August 23, 2013 — Welcome to the latest in our series of #WomenCan profiles, highlighting executives and experts who are Catalysts for change within their companies and fields. This week, the spotlight is on Cecy Kuruvilla, Global Director – Leadership Development/Diversity,
Sodexo Remote Sites & Asia-Australia (AMECAA), Coimbatore, India.
Meet: Cecy Kuruvilla, Global Director – Leadership Development/Diversity, Sodexo Remote Sites & Asia-Australia (AMECAA), Coimbatore, India.
Early leadership lessons: I grew up in South India with very strong, authentic parents who showered us with love and also instilled in us a love for community and social justice. My father’s mantra, “privilege comes with responsibility,” resonates in my work in diversity. I look back at his leadership model that brought incremental change in societal behaviours towards people of different caste and socio-economic status, at a time when that sort of socializing was taboo. His courage, risk taking, and authenticity have been an inspiration to me in my leadership role. My gutsy nature is truly a case of the apple falling not far from the tree!
My “Women Can” mentor: My first mentor in undergraduate school was a nun who saw potential in me and was instrumental in developing my comfort level with communicating in public forums! Folks who know me today will be surprised to know that I was once a shy, insecure, naïve young woman who owes a great deal to this mentor. She instilled in me great pride in being a woman. My interest in gender issues was heightened during this period and continues to be an area of focus in my work.
Career path: I graduated with a Masters in psychology and taught at a women’s college in India before emigrating to the United States, where I decided to work in a corporate setting. I was shocked and amazed to find that gender equality in the United States was truly an illusion. So I was determined to prove that I could succeed. I received another Masters in OD/HR; moved into sales, marketing, operations, and finally into human resources and diversity. Since diversity was at the early stages, I volunteered for various task forces. I took on additional assignments that focused on gender and race discussions to learn and understand the issues better, and was able to take the formal assignment in this field at a major corporation. With over 25 years of D&I experience, I returned to India to work on gender diversity work in that country.
I am a Catalyst: As I see it, India is a country of contrasts on a collision course between the old and the new. For example, successful women entrepreneurs continue to deal with stereotypical notions of their abilities. Women, both educated and illiterate, are being exploited, harassed, and treated as chattel. And there remains in India the steadfast belief that God, not man, has created the separation of castes. Corporations are a microcosm of society, and so my challenge has been to influence, persuade, and convince the leadership that gender balance is truly a business imperative, by encouraging dialogue to reduce “fear of the unknown” and expanding opportunities for collaboration across gender. I believe in “inspiring change, one person at a time.”
Best advice: Have strong support systems both at work and in your personal/family life. Network as much as possible both within your workplace and in the community. Seek out mentors and sponsors who you see as role models to ground you on the unwritten rules in organizations. I learned to cultivate strong relationships with people at work who would speak of my performance to those who mattered. But I also had to learn how to “toot my own horn”—something that was culturally inappropriate in my upbringing! I had to learn how to provide details of my job performance without being seen as “boastful.” If a position does not give you growth opportunities, move on—your talents are in great demand. But also take time to smell the roses outside your professional life.
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