Ep 82: Shuchi Sharma: Women Will Change the World...For the Better

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Shuchi Sharma, Global Head and VP, Gender Equality & Intelligence, for SAP, the multinational software giant  that creates enterprise software to manage business operations and customer relations for Fortune 500 companies throughout the world.  

Shuchi never intended to enter the software field. “I studied chemistry, with the aim of being a doctor,” she said. “I loved chemistry because it explains the ‘why’ behind everything in our universe. But I excelled in economics. I did not have the support for an economics degree, so I combined science and economics, and got a degree in public health.”  She obtained her bachelor’s of science at  College of William and Mary, and then her masters of public health at University of Michigan.  “I took a lot of courses in maternal and children’s health and HIV policy,” Shuchi said. “My interest in women’s health was sparked. I knew that I wanted to focus on women’s issues, in some shape or form.” Her first career was in management consulting, specializing in healthcare technology, working for The Advisory Board, among others.

“I loved technology,” Shuchi exclaimed. “I worked with technology for many years. Then I had an opportunity to move overseas to Germany.” She worked, in Heidelberg, for SAS, a formidable leader in software analytics, running software consulting across eastern, central and northern Europe. “That was great fun. We really had an opportunity to grow the consulting business.” However, she saw, in male-dominated corporate Europe, “women were not really helping each other. I saw opportunities being missed. I thought ‘what can I do about this?’ “ What Shuchi did, in her precious personal time, was create  The Heidelberg International Professional Women’s Forum (HIP), with laser-like focus on women’s development and leadership.

“The issues I was finding in my workplace were not unique.” The Forum brings together women, from diverse international organizations, to exchange ideas, learn from each other, and develop skills to enhance professional and personal success.  “I spent five years, building and leading that organization.  It grew tremendously, since there was an untapped need. As I built it, the impact I saw was what really helped me find my sense of purpose in life. It made me realize that this is what I would like my life to be about.”  Among HIP ongoing results were “people finding new opportunities; people starting businesses; people developing new friendships that carried great impact to their lives; creating new ventures they never thought they could achieve.”  Most of the women were in early or mid-career. There were many new partnerships and businesses, and HIP sponsored significant events including “a big summit to fuel entrepreneurship in the community.”  Shuchi is still amazed at “the multiplier effect that something like this can have on lives.”

In 2008, Shuchi left SAS to join SAP for a similar position, to grow the consulting business in northern and southern Europe, including Iberia, Italy, and the USSR. “I have been at SAP for 10 years. Now in my fourth role, I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities I have had,” she said. “I started in their business consulting practice, and after I had my second daughter, I wasn’t ready to travel as much.”  Shuchi’s empathetic boss asked her to build a marketing organization, (“I looked over both shoulders to see if he was talking to somebody else!”). Over the subsequent five years, she built a marketing function for SAP’s business consulting. “It was a fantastic learning experience, helping customers understand we are here to drive business impact, not just sell software.” Then Shuchi was asked to lead a digital transformation team in North America for SAP’s Success Factors, delivering dramatic improvement in the way companies handle their most precious investment: workforce. “It’s about changing vision to value and driving change through people and processes.” She learned from accomplished colleagues and team members, and had great fun helping customers use design thinking to envision the state of their workforces 5 years in the future.  Never a slouch, in her volunteer life in North America, Shuchi became a salary coach for AAUW’s SmartStart Program, and also worked with organizations like Moms Rising. “I stayed very involved in women’s topics.” From there, she evolved into her current position which “requires me to bring all of the skills I’ve amassed around business transformation, strategic transformation, marketing, project management to this role.”  Her job now is “changing the mix of gender in the organization and creating that very inclusive culture --- which is a strategic transformation. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring my skills and interests together.”

