Sales Pitch: Rakhi Voria Wants to See More Women in a Man’s World

NYC Women’s Conference 2016

Rakhi Voria never expected to go into sales. She grew up in a house full of girls raised by a single mom and there wasn’t much pushing her toward what seemed like an old boy’s club. Until it suddenly became the perfect path for her.

“I fell into sales,” she said.

After studying comparative social policies at the University of Oxford, she applied for a marketing job at Microsoft. But that was not meant to be. It was actually a recruiter who set everything in motion. Voria was told she listened really well, communicated effectively, and had persevered over adversity. This made her a perfect fit for sales, the recruiter said.

This didn’t line up with her expectations about the field. “I had this visceral reaction,” said Voria, thinking she did not have the right personality.

“It’s so masculine. I’m not competitive enough … I think a lot of women have those notions,” she said.

Despite her reservations, the recruiter turned out to be right. Voria was a natural. She took to the job immediately and quickly became a budding star for a team doing billions in sales – at one of the biggest tech firms on earth. Given that not many people in the industry looked like her, she also became passionate about dispelling myths and encouraging others to follow in her footsteps.

Around the time Voria turned 25, she already had a global leadership role in the 20,000-member Women at Microsoft group for the firm’s female employees.

“Maybe I was in over my head,” she said, joking about taking on so much at a young age. But the mission was clear.

“We hear so much about getting more women in STEM and getting more women in tech. But you rarely hear about getting more women in sales,” Voria said.

She later moved to IBM, where she led a similar group in New York, finding ways to attract, hire, retain, develop, and promote women in the industry. She discussed these strategies at events, and wrote articles for Forbes describing why sales is actually a great career for women.

“One thing my mom instilled in me was ‘lift while you climb,’” Voria said. “Otherwise, it is going to be really lonely at the top.”

This is not always easy for outsiders in a competitive field. The natural instinct is to focus on one’s own journey, especially early in the career. That may not be necessarily selfish; it is just a way of self-preservation in a world where some people historically have had to work twice as hard to get half as far. There just is not always energy or time to expend on others.

“Unfortunately, even today,” she said, “you come across some women — especially who have been in the industry for a while — who say, ‘I’ve had to work so hard to be here; you should, too.’”

Such survival strategies were just not part of Voria’s DNA. Her mom had taught her the opposite strategy, and because her father went out of the picture while she was still a toddler, female empowerment was all she ever knew.

It came naturally from watching an Indian woman who started with little — being probably in over her head on everything from home finance to navigating the culture of an adopted country — become a business owner and raise three girls. Even while juggling all these plates, her mom still found time to stay involved with local political advisory boards, economic commissions, and community service projects.

“She was typically the only woman in the room,” said Voria. “So I learned a lot about the fact that women can do anything at a really early age … That has definitely contributed to who I am today and a lot of the passions I have. Watching her story as someone who was an Indian immigrant and then she ended up starting her own company.”

Even with inspiration, it is not easy to balance your own career with a desire to help others. Voria did not want to be pigeonholed as an advocate. She did not even want to be known as just a great woman in sales. She just wanted to be seen as great in sales, period, and thus command the professional respect of all her colleagues.

Voria has been able to achieve both goals at the same time, and lift those up behind her on the way to the summit. It is something her mom understood intrinsically and a value that helped Voria — and her siblings — recognize what to do in the face of an opportunity.

“She’s really been an example of the American Dream,” said Voria. “She really forced me and my sisters to realize that we couldn’t throw away our shot … [So] sales can be a really lucrative profession for women. It can be a really flexible profession for women. There are all these things that make it a really worthwhile profession for women. They just don’t know about it — because we don’t see enough women in sales leadership.”

Voria has seen women lead — at home, in business, and in the community — from day one. Now, she wants to make sure everyone else can see that too and then take their shot.

“Especially Asian women. We tend to be timid sometimes,” she said. “We hold ourselves back. But a lot of the qualities that we have can actually make us a natural fit for sales.”