Anu Chitrapu is Senior Vice-President and Executive at Bank of America. She has won awards at the bank for exceptional performance, been named to the high potential women leaders group and has been nominated to the Diversity & Inclusion Council.
Anu serves as President of Vision Aid, a non-profit organization that provides tools and technology to the visually challenged in developing countries. She is also the chair for Saheli’s 2013 fundraiser Nirbhaya.
Writing has been a longstanding passion for Anu. One of her stories recently won 2ndprize in the 2013 Katha Short Story international competition.
She hopes to increase awareness around social issues through her writing.
Anu holds an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.
Before coming to the US, Anu lived in Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Asansol, West Bengal. She is fluent in English, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Bengali.
Anu is married to Rama Ramakrishnan, a tech entrepreneur and they have two children, Rahul and Anjali.
Why did you choose to have a career in marketing and strategy?
I started my career in the professional services group of a technology company. I later moved into product marketing and found I really enjoyed it, so I stuck to it for several years. But after business school, strategy seemed more enticing! I was hoping to work on growth strategies and directly impact the bottom line but in reality in a large organization it is more a mix of general management, cost cutting and strategy.
You have risen to an executive position level quickly at Bank of America. What is the secret to your success?
I will admit I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time! What helped me on my career path are the three things that I believe are universal secret ingredients for a successful career. First, exceed expectations on any job you are given. The job may not be the most exciting one but put your heart and soul into it and build a reputation of being able to deliver no matter what. Second, make sure you have a portfolio of mentors who are not only providing you with the right advice but are also serving as champions for you. One can never be in the know of all the exciting projects/opportunities in a large organization – your mentors become channels into these opportunities. Every new opportunity that I got in the bank came to me through my mentors or my network. Third, keep on learning. Don’t ever feel like you know it all or that you are doing very well. Always, keep your eye a level higher than where you are. That will keep you on your toes! I do believe it is these three things that have helped me on my career path.
What are the personal /environmental attributes that have helped you succeed in you career?
One personal attribute that has helped me is my approach to problem solving. I first try to completely understand what the problem is, and then I break it up into small bite sized pieces. And finally, I make sure the solution I come up with is simple enough for the team to understand and easy enough for me to communicate to anyone. I believe you should be able to explain your work to people outside your group or your company. This attribute has gained me the reputation of being a good problem solver and brought me some great career opportunities.
What challenges, if any, have you faced in your career path
Even though I like to think that it is not a challenge any more to be a woman in the corporate world, this is not so – at least not yet. There have been times when I was pushed down an organizational hierarchy in spite of receiving great reviews and I wondered if being a woman, that too a woman of Indian origin had something to do with it. Unfortunately the boys club still exists but fortunately these clubs are few and people perpetuating these clubs are seen as harmful to the success of an organization. Luckily, we live in times where diversity across all dimensions is proven to have a positive impact on the bottom line.
What advice would you give women trying to follow your career path?
My advice to women is to be very deliberate about networking. You may not be a natural networker but you have to get over it. Good or bad, a lot of opportunities present themselves outside of traditional channels and you will not know about them unless you are out there. It is tempting to come home and relax with family on a cold winter evening but don’t choose that over attending an industry event or alumni meeting – you never know what you may miss.
For women with young kids, I would say seek out help from your friends and family – I have to come to realize that people actually like to be asked for help and it helps make friendships stronger. Just make sure you are returning the favor in some way!
What lasting impact do you expect your work to have on the world?
I am very active in the Diversity & Inclusion council at my workplace. I am not shy about being the voice of diversity. The work I do on this hopefully makes it easier for people like me to succeed in the workplace. Some of the programs I have put in place will positively impact the careers of many and that is the lasting impact I hope to have.
Work - Life Balance
You and your husband have extremely busy lives. What is the secret to your maintaining a work -life balance?
If we are giving the impression that things are in balance then I think we are faking it well! My husband is an entrepreneur so he is always working. I think it is our kids who bring some balance into our life – there are always music lessons, recitals, school plays, quiz bowls, basketball games, tennis matches … that we need to drive them to and that helps us maintain balance. I do have many interests outside of work so I make sure to allocate time for all my other interests.
What is your approach to parenting?
While I don’t force my kids to do things they don’t enjoy, I do push them to try everything and then decide what they like or don’t like as opposed to making up their minds without even trying. Both Rama and I feel that while we should not be “helicopter” parents, hovering above the kids all the time, we should stay close enough for them to reach out when they need us. Each of us bonds with the kids in our own ways – Rama likes to watch mindless TV shows with Rahul while Anjali and I are reading our books quietly and lamenting the fact that the “boys” are wasting time watching shows like 24 and Alias! We both discuss our work with the kids so they are familiar with that part of our lives. I do have both Rahul and Anjali help with chores in the house – I want to make sure they don’t learn any gender stereotyping.
Despite your very busy schedule what motivates you to give so much time to support charitable causes?
When I was a little kid growing up in Asansol, West Bengal, sometimes my mother would take me with her to Cheshire Home where she would work with handicapped children. The one thing I remember from every visit was how the children came running and wrapped themselves around her and greeted her with so much genuine joy. I think it is that memory of the kids that motivates me to support causes. I was 8 when I helped my mother with a fund-raiser for Cheshire home where she made and sold idlies and dosas. It was a very successful event and my first exposure to the world of fund-raising. And one that I remember as I plan and prepare for Nirbhaya.
Could you tell us about Nirbhaya? Why should people come?
