Roopa Kudva, managing director of Omidyar Network India Advisors, on how she took to an open-office plan
For once, Head Office starts with a wager with myself. I’m on my way to meet Roopa Kudva, managing director of Omidyar Network India Advisors, the Indian arm of the Silicon Valley-headquartered impact investors.
The bet is straightforward: How likely is Kudva to work Silicon Valley style, in an entirely open office, without a cabin? Having previously served as managing director of Crisil, a large, home-grown financial analytics company with several thousand employees, will she be comfortable in a radically different work environment (which I’m betting to myself will be how Omidyar operates)?
Life in the open
The answer is an unequivocal yes. I learn very quickly that Kudva works from a height-adjustable, open-plan workstation located in the corner of an open office, surrounded by just over a dozen co-workers, in an office block in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex. It is quite a transition from Crisil’s stand-alone office building in Powai.
“To be very candid, when I decided to join Omidyar Network in 2015, I was apprehensive. It was the little things that I wasn’t so sure about, like the office. If you are used to sitting in a large office all by yourself, with a whole army of support staff outside just helping you with your day-to-day stuff, simple things like your (PowerPoint) decks and putting your research for your speeches, you’re not sure how you would be able to cope with those changes," admits Kudva.
“But being out in the open, as opposed to being locked away in a room somewhere else, has helped in the transition, because it’s got me so close to where actual work happens that I couldn’t have learnt faster any other way," she says, adding that she likes to stand and work when she’s reading, and sit when she’s writing.
When Kudva needs privacy for a phone call, or to meet someone, she heads over to one of the five meeting rooms in the office. Even though the number of meeting rooms is generous for an office of less than two dozen people, Kudva says “it’s always a bit of a merry-go-round to find space; one needs to book in advance". This statement highlights one of the biggest challenges in open-plan modern workplaces—providing enough work settings for both collaborative as well as private work, in work environments that demand both types of activities.
A layer of Indian décor has been added to the workplace to reflect its local presence—a policy the Omidyar Network adopts in all its offices. “Each of our global locations has a very strong infusion of local culture," she says.
Balancing the model
Kudva’s flexibility at work—in successfully transitioning to a new work environment—is an essential job requirement. Unlike conventional venture capitalists, the Omidyar Network invests in both for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises, a hybrid model that demands a flexible approach in dealing with two very different sectors.
“We have two chequebooks, so if you are a commercial organization, we are like any other venture capitalist, we invest equity. But if you are an NGO or a non-profit, then we will give you a grant. Our definition of impact investing is this combination of the two chequebooks. It is based on the fact that you can invest in commercial enterprises that have social impact. Also, there are certain places where you need an NGO, for example where markets don’t work. So we have flexible capital, which is the two chequebooks," says Kudva.
Five sectors have been identified for investment: financial inclusion, education, consumer Internet and mobile, governance and citizen engagement and property rights. Within each of these broad sectors, investment themes have been identified as specific areas that are most likely to drive sectoral growth. “For example, in education, we are saying three things are very important for India—one is early childhood education, the second is K–12 (schooling), and the third is skills, so all our investments will be clustered around these themes," Kudva says.
The hybrid approach to investing has resulted in a portfolio of investees as varied as classifieds platform Quikr, pre-school operator Treehouse and research institution Indian Institute for Human Settlements. Some might find the sectoral diversity perplexing, but it does not bother Kudva. “The core capability I developed really over 23 years was how to look at businesses, and how to evaluate businesses, across 72 sectors, not just five," she says.
For Kudva, most enterprises (whether for-profit or not-for-profit) share the same challenges of scale: how to attract and retain talent, how to build systems and processes, how to remain agile and how to build their brand, for example. “So those fundamentals of doing business don’t change, and they don’t change whether you are the new economy or whether you are the old economy," she says.
As the lines between professional sectors blur and our lives become more “hybrid", Kudva’s approach to her space and her profession offers some clear lessons: Retain core beliefs, be flexible and adaptable, and find the balance between the two.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month 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.