Soujanya Damera has successfully navigated career and personal challenges to become a leader in JDA’s Center of Excellence in Hyderabad. A project director in the Product Management group, she talks about her path at JDA and how mentors and leaders she’s encountered in her journey have inspired her to lead a Women’s Interest Network chapter, and how those same leaders have modeled a brand of culture, innovation and motivation that inspires her daily. As a single mom to two wonderful kids, she is a great example of how dealing with personal grief can often lead to learnings and growth.
Tell us about yourself and your family.
I am a single mom to two wonderful kids Nishad and Dhruhin. Nishad is in medical school and Dhruhin is in 7th grade. I am a voracious reader, love spending time with my kids and I watch a lot of TED talks and documentaries.
How have you managed the single mom balance?
In 2010, my husband passed away in an accident. I was working in the U.S. at the time and came back to India, which is when I first started working at JDA. After a year, I realized I was trying to spend a lot of time at work and balancing my work and family was tough. My family was helping out but it was tough on the kids. I decided to enroll them in boarding school where they would come back on the weekends and we would spend time together. It worked out well and my kids loved it. It also helped when I did a lot of traveling for work.
You were at JDA, left and came back. Can you talk about that career progression?
As mentioned, I first joined JDA in 2010. I started in the pricing and revenue management area. I put in a lot of work and my career progressed quickly. While building a product, I had an opportunity to work with Suresh Acharya and Praveen Sarigala who was my direct line manager. They have been very influential in my career in JDA and both suggested that I be exposed to other supply chain optimization engines. So I expanded my role into the manufacturing domain into i2’s (now JDA) optimization tool. It was a big challenge for me.
After that, I wanted to explore other SaaS opportunities and do something in cloud. There was an opportunity at a company called Model N that was doing a SaaS transformation of a legacy product. I left JDA and joined Model N where I owned that product and spent a year in the U.S. selling the product. I then went into consulting for their cloud management and cloud operations. While doing that, I heard about an opportunity in product development at JDA and because it was close to what I was doing, I came back. JDA was always a company I wanted to work for again simply because of the culture.
I now work for the core complement group and am part of the SaaS transformation team for our core products. I am also the Women’s Interest Network (WIN) chapter lead for Hyderabad.
How did you get involved in WIN and become the chapter lead?
When I joined JDA, I saw the transformation from Girish [Rishi, JDA CEO] right away. He is focused on innovation as well as giving women a seat at the table and an opportunity to execute. This was very different from my earlier years at JDA.
When I saw all of this, I knew I could get support through him. When I was at the inaugural Crystal Ball event last year, I heard all the ideas presented. There were very few women presenting in Hyderabad and in Bangalore. I thought we should start an innovation program for women at JDA and so I began to mentor 15 women in these offices. The idea was to mentor and coach them, providing them resources and guidance. As a result, three ideas were presented in the Crystal Ball Hyderabad, out of which one got an award! It gave me satisfaction to see that these women had brought forth ideas and were getting involved in technology and ideation. I then proposed this as a lead for the WIN chapter in India because I want to promote women in technology. It is not just about coding, but domain expertise and ideation coming together with technology. I wanted to see how it would impact female associates and how it would that transfer to business.
What is a piece of advice you have about those that want to get into leadership?
Titles do not matter to me. Don’t get hung up on that. It is always going to be about the experience and creating value in your role. The journey is not about what role you have but the experience and impact you have.
What is the best advice you ever received? Who gave it to you?
There is a piece of advice I got from my CEO at my previous job. He said that we are always worried about the ‘how,’ but the ‘what’ and ‘why’ matters most. So now, I always ask myself the what and the why – what is the business implication? I don’t do my ‘how’ without a clear answer to both of those questions.
What is the best risk you’ve taken and why?
It was starting the WIN chapter at JDA. I just didn’t know how many people would join or how successful it could be. It was also an extra ‘job’ in addition to my role and would take time to cultivate. I wanted to make sure to guide and motivate them in the right way. That was a big risk to take.
Who is your role model?
I have always been inspired by Salil Joshi, who was heading up the CoE at the time. When I first joined in 2010, I was skeptical about the culture in India as I had never worked in India before. I was very impressed by the culture he built in the CoE. With an open-door culture, he was always available and talks to everyone and knows every single person’s name which is so impressive. He had a vision and focus for the CoE and developed a positive paranoia mantra which is now infused into the culture at JDA, and drives innovation and collaboration. He walks the talk and get things done, and will make changes if it is needed to reach a goal. And though he is a people person, that does not mean he is an ‘easy’ leader. You are inspired to be on your toes to deliver for him!
What makes JDA a great place for women to work?
The leadership commitment to women’s careers and leadership. Girish has made the commitment to give more women a seat at the table. He is constantly giving women opportunities and walking the talk. He recognizes that just having women in meetings doesn’t suffice and makes the effort to understand who will make an impact and take things to the next level.
What woman inspires you and why?
Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Option B inspires me greatly. She translated her grief into learnings. I truly admire her as she has helped a lot of women and urge women to lean in. She turns challenges into learnings and empowers women around the world.
I am also inspired by Indra Nooyi, former chairwoman at PepsiCo, who said women can’t have it all. She has redefined how to relook at your priorities while you go for what you want the most.
What characteristics do you believe every leader should possess?
Commitment and passion.
How do you motivate yourself and others?
As Daniel Pink in his book Drive shares: “the single greatest motivator is making progress in ones’ work.” I have always been motivated when I make progress and when I can connect the progress to the big picture and the impact I am making.
What book(s) are you reading right now?
I just finished Great by Choice by Jim Collins. It talks about the companies that are great are the ones that check the progress of that vision and make adjustments and course corrections. It is where I got the term positive paranoia. It is how you measure where you are going and making the change to direction to make sure you are going on the right path to achieve your goals. It is a great reminder that you can’t be a flatliner and to reach your goals, you need to take the risk, assess it, and realign your goals as needed to reach success.
I also just read The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. In it, he tells you that the way to leadership is to step forward and back. It was a really intriguing book.