As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Richa Kaul.
Richa Kaul is the Chief Strategy Officer at ContractPodAi. Richa works on strategic initiatives across the business, in close collaboration with the rest of the Executive Team and the Board. Prior to joining ContractPodAi, she was Managing Director at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, where she led the growth of the technology and professional services sectors across the state of Virginia. She was also a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My first job was in strategy consulting at McKinsey & Company. Overall, I consider my background to be in consulting, because I think of my time at McKinsey as my real education. In addition to that role, I did independent consulting for other businesses, from SMBs up to the World Bank. Before I really knew what consulting was, I read a book called “Case Interview Secrets.” There was an example in the book that essentially said: If you find yourself deeply analyzing how buffet lines could be better organized when you’re at an event, then maybe consulting is for you. I was laughing when I read it, because I am always thinking about things like that. Strategy consulting put a name to it. After McKinsey, I led the growth of the technology sector for the state of Virginia. I got to work closely on how to strategically bring Amazon’s HQ2 to Virginia, including how to support the growth of tech talent in the state. Across these roles, I developed pattern recognition for many different areas and dimensions of a business, because I was exposed to so many different businesses at critical moments of their growth. I got to see cycles of corporate activity that typically take much longer to get access to — in a highly concentrated amount of time. I think this pattern recognition equipped me more than anything to take on the role that I have today as Chief Strategy Officer at ContractPodAi.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
This is a hard one, but I think the most interesting thing that has happened — or the most interesting story I’ve had the privilege to be a part of — is ContractPodAi’s $115 million Series C funding round led by SoftBank. It was one of the most exciting projects I have had the opportunity to be a part of in my career so far.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Earlier in my career, I made a mistake in my analysis on a project that had a wide-ranging impact for other team members. I was embarrassed and very nervous to call my manager Pam, and I remember being upset explaining to her what happened and apologizing profusely. In response, she stopped me and told me about the biggest mistake that she had made on a project and explained how it was much bigger than mine. Then, she walked me through how we could fix it together. I think about the way she handled that situation all the time. When folks come to me now with things that they clearly feel embarrassed about, I try to do exactly the same thing she did: make the person feel at ease and focus on solutionizing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a number of individual people, like my parents or my partner Kyle. But I think the groups of people that I’m most grateful towards are actually people who have been on my teams and who have reported to me over the course of my career so far. As a younger executive, sometimes the most important gift that someone on your team can give you is simply being open and gracious to the relationship and the dynamic. I’ll tell a funny story. I walked into a leadership position in a previous role during a period of transition, and some of the folks on my team were nearing retirement. During my first week, someone put an article on my desk chair with the headline “How to Report to a Millennial” with a sticky note on it with a smiley face. I was taken aback, but it actually got everything started off on exactly the right note — open and honest. I’m deeply grateful to have been met with such kindness and support in the roles that I’ve been lucky enough to hold thus far. I am very conscious about how foundational it has been to any successes.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I practice my “starts.” At the moment when I am just about to start speaking at a high stakes meeting, my mind and body feel most cognizant of how important that meeting is, and how important that moment is — more so than at any other time before or after. My go-to tactic to prepare is to practice my “starts” — the first one minute of what I am going to say or share. I practice this small piece over and over and over again. For a bit of a backstory, I used to hurdle — and anyone who ran track knows how important it is to get out of the starting blocks just right. As a hurdler, if you get out of the starting blocks well and hit that first hurdle in your stride, then the rest are a bit easier. In a meeting, I know that if I can get to that first hurdle in stride, I’ll be feeling good about the rest.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I think it comes down to diversity of experience and opinion. No matter what someone’s expertise is, speaking to folks with different — and perhaps more direct — experiences with certain situations will always enable you to strengthen your point. Truly listening to diverse points of view is so important in getting to the best possible answer and, in turn, moving in the best possible direction as a company.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I believe the first step is directly listening to and learning from the people you’re aiming to include. I recently read a report that BCG released on inclusion of LGBTQIA+ employees, where they surveyed people who were out at work. The report ranks corporate initiatives that have the highest impact on building an inclusive culture. The number one thing was gender neutral bathrooms. The last thing was diversity in recruiting. Before I read that, I would have answered this question by saying that diversity in recruiting would be the most important step. So, case in point. Now I know. As a leader, we must educate ourselves by speaking with and empowering the people who we’re trying to include. This informs day-to-day actions you’re able to participate in as an executive to actually make the most impact.