“I’m doing something I genuinely care about, and I have no idea how I’m going to make it happen, but I know this is where I’m meant to be.” - Ramya Ravikumar
Following the Heart and Infusing Compassion into Corporate
Ramya Ravikumar |
Head of Learning & Development
APAC & China at Booking.com
Ramya Ravikumar, a good friend and long time colleague from our days at BlackRock, has experienced first hand the impact that overwhelm, overwork and making choices that are not yours can have on individual health and well-being. After 8 years at BlackRock, Ramya went on a journey self-discovery through training as a coach, yoga and meditation and then moving from Hong Kong to Singapore to join a dynamic tech start-up. After realising that a business development career in Fintech was not where she really wanted to be, Ramya switched up her career and joined the team at Booking.com to do what she loves - helping people grow.
I sat down with Ramya to talk about the twists and turns of her unconventional career, overcoming burnout and learning the importance of knowing yourself to make an impact.
Tell us a bit about you and your work?
As you know I’ve recently started a new role as Head of Learning & Development for the APAC and China region for Booking.com. For those who don’t know about Booking.com, it started as a small Dutch start-up and has grown to be one of the largest online travel and digital technology companies in the world [17,000 employees worldwide no less!]. It’s a really big change for me in multiple ways. It’s a role focusing on learning and development, which is something that I’ve felt close to my heart for the past seven or eight years but I haven’t really had a way to express, apart from just being a manager and caring about the development of my team. I advise and consult with all leaders and managers on their learning needs; my focus is to establish the core learning needs of the region to ensure we have the right culture and skills in place for our next phase of growth. I am also the go-to internal coach for all our leaders in APAC. I was so surprised and honoured that Booking.com took a chance on me because I didn’t tick that conventional learning & development background box, but they saw that my commercial background could really help the team build their business acumen and enable me to quickly build valuable partnerships with business stakeholders. I had so many rejections before that!
Tell us more about your journey and what the big change has been?
At school, I was one of those people who didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. So I asked everyone else around me what I should be doing, and I chose the thing that made other people most excited. At the time the finance industry was booming, and I chose to study Accounting and Finance. I was lucky enough to go to London School of Economics, which is one of those schools, to me, where the key driver of success was how many internships and placements you can land within a bank. I studied from 2006 to 2009 and throughout those three years I never really even considered a career outside of finance, because that is what was presented to me as the path that you follow.
What made you choose that educational path? Did you have a propensity for numbers, finance, analytics?
In hindsight, it was the fact that I really had a strong relationship with my economics teacher. He saw that I was more than just this really annoying teenager, causing trouble in school and getting kicked out of class for doing silly things. All my other teachers had kind of given up on me and had predicted me really poor grades. My economics teacher really took the time to show me a bit of love and got really curious about why I was doing what I was doing. So in hindsight, it was my economics teacher sitting me down and saying “You’re better than this, you can do better than this”. I developed a really loving and trusting relationship with him and I wanted to do well in that class, because I respected him. I do think he heavily influenced me. He made me feel seen and valued – a lesson for us all!
At the time it was also, “Go into banking, there’s money”. There was this societal and parental element of getting a ‘safe job’ that’s going to pay you well. You know, here are your choices - doctor, lawyer, accountant or finance.
There was this societal and parental element of getting a ‘safe job’ that’s going to pay you well.
So those two factors combined led me to study finance. But as we all know, once we get into the workplace, it’s kind of irrelevant what topic and what subject you studied, because now I’m doing something totally unrelated.
So the external forces that took you down the banking route and to the London School of Economics (LSE) was quite strong?
I struggled at university to be honest. I always felt like I wasn’t smart enough to get into LSE, that it was a mistake, and I was going to be caught out. So there was this real core vulnerability that ran through me for the entire three years, because I felt that everyone else around me was smarter. Everyone else was getting all these jobs and internships and I really didn’t get anything until my second year, which is quite normal, but for me what defined my success was all of these things. I can now look back and classify them as external drivers of success.
