Be Kind and Calm — I truly believe these two words get you a long way. Being kind, even in a difficult situation where someone is struggling or not performing well in their role, is far more effective that being hard or pushy. In any leadership role, it’s incredibly important to always present a calm front. People are looking to you as an anchor and panicking in any situation is never good. If things are tense, ask for everyone to go away and re-group the next day.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sunita Kaur.
Sunita Kaur is the Senior Vice President of APAC at Twitch. The first in the role, Sunita oversees all operations for content creators, media partners, agencies, advertisers, publishers, and developers in the region. Sunita comes to Twitch from Spotify where she was Managing Director of Southeast Asia and then VP Revenue in APAC over a six year period, expanding the service across Asia and leading launches in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Previously, Sunita held executive roles across Asia at Facebook, Microsoft, and Forbes.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been very deliberate about my career path. Having spent my first ten years in print media (and living through the first dot com bubble burst back in 1999), in 2005 I realised digital was coming back and was going to be the future. The last 15 years have been bets against what I believed was going to disrupt our world. It started with Forbes.com (my first ever digital job) and then Microsoft where I really got a great understanding of what the digital world could be. From 2010 the fun (and bets) really started. I’ve spent the last almost 10 years with Facebook and Spotify, becoming a part of those teams when both social media and music streaming were nascent. When I left Spotify at the end of 2019, I looked around and thought what could be the next disruptor and really wanted to be a part of a live streaming company, and here I am at Twitch today!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Well, I do believe many of us have had a year where we have had to learn, or perhaps re-learn, how we work at our companies. In February this year I was hired at Twitch to build out our APAC presence to better serve the amazing community that already lived here. That included having to build out teams across APAC. Nine months in, we have tripled our people presence in APAC, and I have unfortunately never met 80% of the team in person.
Apart from not being able to travel, our relationships have all been built over video. Everyone was sourced, interviewed and on boarded via video. I cannot wait for the day when we can all be in one big room; it’s going to be very special.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure if it’s funny, but it’s definitely cringe-worthy and something that I have always been extra careful with! In my very first job I had quite a difficult manager and was asked to draft a piece of feedback on her (the request came from her manager as there were a number of complaints). Before I learnt how to eloquently draft feedback, I wrote an email that gave it my all…and accidentally sent it directly to her. Needless to say I was immediately hauled up and berated in front of the entire office. 25 years later, even writing this turns my stomach! I have always been incredibly careful about how (and who) I send emails to!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of our biggest differentiators is our community. New users come to Twitch, find their community, and form lasting bonds with content creators. One of my favorite stories about community on Twitch is Broxh, who’s a streamer who shares his knowledge, skills, and stories about whakairo, the Maori art of wood carving.
Broxh’s streams usually consist of Broxh carving live on-camera, while talking with his followers, whom he calls his whanau — which roughly translates to extended family — and explaining his process. Broxh’s streams went from an average of five viewers to more than 5,000 viewers in less than two months.
Broxh’s community has come together to show him their overwhelming support. Another popular streamer, PandaTV, gave Broxh a new computer to replace his older streaming equipment. Broxh turned off his donations and subscriptions to encourage his Followers to save their money, but has still made money from his stream due to the overwhelming support of his Followers. He plans to use the money to buy more wood to carve and give the rest away to his family and mother. Recently, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Aldern dropped by Broxh’s stream while on the campaign trail — a truly amazing sign of how big Broxh has gotten.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the most exciting things we just announced was Soundtrack by Twitch, which gives creators a curated collection of rights-cleared music to use in their live streams. This helps creators navigate the complex and evolving music ecosystem, allowing them to keep their channel safe while they create compelling content and grow as a creator.
Also, Soundtrack’s ability to bring new audiences to independent artists will meaningfully move the needle for musicians by allowing those audiences to discover their music, add tracks to their favorite music services, and head to the musicians’ live Twitch channels where fans can subscribe and support their channels.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I am not satisfied with where we are, but I am pleased to see how things have evolved since I joined the workforce. There are more women interested in and moving into STEM roles. The percentage is still small, but it’s growing. The wage gap persists, and we need to level the playing field. When it comes to leveling the playing field, most of us have traditionally looked at it from a female point of view. One change that I saw which I truly think is revolutionary is to look at it from a male perspective, and what I am referring to is parental leave. Large tech firms have leveled the playing field giving both maternal and paternal leave, and making them equal (Spotify offers six months parental leave for everyone).
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I find this question difficult because fundamentally there shouldn’t be a difference in challenges. However from what I have heard over the years, income inequality, lack of mentorship and misunderstood motherhood stand out. Due to the fact that this is such a hot topic, women feel the need to prove their professional worth repeatedly.