Shuchi is determined to deliver on SAP’s mandate: “Ensure that we, as an organization, can meet our target of having 30% of women in leadership by 2022.” The company reached a significant 2017 milestone: 25% of women in management. “Our CEO (Bill McDermott) said, without taking a breath, let’s go to 30% now!” Shuchi tackled the leadership role in typical process-oriented fashion. “First we look at data, to see where we are today, where we have to go, and how we are going to get there.” SAP has amassed internal data on their own enterprise analytics platform and uses well-designed flexible dashboards that track many areas:  gender, early talent benchmarks, all diversity and inclusion categories, and more. The analytics tools help track progress and “help us slice and dice the data by so many different dimensions.” Using the data, Shuchi’s team drives the revamp of corporate processes and organizations that have some implicit bias, “whether it comes to how we source candidates, how we review, how we promote people, who enters leadership development programs” and much more. “We use the data to have discussions with Level 1 managers” to encourage change and revamp individual plans to reach the 30% goal.

Shuchi’s team has worked on exciting projects including re-certification of SAP under the IMF’s EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality). “It is a very robust analysis that involves data, review of policies and practices, an employee survey, and a third-party audit. Through that, we understand how we are progressing from leadership and development, pay equity, recruitment and promotion, and flexible work culture, perspectives.  That data is going to help us drive change for the next 6 years.” Shuchi is excited about programs her team is rolling out centered on male allies, sponsorship and mentoring, and “return-ship” – recruiting those who dropped out for life priorities but now want to come back into the SAP workforce. Nothing can be accomplished in a vacuum, so Shuchi's team is working on collaborative partnerships with other visionary organizations who can provide insight/assistance to accomplish diversity and inclusion goals. Shuchi gauges resources by which can best achieve SAP’s target of 30% of women in leadership by 2025 --- her measuring yardstick.

For other large companies fielding gender/inclusion programs Shuchi shared SAP’s ingredients for success:

  • Strong executive sponsorship, from inception

  • An effective ecosystem, where diversity and inclusion team members are scattered throughout the company, to drive adoption (diversity inclusion councils, board area leaders, other motivated diversity ambassadors)

  • On the ground employee network groups

SAP is thrilled to have received deserved recognition for progress including being named the 11th best workplace in the U.S. and #1 best workplace in Canada by Glassdoor; one of Fortune Magazine’s top 20 companies for diversity and inclusion; one of the best places to work by the U.S. Human Rights Campaign; People Magazine’s 50 Companies That Care list; Forbes’ Best Large Employers list;  one of the Top Companies for Flexible Jobs by FlexJobs; and one of the top 5 companies for women technologists awarded by the Anita Borg Institute. On the latter award, Shuchi said: “Many people in the company really felt pride from that achievement.”

Shuchi offered wonderful wisdom for women and careers. For instance, on pay equity, “if you are in university, seek out resources that the AAUW provides. You can find a workshop to teach you the skills to negotiate salary, in a very professional way, which is something you must do in every facet of life. Just become comfortable with asking. JUST ASK.”   She also recommended books for inspiration.  Among them is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Why We Should All Be Feminists and watershed works by Dr. Louann Brizendine, particularly The Female Brain.   She advocates that people consistently experiment, “fall down, get up, and keep moving forward.”

In her own career, Shuchi is joyful about her SAP role. “Women are going to change the world…for the better. I have always felt that if you look across history, women are almost always at the heart of every positive social construct.” But she isn’t free of stress. “I worry that all these entrenched biases that we have seen, since the Jim Crow period, will continue to exist through our technology. And technology will shape the future lives of our children.  We need to take a very active role to ensure that there is no prejudice; that it is open, available to everyone, and people have opportunities regardless of their race, color, appearance. NOW is the time.” She acknowledged that diversity is very good for her company, as well. “You see innovation in diversity of thought. You see ideas come from places you would never expect and from people you would never expect. There are possibilities you could never envision that come to fruition.”

Shuchi’s two daughters are part of her personal inspiration. “I do this for them.  I see opportunities ahead, as well as great challenges. I want to equip them with everything I can to help them overcome what they might face in the workplace.”  She proudly mentioned that one of her daughters recently beat a boy in a footrace, and when one of his buddies commented that he was bested by a girl, her daughter turned and said: “that’s a normal thing; get used to it!”

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