The Superwoman of our Times
She is the first woman CFO at IKEA – the first Indian at the position. But it is how she got their while fighting cancer that makes her a superwoman.
In Greek mythology, a Phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. As the legend goes, the bird dies in a show of flames and combustion, before being born again from its very own ashes. Over the centuries, the Phoenix motif has been transmitted and retold a thousand times, embellished and versioned for effect. In the historical record, the Phoenix metaphor has come to symbolize renewal in general, as well as the sun, time, resurrection, existence beyond life etc. But more often than not, in common parlance, the ‘Phoenix’ stands for The exceptional being… a superhuman, endowed with the ability to go down in a blaze of glory, only to rise again with bigger wings and an even bigger heart.
In Goa Institute of Management, Shilpa Gulati is the Phoenix, as she also is in the global retail behemoth IKEA. An alumnus of GIM’s batch of 1998, Shilpa Gulati is the Country HR Operations Manager for IKEA in the U.S. The twist in the tale is that till a few months back – June 2016 to be precise – Shilpa was the CFO, IKEA, a position she voluntarily relinquished in the best interest of the organisation. For those looking for biases of gender and race, those man-made barriers were well and truly broken by Shilpa on her way to the top. However, it was an intervention by destiny that dictated her decision to move out of the CFO’s role.
In 2012, Shilpa was the deputy manager of one of the largest IKEA stores in the U.S. when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
“My son was 7 and daughter 2 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So it was tough and emotional for me. The chemotherapy sessions started. My daughter hated that I lost my hair, but they were surrounded by family at home all the time.So, in a way, it was actually fun for them having grandparents and cousins around a lot.”
Breast cancer is confidence-ripping and often life threatening. But those who’ve been there know that chemotherapy can be quite devastating too. So many families come to a standstill, devoid of all means and purpose. Not for Shilpa Gulati. Right through those 18-months of chemotherapy, Shilpa never stopped, juggling family, chemotherapy and her job at IKEA with a zen-like approach. By mid-2014, she took over as the store manager, and that financial year rang in annual revenue of a whopping $100 million. Soon she received the call she’d been waiting for ever since she walked into IKEA as an intern15 years back.
“The CEO of IKEA, USA, wanted a CFO who would do good for the company in the long run and not just the short term. I had shown in IKEA that my leadership allows for long-term sustainability and strong teams. The numbers don’t matter; what matters is the clarity about where we are headed together, and what we would like the team to look like 2-3 years down the line. In IKEA it’s been easy to identify with the company’s values and use that as the core foundation to nurture competence – by building relationships with people around me, by constantly striving to inspire trust and faith in my team, by being there for them, by coaching them, by ensuring that I understand what motivates them, by being open and transparent with them. It pulls different skill sets from me.”
In September 2015, at the age of 41, Shilpa Gulati took over as the first woman CFO in the history of IKEA. She was also the first Indian in that position. The announcement was made almost 3 years after she was detected with cancer. The Phoenix had risen.
Barely a couple of months in the elevated chair of the CFO of IKEA, while still in the blaze of glory, Shilpa was informed that despite everything, the cancer had gnawed its way to her brain.
“I had just been promoted to CFO. For 20 years now, I’ve led a healthy, spiritual life. When I found out the cancer was in my brain. I was shocked and unhappy. Life felt unfair.”
There’s something about cancer that pulls people down very fast; not just the sufferer but those around him or her as well. And brain cancer simply takes the fight out of the afflicted. But then, for Shilpa, there was Chinmaya Kinshuk – her husband and father of their 2 children, as well as her batchmate from GIM.
“My husband Chinmaya said something which still resonates with me. He said, ‘You are 41 and have, inspite of everything you are going through, got a position you wanted. How many can say that?’ It made me realise that even if everything is compressed, if you can truly feel you have achieved what your heart desires, it does not matter.”
The realisation made Shilpa grow deeper as a person.
“I realized on reflection that life prepared me for this – spiritually, with family support and, I have to say, with financial resources. So while God felt I had to go through this he also gave me all the means to be strong and fight this. It moulded my philosophy that when life throws curve balls, instead of focusing on ‘why me’, we need to be at the ‘why not me’ point. I also realized that when good things happen people don’t question, as we all think we deserve it. I started to question that within myself…. and keep going.”
So, despite two brain surgeries, Shilpa Gulati was back to work in a few weeks. But by then, she had begun to realise that she’d have to make a very tough decision.
“As a leader, the first step is recognizing when you are ineffective because long-term is just a sum of short-term. My illness was not doing the company, or me, any good. CFO is a big position. In February 2016, I had a recurrence of a tumour in my brain. I decided to step down and focus on my health.”
In June 2016, Shilpa Gulati stepped down as the Country HR Operations Manager for IKEA U.S.
“I believe that really was the best step for me and the company. I recovered faster as I was not stressed, and the company is now looking for someone who will be here, and not in-and-out. We always have to consider the greater good in positions that matter.”
On the 14th of August, 2016, at the foothills of Sahyadri, far away from her home in the U.S., under a clear blue sky, Shilpa Gulati – one of the most awarded Indians in the corporate world – was honoured by her peers of GIM with their first ever distinguished alumni award. The award was presented to her in absentia at GIMs Grand Alumni Meet. The name of ‘Shilpa Gulati’ was announced to a long, standing ovation. For many in that gathering who knowher, the Phoenix had risen again.
“I’m just an ordinary girl doing what is needed to survive for my family, my kids,” says Shilpa Gulati in a communication from Philadelphia. “If my journey helps others realize who they are meant to be, then I’m grateful for it. Everyone has more strength than they believe they do. They just have to find it within. As for being nominated by my peers at GIM, I am speechless. I am humbled and honoured and appreciative of the recognition. It’s a privilege.”
Shilpa always loved planning well in advance – events, vacations… career. Now, she plans to live life 2 months at a time.
“I go for scans every 2 months,” she says in explanation. “Actually in some ways it’s liberating. You get up and just go, and you don’t worry about anything else because you want to live every moment. You wake up, feel the sun on your face, and feel grateful. A regular day is a regular day for me. Wake up in the morning. Get the kids to school. Go to work. Do my best. Come home. Spend time with kids. Have dinner. Go to bed. You don’t stress about jobs… promotions, because you realize, that in the end, it doesn’t matter.”
It’s an altogether different story that GIM – or for that matter IKEA – are pretty certain that Shilpa Gulati is going to be just fine. After all, she is their Phoenix. Whenever life throws her down, she will rise from the dust… again, and again, and again.
It’s her job, you know.
Watch her journey here –
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