Note to listeners: This recording was done over a zoom meeting call due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in a slightly diminished audio quality with some mild disturbances in the recording, compared to a studio-quality recording.
[00:00] — Intro
You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks- voices from the life science explorers in India.
[00:06] — Shantala Hari Dass
In season two of ‘‘In Conversation with a Mentor’’, we are talking with people who have come from a non-life science background and who have made a big impact in the community. Let’s delve into their inspiring and insightful stories.
Today, It’s an absolute pleasure to have a special guest who has been a friend of IndiaBioscience for a long time. You may already know him from his TEDx talks, his books, his keynote speech, or the popular science magazine ‘i wonder…’. So let’s not tease this conversation any further and welcome Ram Gopal Vallath, popularly known as RamG.
Hi, RamG, welcome to ‘In Conversation with a Mentor’.
[00:48] — RamG Vallath
Hi, thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.
[00:52] — Shantala Hari Dass
RamG, let’s start at the beginning. Your education is a mix of technology and marketing. You did your graduation in engineering from IIT Madras and then a post-graduation in Marketing from XLRI Jamshedpur. So tell us a little bit about this journey and what motivated you to pursue marketing after engineering.
[01:16] — RamG Vallath
So, while I was studying in high school, I got very, very fascinated with sciences, basic sciences. I would spend hours actually reading science books and solving science problems. And it was like I was in the zone. You know, I really enjoyed it. And I assumed that the B. Tech in IIT would be a continuation of that. However, I did not really get interested in the tech papers that we had and I sort of lost interest. In fact, I ended up doing my B. Tech in five years instead of four. And it is not because I love the subjects. So at the end of it, I realized that maybe I’m not really cut out for a technology job. Luckily, I was also very good at interacting with people and I thought a management job would actually suit me better. And that’s what took me to XLRI where I majored in marketing, but it was an overall management course and there was a marketing and finance, which I majored in.
[02:15] — Shantala Hari Dass
Thank you for telling us how it all started. So your career path has been an unconventional one. It continues drawing upon elements that you brought up while discussing your education. Starting from working at Titan Industries to becoming a certified success coach. It’s a long, curvy path that you have traversed. You have led many reputed companies such as HP India, Dell technology, Airtel, etc. So, what is your philosophy or thought in terms of choosing a career path or a job, and what made you move from one organization to another? Put a little differently, do you think this notion of a job for life is outdated today?
[03:00] — RamG Vallath
Yeah. So calling it an unconventional path may be completely downplaying it because it has been a very, very interesting and completely wacky journey. Starting with marketing watches to selling computers, selling networking hardware products, heading a telecom operation, and heading a large team in IT. And then from there to completely re-inventing myself, it is a very, very interesting journey. I think what drove me to each of these was, number one, I like challenges. I like to learn new things. So I’ve been constantly learning new things and wherever new learning took me, I would move there. So it’s not as if my philosophy in life is to switch from job to job. And I, I don’t really recommend that for everybody, and it is very, very specific to each individual’s strengths. There are some people who are very good at doing a specific job and they would love to stick to that. There are some people who naturally like to try out newer and newer things, and then they switch from one job to the other. So after the corporate life, of course, what really drove me to reinvent my life was because I was down with a very crippling, autoimmune disorder and I could not get back to a normal career. So I had to reinvent my career and luckily I had the kind of mindset where I could learn a lot of new things and then put that to practice, which then made me a, you know, bestselling author, a motivational speaker, and work at the Azim Premji foundation, etc. So that’s how it took me there. And I enjoyed every minute of every one of these jobs.
[04:36] — Shantala Hari Dass
That is an amazing ability for reinvention. It has brought so much reward and meaning into your career. Something that I marvel about RamG is how you manage to wear so many hats. You are a writer, you are the co-founder of a startup in Agritech, a founding editor of i wonder…, which is a popular science magazine for school teachers and you have delivered more than a thousand motivational speeches. And now you are currently heading the COVID health response strategy at the Azim Premji foundation. And about all, you call yourself the happiest and most positive person that you have ever met. So in a nutshell, how do you manage to simultaneously do so many different things, many of which are unrelated to each other and still get a sense of contentment, satisfaction and happiness?
