Notes to myself … the memoirs of a STLher journey

Notes to myself … the memoirs of a STLher journey

Preface by Eklavya Sharma:

I had the honour of meeting Sakshi (or as we called her “Award-winning-Sakshi”) in the spring of 2017 when she became part of the team I was in at the time. Seldom do you meet professionals who are as driven as they are vulnerable. Sakshi taught me the power of believing in one’s self and being ready to take on any challenge. I’ve had the chance to watch her tale unfold at STL, a tale of change, of growth, of conquest! All of her well-wishers at STL root for her continued success. We are super excited to see the places she’ll go! 

I would encourage any young professional starting out at STL to learn about her journey! 

Here is Sakshi’s story, in her own words. 

Chapter 1: Marathwada

Little did I know what makes up a full-fibre connection until I walked into the gates of STL’s Aurangabad factory at Waluj – a shrine of world’s best optical  glass & fibre manufacturing – in the summer of 2015.

I was a part of the Graduate Engineer Trainee (GET) Program, which recruited 100+ GETs that year. Straight out of college, there was this newfound energy to be independent at the age of 21, to explore a new city and a zeal to make a mark in a new ecosystem- just what most Indian graduates head out to do.

The Aurangabad factory was a world in itself. From the gigantic sintering machines, processing mammoth glass preforms like hot cakes waiting to be loaded onto Draw Towers, converting every iota of that clear glass into a hair-strand like optical fibre.After a thorough induction of the factory, all the GETs based in Aurangabad were asked which team they preferred joining. While most GETs took up Fibre Draw or Outside Plant, my clear choice was Optical Glass, i.e., the Preform section. Yes, I was very clear in my head that I needed to start from the first part of the supply chain- the part where it all begins.

As a Process Engineer, I took up projects that involved getting the quality of optical glass right by –a) reducing scrap defects or yield loss, and b) minimizing the optical losses from glass. We had access to some of the brightest minds in Operations & Science working together to make it all possible. The exploration had just begun.

One of the most important milestones while working in Operations was when our project received recognition by Frost & Sullivan Project Evaluation & Recognition Program (PERP) 2016 for Process Innovation. Reducing generated glass scrap within a year of learning the optical glass manufacturing process was a big deal. It meant we could manufacture more fibre with the same amount of glass, and were able to utilize our raw materials more efficiently. This win instilled a lot of confidence in me. I remember getting my first tailored business suit made to receive this award in Mumbai. At the evening reception, I said to myself- this is just the beginning!

As my capabilities at the Operations side grew along with Optical Glass manufacturing knowledge, I had the insatiable urge to explore the value chain further. I had questions like – What is the journey the optical fibre takes once it is dispatched from our factory? Whom do we sell to in India and in International markets? How do we make the sale? How good is our product for our customers? What does the market size look like for all the fibre produced in the factory 24*7*365 days a year? 

This was around the same time when the news of the entry of one of the largest Indian telecom operators  was doing the rounds. I was reading about it in the media and trying to link it with everything I did at the factory. Coincidentally, around the same time, I also came to know through one of our Townhalls that we supported the biggest Telco in the UK and they are very appreciative of our product quality.

Building capability out of curiosity can take you far in STL. We call it ‘Hunger to Learn’. An opportunity for a Market Analyst role opened up in the Business Excellence Team at the Gurgaon office and I applied for the role internally. The next thing I knew was I got myself a much-needed haircut (a pixie!) the night before I boarded the flight to the capital.

(I would like to thank Sathis Ram and Abed Khan for introducing me to the world of optical glass & fibre and Priyanka Yadav for building up Aurangabad memories with me)

Chapter 2: Boom, Gurgaon!

Voila! Even before I could look for a house to settle in, I landed at Roseate, New Delhi (a popular location for Indian moviemakers) having won a ticket to CREST – Sterlite’s Annual Leadership Summit. As luck would have it, I met not only the STL management team, but also our Chairman, Mr Anil Agarwal. 

CREST 2017 set the stage for what Gurgaon had in store for me. 

The newly formed Business Excellence Team was entitled with the task of bringing about transformation in the ways STL thought, executed and delivered an impact for its stakeholders and customers. It was a small and agile team of five.  Our team leader always motivated us to think like the ‘brains’ of the organization. Aditi was not only a sharp thinker but also a fierce executioner. Before I had joined in, the other four had already identified key focus areas for the team – Sales Excellence topped the list. 

