“Grit simply means you ‘Show up’”, With Douglas Brown and Bhakti Vithalani of BigSpring

Grit simply means you ‘Show up’. I’ve had a tremendous journey these past three years as the launch of BigSpring coincided with the birth of my two children. I launched BigSpring a few months after my daughter was born and had my son earlier this year at the onset of the pandemic. Combine the sleepless […]

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Grit simply means you ‘Show up’. I’ve had a tremendous journey these past three years as the launch of BigSpring coincided with the birth of my two children. I launched BigSpring a few months after my daughter was born and had my son earlier this year at the onset of the pandemic. Combine the sleepless nights of parenting with the extreme highs and lows of a startup and it can all get quite demanding. I’ve found I best move forward when I set lofty goals for the long-term and simply focus on ‘showing up’ day-to-day.

As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bhakti Vithalani, Founder and CEO of BigSpring, a lifelong skilling platform with the mission of providing a direct path to employment for everyone and been selected by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as a Technology Pioneer 2020. Bhakti also sits on the Board of Governors for JA Worldwide and Co-chairs JA’s Learning Experiences Committee. Bhakti has also served as Engagement Manager with McKinsey & Company leading client engagements for the High Tech and Corporate Finance practices and started her career in product development in Silicon Valley with Siebel Systems. She is a computer engineer, graduating from Carnegie Mellon University as one of their first female students from India and earned her MBA From The Wharton School as a Joseph Wharton Fellow.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I founded BigSpring, a mobile lifelong skilling platform, with the mission of providing a direct path to employment for everyone. Many influences from my childhood have brought me to this path.

I grew up in Mumbai, a city of stark extremes. Anyone who’s walked down the streets of Mumbai has witnessed the inequities and at some point has asked, “What’s the path forward?”.

I had early life lessons in entrepreneurship from my parents . My dad was raised in a one-bedroom apartment with his four siblings, started working in his early teens and ultimately founded a business that grew into a five hundred person company and leader in aviation services in India. I grew up with my father working steadily and rigorously, and my mother transforming from homemaker into CFO. Motivating teams, financing new projects and managing across geographies were topics of dinner conversation.

I was also drawn to technology early on, partly because of my bent towards math and science and partly because I had a fabulous coding teacher in school — incidentally, a woman. By the mid-nineties, PCs and consumer software were becoming ubiquitous and technology seemed to present boundless possibilities. I decided to focus on Tech and at seventeen, I became one of the first women from India to be accepted into the Computer Science program at Carnegie Mellon.

These early influences surfaced what has now become a lifelong passion to empower people towards a better quality of life through education and technology.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

BigSpring was presented with the opportunity to secure Uber as a customer, only a few months after we had launched. At the time, we only had a few hundred learners in a pilot with Carrier Midea, a subsidiary of the global conglomerate, United Technologies. Uber needed a platform for several hundred thousand users and they had many options, most of which were more established players than BigSpring. It was a long shot but I channeled every shred of conviction in our vision, drew on my decade-long experience in skilling, and called on every reference I had to earn Uber’s attention. Fortunately, they had an appetite to innovate and to support startups.

The day before the selection, I called the main stakeholder and asked if he was free for a coffee so I could address any final questions. He replied he was. So the next day, I flew several hours to New Delhi (I don’t think he knew I had no plans to be in the city otherwise) and during that meeting, I closed the deal.

They then put us on a compressed timeline to launch a pilot to test our chops. Two and a half years on — Uber continues to be a marquee relationship for BigSpring. Recently, our point of contact at Uber ended up coming over to join the BigSpring team. There is no better endorsement for a startup.

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?

We had landed a large relationship with global rollout potential and the first country for launch was Indonesia. I’ve always prided ourselves on agility and that we can launch within days of confirmation. I thought we had done it again. Only a week after sign off — and this was through the Christmas holidays — we were armed with custom-made training videos for the customer, all learners onboarded and set up. We triggered launch emails to all our users and had a record update. What ensued was a deluge of emails proclaiming no one could even find the BigSpring app on the playstore. We were not listed in Indonesia and this was totally on me. For some reason , I had earlier decided to launch BigSpring in only select countries versus globally. We kicked off the approval process, which took days but it felt like a lifetime and was in total contrast to all the momentum we had built up leading to the launch.

