She Brings Bollywood Flair to Silicon Valley Tech

Monica Kumar keeps enterprise software company Nutanix focused on inspiring people and exceeding customer expectations.

By Joyce Riha Linik

By Joyce Riha Linik March 2, 2020

It’s not easy to become a senior leader in the competitive world of Silicon Valley. It requires vision, tenacity and the ability to build teams that repeatedly achieve big results. But Monica Kumar argues it takes more: a little Bollywood flair plus degrees in mechanical engineering and business.

“Sure, you need grit, determination and the ability to juggle many things at once, but keeping the focus on people, both employees and customers, is the key to success.”

Kumar grew up in Rajasthan, India and got hooked on Hindi cinema at an early age. For her, the traditional Bollywood plotline was and remains irresistible: it’s vibrant, full of triumphs and tribulations, filled with larger-than-life characters overcoming unforeseen challenges using ingenuity and grit, along with colorful outfits, sparkly jewelry and a few over-the-top musical numbers for literally any occasion.

In her favorite film, the classic Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham, which translates roughly to “sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness,” Kumar said she’s found a recipe for work and life.

“The great thing about Bollywood movies is that they are full of emotion and drama, ups and downs, just like in life, ” said Kumar. “But no matter how much drama and how bad the situation, things always work out in the end.”

Maintaining that perspective helps her thrive in Silicon Valley, a place that sometimes feels like a pressure cooker fraught with complex projects, looming deadlines, and intense interactions. Add to that the challenge of juggling family obligations and often unbearable Bay Area traffic.

Kumar, who moved to Silicon Valley in 1991, knows all this firsthand.

In addition to raising two kids while running a household of eight, including her parents and in-laws, Kumar has risen through the ranks in the tech world. During her 22-year stint at Oracle, she worked side-by-side some of the biggest names in business software and launched groundbreaking market solutions, including the world’s first self-driving Oracle Autonomous Database Cloud.

In 2019, she joined Nutanix as Senior Vice President of Marketing, responsible for building a global team to drive global Go-to-Market (GTM) messaging, thought leadership and category creation efforts for the company. Just prior, she received a “2017 Powerful Women of the Bay” award from the CDA Consulting Group and a “2017 Women of Influence” award from The Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Kumar believes Bollywood movies have helped her develop the skills and leadership style to get where she is today.

“We can get past all the challenges and stresses in life, and work through those ups and downs we fall into,” she said. “Things work out. It’s about staying optimistic and persevering. It’s about breaking into a song and dance when things look grim because that will bring positive energy and tide you over the rough time.”

A Vision for Customer-Driven Solutions

Kumar helps guide the launch and marketing of products and solutions that enable Nutanix customers to shift their focus from keeping-the-lights-on IT tasks to solutions that serve and enhance their own clients’ needs, now and in the future.

“We’d like to help IT become a more proactive, customer-focused organization,” she said. “We want to support IT to become a partner to their business.”

According to Kumar, powerful software can help IT teams automate repetitive and time-draining tasks, including system updates, backups and provisioning to meet growing needs. This helps IT pros to become more innovative and strategic. 

“Time is the most precious thing we have that can never come back once spent,” she said. 

She believes technology can tackle challenging issues and give us time to focus on what matters the most. 

With so much information created and collected at any given moment, humans can’t manage and access it in a meaningful way without the help of computing.

“People want to do things faster,” Kumar said. “We want instant outcomes. There’s no way we can do that without automation.” 

She said people now must leverage the power of machines, software, robots and technologies like AI to get more things done efficiently and securely.

“Doctors and researchers are already using machine learning algorithms and AI models to accurately predict what type of medicine would be applicable to certain diseases,” she said. 

“And look at self-driving cars. Although I may not trust my Tesla 100 percent yet, there are times when I can have a conversation without worrying about changing lanes or watching for someone approaching too fast from the rear.”

Transformative Power of People

While digital transformation is changing the old ways of doing business, Kumar said success is always based on human ingenuity and determination.

“Where companies often fail is that they focus on the tech and forget about the organization and the people involved,” said Kumar.

“It takes transformation in the whole organizational structure and processes to make such a shift. There needs to be focus on bringing people in and up-leveling their skill sets.”

As more tasks get automated by technology, Kumar sees an opening for more collaboration across the company between different teams and technology services. She’s already seen this happen with the rise of DevOps, where developers team up with IT operations to create and implement new data technologies. She also sees the growing need for skills.

“There’s a rising need for consistent computing experiences across on-premise and cloud services,” she said. 

“At Nutanix, we’re helping educate future hybrid cloud and automation engineers who can make this happen for every industry.”

CIOs she talks to need cloud engineers desperately. She learns from them what skills are desirable and what would be required for someone to become a certified hybrid cloud engineer.

Leveling the Field for Women Leaders

When Kumar attended Malaviya National Institute of Technology in Jaipur, India, she was the only woman studying mechanical engineering. When she started an internship at a company that manufactured ball bearings, where she was supposed to be working on the floor, she quickly discovered that the men there, while “nice,” wouldn’t let her lift a finger, or a mere hammer, as the case happened to be. It was a cultural thing, as women were not supposed to do the “heavy lifting.”

It didn’t take long for her to know this position was not right for her. Her mother was a professor and her father was a judge, and both raised her to break free of limits often imposed on women. 

“I realized I did not want to be in manufacturing or in any back office,” she said. “I knew I had to be part of the decision making, and step up into a leadership role to have the impact that would make me feel fulfilled professionally and personally.”

Like the protagonist in a Bollywood flick, Kumar confronted the challenge in a big way. She moved to the U.S., where she earned her MBA at San Jose State University, and shortly after, landed her first job in a Silicon Valley tech company.

The experience of being one of few women in the tech sector and one of even fewer to rise to the senior ranks in the male-dominated tech field, Kumar said she understands the importance of leveling the playing field for those with grit and following their dreams.

She sits on the board of Watermark, a Bay Area-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership positions. She advises girls and young women on how to pursue their interests in STEM. She’s devoted to helping women achieve leadership positions.

“My personal passion is making sure there are a lot more voices in decision-making from women and for them to be able to participate,” said Kumar. I know there is an inordinate amount of spotlight on women in leadership, but real change happens with action. It is imperative that we bring our male colleagues along on this journey and ask for their support.

“Women are 50 percent or so of the world population, and we need to be represented fairly for us to have a just and equal workforce.”

Kumar said while women need to continue to develop “hard skills” such as computing or mathematics, she also encourages them to not be afraid to bring empathy, compassion, and authenticity to work, and to master other “soft skills” such as exhibiting leadership, negotiating, and dealing with being interrupted or talked over, something young women often encounter.

Kumar often points to lessons she learned from her mentors, a lot of whom were men.

“The one thing I’ve learned from all of them is focus and clarity,” she said.

“Instead of doing 10 things, focus on the one thing you can do to make an impact. Keep it simple and results-oriented.”

She believes that the most important traits of a leader are empathy and compassion. People who don’t care about and uplift other people shouldn’t manage teams.

She also learned from them and her own experience the importance of tenacity.

“Not everything is successful from Day 1,” Kumar said.

“It’s about not giving up. If you believe in something, you have to go all the way. You have to go through the downs to get to the day when you see the ups and the successes.”

Kind of like a Bollywood movie.

Joyce Riha Linik is a contributing writer. Find her on Twitter @JoyceRihaLinik.

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