Profile with Roopa Unnikrishnan

Roopa Unnikrishnan (India & Balliol 1995) is the Founder of Center10 Consulting LLC and Senior Executive Advisor for Center for Talent Innovation. She lives in New York with her husband and two children. Ms. Unnikrishnan holds an MBA from the University of Oxford, an MPhil in Economic and Social History from the University of Oxford, an MA in History from University of Madras, Ethiraj College, and a BA in History, Politics, and Economics from University of Madras, Women’s Christian College.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in New York?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: We have a lot of art in the city, and I also have a daughter who is very artistic. It’s a boring answer, but my favorite thing to do is to go down to the Village, hit some of the art galleries, and see some of the emerging art that is out there. And of course there are the museums. It’s constantly evolving, but that’s what we love.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: It’s hard to call it a job, but an experience I had when I was out in India was working for a family friend and thinking about how they use technology in their business. It was an advertising hoarding business, and it was literally a few guys with a paintbrush designing and defining it. I was a kid in school, made a brief presentation, and it made me feel good that there was something out there. But when I think about it now, it was so out of sync with where their business was, but it was fun. I should have taken a cue then—I’ve always had a bit of a consulting mind. Over the years, the sense of understanding context and limitations has grown into a lot of my work. I was much more naive then; I’m certainly much more sophisticated about it now, but that would be a theme through all of it.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: I read quite voraciously, especially now that I can download everything on my Kindle. There’s a book written by a friend of ours, Anand Giridhardas, from a couple of years ago. It’s called India Calling: An Intimate Portrayal of a Nation’s Remaking. It’s interesting because this is a friend who grew up here in the United States and decided in his 20s to go to India. The case studies he uses are fascinating. He writes about young people — sometimes if you’ve grown up in that milieu, you almost don’t see them — who have redefined expectations of themselves. When you come from a very hierarchical environment, it is a hard thing to do. By virtue of being in situations where there are no expectations of you, they have actually been able to vault over these bars that have been placed before them. They have gone off and set up enterprises. A lot of it is about how small enterprise is changing in India.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: When I was a kid, I was a bit of a dreamer. What I loved was this idea of being in the Indian Administrative Service. It was set up by the British. It’s been called “the iron backbone of Indian polity.” You do this rigorous exam. Literally of hundreds of thousands write the series of exams every year, and thirty of them get to be in the Indian Administrative Service. The rest of them make it into other services. I really thought that’s what I wanted to do! And then I got my Rhodes, went out into the world, and realized there is a bigger world out there, and a world that is probably less restrictive. In India, at the end of the day, if you are working at the backbone, that means you are constricted by the expectations and the politicians that surround you. So that went by the wayside, but it’s still an interesting principle because you can be a generalist. You can actually write your papers. You get to choose. You can be an anthropologist, and then, having written the exam, you can run a whole state very quickly. It’s a very interesting generalist model that is still important to me.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: I have now set up my own consulting firm. I joke that I like my boss a lot! But what I do enjoy is that my client work gives me permission to truly engage around ideas or questions that have not been answered before for the client in that situation. It isn’t a “let’s go cut costs” kind of job. It’s a “what are the possibilities?” job, and that’s a great thing. That’s my high. There are people who enjoy being able to say, “I am a master of _____, and I will do this.” “I am a master of accounting, and you will always get the best results.” “I am a master of risk management,” etc. In essence, I come at it not from a position of “received knowledge” but of exploration. I am going to very quickly make us all much more knowledgeable about something. That’s the role I tend to be play, and that’s what I like.

Rhodes Project: What would you say is the most challenging part?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: The exact same thing. I think the most challenging part is getting people to see that there is value in these fuzzy spots. It’s so much easier to sell the idea of, “I’m going to come in and manage your risks.” In my case, what I say is, “There are a couple of things I do that are clear and defined. My history of the benefits I’ve delivered is very clear and defined. But I cannot tell you that, at the end of this process, you will have a new business set up. I can tell you that there will be changes. But it may not be in having set up a new business. It might actually be being told that the best thing to do is exit a business.” So that tends to be a little tougher as a sell because with the outcome, the only thing I can promise is probably significant change.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman just starting her career?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: I would say, try and fit in as much of your experiences in early. Don’t put anything off. It’s not constrained to me – how much travel you do with your life and your career? How many moves can you make to build out your capabilities? Be a much more purposeful traveler in your career. I travel – geographically and in my career and life. And sometimes it’s been pure serendipity. I’ve allowed the serendipity to take me at every point. At Oxford, I remember doing my project in Jamaica. I decided to go to Jamaica because of one of my close friends in business school was from there. And my question to myself at that point was, I’m in Jamaica, in the financial ministry, what am I learning? Is there something that we can be doing with this information that is productive and more generalizable? I think that’s the piece that you need to constantly be asking yourself. How can you make this more generalizable, and usable in your broader context? For a young woman, the gender element of it only comes in because, depending on the choices you make, if you choose to have a family, for example, there will be one more filter that needs to be used as your manage your career. If you can try to be as purposeful as possible at the beginning, I think that would be great. Some of my mentees have been great entrepreneurs. They did that early in their time. If you are an entrepreneur who had impact before or around the time you’re thirty, you’ve got another 30 or 40 years in which to do other things with your life. So don’t put anything off thinking that you’ll get to it eventually. Do it now, I’d say.

Rhodes Project: Whom do you admire?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: I truly do admire the folks who have redefined spaces that did not exist before. There are people who came out of the Columbias, Harvards, and Oxfords, who said, “The easy thing for me to do is to go into financial services or consulting”—things that I did for example—and that’s great. It’s not ease because these are not easy jobs, but there is smaller degree of variability in what your experiences are going to be. But there are people who came out of B-school and said, “There’s this whole thing called venture capital that’s emerging. What do you think that is? I’m going to try to get into it.” Or, “Social media, I know what it is, but I am going to help define it.” “There is this whole thing called socially responsible investing or socially responsible organizations. I’m not clear what it is, but I’m going to figure it out.” I think those are the people who I admire. The people who are American and decide to pick up and live in India or China. People who try to make more of their opportunities than be safe. There is always time to be safe later. Sometimes it is a factor of whether or not you feel you have something to fall back on, a family that is supportive, etc. But sometimes it is about how much discomfort you are willing to put yourself in for a little while in order to learn. Those are the folks that I admire.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: Now that the kids are here, we are quite sporty. We bike a lot. It has evolved a lot since the kids came along, but that is what we do.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in your life?

Roopa Unnikrishnan: It’s the kids. The one thing, hopefully, you learn as a parent is that there is only so much you can actually mold in your children. A lot of what you can do is expose them to new things, and see how they pick them up, and shift and change. Almost every day there is something one of the kids will say—I have twins who are almost ten—and it will reconfirm your faith in the future. And that’s what I love. Yesterday, there was a “60 Minutes” program with a piece on the Newtown shooting. And the discussion we had was not one that I remember having when I was that age. The discussion showed so much empathy, and a sense of jurisprudence I wouldn’t have expected at all. “How do you link mental health and the legal system? How do you separate a sport from the impact of the sport?” Here are two nine-year-olds sitting down and discussing this as equal contributors to the discussion. It was a pretty amazing experience for me.

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