When “How I Lead” was suggested as a topic, I had to pause to consider how my thinking has evolved on the subject. How did I lead earlier in my career? How do I lead today? What has changed? What has remained constant? How do I synthesize what has worked particularly well?
I have founded and run four companies since 1994. In each case, I had a mission for value creation that was big, bold, important, clear, and I always made sure the mission was communicated to everyone on my team and to the external world with utmost authenticity.
When I started DAIS in 1994, my mission was to jumpstart a technology industry in Calcutta, using my MIT Computer Science background to plug my birthplace into the global startup eco-system. My team of ~50 understood that mission well. I also got the media to root for us, inspiring them with that vision. This helped us tremendously in recruiting talent at a time when “startup” and “Calcutta” were incongruous concepts.
Three years later, in 1997, with more experience and perspective, I envisioned Intarka, a product company that would be built out of India with deep ties into Silicon Valley, drawing from the Valley’s Venture Capital industry. This was a time when Indians were primarily body shopping, and the now world-famous Indian IT Services industry was just gathering early momentum. “Product” was far from anybody’s mind. My team, however, got inspired by this bold, futuristic vision, and helped me deliver a beta product in nine months. The technology had core IP (Artificial Intelligence, again, way before its time), and I did raise venture capital in Silicon Valley from NEA. The story didn’t end well, because we made a hiring error in bringing an incompetent CEO on board, and he fired me.
In 1999, I envisioned Uuma, one of the first-ever personalized online fashion brands focused on busy professional women. I was, once again, way before my time. However, the clarity of the mission was unquestionable. I had no difficulty recruiting high-quality team members, including Bruce Baas whom I hired out of Bergdorf Goodman as our VP of Merchandising. And once again, because of the clarity and boldness of our vision, we were able to get tremendous media coverage in the fashion industry, close important deals with top designers, and eventually catch Ralph Lauren’s attention as an acquisition target.
Today, I run One Million by One Million (1M/1M), the first and only global, virtual accelerator in the world. The mission is clear and bold: to democratize entrepreneurship education and incubation. To help a million entrepreneurs reach a million dollars and beyond in annual revenue. To help build a trillion dollars in global GDP. We are, once again, somewhat ahead of our time. However, we have been able to communicate our vision with tremendous clarity and focus, and build momentum behind the concept. I am willing to give this endeavor the next 30 years to make it successful. That clarity, that focus, that commitment, that conviction is compelling. My team, our customers, our community, our partners – all find it inspiring.
So, to net it out, my humble advice to all those who are trying to learn leadership, is to achieve clarity in your own mind, first, on what you want to achieve. Clarity is the highest form of human intelligence. It is very hard to achieve. Human mind is a cluttered place. Sifting through that clutter and finding a core mission isn’t an easy endeavor.
Once you have clarity in your own head, the next thing to learn is how to communicate that vision to your stakeholders. What is the narrative you build around the vision that helps you inspire people around you?
And finally, of course, execution. Not one day. Not one week. Not one month. You need to execute every day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Persistence, resilience, staying power — ultimately, these strengths win over market challenges. I didn’t always have staying power in my career. Earlier on, I had visa challenges as an immigrant on H1B. This put me in a corner when I got fired from Intarka. I could not control that externality. I could not fight back. Over time, however, I have acquired staying power, and today, I am able to stand before you and say that I will give my vision for 1M/1M 30 years of my life.
One of my great weaknesses, as you may have noticed in reading this article, is timing. I am generally ahead of my time. I am aware of this weakness. This is why, for my work to achieve its full actualization, staying power is super important. To develop and educate the market and tackle the timing issue, I need to give my vision a chance over a longer horizon. My choice not to take venture capital is an important one in acquiring this longer runway.
At the end of the day, brilliance will only get you so far. Leadership and brilliance are not the same. Leadership requires the willingness to do mundane things, paying attention to details that many brilliant people would consider beneath them.
My interest is in fully seeing my vision through to fruition, however long it takes. I conceptualize with clarity and boldness, I communicate with authenticity, and I execute with focus. It works, more or less.
By Sramana Mitra
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