Michael page's leading women Priya Mohan of Venture Highway

As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia.

In this feature, Priya Mohan, Investor at Venture Highway, shares how being transparent, vulnerable and empathetic at the workplace are vital to having a meaningful career.

Q: Who was the first woman you looked up to, and why did you want to be like her?

I think the first impressionable woman in my life was my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Okay, you know, I have to give you a little bit of background. I come from a Tamil Brahmin family born and raised in Madras.

For a significant part of my life, till I was about 14, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She used to wear this nine-yards [saree]; till her death, she used to wear the nine yards. And she was extremely, extremely particular about food; she won’t touch garlic and onions, and she was extremely religious.

When you say I look up to a woman, I also want to caveat that it’s not just I took away some amazing points from her but also [learnt] things that I don’t want. So in that way, she influenced me both on the positive side and wanting to not do certain things.

She’s never taken a penny from all her children. She is, in fact, given a lot of money for our grandchildren's education. And it amazes me, one of the biggest things I took away from that woman is, with such a paltry amount, how this woman managed to give each of us lacks, right?

And that’s the biggest takeaway, she probably was the most uneducated, but the smartest money manager I’ve ever seen, who lived by Warren Buffett’s theme throughout, which is frugality, live within your means, right, and, you know, safe. And the power of compounding is what I learned from her because she would put away money and not touch it.

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There’s no downside to being transparent. In fact, even in a negotiation, consistently, that’s been a strategy that’s worked to my advantage, which is being downright truthful.

Q: Have you become more risk-averse or risk-seeking as your career progresses?

My life has been quite ironic that way. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My father has been an entrepreneur, and my husband’s a first-time founder, but my dad had a very large business loss. So very early in my life, I said, look, I don’t want to be like him.

Because, you know, I don’t want to see so much money being made and so much money being lost. But ironically, that’s exactly what I did when I left my stable job to become a founder. I think that risk mentalities somehow are almost like genetics in my family. But having said that, I’ve always been a risk-taker. And the couple of things I learned when you become a risk-taker, and what’s different for me now compared to then, is the ability to understand the downside and be willing to accept what is that level of downside that [I] will take.

So as you grow older, I think the biggest thing you need you can pick up is to look back at your life experiences and start putting some frameworks of risk for risk-taking. I have learned to kind of quantify my risk, start looking at frameworks better and be more educated, if I might say so. But fundamentally, I have been a risk-taker. Wow, I have not been averse to doing things, which very few people agree with me on.

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Q: What are some moments of self-doubt you have had in your journey? And how did you manage?

The biggest thing as a founder is the lack of validation, right? Because when you’re working, your validation comes from, you know, a job promotion, or like, you get a better hike, and you have your five managers telling you that you are incredible. But when you’re a founder, it’s incredibly lonely.

Of course, when you have a co-founder, there’s an emotional dependence, and you can fall back on but as a journey and if you’re a fairly smart person, and you believe that you’re in that, that that block of people who are fairly smart and you’ve done reasonably well in your education, you have gone to a decent college.

You know, very often you keep asking yourself. Okay, what am I doing? Is this right? I need that sense of validation, which you don’t get for a very long time.

[For] those moments, I have fine-tuned the self-doubt to say, have I become obstinate? Have I become so married to an ideology that I’m not willing to smell the coffee? Or is this something that goes in the line of perseverance, which means shrugging this off? Today is not as bad as it seems; no day is as good as it is. Just keep going and keep pushing.

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Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the new generation of women behind you?

I have a 12-year-old daughter. And she’s going to be the next generation. I think the biggest challenge for the new generation is the ability to cut out the noise and find yourself. That, to me, is the single biggest challenge. I think my generation was at the cusp of technology.

But at the same time, there was enough time for us to process the kind of world that you are living in, and my daughter is going to come into. It’s a very noisy world with opinions, information, data, perspectives, false, myths, everything thrown and mixed together and served to you like a shepherd potpie.

You need that incredible clarity of thought, and confidence, to cut out the noise and find yourself, and not do things because you want to fit in. But it truly represents you as a person.

Related: 11 traits you need to be a highly effective leader

Q: What lesson or story from your experience that you wish to be told?

The one time in my life where I felt, you know, very gender-specific about some of my struggles was when I travelled from Chennai to Bangalore for literally three or four days a week. You know, leaving my two-year-old behind or three-year-old behind. I’ve had an incredible support system, I must admit. And I have really nothing much to crib about.

For me, the guilt was that I’m doing this and not wanting that maternity, that maternal instinct of having to be with my kids throughout. I was guilty about not feeling that as much as other mothers around me were.

I think the biggest amount of support has been to be able to talk about what you feel to whoever you trust, and figure out that your journey is your journey. And you should be extremely comfortable with your journey.

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Q: What do you think is the best decision you have made so far?

Definitely to have co-founded [my own company], definitely to be an entrepreneur. To have been so naive, and completely, you know, wide-eyed and romanticising entrepreneurship and jumping straight at the deep end. I think that’s the best decision I’ve made.

Q: Why do you think empathy is such a key part of I believe it has always been, but why has it just emerged?

As a businesswoman, there’s an economic benefit to empathy. What does empathy mean? I think the biggest myth or misconception is that empathy means is mutually exclusive with showing weakness, or not being tough. The biggest myth.

What does empathy do? It creates a safe space for people who work together to be more self-aware, to acknowledge and not worry about somebody judging them on their weaknesses. Now, step two, what does that do? It allows you as an individual to grow and apply your mindshare towards a solution-oriented.

Okay, these are my weaknesses. I’m going to work on my weaknesses, rather than the mindshare towards putting up a front of bravado managing your office politics, managing how to spin the story. Imagine the wastage of mindshare. So, to me, empathy brings economic benefit. There’s no other way to do it.

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Q: What are some assumptions or biases you have noticed as a female leader?

I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with a female or a male; I will just tell you some of the assumptions that I have come across. And fortunately, you know, I must also acknowledge that luck, I mean, serendipity, whatever you call it, has played greatly to my advantage.

I’ve always been at the right place at the right time, including on my current platform. It’s been incredible for me, not really [having to] fight for some of the values that I stand for. I know there are many women will have or men who have to fight for their values. I’ve never had that problem.

So having said that a couple of things that I have found, you know, as an assumption I highlighted earlier, show vulnerability is a sign of weakness. No, it’s a sign of being real. Right? That’s the biggest, you know, myth or assumption that I’ve seen or biases that I’ve seen.

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I’m saying “I don’t know” makes you look less intelligent. It doesn’t. And thirdly, there could be absolutely no downside for transparency. But very often, the biases being too transparent, there’s a downside. But of course, you have to nuance this.

When you go to a negotiation, when you’re putting all cards to a table, I’m not getting to that level of business negotiation, but I’m talking about being transparent to your colleagues, being transparent within a team, being transparent to yourself.

To me, there’s no downside to being transparent. In fact, even in a negotiation, consistently, that’s been a strategy that’s worked to my advantage: being downright truthful because there is a threshold. And it’s always good to let people know the threshold.

And then when you bring that, I’ve often seen that the other side opens up, and the conversation becomes more meaningful than assessing each other. Right? And it really cuts the b******t, to be honest.

This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in the Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below

Read more:
How to resolve workplace conflicts: A guide for managers
A culture of employee recognition contributes to retention
The value of mentorship and sponsorship, and what it can do for your company

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