One cannot answer this question in a paragraph. It’s going to take years to equalize the above. There shouldn’t be a difference in income levels and motherhood should become parenthood.
One area around mentorship is important — it doesn’t have to be a female. It should be a balance and later on I will talk about one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given around forming your personal board of directors.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Some myths are silly, while others are real. The age old — “girls are bad at math” is absolute nonsense. I have witnessed women eloquently explain profit and loss statements, or solve math puzzles in their head quicker than anyone else in the room. Math and Science are gateways to the STEM world and more women are also leaving universities with STEM degrees than ever before. Also, “women are too emotional for the workforce.” This has long been confused with empathy, and we are finding more women leaders in the forefront of the business world as large teams and companies require this part of our brain to run effectively.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be true to yourself: As a woman in STEM, it took me a while to find my balance in this world. We kept getting told that we were women in a man’s world, instead of being a person in a workforce, and I have refused to make the former a part of my psych. Instead of trying to build what I thought were male traits that I would need to succeed (and believe me I tried this, and failed) I have come to be comfortable with doing my job and leading my team in a way that benefits everyone around me.
- Be Kind and Calm: I truly believe these two words get you a long way. Being kind, even in a difficult situation where someone is struggling or not performing well in their role, is far more effective that being hard or pushy. In any leadership role, it’s incredibly important to always present a calm front. People are looking to you as an anchor and panicking in any situation is never good. If things are tense, ask for everyone to go away and re-group the next day.
- Never be afraid to say I don’t know: Showing a little vulnerability is good. No one knows everything and saying you don’t know or asking a question gives everyone around you the opportunity to do the same, which builds a close and collaborative team.
- Have a job for your head and your heart: I have my job at Twitch for my head, and a job at Talent Trust (a skills based charity) for my heart and they both lean into each other in a huge way.
- Never stop learning: I love learning new things. It keeps you sharp and invigorated! When I think back on the last 20 years, before the iPhone or Facebook or Spotify, never would I have imagined my journey would be this. I often think about what the next 10 years hold in terms of technology and that truly intrigues and excites me.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen and Learn. Different roles and people require different sets of skills and listening to what they are along with learning how to best address them are your two more powerful tools.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I am a big believer in NOT having too many direct reports. Firstly, it’s difficult to manage so many people and try to do your job. Weeks are not effective if you spend most of them at 1:1s. Building a smaller direct team also gives your direct team the opportunity to learn to manage teams, it builds a sense of trust.
But that doesn’t mean you distance yourself from the larger team. I find tiering meetings very effective. Direct reports have weekly 1:1, their reports meeting with management perhaps once every two weeks, and we have larger monthly meetings. This also gives everyone a chance to have a great view over the entire business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My story dates back to the late 90s, and to someone I will always remember as the OG of women in STEM. I was working at Asiaweek Magazine and was told that Jocelyn was moving from NY to head up APAC (and become my new boss). Now, Jocelyn always came across as intimidating, and when I heard the news I started looking for a new job, thinking I could never work for someone who I thought I would work in fear of. Luckily for me, Joc reached out before she started to have a chat, and I realised she was so much more than what I thought she was. Jocelyn turned out to be the spark of my ambition and to this today, is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked for. I’m also proud to say we are still connected; 22 years later she has watched me grow up.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am always looking for ways to bring goodness to the world. For the past five years I’ve been lucky enough to share stories from being a part of Talent Trust where they look for executives to partner with charities that need help. Now, this is not a situation where one volunteers to build a house or raise funds. Instead, you commit time each month for a year as you work with the CEO of a charity to help them negotiate the world of business and stand their charities up for the long haul. There is nothing more humbling than being taken out of your day-to-day job and put in a room with a CEO who needs to build an infant care arm for a charity that cares for vulnerable children. There is no finance, HR or marketing department to lean into. And what’s on the line is not your quarterly business review but a child’s future.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In the last two years, what’s been on my mind a lot is building a 5G workforce as this, to me at least, encompasses everything I believe in and want to learn about. By 5G I mean the 5 Generations, from the baby boomer to Gen Z. The world has changed so much in the last 50 years; I sincerely believe that the different generations can learn from each other. Those of us who have been working for the last 30 years, are learning what younger generations need to inspire them, and hopefully the older generation can instill some life skills that will never go out of style.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Best life lesson I have ever been given, which I have been using for the past 15 years: Build your personal board of directors. They change as you change, but I’ve always had five people in my life that guide and ground me.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I do apologize but this has never been a favourite question of mine. Honestly, there is no one in the world I’d like to have a meal with, I’ve always believed I draw everything I have and need from the people around me.