advertising markets in the world with its incredible diversity and its ability to exist in several different timezones at once. You see bullock carts and metros coexist on the same stretch of road. Some of the most advanced fiberoptic networks in the world coexist with places that still lack a truly functioning electric grid. So tech has to reach out to a much broader demographic than in other more developed markets. While mobile penetration is high, smartphone, tablet and PC penetration is still extremely low. Tech advertising relies on thought leadership in the commercial space and more FMCG style advertising in the consumer space. India is at the forefront of mobile advertising innovation. Despite low digital penetration, India is learning to innovate in the digital space. And, since traditional media is thriving, India is at the forefront of bringing old and new media together to unlock alchemies with innovations like augmented reality. It really is a very exciting time to be a marketer in India.
At the workplace, have you ever felt that being a woman has ever come in the way of your professional progress?
Well, I have made many career decisions based on my family needs-my kids & my husband. So, my career progression has not been linear. I have traveled a more varied professional path than if I had made my choices based exclusively on professional factors. I have jumped off the corporate track. Built a business. Then jumped back on again. Taken time off. Then rejoined the corporate world. Perhaps that has meant I have lost out on a promotion or two. But, those choices, those roads less traveled by, have helped me learn and grow in a more holistic way. They have made me a much stronger and more resilient professional than if I had taken a more traditional approach.
This interview first appeared in the March issue of Marketing Booster magazine.