I remember going for interviews at investment banks and being asked what I felt were really, really ridiculous questions. I remember being interviewed by one big investment bank really clearly. They asked me one of those hypothetical questions about the cost of driving from one part of the US to another. It was just one of those questions where I felt like, are you purposefully trying to intimidate me? What is your intention for that question? I was made to feel quite stupid for not knowing the oil price and not knowing where these places in the US were. They weren’t looking to get to know me, as a person, they were looking to check boxes off - there was no heart in it. I couldn’t figure these people out. If you can’t figure someone out, if they don’t open up enough, then you don’t feel safe, and you become closed.
At the time, I came out of that interview and I cried my eyes out for days. I was like, “I’m not good enough, I knew this, I knew I was going to be found out”, that was the narrative going on in my head at the time. It’s a really vulnerable position to be in because you’re really putting yourself out there, and you don’t know where you stand in the process. It was probably one of those moments in my life that I underestimate a lot.
Quite early on I cottoned on to this idea of a culture fit, and to me, that was to only work with people that I can trust and that I can have fun with. When you’re interviewing, that is the best representation of culture that you can get. A culture is a live, living thing, it’s people, it lives in the organisation’s people.
A culture is a live, living thing, it’s people, it lives in the organisation’s people.
The reason I decided to take a job at Black Rock was because I saw one of their female leaders, who is now chief of staff, speak. She was the first female I saw doing an open day and she spoke so passionately about the organisation and took the time to speak to everyone. I had this 5 minute conversation with her where we just spoke about women in the workforce, which I had never even thought about as a concept as a nineteen year old student at that time. So again, it was a very people driven decision.
When we’re younger we ignore some of the instincts that we have because of this drive to be accepted, or recognised or validated. It’s interesting that as you get older and further along in your career, you start to look back and see the red flags, and you’re better able to understand those things that really serves you going forward.
Tell us a bit more about your journey at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager?
I was at BlackRock for 8 years, in both London and Hong Kong. I ran a distribution and sales team across APAC based out of Hong Kong. It was a huge part of my life and it defined a lot of my thinking and values when I was younger. I had loads of fun, I was always fortunate to have managers who really cared about me, who I felt had my back and supported me.
When I found myself in Hong Kong working as a Director – a senior level title – I finally got the carrot that I worked so hard to chase. I could finally get off the treadmill and stop for a second. As I took my first bite, it wasn’t as sweet as I thought it was going to be. It took me some time to reconcile why all my problems weren’t solved, why I didn’t feel like I was on top of the world! One I was tired and overwhelmed – which I only realised when I stopped running. And secondly, I realised that I was chasing a carrot that represented the desires and wishes of others – of society, of my family, of my peers. It wasn’t mine at all. This was difficult to swallow.
I realised that I was chasing a carrot that represented the desires and wishes of others – of society, of my family, of my peers. It wasn’t mine at all. This was difficult to swallow.
So you decided to make the tough decision and leave the organisation you loved, what was your experience of that?
I think a lot of people like to hear the hero story of resigning and joining a tech start-up, but it was actually a really, really awful thing to go through. These transitions can take years or lifetimes - you’re lucky if it takes a few months. For me, it was my body screaming at me. I started to have physical reactions to stress and anxiety - I was getting stomach ulcers and having really, really painful stomach cramps before I resigned. It was almost like I was stockpiling all of this unhappiness but just going along with the grind of it, the long days, the travel, meeting targets. Then suddenly, my body was like, “Ram, what are you doing, you need to slow down!”. I only really heard it when it started screaming at me, and when it started manifesting in all of these physical symptoms.
I got signed off work for a month for stress and burnout, and I very quickly made the choice of talking about it to people. Initially there was a lot of shame around it. Again, a lot of, “Am I not cut out for this?”. Other women around me had children and so I started ranking my suffering and pain with others, and I didn’t understand how other people were coping with it. As I started talking about it, I cannot tell you how many people opened up and said they had been through something similar. This was the first time I had spoken about something that I was quite ashamed of. I spoke about it with anyone and everyone really, really openly, and I didn’t for one minute think, “Oh what if this gets back to management or my boss?”. I put all of that out the window and I suddenly developed this really strong network of women who had a lot of empathy for the situation. I realised how lucky I was to get that time off work, because it really was my body forcing me to slow down.
