Introducing Ajita Abraham, General Counsel, Capgemini Financial Services NA. In this interview, she talks about the importance of mentorship and having support groups, and the challenges and joys of pursuing law as a woman.
Interview by Chaminiee Gombault
Before we get into speaking about your career, I would like to understand more about your roots and foundations that have possibly contributed to your successes. Growing up, what were your hobbies and dreams? What would the 15-year-old you think of you today?
My father came to the United States from India in 1960, so he was one of the first Indians to arrive. He came on a Spanish ship with $200 in his pocket to pursue his graduate studies. He then went back to India and met my mom. They had an arranged marriage, after which they came to the United States to start a new life in a new culture. So that is the background to the environment in which I was raised. It is really a story of being brave, being bold and pursuing the American dream.
I grew up in Delaware where I went to a private school and where my sister and I were the only Indian-Americans. I became very used to morphing between American culture and the Indian culture at home and in our community. We took classical Indian dance and spoke our native tongue at home. Keep in mind that these were the days when Bollywood was not heard of, and saris were considered quite foreign.
Growing up in this very bi-cultural environment really helped me to adapt to new situations and to be curious about different cultures. I think that really drove me and was a main focal point when setting my future goals.
The 15-year-old me would probably be very surprised to see me living in New York City and in the role that I am in now. When I was 15, I became interested in pursuing a career as a diplomat, and although my career has gone in a different direction, I am quite sure the 15-year-old me would be pleasantly surprised to see where I have landed.
Growing up in this very bi-cultural environment really helped me to adapt to new situations and to be curious about different cultures, and I think that really drove me and was a main focal point when setting my future goals.
You studied international relations at university before going on to law. Did you always know what you wanted to study? What or who influenced your decisions?
What is funny is that that I grew up initially wanting to become a paediatrician. Then, when I was 15, I went to Spain for a summer and lived with a family in the south of Spain, after which I went to visit my sister who was studying in London. That is really when I became excited about travelling and learning about different cultures and immersing myself into new situations.
I became very interested in International Relations and took several courses at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. I ended up going into law because it seemed like the safer career. When I was working at JP Morgan, I took the foreign service exam, which I passed, and almost became a foreign service officer. But I decided to stick with law, since I really enjoyed it and wasn’t ready to give it up. During my career, I lived and worked in Madrid for a year, and travelled extensively. I also lead a global team, so in my career path I have been able to combine both my legal background and my interest in diplomacy.
Careers always look so linear and straightforward on LinkedIn, and in your case, incredibly impressive as well. I would like to go past these titles and know more about what it was like as a woman pursuing law. Have you had any mentors or support in your career?
Just touching on what you mentioned about being a woman in law school, I would say that it is split 50-50 between women and men. Certainly, in company legal departments, women are not necessarily a minority.
To go back to mentorship and working with other women, I do think that a bigger challenge has actually been working with the generation of women above mine. This generation of women lawyers struggled and worked very hard and were not able to achieve the same work-life balance as subsequent generations. Many had to sacrifice having children to take on very long working hours and move up the corporate ladder. It may seem surprising, but I had a female boss who was not very supportive when I said that I wanted to go on maternity leave and wanted me to return to work after one month. For me, this is an indication of how much women in the prior generation had to sacrifice to get to where they are.
A lot has changed. There is more understanding thanks to the Covid push for more hybrid work. There is greater understanding about both men and women needing to raise children and balance work and raising a family. I do think that the upcoming generations are being more assertive about what they want and need, and I commend them for that. There are many studies which show that offering the chance to work from home creates more productive workers and relieves a lot of stress, so it is no surprise that a lot has changed, even since the time that I had my first child 17 years ago.
Back to mentoring, I did have a mentor when I was working at McKinsey who really supported me to take an opportunity abroad, and that is when I worked in Madrid. She knew I was really interested in expanding the breadth and scope of my work to handling European and Middle Eastern deals and assisted me in making this move. It was life-changing to be able to work in another jurisdiction as a lawyer.
There is greater understanding about both men and women needing to raise children and balance work and raising a family. I do think that the upcoming generations are being more assertive about what they want and need, and I commend them for that.
Was there ever a time when you faced gender bias?
I do not want to chalk it up to gender; things are always very nuanced. I think the days where it was obvious that there was clear discrimination are thankfully behind us. It may still exist, but fortunately I haven't experienced it lately.
Today there is a lot more use of buzz words like ‘’executive presence’’ to describe modern-day leadership — I find this to be a very elusive term and it tends to be used mostly against women, sometimes to the point of excluding them from the seat at the table for important discussions. Often it is subtle and unintentional. I think that there is still room for recognising that sometimes we just need to give women a seat at the table and let them prove their worth.
I see it across many companies, and it comes up often in conversations with friends. There is a lot of talk about diversity but at the end of the day, when it comes to promoting women to the higher-level positions, there seems to be a little bit of hesitation, even though there are women who are ready to be promoted.
There is a lot of talk about diversity but at the end of the day, when it comes to promoting women to the higher-level positions there seems to be a little bit of hesitation, even though there are women who are ready to be promoted.
How have you faced challenges in your career and how do you use lessons learned from such challenges as a manager?
Every role presents new challenges, but I see these hurdles as good growth opportunities!
It takes a village to progress in your career and a lot of support from family, mentors and other leaders in the industry. In my case, they were many role models in the legal industry and in the business teams. I have been given good advice as I have moved from one company to another which has been invaluable. I also lean on family, friends and co-workers for support.
In my own team, I have had a few women who have had children during their tenure with me, and I am always very supportive of them taking time off if they need, knowing that they can make up for the hours later. I do not micromanage; I believe there should be a level of trust. The notion of the 9 to 5 job in the office with zero flexibility is a concept of the past. I really think that we need to provide that type of flexibility to everyone. There is no point in having people stressed in the workplace. As I mentioned earlier, people work harder and are more dedicated when offered some flexibility.
You have been a Deputy General Counsel at Capgemini for two years and were recently promoted to a General Counsel role. Can you share a bit about your day to day? What do you love and what do you find more challenging?
I have been a Deputy General Counsel for a global business unit, which involves about seven employees in the United States and 21 globally. As Deputy General Counsel, and in my new role as General Counsel, my goal is to support the business teams who are focused on global capital markets, banking and insurance accounts and assist them with any legal issues. The day to day really involves negotiating contracts, responding to emergency issues with employee relations or cybersecurity and establishing appropriate compliance and legal policies. Of course, managing the team and making sure that there is consistency from a jurisdictional perspective throughout the various countries on certain terms is part of the job as well. I think what I really enjoy the most is interacting with the business teams, providing strategic advice, and determining how to make a deal work despite potential risks.
Beyond your role at Capgemini, you are many other things to family, friends, and your community. What are your priorities right now and how do you balance these to find time for yourself?
The London marathon was my sixth marathon and I think it might be my last. It took a lot of time out of my weekends, but I was happy I did it and got back into shape post-Covid. I have three children—a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old, and an 11-year-old. Having teenagers and a tween at home, it is important to understand what they are doing and make sure that things are going well from an academic and social perspective.
On top of that, I am always interested in enhancing my skills. I still take Spanish classes to perfect my conversational Spanish. I would love to take French classes so I can come and live in Paris one day! I enjoy skiing, swimming and biking and would love to take on a new sport in the future. It is important to have a balance between work, staying active, social life and personal interests – and, to keep challenging yourself!