Rightly so.

At STL, our vision has always been larger than our storyboard. The organization was at a juncture where market proliferation mattered; the timing was just right. It was pivotal to not only identify new markets & grow, but also sustain the developed markets (where we supplied optical fibre & fibre cables). Parallelly, STL had laid the foundation stone for a new business vertical – Network Services (Design & Deployment), acquired Elitecore (STL’s software arm). It was also assessing a potential investment into the expansion of our manufacturing capacity. It was not like our Sales team had not chased an ambitious goal in the past, but this was going to be different. To our customer base, we wanted to break the notion of being only an Optical Fibre/Cable supplier. We aimed to bring an end-to-end solution to the table – or as we refer to it in STL- ‘an integrated approach’. This would mean: a) Helping our customers in multiple areas and solving more problems for them, and b) Expanding our customer base. To me, it was a hula-hoop idea, but the one, which, if balanced right, would make us the Sun.

What followed was a lot of work for us – I was entrusted with the task to gather Market Intelligence (around New Markets, Customers, Competition and Technology) and deliver  it  to the Management/ Sales team, facilitating key decisions towards end-to-end solutioning.

To put things into perspective, we were talking about revamping the Sales mindset of a 700 Mn dollar company in one quarter. Seeding new ideology now mattered the most. The only way STL could grow into a differentiated player. We organized a Sales Meet and designed the agenda to facilitate discussions around technology trends, new customer requirements, cross-selling & value-selling along with unique sales success stories from geographies. We fueled the engine and wanted to accelerate the speed at which we could reach the destination. 

The Sales team delivered great success and we won the Quarterly CEO Award for enabling the International Customer unit to deliver an INR 1000 Crore (USD 130 Mn) order book for that financial year. As we say at STL – Promises Delivered.

We worked hard and partied harder. I am ever thankful to Shubham SinhaEklavya Sharma and all the members of Business Excellence- they have helped me build structured thinking and a ‘can-do’ attitude

My gray matter was already expanding vigorously, whenI started to attend telecom conferences. At the India Mobile Congress,  I got to listen to the telecom fraternity and understood the scale of the impact we were making by empowering Telcos in our country to connect 1.3 billion people. In 2018, I attended the CRU conference (one of the biggest wire & cable events) in Hangzhou, China. I had the pleasure of representing STL at a round table with other market intelligence stalwarts from the industry.

I was absorbing the market landscape and helping STL take giant strides.

Just in time for the next adventure.

Chapter 3: Pre-Brexit UK

After  spending considerable time supporting the global sales team & STL’s management, I advanced onto the sales function. It was not an easy choice to make but I knew I had to make a move. On one hand, I had seen the pressures of Sales very closely from the Business Excellence Team. Yet on the other hand, there was an inner voice always challenging me to get into uncharted waters. Some very close peers, colleagues and my father suggested that I further introspect before making a decision.

The thrill of making a direct contribution to STL’s revenue was bigger than all the self-doubts. And I’d like to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson here, “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters to what lies within us.”

At the age of 25, I packed my bags, bid farewell to my loved ones and took a giant leap of faith. It was at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi that I felt I was leaving behind a big part of myself with no clue of what the future held. The move could result in two ways:  a) making my mark or b) become successful at Sales. There were no failure scenarios or Plan B. I still remember the dark night when I landed at London City Airport and went straight into a hotel room after eating a terrible Gnocchi for dinner. It was not going to be easy!

And it was not easy after all, namely because, a) I hadn’t been to any country outside India (apart from my  brief visit to China for the CRU conference), b) Food was difficult to figure out initially, c) the weather was terribly cold & windy for me, d) I had no friends or social life in London, and e) the 4-5 hours time difference between India and UK

Amidst all this, I was here to develop business for STL. 

John Davies guided me. He is a cool manager and truly goes by our value of ‘Keep it Simple’, be it at work or life. He taught me the ABCs of Sales in the UK. Also, he can kill for a good Indian curry!

