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Meet Chitra Nayak, Dedicated To Helping South Asian Women Take Control Of Their Careers

Chitra Nayak, co-founder of Neythri and Infosys board member is dedicated to helping women speak up and take control of their careers.

Chitra Nayak is a female tour de force. Her career shines with credibility and integrity as a leader of leaders. She is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Cornell University and Harvard University. She has played senior roles at Schwab and Salesforce.

Today, Chitra Nayak serves on the Board of Directors at public and private companies including Infosys. She is also the co-founder of Neythri, a growing South Asian women’s professional network in which I am proud to be a member.

When we sat down for our interview, I felt compelled to ask how she made it to such a significant place in her career.

Did Chitra have a grand plan that she methodically executed?

“I always like to say that I have the grand career meander,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I really think that’s what it is. I never ask anyone what their five- or ten-year plan is. That’s a terrible question because you’d miss a lot if you didn’t stay open to possibilities.”

When she was in the eleventh grade, Chitra chose to take the highly competitive entrance exam for the Indian Institute of Technology. Not because she was driven to become an engineer but because she was bored with school and sought a challenge. She joined IIT a year early as one of only three female students in a class of 250 young men. Those male students always treated her respectfully and she was comfortable speaking her mind. Chitra’s IIT years taught her how to navigate future situations where she would find herself working mostly with men.

Chitra has a brilliant intellect and while the grand meander may be her career operating model, fairness is her north star. She went on to explain, “There are three threads to my career. One is intellectual curiosity and learning. The second is professional impact. The third is give back. This desire to make the world a better place started very early.”

Chitra Nayak learnt early that many things in life were not fair

“It’s funny, I must have been 12 or 13 when I told my dad that some things were just not fair. He said, ‘You are going to learn that there are unfortunately many things that are not fair in life.’ I remember declaring that as long as I am able to do what I can, I will make the world fairer.”

Chitra’s father was with the Indian Administrative Service and also served as the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India. When he was in his 20’s, he shared his dream with a freedom fighter—to put a lightbulb in every home in every village in India. He went on to build some of India’s biggest dams, run irrigation projects for rural development, start the Karnataka Power Corporation and run the Mangalore Chemicals factory. Chitra inherited her father’s desire to give back as well as his curiosity for working across a variety of roles.

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“I have always been very cause-driven,” Chitra shared. “I don’t think of success as one thing. It is multifaceted for me. Success is what I have done professionally and whether I have made lives better and more fair.”

Chitra unabashedly recognizes her superpower as a change-the-world mentality. This means remembering that you sometimes have to lose the battle to win the war. That you must remain dogged while you test, learn and also fail.

Not kept down by adversity

She put it simply, “You can change the world but you have to do it one step at a time. You have to be thoughtful, organized and intentional about how you get there. This is where resilience comes in.”

Adversity is a good teacher and life has offered Chitra her slate of lessons. Hefty work hours where her hard work led to more work and ultimately to burnout. That sobering time when her son was six and his friend questioned whether he actually had a mom because she was never around. An unfortunate accident and knee injury that stopped her corporate climb short. And her aging parents who live halfway around the world and need their children’s care. What is extraordinary is that Chitra accepts when something is not working and then turns the situation into an opportunity to try something new.

She recounted a difficult time, “About nine years ago, I was on the elliptical and tore the meniscus in my knee. For six months, I couldn’t walk more than three steps without my muscles freezing up. It then caused a problem with my back. I became the mystery patient seeing twenty specialists and going into physiotherapy three days a week. It was a hard year. Now, I can’t sit very long so I stand 80% of the time. I’ve kind of gotten used to it but back then, it made me realize that I couldn’t take on a big corporate job because I’d  have to be on a flight a lot. It was a pretty big challenge and quite depressing because I had to reframe what my entire career was about. But it ended up actually turning into what my life is now. I accelerated this future life that I am very much enjoying.”

How to deal with failure, Chitra Nayak style

Life never turns out as we plan but how do you overcome a setback that could easily manifest as depression? Chitra shared her insight, “I was talking to my sister about this the other day. You have some inner source of strength that says, ‘Find a way out!’ You have to find something positive that pulls you out. It’s not that I don’t get depressed but I don’t let myself wallow. At the time of my knee injury, I tried a bunch of things and the answer was no. I could’ve just given up! You have to find some personal strength and the courage to try something new, even if it means failure, until you find what works.”