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Recognize, prioritize, and carefully balance the holistic factors for the company’s success.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I often hear some version of, “Sorry to bother you with this small thing, I know you are busy with x, y and z bigger picture items.” It’s of course true that any executive must think about the larger strategy of the company. But it is critical for executives to have a pulse on the persistent challenges their teams are dealing with; it is time well spent when someone raises an issue that they want to talk through. Colleagues should feel empowered and confident in raising those problems to executives because if recurring problems aren’t being addressed, there is little chance that the overall company goals will be achieved sustainably and predictably.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There’s a lot to say here, and obviously, no two experiences are the same. One of the main things I find is that women are more often labeled into archetypes when they’re executives or leaders. People more readily assign women a ‘type’ and make assumptions on the basis of that type — it feels black and white. While men get the benefit of many shades of grey, if that makes sense. This might be derived from the fact that there are simply many more male executives still, and that leads to more variation in visible male role models. For some female executives, it can be distracting when you start to think about how other people are labeling you along the way and once you get there. The only way to really deal with it is to consciously be yourself. Leaning into our uniqueness and new ways of thinking can help us move away from archetype-oriented thinking in the long run.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When you think about any role, you think about the goals you are explicitly assigned. It’s always in the job description to support the company’s mission and achieve certain metrics. But I think the most important part of any executive-level job is making sure that your team feels supported. This ensures that teams are not only empowered, but also excited and motivated to get to that goal together. It takes a village to achieve big goals, and you have to support your village or you won’t go anywhere.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Anyone can be an executive, and it’s better to have many different types of people as executives. I think it more-so comes down to if you enjoy the work enough, and it can also come down to if you are lucky enough to have the support system that enables you to do the role. Being an executive, especially at a scale-up, often requires your mindshare and time beyond already long work hours. To commit to that in a sustainable way, you have to be passionate about the work you are doing. The commitment is made easier or even possible by circumstances or a support system that helps you get there and stay there.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
This is advice I would give to any leader: Figure out what it means to be a leader in a way that’s genuine and works for you. Trying to act a certain way every day is draining. It takes away energy that you can instead use to support your team and focus on the things you need to do.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve had amazing opportunities in my career to work on topics such as climate resilience, gender equality, and a number of social and economic development challenges. All of these projects have given me a greater appreciation for how grassroots efforts really make an impact in the world. Today, I aim to make my direct environment a better place — for example by lifting up the amazing women I work with or spending extra time mentoring colleagues.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I wish someone told me to take fuller advantage of every beginning, whether it’s the beginning of your career, a new job, a new project. When you’re walking into something new, especially at a senior level, there is a sense of expectation and a natural urge to prove yourself immediately. However, I’ve found that when I flip that narrative and take full advantage of each beginning to seek context from many people and really listen to different perspectives, the eventual output is much stronger. I aim to do this now, but I think it took me some time to really feel comfortable taking advantage of the flexibility and pause that ‘beginnings’ offer us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
A more accessible discussion on climate resilience and addressing climate change. I feel that the discussion is happening a few steps removed from the people who are being the most impacted: a few steps removed regionally, generationally, or other.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I often think about an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “The best day to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best day is today.” As an executive or a leader of teams, you can often find yourself thinking about what you could have done a while ago to better set yourself up for what’s happening right now. If only you had only planted that tree some time ago, that seed would have grown to something big and supportive now. And it’s fine to think about that, but it’s not very productive. I think the real answer is to get digging, because today is the next best day to do it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA. Partly because I’m a huge basketball fan, but mainly because he has very publicly navigated a lot of complex issues since he took the role, including social justice issues and pandemic-related issues. Whether or not I agree with all of his decisions, he’s often one of the first and most creative voices to take a public position. I’ve found it always seems to have a strong level of thoughtfulness. I’d love to meet him and talk to him about that, as well as his initiatives to include more women in the infrastructure of the NBA.