This was the interview that almost didn’t happen. Both Ravi Venkatesan and Sonali Kulkarni were extremely hesitant to be featured in this issue but were gracious enough to invite me to their home in Bengaluru when I requested them for a meeting. As people, both Ravi and Sonali are very understated despite their accomplished careers and are very gracious hosts as well. After successful stints with Microsoft and Cummins, the extremely articulate Ravi Venkatesan is now committing his time to philanthropy using his drive for innovation to find solutions. He identifies himself as a thinker, teacher and writer who loves new ideas. His warm and soft-spoken wife, who is also the great-granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, is one of the most successful women CEOs in India. She heads the Indian arm of Japanese firm Fanuc Corp and since Sonali took over in 2006, revenue has doubled, with the company capturing an 80% market share in the industrial robots in India.
Since both have hectic schedules that involve a fair bit of travel, they ensure that the time that they spend together is used to do what they love. Since both are nature and animal lovers, most holidays are spent visiting national parks. It is not uncommon to see them rescuing animals that are hurt. They love taking their dog for long walks in the park and often find all the neighbourhood dogs eagerly waiting for them to feed them and play with them.
Where and when did you meet?
Sonali: I met Ravi in October 1999 when we were introduced to each other by a common friend in Bengaluru.
Ravi: That’s exactly how I met her! (chuckles)
What was it that you liked about each other?
Sonali: I wasn’t the marrying type but you can’t be Indian and not have people introduce you. So, one becomes very experienced in meeting people, being pleasant and moving on. I had a very interesting conversation with Ravi and remember thinking that he is not all that bad.
Ravi: I liked Sonali’s smile and her sharp mind, and we had a very pleasant conversation. We stayed connected and after almost a decade, we got married.
What are the qualities you admire in your spouse?
Sonali: He works hard and does not rest on his laurels. I like his attitude of doing something about social change rather than just reading about it and moving on. He is a very scholarly person and I like that. I also like how Ravi is kind to animals and people. I may be a nice person, too, but there are certain things I might overlook. For instance, we once went to Haridwar and I didn’t realise that there was a man lying on the ground with sores, very weak. Most people would have just overlooked that and walked on. Ravi noticed him and made sure someone took him to the hospital.
Ravi: I like that she leads from the front. For instance, if Microsoft or Cummins were part of a show, where they are exhibiting their products, I would go cut the ribbon, give a speech, meet the customers and in the end find out how everything went. In her case, she would be there each day and stay throughout the day. She would be involved in the design of the stall and the team’s training. She will meet thousands of people and I could never do that. I admire the intensity with which she approaches her work. She is a zoology major running a technology firm and that too, a woman CEO in a Japanese company. Robots are very different from frogs. It is not an easy transition but she handled it really well. I remember there was once a major problem with one of her customers and engineers were working around the clock to solve it. Sonali would come back home at 10 pm and wake up the next morning at 3.30 am to bake some cookies to take for the engineers. It was her way of giving them confidence and inspiring them.
Do you discuss work at home and does your spouse often act as your sounding board?
Ravi: I discuss my problems with her. First of all, we are best friends. I have a lot of good friends but no one as close as she is. I consult her on everything.
Sonali: When Ravi wrote his book, I read several drafts and found it applies to me a lot since I work in a multinational. Ravi once told me that I wasn’t doing a good job. I felt very bad since I work very hard. We were once facing trouble with one of our products called the CNC. We were losing market share due to price hikes that were beyond our control. Through his drafts, I learnt how other people approached difficulties with their product in other markets. So, we took it as a challenge and eased out some of the features according to the end use. We had 110,000 customers but we did it quickly. It was christened as ‘package five’ and Fanuc very uncharacteristically agreed to the changes. It was launched in Beijing in 2013 and in India in March 2014 and our market share hinted back to 82%. That was a mindset change, which I learned from Ravi.
In what ways are you different from each other?
Ravi: Sonali is more binary. She sees the world as white or black. For me, there is no black and white, only shades of grey. She also doesn’t have boundaries. She has a smaller circle, which includes family and friends. But if you are in that circle, there are no claims you cannot make. I am much more nuclear and she challenges me to be a better person.
How do you manage work-life balance?
Ravi: I think when you have very little time together, you ensure that the quality of that time is much better.
Sonali: Time is a challenge. I travel 10 days a month. Ravi travels 15 days. It would be nice if the travel overlapped. Both of us have almost no discretion.
Ravi: We spend far less time together than either of us would want to. So, we make sure the time we are together really matters. When we are not travelling, we try going to Cubbon Park with our dog and it becomes a nice little routine. We have every meal together. I genuinely want Sonali to be all that she can be. I am very happy that she is reaping the benefits of 10 years of hard work. To wish the best for each other is very important and you do your bit to fill the gaps. So, when I am not travelling, I spend more time at home.
How are the responsibilities at home shared?
Ravi: There is a seamless division of labour. We work as a team. For instance, we are building our house. She has a better aesthetic sense so I let her lead the design. I am more organised so I do project management, review and pay bills and visit the site. It is fluid. We don’t compartmentalise.
What are your common interests or hobbies?
Sonali: We both have some shared interests. We love nature and animals and it binds us. Shared values are also important. Our values on most things are common, though our expressions are different. I was fortunate to find a partner who is aligned to my values and sees life the way Isee it.