Roopa Unnikrishnan Melds Innovation with Career Advice

New York City-based innovation consultant Roopa Unnikrishnan has hit the bullseye many times in her career, and beyond.

As a youth in Madras, India, she competed in sports riflery, winning medals at the national and international level. And in 1999, she was presented the Arjuna Award, India’s highest sporting prize, by then-President K.R. Narayanan.

But her ambition didn’t stop there: Unnikrishnan was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and went on to work for such prestigious companies as Citibank and Pfizer before starting her own consulting firm. She ultimately landed at technology and innovation company Harman, where she is now the Vice President of Strategy.

Her work has even inspired her to share advice with others. In 2017, Unnikrishnan published her first book, The Career Catapult, in which she shared strategies for finding purposeful work and sparking big changes — strategies that she shared during a recent happy hour with SEEMA. In the book, she came up with a five-discipline plan for personal success:

1.Dig Deep to Soar: “Examine your skills and resources to accurately assess your marketplace value as well as your attitude toward what constitutes success and how growth is measured.”

2.Stalk Innovations and Trends: “Explore the context in which you can offer your value by tracking market innovations and emerging trends, and deciphering how they apply to you in the workforce.”

3. Jolt Your Network: “Use your assets, including networks that can drive significant value, to test and build upon what you’ve discovered as looked both inward and outward.”

4. Prototype Possibilities: “Start by challenging everything you’ve learned from digging deep and stalking trends and focus only on what has the potential to lead to success and fulfillment. Free yourself to imagine. Visualize the full array of possibilities and test-drive them. Find ways to don the mantle of the new role—volunteer, experiment with a start-up, join a professional group—and see how this new space might work out for you.”

5. Go Extreme: “Is your desired future achievable? Yes! Take that confident leap into your future.”

“As I was doing my coaching, I was seeing trends, and I wanted to put some research behind it,” she told a SIMMONS conference about the plan. “I interviewed 50 innovators. I also did a survey of 50 professionals and entrepreneurs, and I starting seeing the trends and how they clumped together.”

Unnikrishnan is passionate about creating opportunities, asking questions, and looking at problems in new ways.“The way I actually got hired at Harman was because I was at an event where the CEO was speaking, and I wouldn’t stop asking him questions,” she told SEEMA. “He asked if I would set up a time to meet with him. There are so many ways I could have missed that opportunity, but I made sure to take it.”

Unnikrishnan sat down with SEEMA to talk about her journey, what sports taught her, and how people can make big leaps in their careers — even during the pandemic.

Career-Catapult

Tell us a little bit about your background and any formative experiences that shaped who you are today.

RU: I grew up in Madras, which was a place where it was easy to be comfortable. When I was around 11, my dad took me to a shooting range. So there I was, with all these grown-ups instructing me, and I fired five shots that all went right through the center of the bullseye. Everyone was standing up and paying attention, like wow, this kid has done something fabulous. And I had this thought: “This is what being good at something feels like.”

In India, they rank you starting in first grade. You’re ranked from one to 35 in spelling in your class, for instance. One year I was 34th, then sixth, then first or second, and a switch flipped in my head. I started trying, and that was an important moment. Sometimes I wonder if my life would have been easier if I wasn’t trying so hard, but the palette with which I’ve painted has been more interesting and taken me more places. I applied for a national poetry contest and won, I played sports, I applied for the Rhodes Scholarship and got it, and so on.

How has that mindset influenced your career?

RU: Career-wise, I could just be doing an easy consulting job, but every time I saw the option to try something challenging, I couldn’t stop myself. I went from consulting to Citibank, then went into healthcare at Pfizer, where I did some really interesting work. I did take a job at Black Rock as a purely financial decision, and I regretted it. But it gave me the chance to step back and think through what I really wanted to do. I had met the love of my life. Our kids were around five, and I wasn’t able to spend much time with them. I was able to start my own consulting practice, which led me to Harman.