[05:30] — RamG Vallath
For me, the one decision that I took after I had my illness and I had to go through a very difficult phase of recovery, it was that I would play to my strengths in whichever role I did. What I did was, I offered my value addition to multiple roles at the same time. So at the tech startup, I brought in my abilities as a business development person, as somebody who understood management, somebody who understood leadership. So I could be a sounding board for the CEO as a co-founder. I could actually help the CEO navigate some of these issues, which as a tech specialist, he may not have been aware of, or may not have been exposed to enough. So my role was very specific to adding value to the CEO, adding value to one or two specific aspects of the organization. Similarly when I brought out, ‘i wonder…’, and it was sort of my push that got it started, how I managed to put together a very good team who actually took it forward. And there, my ability as a person who could create a form out of a complete amorphous situation, I think that is what helped me. So I could actually build something from scratch so I could conceptualize what is required, pull those things together and make it happen. Similarly, as an author and a motivational speaker, I always used to love writing and I picked that up again and in fact, I started writing again from the hospital bed in Chicago, where I went through a clinical trial, which rebooted my body. But when I started that, I was very clear in terms of very specific areas that I would like to write on. One was wacky science fiction for children. The other one was helping people become their best selves of themselves. So helping people understand their own strengths and become super at what they do and maximize life. From that actually sort of flowed that I could also become a good speaker and I would help people, in the same way, to become better, more positive, happier in life, and more successful. So each of these was sort of very strongly correlated. The role in Azim Premji foundation where I’m currently doing, I think that was very serendipitous because I was the right person at the right time at the right place. My love for science had taken me into a lot of learning of biosciences. I had not done biology in my high school, so I actually left biology there. But after my illness, I wanted to understand the immune system because it was an autoimmune disorder. So I took a lot of courses on the immune system, online through Coursera, and then I wanted to learn about evolution and genetics. So I did a lot of studying by myself on biology. So I was a fairly unique person in the foundation where I was very good at mathematics, so I could understand the modeling of the disease. I’m good at science reasonably well. I had a good network of people in the science area. I could build relationships very fast. So I was ideal for building a lot of relationships across multiple experts and funneling all that information into the foundation. And I also had the ability to sort of creating something from scratch. So all that made me a good choice for leading the strategy of the pandemic health response at the foundation. The foundation did a phenomenal job in the last two years of supporting millions of people across the country and the government system for COVID response. In a nutshell, I enjoyed every single thing that I was doing tremendously and that’s what actually gave me the ability to manage so many different aspects at the same time.
[09:07] — Shantala Hari Dass
So well put. It is indeed a great skill to know what you want to contribute to a system such as when you’re talking about your role and supporting the CEO. Such clarity makes projects feasible and successful. RamG, now that you train leaders, can you shortlist a few qualities one should have to become a good leader and similarly, some qualities that one should stay away from?
Also, do you think that one can practice and develop leadership qualities? Or is this something that only some people are born with?
[09:43] — RamG Vallath
Let me answer the second question first. I sort of grew in a growth mindset. I actually deliver a lot of talks on growth mindset and help people understand what is a growth mindset and inculcate it in themselves. And the basic principle of a growth mindset is that ability is something that you can acquire by practice and by applying the right strategies of learning. So most abilities are not in born. Obviously, you might have some bias towards some particular abilities from your genetics, but finally, anybody can acquire many of the abilities which are required and leadership abilities are absolutely one of them. So anybody can become a great leader. A few things that I learned as a leader, number one is respect is a very, very important aspect of leadership. If you’re able to respect all the people who are working with you and treat them as individuals who are having their own strengths and their own abilities, rather than expecting them to be something of a reflection of yourself, then you would be able to extract the best out of a team. That is one. So respect is a very fundamental thing. And respect also means being empathetic towards people’s position and their abilities and their lack of abilities in certain areas, being empathetic towards that. And being, and strongly believing that anybody can acquire abilities and hence being a leader who can coach, mentor, and support their people to acquire new skills and new abilities. That’s another very important aspect of leadership. And not being judgmental, right? Not being judgmental about people who are different from you, but understanding why they’re different and then ensuring that you make the best of what you have and that is a very important aspect. So I think I’ve answered both the pluses and minuses. There are two, or three more things. A good leader typically has a lot of energy. They execute energy. When they talk, you can feel the energy that comes out of them. They’re usually optimistic about things. They paint a great picture of a vision for their team, and then they execute well on that vision. They’re able to break it down into strategies and specific actions for each strategy, and then micromanage themselves to achieve those strategies while enabling others without micromanaging them. It’s a lot of skills that have to come together for becoming a great leader.
[12:10] — Shantala Hari Dass
Absolutely. In the life science community, a lot of emphasis and structure, rightly so, is given to training people to have scientific excellence, techniques, knowledge, etc. But from your experience of working with the community in various capacities, do you believe that the needed emphasis is given to avenues for developing skills such as, as you were talking about, the growth mindset or leadership or mentorship? And what more can we do to nurture the entrepreneurial ideas of the life science community?
