Rekha Vijayalakshmi, COO of Ness Technologies, proves that nice girls do get the corner office. She talks about keeping her small town values intact while blazing a trail through the echelons of corporate America

Rekha Vijayalakshmi has broken the glass ceiling of corporate America. After steering UST Global to new heights, “local girl” Rekha is now the chief operating officer of Ness Technologies, a top flight global IT services provider.

“There’s absolutely no substitute for excellence and you have to hold your ground in the face of all that power play,” says Rekha. True. Beneath her pleasant, chatty, demeanour it’s easy enough to understand that petite Rekha is used to achieving whatever she sets her mind to.

“Actually, it’s only in the boardrooms – the highest echelons, really – that male domination comes into play the most. Often, in the corporate world, men use men’s issues to bond. They talk about baseball, they admire each other’s ties, they discuss the sports they play or even go out to the pub. I can’t contribute to any of that. That’s why I find ways to build authentic relationships with individuals,” adds the 46-year-old, who is based in New Jersey. Rekha is on a fly-by visit to the city, her hometown.

Building authentic relationships? “For example, a CIO (chief information officer) that I was working with is into sports and hunting. And there’s me, the arty-nerdy type. How do we connect? However rational we are, much business is done at an emotional level. We need to establish trust. Across the boardroom table the CIO and I discovered that we are both sci-fi fans! That’s an authentic connect. Similarly, family, history, country... it’s the simple things that help people connect,” she explains.

Rekha also has another trick up her sleeve for the boardroom. “I speak only when I can add value, otherwise I keep my mouth shut!” she says, with a laugh. “Listening is rare in any profession. People value those who can listen, those who understand what they are proposing and then marry it to the opposing view and finally integrate it to a new truth,” she explains, emphasising that she abhors pulling in favours with feminine references. “I don’t want favours because I am a woman. I’m a professional. Treat me as one,” she says, her quiet confidence shining through.

Rekha’s journey to corporate America had its genesis here in the city. This former student of Sarvodaya School, Women’s College and College of Engineering, Trivandrum, started off her career with Steel Authority of India at its VISL facility in Shimoga. “There were 7,000 employees at VISL and only two women engineers! So I guess my training in a man’s world started then,” she muses. After a couple of years Rekha moved to space research at Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in the city, making communication transponders and receiving systems for launch vehicles. “It was a very exciting time,” she says. Rekha was at ISRO till 2002 and towards the end of her stint she worked in concepts for telemetry systems for reusable launch vehicles. “It’s exciting to see stuff that we talked about then up in space now!” she adds, with a laugh.

Then, it was straight into corporate management at UST. “ISRO gave me a holistic view of project, people management and teamwork. I wanted to diversify,” she explains of her sudden career move. In her 10 years with UST she was a client-facing delivery person who managed multi-million dollar engagements. “I started off with just four accounts and expanded it to 22 clients. When I left the company the output from those accounts was something close to 85 million dollars in banking and financial services,” she says.

She’s now been with Ness Technologies – an Israel-based company – for over a year. “I find satisfaction in leading multifunctional teams to attain challenging goals. I am a continuous learner and I believe it is the only way to build true competitive advantage for corporations and individuals,” she says.

Yet, she is quick to point out that it was never a solo journey and credits teamwork for much of her success. “Valuing your team matters. You have to carry your team with you. Because, if you give your team respect, empower them, and give them trust they will carry you forward,” says Rekha, her dimples flashing.

BALANCING ACT

Rekha’s husband, Jay Nair, is also an IT executive with Ness Technologies. She has a daughter, Anjali, a student of mass communication, who also fronts a rock band. “Music is thus a huge part of our family life. We are also museum hounds who love spending time in museums and learning about world culture,” she says.

“There’s never a perfect line to balance home life with your career. It’s unstable equilibrium at best, which, career women have to realise, changes as your child grows. It’s a constant balancing act,” adds Rekha. She says that she makes it a point to make time for herself too. “It’s important that women not neglect themselves. Friday evenings are for me. I like to kick back and relax with a good book.” She’s also an armchair traveller and a global cinema buff.

SIX TIPS FOR SUCCESS

No substitute for excellence

Build authentic relationships with individuals

Speak only when you can add value.

Listen when other talk

Value your team

Make time for yourself