Decisions such as taking a year off for herself and her family, accepting a job offer in a completely unfamiliar category, and pursuing a portfolio career all required Chitra to stay confident in her capabilities. But even she continues to grapple with self-doubt.

“The imposter syndrome is my companion for life,” she revealed. “This I do not say lightly. Failure is not in the falling down. It is in the not getting up.”

I once had a mentor who told me that you have to become an expert at only one thing. For her, that was the right advice but for me, it never would have been. You have to find your own answer and know that you’re not always going to be right. If my interest is to always be learning then I’m always going to put myself in an environment where I’m not an expert. Even if I have to take my heart in both hands and make a leap that is super uncomfortable, things can work out amazingly.”

Helping other women, empowering them

Chitra is especially dedicated to helping women speak up and take control of their careers. She was cofounder of Salesforce Women’s Network, championing the cause consistently with CEO Marc Benioff and his team. She has supported women on her teams who have grown up the ranks and recognize her support even fifteen years later. She has co-created and is teaching the Women in Leadership course at California State University East Bay, one of the most diverse universities in the United States. As cofounder of Neythri, she is empowering South Asian women and advising many on their career journeys. When people tell her how she has helped them advance in their careers, she feels positively energized.

With passion in her voice, she shared, “My biggest cause is helping women get what they deserve to make the world fairer. Professionally, women are not vocal enough. They never quite get enough credit. It’s important not to feel like you’re a victim. For eight years now, the McKinsey Women in the Workplace study talks about all the things that are wrong. There’s a lot of research saying the world is a terrible place for women and it gives us a great excuse not to do much about it.”

“It’s really important to take charge. Women are not good at asking and hearing somebody say no, so they don’t ask at all. One cannot just blame the world for this. Sometimes you have to take your courage into your hands—sometimes it lands flat and sometimes somebody thinks it’s an intelligent and useful thing to say. You don’t know until you say it.”

Chitra Nayak, going the extra mile

Chitra Nayak is direct, honest and has a high ethical standard. She is always going the extra mile to help. She also describes herself as fact-driven and fairly impatient. While she is still learning how to process criticism, she admits that her tendency is to justify her reasoning and this can come across as defensive.

“I am sometimes seen as intimidating,” she admits. “I am genuinely bewildered and dismayed when I hear this. I have spent half my life explaining ahead of time, especially as I got more senior, that I might interrupt but it doesn’t imply disrespect. I’m this way because I’m trying to get to a solution irrespective of everything else. I’ve been the fortunate recipient of many 360 feedbacks over time which honestly have been hugely helpful with creating self-awareness.”

Chitra Nayak is professionally known as a go-to-market and digital transformation leader with expertise in scaling. She takes decisions by listing the five most important things and ranking choices against those. She makes pros and cons lists for prioritization. She is an optimizer who doesn’t necessarily follow the outcomes of her analyses. Sometimes she opts for the choice that feeds her curiosity. Chitra is a voracious reader of fiction and has a passion for creating art. She paints and does fused glasswork to stimulate her mind.

While Chitra eschews five-year plans, she has a strong feeling for how the next turn in her grand meander may go. We will see her continue weaving the threads of her career while optimizing her time further.

“There is never a perfect balance … but I hope for greater balance across my board work, which is really about impact and moving businesses forward, my Neythri work which is really about give back, and my personal time to spend with friends and family and on my creative work.”

What inspires me most about Chitra is how she trusts her inner voice enough to break new ground even if it means failing before finding her way. She has advanced the careers of literally thousands of women and sparked a virtuous cycle of paying it forward. Thank you, Chitra Nayak, for motivating us to embrace what’s ahead with the curiosity and courage that lies within every woman.

Image source: Infosys website

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Sunaina Mehta

My name is Sunaina Mehta and I am the founder of The Leela Collective. TLC is the passion project that I have been preparing for my entire life. I have been lucky enough to meet read more...

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