This was the first time I had spoken about something that I was quite ashamed of.
This was when I first started journaling and doing my own work and what you would call self-development. It was such an emotional rollercoaster, I would be hysterically happy, and hysterically depressed the same day. And I didn’t understand what was triggering all of this - it was like what is all of this stuff just pouring out of me? I started to journal and learn my triggers, and I found meditation – two of the most powerful for self-reflection tools for me. This shift happened in me where it was suddenly just this realisation that actually, I am alright, I am enough and everything that I have is okay. It’s just the environment around me that no longer suits me. The things that I thought made me happy actually didn’t make me happy.
What you’re talking about is really important. Bodily communication, whether it’s illness or burnout, is kind of taboo in big organisations because you have to be strong and motivated and focused, and if you’re anything other than that you can feel shame.
It’s important because people tend to feel that some of these symptoms are normal and they just push on. Things like insomnia, ulcers, problems with the reproductive system, migraines - people just kind of accept these illnesses as somewhat normal. So many people push through and don’t talk about it.
I’d even take it a bit further than that and say that I think a lot of people’s self worth is tied to productivity and how long they are working, how many flights they’ve been on. How many times have you been in a meeting where everyone is like, “Oh I’m so busy today, I’m wrecked”. I used to be that person, I’m not going to lie, I used to get a little kick out of it. It feeds the ego, and it quietens down the heavy physical and mental baggage that being busy comes with. For me, my self worth is now tied to having a lot of down time and space to self-reflect because I want to come from that place, and show up in the world in that way.
I think a lot of people’s self worth is tied to productivity and how long they are working, how many flights they’ve been on.
There are many organisations now that are putting initiatives in place to make sure that the wellbeing of their employees are seriously cared for. I’m always very conscious that there’s this urban myth that you if leave the corporate world and become a yoga teacher or whatever it may be, that life is better and so much rosier.
But really, it’s learning to live a conscious, healthy life AND be successful in business, you can do both. Part of that is about bringing more consciousness to your behaviour patterns, like you say, and choosing the environment that is right for you, then managing yourself in that environment in a way that’s healthy for you, so you can still be successful.
Yes, I have chosen to come back to the corporate world and do a role where I can impact a generation of leaders and managers to really take care of their people – be inspiring, create engagement, embrace diversity, inclusion and belonging. It’s something that is so close to my heart and I’m just like, how did I land in this seat where I get to drive this for all of the APAC region? Again, I’m in a situation where I’m doing something I really genuinely care about, and I have no idea how I’m going to make it happen, but I know that this is where I’m meant to be at this stage in my life. I’m learning to let go of needing to know how exactly to do a job before I go for it and chose to have the perspective that my intuition, knowledge and skills will guide me. This job had something that drew me to it and I’m willing to experience it and learn from it.
Your experience and conscious choices, Ram, highlight to me an important way we can look at the work we do and the jobs we choose. Now it’s thinking more about the impact we can make, instead of ‘how is it going to look on my CV?’
This way of navigating your career can, on the surface, seem unconventional. Innovative entrepreneur, Miki Agrawal (Co-founder of THINX and Founder & CEO of Hello Tushy), calls this the ‘lit’ career path!
I totally believe that, if you do dare to have this unconventional path. I do use the word dare because it takes a lot of courage. I walked away from BlackRock straight after I got made a Director and a huge paycheck. Everyone else around me was saying, “Don’t do it Ram, stick it out for two years, you’ll make Managing Director” and I was like “No, I’m not doing this, this is just not where I want to be”. Every single job that I’ve done has taught me more and more what doesn’t work from me, which is so powerful. I don’t believe that Booking.com would have given me this position if I hadn't worked for a technology startup company before. It’s all these random pieces of the puzzle that eventually make up your story, but it’s really important to be clear on what your story and narrative is.
It’s all these random pieces of the puzzle that eventually make up your story, but it’s really important to be clear on what your story and narrative is.
