Priya Guha on Being a Mentor and Keeping Options Open

Jul/19/2021 / by KT Hall

Priya Guha is a venture partner at Merian Ventures, which supports and mentors co-owned businesses. She is the also a non-executive director at Digital Catapult U.K., a member of the Innovate U.K. Council, and an adjunct faculty at the Ashridge Hult Business School.

A board member of a variety of inspiring groups, this year Guha earned an MBE for her services to international trade and women in innovation. In 2020 she was named to the Asians in U.K. Tech Pioneers ‘Hall of Fame.’

In her previous career as a diplomat, she was the first female British consul general in San Francisco. She then used her platform to support women in business, including initiating annual delegations of U.K. female tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley.

In an interview with SEEMA, Guha discussed her work and priorities.

As the first female British consul general in San Francisco, what is your advice to girls interested in a career in male-dominated sectors?

You should 100% go for it. We can only overcome gender barriers by actually breaking them down and so the more girls want to break into male-dominated sectors, the better. The other thing I’d add is that I think it’s really important to also call out bad behavior when you see it. If you observe something that feels biased against a particular group, whether it is against women or someone else, then do find a way to call it out. Change will happen quicker that way.

With work-related biases, women can reach out to human resources (HR) for help. Keep track if you’re having any problems so that you have someone to communicate with, and also have your social network of people and your “tribe” that can help you.

Absolutely. Find a group of friends whether in your business or in a broader circle who can support you, who can be there for you, and who help you navigate situations. We’re much stronger when we do this together.

Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo CEO, faced many hurdles in a male-dominated industry. However, her parents taught her how to meditate and that helped her work on her public speaking skills when she was a child so she could find her voice.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want people to think too much about hurdles or barriers. If you think too much about that you can start to doubt your own confidence, that you can be that person. The reality is, you can be that person. So you need to have confidence in yourself and say, “I can do that.”

And what about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, who wrote Lean In about mentoring to push people up the ladder? Do you support mentoring or use it when you first started your career?

Mentoring is an amazing way for people to learn from others around them. I’m also a huge fan of a concept called reverse mentoring, where a more senior person is mentored by a more junior person. But I think there are limitations to mentoring. Firstly, mentoring is hard when you can’t see yourself in prospective mentors around you. In my experience, when I was a more junior diplomat, there really weren’t any senior women diplomats who had families, who were also having a successful career and were from a minority background. Sometimes people don’t necessarily have somebody who fits the mould of what they’re looking for as a mentor.

Secondly, I think it’s also important to talk about sponsorship, not just mentoring. Mentoring is a very one-to-one relationship. A sponsor is different. A sponsor is somebody senior in your organization who is actively looking out for opportunities for you, somebody who has your back and somebody who will try and further your career. That is a really powerful dynamic in bigger organizations and it’s a very different thing to mentoring. Mentoring has its place, for sure. It’s a great way to learn. But I think sponsorship is also really important.

Almost like an internship, where you can spearhead the way for different opportunities and get your foot in the door…

Yeah, I think it’s very similar, but quite often at senior levels in organizations, it’s hard for women to be put into the spotlight. And, so having people looking out for you who can actively put you forward and who have your back is really important in an organization.

It makes a difference. I also like what you said about reverse mentoring, especially because with tech, there are so many areas where millennials are coming in and they grew up on the internet. They can help baby boomers who are novices.

Absolutely. It’s really important to get feedback from the world around you and the world is changing. Generations are shifting and its fundamental to understand what matters to those outside your immediate circle.

Turning to culture, was there any particular aspect of Indian/South Asian culture that influenced your journey?

For me, my mixed Indian and British heritage has always been at the heart of everything that I’ve ever done. If I think about how that’s affected my career, when I was a diplomat, I chose to take a posting in New Delhi in India for four years because I wanted that opportunity to live there. My youngest son was born there so it was a fantastic way to just cement family ties as well as my own personal ties to India.

I think the other thing that it really has impacted the way that I think is around the concept of karma. What you do to others will come back to you. I firmly believe an area like the promotion and supporting of women in business is the responsibility of everyone of us. It is really important that each and every one of us who have had an opportunity and are at a sort of reasonable place in your career, it is incumbent on you to help bring others up, to make sure that you’re paying back and doing something that will help next the other generations break their own glass ceiling. I guess that for me is grounded in Indian philosophy; if you do good to other people, something good will happen to you. I really fundamentally believe that.

It’s a great way to live your life. You’re sharing with others and investing in them and seeing the investment pay off over time. Now, as the tech and innovation workspace is shifting, with more automation, AI and IoT, do you think pursuing those subjects can help girls to prepare for their future careers?

