Major Vandana Sharma remembers her childhood with fondness. She was a happy and curious kid, always very confident and fearless. Her father was in the Indian Air Force and she grew up seeing uniforms, inspiring people and fighter aircrafts. Due to her father’s transfers, the family moved every few years from one place to another. As a result, she adapted quickly to new places, made new friends, learnt about various states of India and also enjoyed the travel a lot.
She says, “I was lucky to be born to parents who always told me I could achieve anything I wanted. If I worked hard towards it. I had a supportive family that believed in my abilities and I was always loved and appreciated for doing well in school be it academics, sports or extra-curricular activities.”
“The Army was my first love. I never thought about any other career, always believed in myself and my capabilities. I never gave up on anything due to my gender.”
As a child, she used to wear her father’s cap and salute to herself in the mirror wondering if she could wear a uniform some day for real. By the time she was graduating, the government announced the Women’s commission in the armed forces. “It was my first love. I never thought about any other career, I always believed in myself and my capabilities. I never gave up on anything due to my gender. Always had a streak of adventure and a burning desire to break stereotypes that limit our thinking as people or society.”
When the Kargil War happened, Sharma was quite young. She remembers that while artillery shelling was a usual affair, no one had expected a full-fledged war.
She recalls the day when one of the Ammunition dumps at Kargil blew up. The entire mountain seemed to be on fire. There were destruction and devastation all-over Kargil town.
“There was blasting less than 200 meters away. The splinters have a wide range and cause lethal injuries. The whole town shook. I remember shutting my eyes and seeing my entire world go around in my mind in a second. I promised myself that if I am to survive this war and live beyond, I will make this life worthwhile. After that moment, I got used to it and the fear of life and death was beyond me.
There was a lot of pain and sadness whenever we lost our colleagues but in spite of that feeling, it was necessary to stay strong and calm to provide logistic support to my colleagues in active combat with all our might. We worked night and day and that was also not enough.”
Having worked as the Chief People Officer at HolidayHQ, I ask Sharma how she made the transition from being an army officer to working as a senior industry leader across divisions in various companies. Did she face any challenges?
“As an army officer, one lives in a closed ecosystem where processes, policies and role descriptions are very clearly laid out. The armed forces serve the country without questioning ROI or profitability. It was a big shift for me to learn the ropes in the world of business where one has to constantly cut costs, optimize resources and each decision is taken considering financial implications. One has to constantly evolve keeping in view the market dynamics, technology, competition and talent availability basis life cycle of the organization.”
While leading people initiatives across sectors, she has insisted and ensured inclusivity for high calibre and meritocracy. She believes that capability is extremely important to bring in diverse thinking in the leadership. “Encouraging intelligent and sharp, young women to take up critical projects, role enlargements and cross-functional responsibilities has helped grow some young leaders.
On the job, training and mentoring both have played a very important role besides enrolling them in leadership development programs.
In addition to this, I have worked towards creating women-based forums in each of these organizations to ensure the voice is heard formally and informally. I have run critical learning and development programs to encourage women to plan their financial independence especially around their milestone and career breaks.”
She feels that gender parity and diversity is a global issue. It varies from country to country and also in various sectors however she believes once can rise to any level of leadership based on calibre. There are several inspiring women leaders today from Indra Nooyi, to Mary Barra who are leading global giant businesses.
“To combat the skewed ratio/ presence in boardrooms at higher levels, definitely we need to make a lot of conscious efforts in terms of supportive policies to keep women from dropping off the workforce around personal milestones especially like the maternity phase.”
In some sectors like Armed Forces where the Women’s commission is about two decades old, there is scope to review initial policies and continue to evolve. Once the women reach the highest decision-making levels, it should definitely bring diversity in thinking and therefore policies which are more inclusive and supportive to help women perform better across their careers. Another area which needs a lot of improvement is gender sensitization in India in general. A lot of societal biases and women safety issues also limit the potential/ contribution from women.”
Vandana Sharma calls herself a curious storyteller, a dreamer, a thinker, an explorer. For her, continuous learning is super important.
She loves life and cherishes each day. She also writes management blogs around people practices, startups talent management and sometimes a little bit around the travel pieces.
Vandana adds, “I have had two successful careers in two decades of working. I am now seeking a new purpose. I am passionate about making a difference to this world. The causes which are close to my heart are: saving the environment for our future generation. Women empowerment and doing something meaningful for the armed forces veterans.
I want to be an inspiration to young men and women. I hope to work towards building an equal world where gender plays no role whether it is in business, science, music, art, sports, running homes or running government offices and countries.”