Akshay Kothari: A design-oriented networker
Akshay Kothari explains how design thinking has helped him become more empathetic, networked and inclusive
This is not the first time I am meeting a chief executive officer (CEO) in the company cafeteria, but it is the first time the subject of the interview has studied my CV as closely as I’ve looked at his. He knows where I’ve worked, studied and how (in)frequently I post stories online on his company’s platform.
I am at the Bengaluru corporate headquarters of the Indian arm of the professional networking platform LinkedIn. Akshay Kothari, 31, country manager and head of product, is taking me on an office tour, past open-plan desks, closed meeting rooms and informal discussion spaces, while citing extracts of my CV to me.
Midway, we decide to continue our conversation in the cafeteria rather than in an enclosed meeting room. Kothari’s personal workspace is not an option because like most of his peers at multinational technology companies, he works off a simple, height-adjustable desk.
Dressed in a calibrated palette of warm, bright colours and business-like neutrals, the cafeteria serves as a visual metaphor for LinkedIn’s business philosophy: social, yet professional networking. If there was a dress code, both the LinkedIn cafeteria and the online platform would be described as “business casual”, the midway between suits and ties, or jeans and T-shirts.
Empathy in the workplace
The workplace design reflects three key tenets of Kothari’s business philosophy—the importance of empathy, networking, and the power of the platform.
First, empathy, the starting point for the practice of design thinking, which Kothari says changed his life.
Born and raised in Ahmedabad, Kothari followed an accomplished yet conventional academic track, studying electrical engineering as an undergraduate at Purdue University and then doing a master’s from Stanford University, until he came across a design-thinking class at the iconic Stanford d.school. “I think of my life as like pre-Stanford and post-Stanford, particularly the design school had a lasting impact,” he says.
Kothari visited the d.school in his first week at Stanford, on the recommendation of a friend. “The d.school felt like a candy store. Every piece of furniture was on wheels, there were post-its and whiteboards all around, people were out in the open, working at all hours. And I was like: This is amazing! So I signed up for a design-thinking course and I still remember the first homework: We are going to redesign how people eat Ramen noodles,” says Kothari, explaining how the exercise helped him to look closely at an everyday occurrence.
“That’s one thing that has helped me in my life today, that any problem-solving starts with empathy, which is to know who you are really designing for,” he adds.
Design thinking translated into actual problem-solving, and career advancement for Kothari. “While at Stanford, I started a class project which was the Pulse app, which ended up being a company that was eventually acquired for $90 million (around Rs585 crore now; by LinkedIn).” He subsequently joined LinkedIn, and, a few years later, moved to India to head operations here, retaining a product innovation role.
In the case of the LinkendIn office interiors, with which Kothari was involved, empathy translates into a nourishing and energizing work environment, “creating a space that people look forward to coming to,” he says.
Made for networking
As one might expect, the office places networking centre stage, mirroring the second aspect of Kothari’s business philosophy. Spread across nearly three storeys, the LinkedIn office has unusually generous circulation spaces, as well as extensive collaboration zones, formal and informal. “You can do a walking meeting. It’s a pretty large floor plate so if you just walk one full floor, it will be like a quarter-kilometre,” he says.
Kothari is a consummate networker, with precise rules of engagement. “I have a highly curated list (of LinkedIn contacts), 2,000 people based on my education, on where I’ve worked before, on the company that I started before, on my work experience here. I wouldn’t have known what they were all doing before LinkedIn. And I check my feed, maybe 20 times a day,” he admits. For Kothari, professional networking is an attempt to “create economic opportunity for every professional in the world. We have over half-a-billion members now and India is our second-largest market. We are here to make people more successful,” he says.
Something for everyone
Finally, like the LinkedIn app, the office aspires to offer something to everyone. “We want to give people a physical space to work, but in today’s world the mental and spiritual part are also important. Are you meditating or are you doing yoga? These are tremendously powerful in helping you concentrate at work,” says Kothari, adding: “I went from doing zero meditation to a 10-day silent meditation retreat, Vipassana. I don’t meditate every day, but it’s given me a toolbox that I can leverage when I feel overwhelmed, which I find pretty useful.”
Office amenities are thus well-maintained and plentiful: a multi-cuisine cafeteria with live counters, a fully-equipped gym with classes, a wellness centre, a recreational room with table tennis, foosball and snooker table, and, more unusually, a music room with drum-sets, guitar and tabla.
Similarly, for companies, LinkedIn aspires to be the “concierge” of the jobs market, offering every service from one location. “We help companies do four specific things. We help companies hire better. Recruiting is our biggest business. We help them market, which is our advertising business, we help them to sell, and we have a learning business, which is when you hire a lot of people, how do you help employees skill themselves better for future jobs?” Kothari says.
Of course, a multi-purpose platform comes with its own set of challenges.
As a purported one-stop shop to catalyse the jobs market, LinkedIn has had some hits and misses. Anecdotal data from a couple of my professional networks suggests that recruiters and employees are turning to it more for information and networking than hiring, and that the technology doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with expectations.
Kothari maintains, “On the recruiting front, we’ve empowered companies and recruiters to help combine their instincts with the right data and the power of our professional network to make the right talent decisions.” Yet he might need to think harder on how to marry empathy with engineering, to ensure technology can fulfil user needs and desires in the same way that a physical workplace fulfils a professional’s growth aspirations.
The hand-painted walls in a corner of LinkedIn’s corporate headquarters in Bengaluru clearly point in a certain direction: Bharat. Colloquial in look, they resemble the colourful roadside signs found all over the country. As a symbol, they represent Akshay Kothari’s efforts to take LinkedIn to non-corporate parts of India, to those with limited access to formal professional networks.
The company hopes to penetrate untapped markets through custom-designed products and services, including LinkedIn Lite, a 1MB, easy-to-download mobile app for Android users with poor internet connectivity.The company’s partnership with ILFS Skills, a vocational training provider, is indicative of its intent to reach out to a blue-collar market—though, admittedly, through an English product. ILFS students are given 2 hours of training on LinkedIn to help them up the career ladder.
“Maybe your first job is at a beauty salon, because that’s a specific skill you’ve learnt, but now your learning doesn’t have to stop. These people will be powered with a LinkedIn profile. They can continue to find better jobs for themselves. That’s my dream for LinkedIn in India, I am super passionate and excited about it,” enthuses Kothari.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns published as part of the Mint Business Series.