Director of Data & People: an unconventional pairing of functions. This is Alka Gupta’s role at BukuWarung, a tech company developing digital financial solutions to empower small and medium enterprises in Indonesia. In this chat, Alka tells us how she branched out to the people space and how her data expertise shaped the company’s approach to diversity, inclusion and culture.
The Risk of Heartbreak in Startups
Early in her career, Alka’s roles in Grab and OVO primarily involved strategy and operations. Working with bigger, highly structured companies allowed her to seek solutions from a singular angle: trust and safety.
It’s a stark contrast to her experience at BukuWarung. At the time she joined the company, there were only four people onboard. She was in a quintessential startup, working late nights with a small team figuring out what came next. In this environment, each person is deeply invested in the project. Ownership of work is high and “Every time something will break, your heart breaks.” Recognising an opportunity for greater impact in this set up, she embraced the startup space growing out of her data mould.
Putting Data in Its Rightful Place
When Alka started, she exclusively looked at data.
“Everybody started calling me party pooper because I used to go and just play with their happiness, saying ‘You know, we didn't do a good job.’ But the good part of that was for me, it was a moment where I could change.”
It was a critical juncture in her career, both as a data professional and a leader. It was not enough to offer clinical observations. She needed to use data purposefully, with the benefit of people - internal and external stakeholders - in mind, to create real value. Often, data is an afterthought or tool for breaking decision deadlocks. “Usually companies look at data as a support function.” The alternative is to turn it into a pillar of business. This perspective enabled Alka to change the way customers viewed their app. “What would the experience look like? What would our NPS look like? What will our investor metrics look like? If you're able to discuss a behaviour early on, the impact would be 10x.”
From PC Police to People Person
Highly opinionated, Alka had a tendency to cultural missteps. While she was politically correct, rebuking her colleagues constantly made it difficult to keep a fun vibe at work. One day, the founder suggested she look into working in the people space.
With a background in strategy, data and engineering, this domain was foreign to Alka. Putting it on her radar was beneficial. “I was able to, one, expand my horizon of what I could do as an individual. Two, I had an opportunity… I could make a change [in the culture] and define it.”
This triggered an almost obsessive study of culture. She read everything she could on the subject from Ben Horowitz to Brené Brown. She took a deep-dive into practices of other organisations like Netflix, Airbnb and Transferwise. After three months of research, she had a game plan. Implementation was a success, validated by accollades BukuWarung won along the way. “It just came to a place where you don't need to be a subject expert to build a company. You just need the heart, the passion, the drive, and the grit, and the ability to grow.” While she may have started with writing policies in completely unfamiliar territory, she’s now well entrenched in the people space doing things from onboarding to exit interviews.
A joke was once made about Alka’s new but seemingly old-fashioned glasses. No one in the room got it. It was this casual encounter that led BukuWarung’s founder to initiate the conversation on diversity. “Imagine somebody telling you, instead of focusing on a company's own metrics, to go think about diversity.” As the company was in its early stages, it was a good time for them to re-imagine diversity and keep inclusion in mind as they built the team.
"Why don't you track this metric and own it actively?", the founder suggested and it’s exactly what Alka did. Diversity and inclusion is a tough nut to crack, with issues heavily layered and nuanced. “Netflix, they just produced a report [recently]. They are [at] more than 50% women employees. I think the kind of conversations they've had to get to that, nobody glorifies that. And I think there's a lot more work there.” She understands how laborious the process is, having spoken to numerous people from other companies with success in the area - from Grab to Gojek - to create a strategy tailor fit to BukuWarung. The proof is in the pudding. From being the only female in the company, they now have a 28% diversity rate and they continue to strive to boost this number, especially when it comes to the leadership level and the area of engineering.
Write Your User Manual
In the pressure cooker that is a startup, it’s a challenge to get a highly diverse team working as a unit quickly. Alka explains that cohesion can be accelerated by educating others on how to work with their managers and teammates through personal user manuals.
“I give them [new team members] my user manual, which is basically telling you: When am I more productive? What are the things that are no-no for me? How do you get to make decisions with me? How can I enable you more? What are my skill sets? So how do you work with me?”
Understanding how other people in the team operate helps new joiners to assimilate to the new environment and focus on work, rather than navigating interpersonal relationships blindly. User manuals have been so effective at BukuWarung that all their leaders have one.
Cultural Contrasts and Common Themes
Alka has worked in a couple of different countries across Asia over the years. “It's like people at the end of the day have similar challenges. I think what might be different is what is acceptable culturally.” She describes Indian culture as one of roadmaps, with life’s defining moments being characterised by specific achievements. Attain high marks in high school. Get into a good college. Enter the right industry. Fight for a great job. Pursue an MBA. Get married. Buy a house. “The next 10 years of their life, or next 15 years of their life are always laid out for them”.
In Indonesia, she’s observed that patterns are different. “I think this country is beautiful in the way that they manage to have fun, to take care of themselves, to have hobbies, to take their hobbies with more passion. I think the kind of balance that we talk about and we aspire to have, these people already have it.”
When it comes to business leadership, similarities are apparent. “Early leaders always go through self-doubt. Early women leaders, most of them I have seen, be it an Indonesian or Indian leader, will always go through imposter syndrome. Raising their opinion in a room where they feel the psychological safety is absent, same problem. So I don't think people's challenges are very far off.”
Data offers much more than metrics to validate objectives. It holds insights that enable businesses to draw people in, customers and teams alike, for meaningful engagement and lasting impact.
- In what ways can you integrate the use of data into developing your organisation’s culture?
- How can you improve on your company’s current diversity and inclusion initiatives today?
- What are the key points you’d put in your user manual?