With over 22 years of extensive consulting experience across diverse domains including retail, healthcare, and financial services, Sarita Digumarti is the Chief Learning Officer at UNext Learning, an edtech organisation with over 800 employees. Sarita is responsible for academics, content and delivery for online degrees, certifications and enterprise (B2B) programmes.
She is also co-founder of Jigsaw (acquired by UNext) and was responsible for the delivery and success of programmes for both enterprise as well as B2C verticals, strategic initiatives and partnerships, new programmes and content development, and strategy. Featured among the top 10 most riveting data scientists of 2021 by Analytics Insight, Sarita is also an educator and instructor.
In an interview with HerStory, she talks about her career, why hiring the right talent is critical and her biggest inspirations.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
HerStory (HS): Tell us a little about yourself.
Sarita Digumarti (SD): I grew up in a small town in Odisha, but in an environment that encouraged extensive reading and independence. I had an idyllic childhood with very supportive parents. They didn’t expect me to pursue a career merely based on convenience.
My parents kept my interests in mind and let me explore the path I wanted to choose. Even though my father is a doctor and there was a government medical college in the town where I grew up, I chose a different career path as my interests were more inclined toward mathematics, physics, and literature.
HS: Were you always interested in STEM?
SD: Right from high school, I found mathematics and physics really fascinating. I vividly remember a distinct period when my inclination toward math suddenly increased multifold. It just made sense to me. I like how math and physics are based on rules and logic that, when followed correctly, lead you to the right answer for sure.
But while I was interested in STEM, I was also very keenly focused on building skills to help me build a long and impactful career. For me, this meant pursuing something in the management domain.
HS: Please take us through your career journey
SD: I briefly worked in a Mumbai-based finance firm after my MBA. Then, I moved to the US after my marriage. There, I completed a master’s in quantitative economics at Tufts University and later worked as a research analyst at Analysis Group, a boutique economics and management consulting firm, which was a fantastic stint! I learned how to combine math and business skills in a highly competitive and intense consulting environment.
When I moved back to India, my prior experience helped me find an analytics role at GECIS, which was, at the time, one of the very few companies in India that offered analytics services. After that, I spent a long time at Symphony Marketing Solutions, another great stint leading large analytics teams focused on specialised retail and CPG analytics.
After more than seven years, Gaurav Vohra (co-founder) and I took our first entrepreneurial steps. We started our own company (Jigsaw) because we clearly identified an opportunity in skilling for data science, especially in building industry-oriented data science and analytics abilities. But it was a path less travelled, and when you take that path, you need to trust yourself.
In 2011, everyone told us that offering analytics programmes online in India was a mistake. We trusted ourselves, took a leap of faith, and believed in our vision even if no one else did. Well, the rest is history.
HS: Tell us about your roles and responsibilities in the present?
SD: As the Chief Operating Officer (COO) & Co-founder of Jigsaw, my role is essentially making sure that we design and deliver relevant and engaging programmes to our large base of learners.
We have both individual learners and enterprise learners, so we need to develop curricula and design programmes that are customised to the audience’s needs, from people who may have no knowledge of data or tech to people who already have expertise but need to learn about the latest tools and tech. A large part of the design includes creating engaging and useful e-learning content delivered on intuitive and adaptive learning platforms, which is also my responsibility. And, of course, some of my time goes into teaching, which is something that I really enjoy.
Jigsaw is now a part of the Manipal group and is an arm of UNext Learning, which aims to be a leading enabler and provider of online education globally. As the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) at UNext, my responsibilities revolve around enabling student engagement and completion across the extensive portfolio of programmes, including formal degree courses offered by university partners and certification programmes.
HS: Tell us about working in a team
SD: My team size has grown significantly over the years. As a startup, we were very lean for the first couple of years, but our team size also expanded as we grew. Now, I have about 300 people in my team.
Hiring the right kind of people is critical because ultimately a lot depends on teamwork and collaboration. I have realised that hiring right is 80 percent of the solution. It is more important to have the right attitude and a solution-oriented mindset than to have specific skills, as these skills can be picked up quickly and easily over time. But fundamentally, it is your attitude and orientation that will drive innovation and growth.
HS: How did you face the challenges of working in a pandemic?
SD: At Jigsaw, we prioritised the safety and well-being of our employees over everything else. The sudden shift in the work culture due to the pandemic caused only a minor inconvenience as we were always an online-first company. We adapted and kept moving forward together as a team, even more so as a family.
HS: While there are many women entering tech, what more can be done to retain them in the workforce.
SD: The pandemic has shown that remote work is viable, and I believe that will help in attracting more women to enter the tech industry where in many roles remote work is doable. But of course, it is also important to retain women.
Getting rid of gender disparity in our work culture can go a long way but we need practical solutions that acknowledge the specific issues that women face, the extra burden they carry with respect to family duties and sometimes safety worries related to urban commutes. But I also think talking about and showcasing women leaders will encourage more women to continue and aim for leadership roles themselves.
HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?
SD: My biggest success of course has been the growth of Jigsaw Academy. As a co-founder with no prior startup experience and having worked in reasonably large companies all my working life, working on an idea with no precedence in India (online data science training) has been an exhilarating and interesting ride. I had to learn so much about everything – training models, content creation, technology, and platforms, UX and UI and so much more. It has been a rewarding experience
I think the biggest challenge has been managing the free advice, expectations, and gloom-and-doom predictions about our startup idea and the path we have taken since then. Many times it has been meant well, but I have learnt to be objective about it and not to get too distracted or swayed. It’s important to be clear and focused on what you want to achieve, and how you want to achieve it, and if that generates value for your customers – then you should have confidence in your vision.
HS: Why is networking essential for women in tech?
SD: Most of the time, opportunities are closer to us than we expect them to be. But if we don’t look for them, we will never discover them, right? Building a solid network and making the most out of our resources to grow is the way forward for everyone, especially women. Networking can help us discover better opportunities. It can help you identify new jobs, find investors to start your own business, meet new clients, etc.
HS: Why do you think there are very few women in leadership positions in tech?
SD: I think this is a complex issue. The most important reasons include the disproportionate burden on women in terms of supporting family needs (the care of elderly parents or young children) and the existing wage disparity between males and females, which can act as a disincentive for women.
If we continue providing support to women (like the 26-week maternity leave and the pre-COVID creche near the workplace requirement mandated by the government) I believe we will see increased retention. Mentoring and grooming women that aspire for leadership positions will also help.
HS: Why should every organisation have an equal opportunity mindset?
SD: The top priority of any organisation with a vision is to succeed. But success never comes easy. Just one great idea or just one person’s input cannot bring organisational success. Success is, without a doubt, teamwork. The stronger the team, the better.
If we fail to provide equal opportunities to all our team members, we inhibit our own success. So, I think organisations must get their priorities straight and focus on providing their teams with, at the very least, an equal opportunity to contribute to the company’s success.
HS: Who/What have been your biggest inspirations?
SD: My parents were extremely supportive and encouraging of whatever I chose to do in terms of education and my career, and they taught me to be confident and to have a sense of humour. And so many other people who have been my managers or have mentored me. I have been very lucky to have a large network of people that have inspired me.