[12:46] — RamG Vallath
In my interaction with the academic and the scientific community, I think one of the critical things which I have understood and which I have learned from the interactions that I’ve had is the ability to structure their thinking scientifically and look at the root causes and then understand why things happen with data. I think that’s an extremely important skill that people in the community already have. What they definitely can pick up, I’m sort of broad brushing it because obviously there are some people who already have it and who are already acquiring it. Some people who are not there yet, some of the things that they can acquire is an ability to look at whatever they’re doing, where does it fit into the larger picture? How does it contribute to overall science? How does it contribute to society? How does it contribute to making humanity a better place? And then working towards that aspect, that is one aspect. Number two is how can they make a difference in the life of others who are around them? Their team members, especially if you’re a leader, how do you best encourage your people, coach them, mentor them, ensure that their best is brought out in every interaction. So leadership skills, to that extent, I think those are very important. The one thing I have realized is that some of those software abilities are far more important than your technical abilities as a leader. So reading up a lot on those kinds of aspects, watching great videos on those kinds of aspects, and actually practicing some of those and implementing it, taking the risk of trying out things, which you have not done before. I think that is very important. So unless you really practice it and you see how it works, you’ll never be convinced that some of those things really work very well, you know. For the growth mindset itself, there are certain things that you can do on a daily basis, which will enhance your growth mindset, taking small risks every day, coaching your team members on specific aspects, and refraining from judging them. So there are specific things that you can do every day, which will help you become better at a growth mindset. That’s one of the examples. So, as a leader, you should keep trying out these things you should read. You should have a wide perspective and then try and implement as many of these as possible. That’ll help you.
[15:58] — Shantala Hari Dass
You have recently published your third book ‘Active Parenting’. What inspired you to write a book on parenting? And what are some of the messages or learnings from this book that you think are applicable to people at large, beyond the scope of parenting?
[15:16] — RamG Vallath
So when I look back upon my own life, There have been several inflection points in my life where life took a completely different turn and it all ended up finally with me calling myself the happiest person I have ever met in my life and I sort of believe that also. I keep introspecting on what it is that made me like this. I’m just an ordinary person who managed to actually do some right things at the right times. So every time I thought about it, the only answer that came to me is it is because of the kind of parenting that I had, which helped me with specific traits, like just resilience and happiness and authenticity and purposefulness. The thought behind this was to really change the world for a better place and through my motivational talks, I can do that to a certain extent, but if I really want to change the world, I have to touch millions of children and to do that, I have to go up to the parent to create these attributes in children. So that’s how the thought started. And it took me about four, four and a half years of research to put this book together. So the book actually contains research on psychology, child psychology, research on positive psychology, interviews with a lot of leaders across various fields to figure out what made them leaders and what is the parenting that their parents did to make them get them those attributes. I interviewed a lot of parents. So all that work finally culminated in this book and the book itself I wrote and rewrote so many times. So it becomes very, very useful for a parent who’s having children from infants all the way to teenagers.
[16:52] — Shantala Hari Dass
To look to the future, what are some of your aspirations for the life science community for the next decade? This is a community that’s likely to see massive growth during this period.
[17:05] — RamG Vallath
So I think one of the things that the scientific community can specifically do is adopt certain practices which happen in the corporate space a lot more, which is enabling people more in softer skills and that happens regularly in corporate life and if the scientific community can adopt some of that by workshops, by making people talk to each other more, by feedback mechanisms, by way of training, structured training, and learning and development. Those kinds of things will actually help in opening doors for the scientific community, which right now they have themselves closed off quite a bit. The other one is what you had touched upon earlier is to bring in different perspectives into the community by either engaging with, or actually bringing in some people from other fields. So you can cross-pollinate a lot of different kinds of knowledge into the work that the scientific community is doing and really multiply it humongously by bringing in additional knowledge and really finding uses for the kind of work they’re doing, which they didn’t, maybe think of. So there are a lot of opportunities.
[18:15] — Shantala Hari Dass
Thank you, RamG for joining us today at‘In Conversation with a Mentor’. After this chat, I can say that definitely, you’re one of the most happy and positive people that I have met, but also a very generous leader and a mentor, so willing to share your journey and introspection. So, thank you. I’m sure our listeners will find this conversation very insightful and exciting.
[18:41] — RamG Vallath
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this session and so, you know, while you guys are dabbling in life sciences, I am dabbling in ‘LIFE’ sciences. It is a wonderful pleasure to share some of the insights into life which I have learned with a lot of extremely interesting experiences to say the least. Thank you for the opportunity and I hope everybody enjoys what we talked about.
[19:04] — Shantala Hari Dass
Thank you all for listening to IndiaBiospeaks‘In Conversation with a Mentor’. We look forward to receiving your comments and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive instant updates of our podcast, please follow us on Spotify at IndiaBioScience. Keep listening and we will meet you with another ‘In Conversation with a Mentor’ next month.
[19:36] — Outro
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