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Women In Business School: General Electric Chief Juggles Motherhood And Leadership

General Electric South Asia CCO on emerging market growth, maternity leave and her Harvard MBA

Wed Sep 2 2015

New mother Ipsita Dasgupta commutes for two hours a day through Mumbai traffic, dials in for conference calls most evenings from home and says she hasn’t slept more than three or four hours a night in six months.

Nevertheless Ipsita, who has worked in four multinational companies, said there’s nowhere she would rather work than General Electric while starting a family. “The support for women here is by far the best of all the companies I’ve worked for, which is surprising for an industrial company,” she said. “But I think that’s exactly why GE is such a good environment for women. We focus on results,” she said.

This is one of many insights that Ipsita shared with BusinessBecause during a recent interview, in which she also discussed the challenges for women executives in GE South Asia, and how she overcame her nerves to return to work after just eight weeks of maternity leave.  

Ipsita is currently Chief Commercial Officer for General Electric, South Asia. Born in India, she travelled the world growing up and earned her first degree, a double major in maths and economics, at Columbia University. In her early 20s, she completed the MBA at Harvard Business School and rose to senior strategy roles at IBM and then Cisco Systems, before joining GE in 2011.

As CCO, Ipsita takes the lead on marketing and strategy across India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. She is responsible for analysing GE’s market share in different sectors, and the changing needs of clients, and for identifying which businesses to focus on for growth. She is also responsible for the Bangladesh revenues and the largest key accounts in the region.

In South Asia, GE works with an increasing number of public sector clients that often need a combination of solutions from across the company. Ipsita connects with GE’s nine businesses to develop powerful, integrated solutions for clients. “It’s my job to bring the GE store to customers,” she said.

A typical day can include meetings with both public and private sector clients, and internal meetings with GE’s commercial leaders on market strategy, and with product teams globally to explain customer needs.

Ipsita travels frequently to major cities across South Asia and speaks to colleagues in headquarters several evenings each week.

Juggling a demanding work schedule with taking care of two six-month-old babies is not easy, and Ipsita praised the supportive attitude of her colleagues at GE, right up to the most senior levels. “GE is not a company that easily gives you a lot of balance. You work really hard but in my experience GE will take care of you when you need to take care of something.”

Ipsita’s role is particularly tough, as she works with colleagues across all of GE’s businesses. Returning to work after eight weeks of maternity leave, she was nervous that her brain would be “fuzzy”, but two things immediately put her at ease.

“First, I would get on calls and very senior people would say: ‘Congratulations, mom!’ Everyone knew that I had kids and acknowledged that additional responsibility,” she said.

“Secondly, no one treated me differently. I wasn’t left out or made to feel I couldn’t be involved in decisions. I was kept in the loop on everything, which was very valuable.”

She coordinates her busy travel schedule with her husband, an investment banker, to ensure that at least one of them is always at home to look after the babies. If they are both scheduled to travel at the same time, one of them will skip or move the trip, depending on who has more flexibility

Ipsita counts herself lucky to have help from her mother, a lawyer, who joined the family from Singapore when the babies were born. Ipsita and her husband divide night duties, and these days, they’re pretty sleep deprived.

“It’s tough. [I] try to leave the office before the traffic hits, and I’m on calls all the way home, and I typically have my last meeting at around 8pm. We’ve had long relationships with a lot of our customers so I don’t worry if they can hear a baby crying!” said Ipsita.

“I drink a ton of coffee, and make sure I am as prepared as possible,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s exciting and fun.”

Having benefited from GE’s supportive culture and strong women’s network, Ipsita sees it as part of her role to mentor and advocate for the next generation of young professionals in GE. While speaking at a coaching session, a comment from an Indian professional in her mid-20s made Ipsita realise how different the challenges are for women leaders in India, compared to the US.

“We [the panel] were talking about how we shared household chores with our husbands, and this young woman said: ‘You sound like you’re married to supermen, but this is not my reality.’”

The young woman said that when she left for work in the morning, her mother-in-law was in a bad mood; when she got home in the evening, her husband was in a bad mood. But at the office she had to be energised, and at home she had to do all the chores.

“That made me realise that women in India face different issues to women in the US. In India more women live with their in-laws. That’s an advantage, because there are more helping hands for the kids, but it’s a challenge because there are more stakeholders inputting on what women should be doing.”

Now, when Ipsita speaks to women’s groups, she encourages women to see their extended family as an opportunity. “If your toughest stakeholder is your mother-in-law, win her over!” In India, in GE’s healthcare business, employees organised a Bring Your Mother-in-Law to Work Day so that they could see how hard their daughters-in-law worked, and many became their daughters-in-law’s most fervent supporters.

Joint families can be amazing for improving gender equity in the workplace, observes Ipsita. While in the US, many of her class mates from Harvard Business School dropped out of work to look after their kids.

Ipsita is a champion of recruits to GE’s Experienced Commercial Leadership Programme (ECLP), and notes that half the recruits to the programme in China are women. She spends time coaching both men and women ECLPs: “It’s the greatest example of GE bringing in talent from the outside. I find the energy level really refreshing,” she said.

“I say to ECLPs: ‘Your job is to push us’. We want that external view. We want people who can embed themselves in the GE system while bringing in new ways of doing things.”

The ECLP programme is for people with at least five years of work experience and an MBA.

Reflecting on her own MBA experience at Harvard Business School, Ipsita says that the most valuable skill she learned was the ability to develop a credible and informed point of view on any project or idea.

“In a big company people sometimes go through the motions without developing a point of view.”

At business school other students push you and you learn to maintain your poise and to push back, and to change your position in light of new information.

“Business school graduates can handle very stressful situations,” said Ipsita, “And come to incredible outcomes.”

Follow Ipsita Dasgupta on Twitter