“We are what our choices make us” Sameer Khetarpal quotes Jeff Bezos while starting off to share his humble background during a web interaction with PGP students – both current and prospects. He confesses that he has been a fan of self-disruption as he describes his ISB journey – “In the 23 years of my life, I have asked only one question: Am I learning? In my life, each time the learning stopped, I disrupted myself.” Here are some excerpts from his talk:

ISB – The learning disruption

Before ISB I used to be naïve: I used to think, “If I create the best ice-cream it will sell.” But businesses don’t run on engineering and manufacturing! It is a lot about supply-chain, sales, distribution, marketing, building brand, product innovation. I was oblivious of these, and ISB helped me open up facets of businesses. I learnt a lot of basics of management as I was a reasonably diligent student who participated in all classroom discussions. It moved my thinking away from running a plant to managing business problems, thinking about business leadership.

ISB – The class diversity

ISB also gave me a strong network of 120 colleagues – the first batch was 120. I have not come across such a diverse and concentrated group. There were folks from companies such as ITC, Unilever, Tatas, there was a Vir Chakra awarded Army Major, etc. It opened my horizons as I learnt so much from these peers. I learnt so much additional things outside of engineering. I realised there is so much of a world outside of my engineering books.

The crisis setback: 9/11 affects placements

We all had hopes that we will all get placed in some MNCs and we were hopeful of going to Switzerland and all the nice destinations in the world and 9/11 happened! We were really worried since lots of companies had already cancelled their recruiting plans from ISB, and many of those who came, did not understand what a person with 4 years experience brings to the table vs. someone with no experience! It was really tough, but there was a belief in education that education is for life. And while there might have been difficult times, I realised I have learnt a lot. I am far better than what I was in 1997, when I joined Hindustan Lever, my first job. I am far better off than when I joined ISB in 2001.

Anxiety over the Loan payment

The same question was there which is troubling many students now, in the times of this Covid pandemic – “Would I be able to pay off my loan?” and some classmates were more worried than I was. I ask them now – Do you think your worry was valid at that time? And they absolutely vehemently agree with me that those worries were not necessary. Of course, the amount was no small amount. You were investing in yourself, and there are very few opportunities when you invest in yourself.

Career post ISB

I had no career roadmap. Whatever I wrote in my ISB application, it turned out to be very different from that. It was 3 things coming together – pragmatism, people I want to work with, and some passion. 9/11 happened, and we didn’t have great set of companies coming in that time, the BPO industry was booming in India and I felt I could ride that wave. I rode on to that bandwagon, when jobs were moving to India. It was never a design. But yes, I always knew I didn’t want to do sales and marketing. I like operations, and Six Sigma was the perfect opportunity for me to start my career after ISB, where I could use lots of statistics, and analytics to impact businesses.

ISB: The professional pivot

At heart I am a purist – and believe in the power of theoretical knowledge. That just sets you to solve problems and look at things with a 101 lens. Had I continued in Hindustan Unilever, I would have moved to other manufacturing companies or even automobiles or consumer durables or even core chemical companies such as refineries. ISB helped me make that shift from being an engineer to a generalist athlete. That was the big change: I could do a little bit of marathon running, long jump, high jump; it gave me the dexterity to move context, look at situations through the lens of what the organisation is, what the culture is, how the technology is, what business they are in, how the sales and marketing function is; so it gave me a very good package, which I would have not found. And that package is reinforced everyday in classroom in cases. The methodology is case based learning and when you are solving a case, there is not a single silver bullet that can be pulled. It is often the answer of four or 5 things to be combined and then you lead from there. So without ISB, I would have been a very good engineer for sure. I think it made me from a good engineer to a good leader.

ISB: The Invaluable Network

Quoting someone senior from my days at McKinsey: “There are only two things that matter in life – what you know, and who you know.” Most people excel at one of these. I was more in the camp of ‘what you know’, and I became a better business leader after ISB I started appreciating ‘who you know’, and in life who you know starts mattering more and more. When I went to McKinsey, who you know starts mattering because you can hire people who excel at what you know but it is very difficult to hire someone who knows many people. So that is a muscle that you have to build and ISB helped a lot there. Out of 120 batch mates, all are doing really well and if all of them have very strong connects in 20 companies each, you can reach out to almost 2500 companies and that’s what matters. If we post something in the alumni group, someone would typically know of someone else. And this extends to the larger alumni group, not just my batch.

– Sameer Khetarpal, Director, Category Management, Amazon