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“My life’s journey from those humble beginnings to the glossy metropolis of Singapore reflects the coming of age of India, where children born without privilege can come into their own on a global stage”
The year was 1974 – India detonated its first nuclear weapon in the Thar desert and joined an elite list of six nations. It was also the year that an underweight child was born to Sikh parents in Calcutta. Born in a small tenement in Hazra Road, my childhood was spent surrounded by a joint family of ten people living in a tiny two-bedroom ‘apartment’.
My life’s journey from those humble beginnings to the glossy metropolis of Singapore reflects the coming of age of India, where children born without privilege can come into their own on a global stage. The first big pivot of my life happened when my father, an ambitious man, moved us out of Hazra to a cosmopolitan apartment complex, Sunny Park. With one swift move, he lifted us up many rungs of the social ladder. His second move was to shift me from a local school to an English medium Catholic school. I have to admit, my life’s trajectory would have been different if it were not for the change of school. I grew up in Calcutta surrounded by friends whose fathers (yes, mostly fathers then) had chauffeur-driven cars and worked in large companies. I would see my father drive his beaten-down car to his narrow shop in Princep Street, selling ball bearings and auto parts like many of the other Sikh immigrants from Pakistan.
My years at Don Bosco School, Calcutta, and my life at Sunny Park apartments were some of the most joyous moments of my life. I met my best friend, had my first kiss, discovered that I was good at athletics and sports in general, and danced the dhunuchi dance at Durga Puja annually. I was an average student and suffered from a case of low self-esteem on account of being bullied as a turbaned Sikh. I suppose years of being repeatedly mocked due to the way one looks can do that to a young child’s psyche.
Unlike most of my friends, I knew I didn’t have the chops to get into IIT, and my admission into an engineering college in Bangalore was indefinitely postponed due to the aftermath of the Mandal Commission reservation issue. My father forced me to give up my dreams of becoming an engineer and I enrolled in a local Calcutta college studying economics, which I hated! As an act of revolt, I used years of saved-up pocket money to pay for taking the SATs and TOEFL for admission to the USA. Even though I managed a 60% scholarship and got into two liberal arts colleges, my father didn’t allow it as he had to take care of the large joint family. I was truly heartbroken, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much in my life. My dream of being a physicist was over.
One lesson looking back is that your dreams are never over, they are merely postponed and redefined. Today I spend hours every week listening to podcasts or reading books and articles about the origin of the universe, anthropology, history, astrophysics, astronomy, evolution, historical oddities, psychology, politics, biographies, and much more. If I could go back in time and tell my teen self that I would willingly spend hours reading about history and geography, that teen would have laughed at my face! During my school days, I longed for the twelve sordid years to end so I could be done with education. Little did I know that my love for education would be rekindled, and I would become an advocate for ‘continuous learning’, with my podcast on ‘how to consistently absorb knowledge’ winning the Tigerhall, Most Loved Podcast award in Asia.
After completing my college in Calcutta, I went on to pursue my MBA at Symbiosis (SCMHRD), Pune. I am what some would call a late bloomer. I was just about an average student in school, above average in college and ended in the top quartile of the class in B-school. This correlated almost directly with my self-esteem. After being bullied for twelve years at school, one fine morning while walking to a bus stop in Calcutta on my way to college I found my shoulders moving back, my chin tilting up, and I saw the world from a new perspective. From that day on, my confidence in myself never wavered and it became my greatest asset. No matter the situation, I have always believed I can overcome it. From a boy who was too shy to greet guests at home, I went on to deliver keynote speeches to large auditoriums around the world, and have been interviewed on TV, radio shows, and podcasts. Recently, a friend from my school could not believe this was the same Arvinder he knew growing up!
One lesson looking back is that your dreams are never over, they are merely postponed and redefined
My career started with an advertising agency in Delhi, FCB-Ulka, which was a harsh welcome to the realities of corporate life. In the first year of my job, I had only two full weekends at home and fainted twice in the office due to exhaustion. But it was also a period of immense learning. I ended up working on campaigns for an international brand across radio, print, in-store, and TV. In fact, after that one year at FCB, I have never found any job or assignment intimidating in my entire career.
Concerned about my health I quit FCB and joined Infosys in 2000. A few months in with Infosys, I took my maiden flight out of India. Little did I know, this was just the first of many flights. My biggest moment at Infosys came when I conceptualized a campaign called the Wharton-Infosys Business Transformation Award, which got me noticed by the founders Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani. I was sent to California, where after a year I joined a BPO start-up. I mean, how could the Bay Area start-up culture not bite you to take a risk? Several organizations and roles later, in 2008 my wife convinced me to move back to India with our then two-year-old son Arjan. In February 2009 I joined Aircel, which had recently launched nationally as a Telecom operator.