So now, in life and work, what are you ambitious about?
I’m ambitious about having an impact in the world. I want to infuse more love, compassion and meaningful conversations into the world, especially the corporate world. The way I aspire to do that is by role modelling those in every interaction I have - with my husband, with my friends. I grew up in a house of doctors and I always used to think, “Gosh my parents have such amazing jobs, they really help people”. And that was a key thing that was missing for me in my roles in finance, was the indirect link to how you’re helping people.
At Booking.com, it took me a long time to shake that ‘corporateness’ off me in this new world. Suddenly it was like, holy crap, I can be someone really big here, because people don’t really care if you are a woman or if you are young or old or whatever really, they just really care about what you can deliver, and if you’ve got the drive and ambition to deliver it. Here at Booking.com the average age of our managers is 28 years old. It’s becoming a much younger workforce. The average age of our leadership team is 35. So that ability to connect is so important. I think there is a real place for that corporate wisdom, and I do see a lot of these fast-growing tech companies looking to the corporate world, because that recipe for success does work. Look at the world’s biggest companies right now, they haven’t just made it to where they are from doing whatever they want. So you see a lot of ex-corporate hires coming into this tech world because they are searching for the right level of innovation and creativity with appropriate levels of governance, structure and process.
Do you feel that you are following an unconventional path?
I feel like I’m just following my heart but I think if I was to be an outsider observing my life, I think people would say yes, you are unconventional. And to be honest, a lot of my coaching clients have come to me because they look at me as somebody who was brave enough to do something that they want to do –leave their jobs that they feel stuck in. I think everyone is so unique and different, and everyone has such an amazing gift to offer the world. It’s crazy, the uniqueness of every single human being versus the monotony you see in terms of desired skill sets and jobs. I think people do think it’s an unconventional path, but when I explain the story behind it, I try to normalise it. I kind of feel like I represent someone that a lot of people can relate to, because having a decent income is really important to me. I haven’t differentiated on my salary that much, I’ve been really lucky to find a path to do that. All these things that hold people back from doing this like money and job security, were things that were actually very important to me as well, but I just kept going until I found something that worked for me.
Yes! You can still be successful in business, make a good salary and navigate the corporate world and follow your heart. I love that. Following your heart can sound a bit floaty and esoteric, romantic even, but it can be a very rewarding and guiding way to help us follow our integrity in business.
Ok final question, what tips would you recommend to anyone who’s ambitious about what they care about and want’s to follow their heart or a more ‘unconventional’ career or leadership style?
Apart from work with Natalie Goni [laughs]. Gosh, it’s a good question. For me, what was so powerful was giving myself space. If we do not give ourselves space, we cannot be creative and innovative. I became so much more creative with my life when I got more curious about really understanding what makes me tick. We have to do a lot of work on ourselves to not follow the path of societal norms if we really want to live a fulfilled life – which for me is unconventional in this world. My biggest learning with regards to career choices is that I had to let go of the need of my next career choice to be perfect. It’s ok to trial and error till you get there – we always learn so much.
My biggest learning with regards to career choices is that I had to let go of the need of my next career choice to be perfect.
I’ve started waking up early, cause it’s the only time of day that I can control. And when I say early, I mean 5.30am to 6am, it’s this ritual that has become this habit that my body craves every day. Every time I don’t do it, I don’t feel like I’ve had my breakfast, it’s that kind of nourishment it gives me. It was hard to set up this habit, but my habit now is to get a hot water and lemon - because it is really important to just wake up your digestive system. Then I do this thing called free journaling, where I just grab a blank sheet of A4 paper, and just dump whatever is in my mind. Sometimes it’s dribble, sometimes it’s a drawing, and then I just shred it. The feeling that no one is going to read this again, not me, not anyone else, helps me write freely. And then I do about half an hour or forty minutes of meditation.
I think having the curiosity to explore yourself is the number one tip I would give. Curiosity for me is the most powerful antidote to fear, stress and anxiety. Be brave and live your life fully!
You can connect with Ramya and follow more of her work, writing and heartfelt insights on learning, life and leadership on LinkedIn here.