Nirbhaya means without fear. And that is exactly how Saheli wants all women to live their lives. This year's fundraiser seeks to reiterate the theme of a life free of violence for all. We are planning an evening of networking, awareness building and a short entertainment program. In keeping with the theme all the items on the agenda will be focused on women empowerment, fearlessness and support. Multi-media presentations combining music, visual images and short dances around the theme will also be part of the program.
This year, funds raised will be used to send Saheli women to training classes that will help them find jobs. We have identified courses (e.g., paralegal training, medical assistant diploma, hotel management, etc.) that are 6 months to a year in duration. At the end of the course, students will be placed in jobs requiring these skills. We believe that it is really important to put women on the path to independence.
I am hoping people will come when they realize that their attendance at the event can actually change someone’s life.
What do you do for fun?
Music is a foundational part of my life and I spend a lot of time listening to music. Unfortunately, I am not singing or learning music anymore but I hope to get back to it soon. My passion is writing fiction. Sometimes an idea for a story comes to me at the oddest of places – I try to jot it down so I can build it into a story some day. I have many such “ideas” that have gone nowhere but some have actually become full fledged stories.
Who are the people who you admire?
I admire Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. She is a great role model for Indian women and has proven that nothing can stop you when you are hard-working and committed. Another person I admired was Indira Gandhi; from the time I was little I was fascinated by her and even stood outside her house for several hours when I was 15 just to chat with her for a few minutes!
Could you please describe the influence of any female mentors?
I think my mother’s influence on me is undeniable. She did not get a chance to complete high school as she was married at the age of 16, but she values education above everything else. Not having formal education did not stop her from learning how the stock market worked and even today, at the age of 70 plus, she trades stocks from home on a daily basis!
I still remember the day when she was visiting from India and I was struggling with finance homework. I started complaining about how hard it was to go to school after a break etc. and how finance was so tough. She looked at me with no sympathy and then eagerly asked if I could explain what EBITDA was! I realized then that I had this amazing learning opportunity but was only looking at the negatives. I definitely learned how to look at the positive side of things from her.
Are there male mentors who influenced your life?
My father is definitely one of the key male influences in my life. He grew up in a village, was home schooled and then went on to Benares Hindu University and graduated not only top of his class but stood first in the entire university. As you can imagine, education was a top priority in our house. He encouraged both my brother and sister equally when they went to IIT. There was no gender bias in our house. He had us learn driving in Chennai at a time when there were few women drivers in the city. He is still running a successful consulting business for the glass industry so I guess I cannot think of retirement anytime soon!
I was also lucky to work for the internet visionary, Shikhar Ghosh, at one of my earlier jobs. He was the one who encouraged me to consider business school. He continues to be a great mentor to me.
What kind of support have you valued most from your husband?
Rama has been an equal partner at home. We divide up jobs at home according to our core competencies. All of us will go hungry if he cooks so he sticks to making sandwiches or noodles when the kids are hungry and since I am the one with the cooking skills (at least between the two of us!) I take care of the cooking. He helps the kids with math, I help them with music; he takes them to Red Sox games, I take them to Blue Man Group; he watches crazy TV shows with them, I discuss Shakespeare. And when I travel on business he makes sure he is in town (or at least he tries!)
What support from you has your husband valued the most?
Rama says he values the fact that I have given him the freedom to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. He also says that I am a great buffer (I think that’s a euphemism for my taking care of the family’s health insurance) that helps him stay level amidst the roller-coaster life of an entrepreneur.
What is you personal philosophy of living life?
Live life to the fullest but make sure you are carving out time for others. Success and career accomplishments are good but for most of us they don’t last after our lives. While I will strive for success, my philosophy is not to make it so central to my life that I am missing out on all the other joys.
What was your happiest moment in life?
I have a few like the days my children were born. But the moment I received my degree from MIT is unique in that I had 3 generations of family cheering me - my parents and mother-in-law (who were super excited), my husband and sister and my kids and nephew (who were super bored).
When there were low points in your life what advice did you value the most to pull through?
I am going to go with the famous line from Gone with the Wind --- “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Do you have a fitness routine that you would like to share?
I don’t have a fitness routine but being a great believer in public transportation helps because I get a short walk to and from the T-station everyday. Our dog Google, ensures we get a post-dinner walk every night. If you are like me and don’t enjoy going to the gym then get a dog!
Do you have favorite book/author
Many years back, one winter day, when I was in b-school and feeling weighed down with too many papers due, cases to read and kids waiting for me at home, a friend of mine gave me a book titled “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson. It is the story of a woman hedge fund manager who is a wife and a mother of two. I just love that book and totally relate to the woman and often find myself in situations similar to the ones in the book.
Do you have a favorite song/ musician?
Being the Chennai girl that I am, my favorite musician is the one and only Ilayaraja. His music can unfailingly pull me out of a sad state, put me into a sad state, get me to sleep, wake me up… in other words his music is just unbelievable. My favorite Ilayraja song is called “Putham pudu kalai…” a tamil song that talks about a new day.
Do you like to cook? What is your favorite dish to make?
I do like to cook and what I enjoy is experimenting with different foods and spices. I confess everyday cooking is not something I look forward to!
One fun fact about you
As a teenager, I had a fascination for Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries. I would write letters of congratulations when they won the election and drive everyone crazy while I waited for their response. I have letters from Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan…not something I am necessarily proud of but just a story from my teen years!
Words of wisdom
I do think these are great times for women. Thanks to people like Sheryl Sandberg, not only are more women leaning in; we are all actually encouraged to and are being provided with platforms and opportunities to do so. My advice to women is to take advantage of movements like this, seize the opportunities and just completely “lean in”.