Back in India, I was based in Cyber City, Gurgaon, where I was left aghast at the state of one of India’s ‘global cities’, nonetheless I was enamoured with the ‘India’ I was discovering. It was an incredible induction into India after having been absent for the past seven years, which had been truly transformative for the nation. Now I had a ringside seat into the next wave of transformation, the ‘internet transformation’. From 2G networks to the transformative rollout of 3G, I witnessed first-hand how theoretical use cases from strategy decks came to life in the Indian hinterland.
One of the many meetings I had in early 2013 was with a Silicon Valley start-up called Twitter. At the time, it was a niche product and mostly unknown in India. Although I rejected their proposed partnership with Aircel as it was not commercially viable, my interaction with them had left an impression. Not long after, Twitter’s HR contacted me for a role to lead Business Development for APAC. I declined, purely out of lethargy of taking a 48-hour round trip flight to San Francisco for less than 24 hours in the city. But like Bollywood movies where there is dancing around the trees, they chased me, and I eventually agreed and joined Twitter in July 2013. I was their first ‘India hire’ and my living room became the first office. Eventually, we started hiring and my wife had had enough of serving endless cups of chai and threw us out, which forced me to take up a shared office space in Gurgaon. Today, of course, Twitter is a household name with multiple offices in India; but the formative years of planting the flag for an obscure Silicon Valley company across the Asia Pacific were rewarding and exciting at the same time.
When I was at Aircel I had a corner office, literally, and a large team managing substantial P&L. Twitter offered me zero perks – no team, no office, and no budget. I went back to being an individual contributor after a 14-year career. When I made the decision, it did play in my mind whether I was progressing forward or going backward in my career. I decided it’ll be fun to take a punt and that’s what I did, and I guess it did pay off in the end.
In 2017, I moved to Twitter Singapore where I took up the role of Managing Director of South-East Asia (SEA). It was akin to becoming the captain of the Titanic when it was about to sink – the region was not doing well when I joined. Fast forward to 2021 – this team made one of the most incredible turnarounds I have ever seen. We grew our revenues by 600% in four years and had near-zero attrition in the last three years. Without a shadow of a doubt, the proudest moment in my 22-year career thus far has been working with this crazy, loud, high-performing team that broke every record there was to break.
After eight years of zany fun, globe-trotting, making friends in every continent (except Antarctica), and having a ringside view into the emergence of social media, I decided to say goodbye to my team and family at Twitter. It’s bittersweet to close my Mac and say goodbye to Larry the Twitter bird, but it’s been one hell of a ride.
“I had a ringside seat into the next wave of transformation, the ‘internet transformation’”
Looking back over the past 22 years of my corporate career, I have made some observations:
- A career, just like life, is not a straight line: your career will never reflect the equation, a + b = c. There will be many unknown variables that will throw up surprises along the way. Have a framework for decision making and make career choices not to optimize the immediate opportunity but the subsequent opportunity after that.
- Continuous learning is the only way to stay relevant: we all know we live and work in a knowledge economy. If that is true, how can you not spend time continuously unlearning and acquiring new skills and knowledge? Doctors and lawyers do that every day. No reason white-collar workers should assume learning stopped at graduation day of B-school.
- Networking early in life is key to finding new and interesting projects: I figured this out much later in life. But if I could do one thing all over again it would be to invest my time in building a social network (physical and not only virtual) that I keep in touch with over my career. It’s akin to creating human APIs so more programs can connect to you. It’s the only way to find the next big thing!
- Taking risks early in one’s career is easier: As a person in my 40s, I am still taking risks but, believe me, it gets tougher when you have more to lose. After 22 years, I am coming to realize I must not live my life optimizing my LinkedIn profile but rather optimize on my happiness. Go ahead, take that calculated risk!
- Payback with kindness: This may not be relevant if you are just starting out, but keep this perspective as you climb the social and corporate ladder. If you can be a mentor to someone new, do that. It’s more satisfying than browning endless timelines on social networks.
One aspect I have always prioritized during the last 22 years is ‘fun’. If you are having fun and enjoy what you do, that positive energy will radiate and draw others and reverberate across the team. Be that magnet that attracts people and opportunities. I will end with one quote from the great Mahatma Gandhi that sums up the way I live my life, ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever’.
- The article was originally published in Career Ahead October 2021 issue.
Arvinder Gujral has a career spanning over two decades across India, Silicon Valley and Singapore. From humble beginnings in Calcutta, his life and career have taken him to numerous cities and countries around the world where he has worked with companies large and small, global and local. He has won many accolades over the years – from award-winning marketing campaigns to being the top sales head globally. Arvinder helped usher in the Internet Revolution in India via 3G and had a ringside view of the growth of social media in Asia. His last position was as Managing Director of South-East Asia for Twitter, where he turned around a struggling business – delivering 600% growth in four years. Always re-inventing and never still, the only thing that exceeds his infectious energy is his always-on curiosity. A voracious reader, consumer of information and advocate for 'continuous learning', Arvinder is an award-winning podcaster and speaks at events around the world.