My first message would be that technology is for everybody so even if you’re not coming from a scientific area of study, don’t feel that technology is closed to you. I never studied technology. I just really enjoyed the concepts and talking with people involved in technology. I think the second thing that I would say is that the jobs of the future are not even invented yet. All you can do when you’re thinking about what to specialize in is finding things that will likely be relevant. And making sure you choose something you enjoy. In today’s world, some of the interesting subjects that are likely to be relevant are things like artificial intelligence, computer science, physics. Those more technical subjects that give you an interesting base for moving into the world of technology if that’s what you would like to do.

The last thing that I wanted to add was about the importance of arts subjects when they think about technology. People often talk about STEM subjects. I prefer to talk about STEAM. And, by adding in the ‘A,’ that’s adding in arts. So, making sure that when people are thinking about the world of technology, they’re also thinking about the social sciences, thinking about arts subjects and making sure that their experience and their way of thinking is very well-rounded.

The current debate around ethics and AI is a hard-core social science problem. Technologists need to be open to the world of creativity and people in art subjects need to be open to the world of technology.

They go hand-in-hand. With AI and applications, you really can’t have one without the other. You can set up an application, for example, but if you’re not focusing on the design and the user experience it’s not going to work.

Exactly. I think that’s why going back to your question, what advice you would give on subjects to pursue, pursue what you enjoy. Pursue your dreams and keep your mind (and options) open as you genuinely can’t know what lies ahead.

Are there any future projects or opportunities you are interested in? What is on your to-do list?

I have a to-do list as long as my arm! I’m absolutely sure that there will be something out there that I will be incredibly excited about but you know, but it’s a bit hard to define it at this moment in time as who knows what the world will look like in the future.

How about dealing with disappointments. Recently, England lost to Italy in the Euro 2020. For one, did you watch the match? And, then, what’s your advice on dealing with disappointments in and outside of the workplace?

So, the bit you probably don’t know is that my husband is Italian and so we had a very divided household for the match. And, yes indeed, we did watch the match. My husband was very happy. So there you go!

Coming back to your question, the reality is that everyone will suffer setbacks in the workplace or your personal life, but I guess what you’ve got to think about is what fundamentally matters to you, and stay rooted and grounded in that. For me, that’s often about family, for example. I get a lot of strength from having my family around me and them being safe and well. That is what grounds me. When you are then faced with things that are more challenging in the workplace or personally, as well, I think you are able to remember what is important to you and get things into more perspective.

 And, then you can look forward to the rematch next year.

Exactly. I’ll get my revenge one day!

I felt that way when I watched the UFC match and Connor McGregor lost because he broke his ankle. But things like that happen.

They do and the level of scrutiny that those sorts of sportspeople are under is almost as hard to deal with as the disappointment itself. I think it takes real strength for people in all of those examples to do what I was saying, to be able to stay centered on what really matters and ground themselves in that. But, that ultimately is what gets people through.

And, it does require strength. With the Tokyo Olympics coming up, there have been a lot of hurdles regarding the pandemic and the number of COVID cases that are increasing there. But, they’re still scheduled for July 23 to August 8. Now I know from one interview that you did that you’re a big badminton fan.

I am. I’m a badminton fan and I’m also … a non-executive director on the board of GB Badminton….

Are there other sports that you’re excited to see?

I love watching the Olympics. Obviously, it is going to be strange this year not having spectators because that’s so much part of the experience. I always think athletics is amazing. The stamina and endurance of things like decathlons, heptathlons, the 100-meters, all of those are incredible things to watch. But this is the first year we’re going to have a paralympic badminton team for Team GB. So, I’m really, really excited to see them play. Many of whom are in the top of their discipline so fingers crossed, they may come home with a few medals.

Before we close out, is there any advice you would like to give?

For me, the most important message I could give to anybody who is starting what I hope will really be a flourishing career is not to feel like you need to make choices very early on about who you’re going to be, whether you’re going to pursue a professional career, pursue personal goals, or have a family. The reality is you can do it all. You can have a great career. You can have a family. Don’t feel boxed into making choices very early on about who you’re going to be. Very often young women today feel they’re forced into making a premature choice about their future and that’s a choice that I don’t think people need to make.

It’s not just having flexibility but it’s also knowing that you can achieve what you want even if you don’t start that way. Your history doesn’t determine your destiny.

Exactly, exactly. You can do different things. Be confident in yourself to know that you can be that person. Then you can be. Keep your options open. Don’t close off any opportunities, don’t feel like you need to make really hard choices early on and just enjoy what you’re doing. It’s really important to do what you love.

If you liked this story, be sure to check out Karuna Nundy: ‘My Clients Are Always Partners in My Cases’


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