Can the Path to Career Growth Lead One AWAY From the Corner Office?

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The traditional corporate dynamic is built on a clear “dangling carrot” model. This is the idea that the best way to motivate employees is through a uniform system of rewards, which most people are familiar with long before their first entry-level position. But what does one do when they’ve landed “a real job” and find that the “corner office,” the shiniest of all corporate carrots, is unappealing? Khyati Sundaram came to that epiphany while performing the kind of dedicated, mid-level employee work that was sure to gain the recognition of her superiors: burning the midnight oil to push through an important deal.

BYP spoke to Sundaram about her career and why she advises mid-career job seekers to “reverse interview” their potential employers, as it can ensure that even a lateral move will keep them engaged and motivated.

BYP: Some people, even though they might not like where they work, appreciate the familiarity and use comfort as a safety net. What gave you the confidence to leave and find something new?

Khyati Sundaram: It’s deeply personal to me, coming from a middle class, Indian background, my parents and entire family is in India. I came to England when I was just 20, in search of better opportunities. A lot of the expectation from my family and friends was, “Stick with it, you’ve got a great job.” And that’s the expectation that I still carry from my family. It takes a lot of courage to live outside the traditional expectations of society. I always did something when I was told not to do it or didn’t think it’ll appeal to others. I knew [this position] mattered to people around me. But I knew it wasn’t the thing that would make me happy. Because I knew I didn’t want the corner office in the corporate world. 

BYP: What is it that keeps you going, then? What is it that sticks out to you?

Khyati Sundaram: It’s important to know, that a lot of the times, we’re all confused. We’re all on a journey, we’re trying to understand ourselves. And even in my mid-20s, I don’t think I fully knew myself. What was clear in my mind was that I wanted to build the best business ever and not just on an operating level, but on a human level. 

BYP: You started your own company before Applied. What was the process for you to create a startup? And when you realised after three years that the chapter was closed, what did that look like for you as CEO?

Khyati Sundaram: I look back fondly on that time  of my first startup. It came out of an academic project. My co-founder and I were both studying for our MBA. We used to debate  the technology drivers that can change the face of the world. And the constant was ‘How can we solve the biggest problems using technology?’ I firmly believe that there are a lot of problems that can be solved using tech. One such problem was waste in our world’s supply chains: how do you add sustainability, especially looking at pricing. My co-founder’s deep knowledge of supply chain was a defining moment for me at that point. For me, it’s about the team first; find the right team and any problem solves itself. 

BYP: Looking back on that journey, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs today?

Khyati Sundaram: First thing is, it’s easier to have a co-founder because they can really feel the trials and tribulations of your every day. Find a co-founder, in the same head space and on the same journey as you. Secondly, another one close to me, a lot of the networks are inaccessible as young entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds, so be able to navigate that challenge head on. It’s still a problem I’m trying to solve since I’ve personally experienced it at several levels. 

BYP: What advice would you also give to individuals like yourself that are very academically accomplished, and then they get the rude awakening that those accomplishments don’t guarantee employment?

Khyati Sundaram: One of my favorite quotes is “Be like water.” Bruce Lee said it a long time ago. It’s about trying to be adaptable and working with a situation. A lot of situations, especially for under-represented groups, are much harder; so, a lot of the population may not be able to resonate with you. But in the end, I think it’s about adaptability and self awareness while navigating it. 

BYP: What has that experience been like for you? What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced? 

Khyati Sundaram: I’ll start with the obvious bit. In the corporate world – and at least this is how it was seven to ten years ago, I think it’s improving now – quite often you have a glass ceiling and women can’t progress. At that time banking was notorious, I think that it’s changing a lot in the wake of corporate governance changing.  Many times, I was the only woman or brown woman in the room and I just didn’t act/behave/talk the way the group expected me to! It’s of course not a problem today but ten years ago it was.

BYP: How are some of the ways that Applied has helped the Black community and Black professionals?

Khyati Sundaram: The lack of women and women of colour in tech is a big problem. Our latest data shows that tech powered debiased processes such as Applied can increase the success of women in the workforce by 3x. 45% of our hires into tech firms are women. Whereas in the tech industry,the average is about 30% women. 

BYP: What is your vision for a partnership between Applied and the BYP Network?

Khyati Sundaram: The vision for Applied is 10 years from now the world is completely different – the world hires ethically. There are no CVs or resumes and we’re not hiring on antiquated norms from the 14th century. We use science over speculation, research over resumes and insights over instinct. 

BYP: What would be your advice to our network members, like the key takeaways you want them to gain from this interview?

Khyati Sundaram: It depends on their journey.  But for someone who is in the middle level of their career journey and is looking for lateral changes,  I would suggest pushing for more information, to make more informed decisions. A lot of the time we don’t really hold employers accountable. 

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