I apologized to my team, tail between my legs. I thought it was a great opportunity to emphasize a culture that acknowledges mistakes and focuses on recovery not perfection. We started a team channel called “Best New Mistakes”, which essentially acknowledged mistakes yet held us accountable to not repeat them, instead create new ones.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

BigSpring is a mission oriented company with the goal of providing people with the relevant skills to remain employable and enjoy a better quality of life. Early on, I recognized that many people risk being unemployable because their skills are not in sync with market needs. This is because we measure learning in terms of hours and test scores and while this makes people “test ready”, they are not always “job ready”.

Taking on the global skilling crisis means taking on one of today’s most daunting challenges. When I embarked on this journey, I recognized that while I felt a deep sense of purpose, I had little domain expertise. So before I built a digital platform, I went analog. I spent several years “in the trenches”, understanding ground realities. I explored models of vocational training across the world.

One day, at the end of an onsite soft skills training program in a small town, a field worker at a public utility expressed his thanks because he not only better understood expectations at work but also felt more equipped to raise his children. This made me realise how learning delivered in a relevant, engaging and accessible way can impact job performance and also impact lives well beyond the job. It was from this experience that I committed to the philosophy that learning has to be both measurable and human-centered.

Today, customers frequently tell us BigSpring is “so relevant”. I attribute that feedback to my years in trying to understand the real problems employers and learners face everyday.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re working on an exciting initiative with Carbon — an online bank in West Africa — to upskill SMBs (small and medium businesses). Carbon recently launched loans for SMBs and has partnered with BigSpring to deliver financial literacy skills to their SMB customers, many of whom are taking on their first loan. These SMBs are now equipped with better financial management skills to more efficiently manage their capital and their business. And, Carbon benefits from acquiring and retaining customers with enhanced creditworthiness.

Much of today’s online learning is focused on knowledge workers like engineers and data scientists working at large-name employers, but we forget these jobs account for only a sliver of the global workforce. SMBs are the engines of economic growth — they employ almost 50% of the workforce in the US and over 80% in Nigeria. It’s imperative we find ways to reach these smaller businesses and upskill their teams. I’m excited that BigSpring is among the few platforms that enables this.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM?

Not at all. I recently conducted a CTO search with a very well regarded Executive Search firm. I was presented 25 candidates or so and only one — the last one — was a woman.

What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Many women don’t “qualify” for Tech leadership roles simply because they have not had a shot at it before (versus they are not good at it). Leaders need to focus on ensuring career progression for women on our teams to ensure we start creating a bench of women who do qualify and who set the precedent for others.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

This is related to what I said above — not enough women have done it and this means we have to contend with misplaced stereotypes that women cannot do it or are not good at it. We need to quash these stereotypes and ensure young women get the right encouragement from family, teachers and peers, to pursue all the options available to them.

I grew up with two sisters, my mom and a super encouraging dad. I went to an all-girls school. I realize now this was an interesting social experiment because I was never subject to a comparison of what boys can do versus what girls can do. I never got the memo that there were differences in perception. My first encounter with this was at the end of my Freshman year when a fellow student asked me if I planned to drop out of the Computer Science program because I was a girl. Fortunately, by then I was relatively strong minded and his comment slid off my back.

My suggestion though is not to raise young women in all-female environments, rather to ensure we do not perpetuate baseless stereotypes on what each gender can and cannot do.

What would you suggest to address this?

We need to find avenues to amplify the stories of role models — women who have thrived in Tech. This column is a good example of that.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I question the aspiration to “have it all”. It creates an impractical standard — I think a purposeful life is as much about closing options as it is about creating them. In a simple example, I was far more social and connected to my friends before than I am now, because I am running a fast growing startup while raising two young kids. And while I try to maintain some semblance of the social life I used to have, I recognize I can’t do what I used to as a single person in a corporate job and that’s a choice I’ve made in my current path.

What are five leadership lessons you learned from your experience as a woman in STEM or tech — please share the “why” behind each point, a story or example for each.