I am a  firm believer in hard work, perseverance and above all, humility. These 3 qualities pretty much sum up my life. And even though settling in the UK took some time, there was not a spare moment when I was not looking for business leads, cold calling potential customers and looking to introduce myself in every industry conference. I had to be a known face. We already had considerable business in the UK with some very good customers. STL entrusted me with the task to look out for new business in the UK with alternate network operators, who had come up in the last 4 to 5 years, that were rolling out Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) rapidly. I had taken the task head-on. While my visa was up for processing, I had mapped the entire industry preparing myself to take the market by storm. In my head, my STL pitch was ready, I knew who my target customers were, and I knew the key stakeholders out there. All I looked forward to was identifying these faces I had seen on LinkedIn, in the conferences I attended. 

Very often I am the only woman at these conferences. While there has been a considerable shift in gender representation in India and the UK alike, a long journey lies ahead of us. All this while, I find myself fortunate enough to have worked with not just capable women at STL, but also with people from different nationalities (over twenty). It comes from our core value: to ‘Respect and Empathize’.

My personal target was to crack a customer within the first quarter of arriving in the UK. As unrealistic as it sounds,  I was able to receive my first purchase order in Sept 2019, in the 7th month. The sheer joy of having received your first purchase order cannot be described in words.  A bright ray of hope!

I was driving meaningful conversations with our prospective customers, trying to solve their problems, pushing our internal teams to propose solutions in time, discussing technical queries, deep-diving into the world of logistics and supply chain, and even picking up a few nuances of finance.

Suddenly, I was sitting at the farthest end of our value chain. 

Chapter 4: Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For the first six months of restrictions and lockdowns, time flew in gauging the situation and adapting. We had taken to video calls and laptops instead of face-to-face meetings. Suddenly, the commute time had lessened but the conversations kept on flowing. Progress with new customers had started to shape up considerably well and it was looking like we could be closing on some good deals within 2020 while the run-rate business continued to flow in. All this while, we had tremendous support from Phill Coppin, Kaj Kulstad and the entire factory at Silvassa under the leadership of Venkatesh Murthy who supported us with new customer requirements even when there were huge disruptions to the supply chain. I cannot miss mentioning a few folks who are an indispensable in making us successful- Our Design team (Jyotiprakash Parida, Kangabam Tenzing, Neha Thakur, Ajaykumar Gopi & team), our ISO team (Tony Fowler, Lee Lord), our Samples team (Indrajit Patra) and our Quality team (Sumesh Kumar & Gaurav Shrivastava) and the entire Production fraternity. They are our foundation, pillar and roof!

While building momentum in sales is easy, sustaining that momentum is not. It is a game of continual expectations. Managing expectations of one’s self, and the expectations of the one’s organization is not a hard task. The real key lies in managing the customer’s expectations. And that is where it matters the most.  

Netomnia is one of the early adopters of the XGS PON technology in the UK. They are a differentiated customer to us. Our deals  stand on a strong foundation of solving problems utilizing innovation ultimately helping them to scale. It is fun to solve problems for Netomnia.

The team at Networks Centre (our distribution partner in the UK) is like our extension now. They have helped us expand our outreach in the market.

Customer queries shape sales persona. Every question  is an opportunity to learn, collaborate, and solve a new problem. Sales is the ultimate bridge between the product and the customer. It is immersive; it is an experience; and it is addictive!  

Chapter 5: A look within!

In all the daily, weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, annually hustle bustle, we tend to forget the most important pillar of our life – our family and loved ones. Things became rough for us as a family when my father was diagnosed with cancer during Covid times. Those were tough days. Thankfully, all is well now. I would like to thank the HR & Admin team, the leaders at STL and my customers who were extremely supportive during that time. Special thanks to Aparna Yadav, Nishtha Khanna & Dineshbabu who were the family at STL providing rock-solid support. Now I make sure to follow up with my parents on their well-being, support my younger brother whenever he needs me, and try to be a good partner to Akshit (Oh right! In between all this, I also made time to get married!)

I have journeyed through 3 extremely different roles, teams, and geographies at STL. I continue to learn, explore and become more thorough in the market. It is a vast ocean and there is something to look forward to each day.  

“It’s not that we fear the place of darkness, but that we don’t think we are worth the effort to find the place of light.

Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself

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Notes to myself … the memoirs of a STLher journey

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