You were a champion sports shooter. How do you think sports, and in particular riflery, influenced your career path and your personal growth?

RU: There are two lessons. First, I talk about quarantine being like dry fire practice. I came from a middle-class family, and shooting was an expensive sport. You had to shoot to be good, but we couldn’t always afford the bullets, so I would shoot with the empties. I would go through the whole motion and think it through in my head. That visualization is a really valuable capability. It applies to work, too: If you’re going into a board meeting and you’ve already laid out in your head every which way it can go, you’re walking in with a better sense of equanimity.

The other thing it taught me is that you have to be persistent. The whole nature of sports is that you can be extremely talented and at the top of your game, but you’re also competing against others who are at the top of their game. So you’re going to fail sometimes. You have to be able to make peace with loss and figure out how to move forward and learn from failure.

Tell us more about what it means to be an innovation consultant.

RU: What I do is help people see the possibilities. Almost 100 percent of the time I’m not the subject matter expert, and that’s the value I provide. There’s a concept called the dominant logic, which means that because something has worked in a particular industry or product or consumer group, that’s the way things are done. I come in and question the dominant logic to take the core idea and turn it on its head. It helps to create new products, services, and systems.

What does a typical day look like for you at Harman, and what do you love most about your job?

RU: What I love the most is that I have a truly fabulous team that I’m able to provide oversight and engagement to, but most of the time they’re off doing incredible things with their team. If I had to lay out my day in eight hours, I might spend an hour discussing how to think about an issue differently with a senior person, two hours engaging with peers about how to make their story more compelling, and the rest guiding my team and helping what I call transformative projects to get a foothold.

What inspired you to write The Career Catapult?

RU: My job is innovation and strategy, and every time I would do the part of the work where I’m looking at the numbers to see what works, I would end up in a counseling role: What does this mean for the company, how does it affect someone’s life, etc. I had this happen to me even fresh out of school: I was in a situation where a senior person did not want us to do a consulting project with her company. We were in a helicopter, and I said to her, “I get the sense you wish we weren’t here.” She replied, “Well, if you make all these changes, what is the point of my organization?” I told her that she had to be a change leader. Imagine it: I was a 24 year-old talking to someone who’s been in the business for decades!

So the point of the book is to keep yourself relevant during what I call the “jolts” that can happen during your career, whether they’re external or changes you make yourself. You could get laid off, the industry could change, a pandemic like COVID could happen. I wrote about how you can continue to find meaning, define new spaces you want to be in, experiment, and take a big leap.

How was the process of actually writing the book?

RU: I was doing enough of this counseling that it felt valuable to write down. It actually started as a blog, so a lot of the content was already there and just had to be stitched together. Actually getting it placed with a publisher was the toughest part.

We’re going through a turbulent time economically in this country. What are some of your favorite pieces of advice from The Career Catapult that can help people deal with the uncertainty?

RU: In many ways it’s a terrible time, but you’ve also been given a bit of a gift in that if you’ve lost a job, it’s not because you weren’t great at that job. There’s a contextualizing of the jolt that’s kinder.

You’ve been given the gift of time. You can step back and think through what you want to explore next. You can think through the “why not.” And even if you’re in a situation that’s less than ideal, there are plenty of resources and safety nets that you can use.

What advice would you offer to someone who is considering an entirely new career right now?

RU: If you reflect on some of the big shifts that are happening, there’s opportunity. There’s a greater tolerance for virtual work, and a real respect for expertise. You can step back and think about what you’re really good at. If you’re an accountant, for instance, but your real talent is in managing assets, you can think of places where you can start establishing that expertise. Get on LinkedIn and write about asset management; do some interviews and put it out there. You just have to start doing it.

How has your work-life balance been affected by the lockdown?

RU: I’ve tended to be black-and-white in the past, but I’m getting more comfortable with the gray areas. My kids are 17 now, and their SAT prep has gone out the window. I’ve had to learn to be a little more empathetic and listen to their needs.