“Barriers are perception”. I was once told this by one of the most phenomenally successful women in India when I asked her about being a woman leader. While I don’t think she was diminishing the problem at hand, she did offer a pragmatic orientation. I know that gender biases won’t get solved overnight and I seek ways to keep moving ahead. Sometimes, I find that being a woman is actually an advantage. For instance, as an entrepreneur, you’re always seeking visibility and being a woman in a crowd of men certainly provides that.

Grit simply means you ‘Show up’. I’ve had a tremendous journey these past three years as the launch of BigSpring coincided with the birth of my two children. I launched BigSpring a few months after my daughter was born and had my son earlier this year at the onset of the pandemic. Combine the sleepless nights of parenting with the extreme highs and lows of a startup and it can all get quite demanding. I’ve found I best move forward when I set lofty goals for the long-term and simply focus on ‘showing up’ day-to-day.

Seek healthy tension. I seek to be appropriately uncomfortable with contending priorities. For instance, I’m fine doubling down on tactical stuff for a few days at the expense of focusing on longer term priorities for my business. But if I remain in that mode for weeks on end, I start squirming because I know a less urgent but important priority is being neglected.

Go with your compass, not your clock. I’ve had two jobs before I founded BigSpring and while both were financially comfortable, neither was my highest offer. I went with what felt right and what aligned with my long-term goals of entrepreneurship. I also described earlier how I spent years in the trenches, in what I now call BigSpring “Analog”. It felt terribly slow sometimes but it provided invaluable experience that I consider instrumental to today’s success. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast and it’s best to calibrate progress against your goals versus against your peer group.

Nurture yourself. I’m an avid traveler and my good friend and coach, Julie Cohen, once gave me the example of how when on a flight they tell you to wear your own oxygen mask before you put it on for others. I’ve realized I’m best positioned to support others when my own tank is filled — by eating well, yoga, and so on.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Make time to zoom out. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day tasks of a fast growing startup and lose touch with the goals. I’ve found it imperative to communicate what’s ahead for us, six to twelve months down the road. This perspective sets a clear direction for the team and also makes room for growth, ensuring everyone is moving on to newer and bigger things. I like to look back every six months and see a clear evolution in our processes and priorities.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

As a self-professed learning geek, I’ll say hold people accountable for best practices and behaviors versus targets. If the former is in place the latter will follow. For instance, a good salesperson is always selling not only during a challenging environment as we’ve had this year but also when they’ve met their targets.

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?

By far my mother, who has unequivocally supported me, even when she didn’t fully comprehend my choices and goals. The most pivotal time may have been when I was seventeen and had decided to apply to schools in the US. My mother later told me that she thought it was just a phase and I would lose interest. I was the youngest among my siblings and among a large extended family of cousins. We didn’t have a precedent for someone moving so far away for college and I can imagine she was terribly uncomfortable with it as a mother. Yet, as she saw my resolve she put aside her own inhibitions and supported me. Having the unwavering support of my parents has gone a long way in establishing my own confidence.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

BigSpring is on a mission to help people remain employable through lifelong skilling. We believe this is among the most important problems of our time. The global skills crisis has staggering consequences. By 2030, many of today’s jobs will require upskilling, many jobs will disappear, and more new ones will emerge that don’t exist today, collectively impacting billions of people. It’s imperative that people are equipped with relevant skills to be gainfully employed and have access to the future.

Our platform is of particular importance to address today’s staggering job displacements, exacerbated by COVID-19. BigSpring intends to play a defining role in re-employment, to enable economic recovery and has committed to upskilling one million learners (equal to our total learner base today) in 2021.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Lifelong skilling for everyone!

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Chance favors the prepared mind.”

We’re always hearing about success stories after they’ve happened but we don’t hear enough about how long it took to get there. I firmly believe that for an entrepreneur there is no such thing as good timing — either you’re early and you slug it out and you’re right there, prepared, when it’s the “right time” — or you’re too late.

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?

I continue to be amazed by Bill Gates, both the business impact he’s had and also how he took to philanthropy so early in his career.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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