Day after day in a tier-three town in southern India’s Tamil Nadu province, I sat in the humid, 110-degree heat, my sleeves rolled up, helping sort moist, chrome-tanned, semi-processed leather piece by piece. The floor was a mess; sunlight was minimal. Morning turned to afternoon turned to evening as my team and I examined every piece of cowhide.
Twenty-eight years later, that foul smell is still in my nostrils.
This was my first job after earning my Master’s in International Business back in India. I was expecting a thrilling assignment with my new employer, Unilever, as a manager in their International Key Accounts — perhaps involving travel to New York or London, or meetings with high-profile customers.
Instead, I found myself on the tannery floor — visiting small towns in India as part of an effort to source and improve finished leather. It felt, in many ways, like the opposite of career growth. I couldn’t help but wonder: What was I doing here? Where did I go wrong?
It turns out, however, I was exactly where I needed to be. I was growing as a person and professional, even if I didn’t know it yet.
The phrase “growth mindset” is well-known these days. And I’m a big believer in its principles. At the core, growth mindset is about being uncomfortable with the status quo and being a continuous learner. As defined by Dr. Carol Dweck, it involves seeing challenges as opportunities to learn and advance, and accepting setbacks as an elemental part of growth. But learning to see life through this lens takes time, and practice — something I still had to learn for myself.
Put simply: one doesn’t naturally think, “Today, I will celebrate failure.” To me, this is important to acknowledge. Growth isn’t a switch you flip. It’s a practice and a lifestyle which requires sustained care and attention.
I humbly admit that I haven’t always got it right. But I wanted to share some reflections on what real growth — and having a real growth mindset — looks like, for me on my personal journey. Today, I’m lucky to be surrounded and inspired by so many colleagues and entrepreneurs at Amway and beyond who, in challenging times, are truly living with this mindset. I hope these lessons on resilience and patience can be of help as we navigate growth together in tough circumstances.
Growth comes from unexpected places
As days inside the tanneries stretched into weeks and months, my spirits started to wane. I believed, deep down, that my time and skills were being underutilized. Then, it hit me: this thinking wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
My only choice — the only choice we ever truly have — was to make the best of what was given. I stopped and reset my perspective: I was responsible for a small team, and the business was depending on us. Every time we sourced better leather, the “upper unit” could make better cuts for use in the shoes. Ultimately, this translated to a better finished product for the client. In addition, I learned that the product margins were directly affected by the material quality. All of the parts needed to function together, and it was my duty, and my karma, to do my part and do it well.
Once I made that conscious shift in thinking, I appreciated what a unique vantage point I had on the business. Working as part of a tight team, getting hands-on with the product, and learning the importance of a value chain gave me a holistic picture of the company, and taught me that the success of a business can come down to the smallest detail.
During this time, we ran short on leather from the Indian suppliers. These were pre-internet days, so I got to work building know-how on the ground. After consulting experts in the trade, I wound up putting together a proposal for a sourcing trip to China. It was my first time outside of India; the memory of crossing a wooden bridge from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, and immediately feeling the energy of the people, is etched in my mind. Little did I know I’d become a lifelong student of this wonderful place, and this wouldn’t be my last visit.
I’m thankful for those who trusted me at the time and grateful for the learnings. I look back at that time in those sweltering tanneries as my second MBA.
Growth isn’t always steady or straight
Eventually, I worked my way into another Unilever opportunity: a role as marketing director for Indian ice cream operations. The business was in a highly competitive category in dire need of a turnaround, and I was feeling positive about having a new challenge: building the brand, accelerating impulse ice cream sales and improving business profitability. I walked into my new role committed to turning things around in just 100 days.
At first, it appeared as though the plan was all going to come together. My colleagues and the marketing team coalesced around a strong strategy; the then-Chairman and CEO of Unilever India, Vindi Banga, offered amazing support. I couldn’t wait to launch. There was just one problem: at the end of those 100 days, we found ourselves right in the middle of India’s monsoon season.
This wasn’t exactly the best time to inspire ice cream sales … and we undershot our goals fabulously.
At the time, I was hugely disappointed. Worse was that, I was less open to feedback than I should have been. I failed to recognize the learning opportunities, and had no interest in finding silver linings. It was a “fixed mindset” moment, and I just couldn’t see the setback as an occasion for growth.
But it was.
After it was clear our ice cream sales strategy wasn’t working, we pivoted to a new approach of placing kiosks in Indian malls, which were booming at the time. Though this foray into the service industry was risky, it turned out to have real legs. The new venture helped me build restaurant industry know-how, recruit key talent and understand customer service.
Years later while living in Durban, South Africa, the dots connected when I received a note from David Novak, the then-CEO of Yum! Brands, the world’s largest restaurant company with chains including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. One thing led to another and I eventually ended up joining Yum!, first with the Indian business and then as managing director of its Thailand operation, with a talented team of 10,000 associates.
The lesson? Growth isn’t always about instant results, and it’s not a steady climb to the top. Let what happens, happen, do the best with what’s in front of you, and growth will follow … sometimes when you least expect it.
Growth can be uncomfortable
Yes, growth is exhilarating and fulfilling. But it doesn’t always feel that way at first. In fact, it’s often uncomfortable.
As I’d mentioned earlier, I’d been in love with Chinese culture since I first got the chance to visit there to source leather during my time with Unilever in the ’90s. But when I got moved to Shanghai after my role in Thailand, relocating with my entire family, the adjustment proved intense.
Adapting to a new culture, new cuisine and a new language all at once was exciting, but the simple facts of life were suddenly new and strange. Where does one get a haircut? What does one get from a grocery store? Determined to learn the language, I worked with a private teacher three times a week before work. During my levels exams, I’d be the only adult in a sea of 10- to 15-year-old students, all of whom ran circles around me when it came to Mandarin.
Then there was the job itself. I was trying to earn back the trust of customers after a national food safety incident, while under intense scrutiny from investors and the public. New demands, new questions, new challenges — from seemingly every direction. It was, at times, daunting work. Yet, despite the uncertainty and instability, I grew more in that role than any before.
Studies show that stability actually shuts down your brain’s learning center, while new challenges create neural pathways that get stronger over time. Discomfort, in other words, is often a leading indicator that you’re truly learning and growing. We must get comfortable with being uncomfortable — this is where the magic happens.
One more lesson: Growth never stops. It’s a journey, not a destination. Two years ago, I joined Amway, moving to a new industry and new city to tackle a legacy business model with challenges. It was a radical shift from my days helming Pizza Hut International. I had to get up to speed on organic farming and nutrition, and deeply understand millennial entrepreneurs across the world. In the process, I’ve taken up meditation, embraced a plant-based diet, read intensively, built a passionate Instagram following and schooled myself in the quickly evolving business model of social commerce.
But here’s the thing — this journey, this growth, is, in many ways its own reward. Is it easy? No. But is it life-changing in all of the best ways? Yes. I see this spirit of adventure and optimism in so many of the people and business owners I work with now. They’re facing challenges and setbacks, for sure. But they approach every speed bump, every unprecedented event (like this year’s pandemic) with a resilience and passion that proves growth isn’t just a mindset, it’s a lifestyle, and a very rewarding one.