As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ketaki Sharma is the Founder and CEO of Algorithm Research, a bespoke analytics and advisory firm based out of the United Arab Emirates. A Y-Combinator Startup School alumnus and past winner of Rakez Business Excellence entrepreneurship award, Algorithm Research has had a few milestones that we are proud of.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in India during the dot com bubble meant that you could either be an engineer or a doctor. There was no option C. When I was in high school, the dot com bubble crashed and there were suddenly more unemployed engineers than ever before. I wasn’t the best student in the science section but I found social science very interesting. The dot com crash meant that a degree in economics could be as risky as a degree in engineering in terms of employability BUT in terms of return on investment, the former was way ahead. So it was the ‘economics’ of a degree in economics that brought me into this exciting world of economics. I did well academically and after successful stints as an economist with firms like Nomura Securities and S&P, I started an independent research firm called Algorithm Research.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
By the time I founded Algorithm Research (2016), I was a seasoned economist but a novice entrepreneur. My corporate career had largely been around honing research skills without valuing adequately the contribution of the sales teams that reached out to clients with our research. Without the right sales team, even the best research ideas and articles can go completely unnoticed. This was something I truly appreciated only after setting up Algorithm Research. Founder driven sales is critical to the success of a research firm and there has been a conscious effort to upskill on that front. Our experience at Y Combinator Startup School was also quite helpful there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
More often than not, every mistake you make costs you something — and there is no fun in losing money & time. In our early days, we were approached by a corporate for a consulting project that required econometric model building. We were enthused at the prospect of doing some exciting work only to realize that the client was merely trying to fix errors in their existing model by making us do random case studies that could potentially help them. We got an inkling but call it optimism or excitement, we spent a lot of time doing something that did not help us as our involvement was unknown to the wider department/firm. We have hopefully learnt to be helpful without being taken advantage of, after that experience.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We provided business solutions tailored in the local MENA/India context by regionally experienced analysts. This is a drastic shift from our foreign competitors that usually delegate the MENA region to analysts that are fresh college graduates, who may or may not have spent time in the region to be able to provide solutions that are locally relevant.
When I came to the region, I would find myself explaining why the bank or the financial institution I was interviewing with would need a research division. Most of these interviewers would nod and say things like ‘but we are not global entities and so we do not need research’ or ‘we are focusing on sales’ as if research, sales and expansion are mutually exclusive events. Looking back I think this indifference towards research could be partly due to the irrelevant solutions contracted through third party providers based outside the region with no local presence.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are working on some really exciting and high impact projects but due to non-disclosure agreements signed with the clients, we are bound by contract to not speak about them.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Teams thrive when we not only hire right but also trust them with to do their jobs without micromanaging. Since I do not know enough number of female leaders closely, I would refrain from making any assumptions on female leadership. Personally, I learnt that teams thrive well when recruit right but also learn to delegate work without micromanaging. By doing so we treat adults like adults and build relationships based on trust, responsibilities and comparative advantage.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Any kind of success is always teamwork accompanied by a lot of sacrifices and support from people who love you. My family — my husband in particular — has been my biggest source of strength and unconditional support. Also, having a couple of friends that are startup founders has also been of help. We exchange notes and realize that we are not the only ones going through the massive highs and deep lows. That has in some ways helped us understand that that is the nature of our work and we have to be mentally prepared for it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In my professional and entrepreneurial journey, I have received a lot of guidance, support and trust from my senior colleagues and coworkers. At Algorithm Research, we try to pay it forward by giving young people the opportunity to work in our startup giving them exposure into different departments. The learning curve for these youngsters is steep and given their energy and enthusiasm the output is at a different level.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
A year as an entrepreneur is probably equal to at least a couple of years working in a normal 9-to-5 job, when it comes to learning important business and life lessons. In no particular order, below are some of the lessons I learnt from my experience.
1. Not every superhero wears a cape. From our perspective, this was about seeking and finding help & support from unexpected quarters. In my journey, the encouragement and assistance came from many quarters — be it family, friends, or mere acquaintances. I usually make it a point to meet people and interact with them over a cup of coffee, without any expectation whatsoever. Though that meeting may seemingly lead nowhere, invariably something or the other could click much later and things work out to everyone’s benefit.
2. Don’t give yourself too much credit or be too hard on yourself. I know it would come across as a shock to many, but the world does not revolve around them. The choices we make are half chances at most times. There are so many variables and moving parts in the real world that is impossible to get it right (or wrong) at all times.
3. Admire worthy competitors. They could give you sleepless nights, but they can also be your greatest source of insights and motivation. Use their success to fuel your own improvement and stay in the game.
4. Do it your way. Frank Sinatra famously sang, “I did it my way”. Well he was not the only one following this mantra. For us at Algorithm Research, especially given how niche we were, it was essential to go through a process of discovery and figure out what works for us and do it our way.
5. Exercise. Yoga. Dance. Zumba. Run. The business of being in business is a stressful business. Leadership can take its toll, so nothing better than sweating it out and getting rid of some of that negativity monster.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In this world of fake news, if people only paid more attention to data (and its interpretation), the world would truly become a better place. If I could inspire one movement, it would be to form opinions backed by data and not by anecdotal evidences. Having said so, this may come back to bite us as it would likely shrink the addressable market for us as we in the business of gleaning insights out of data.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The legendary Hindi poet, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, had once said “mann ka ho toh achchha, aur jo na ho toh aur achchha” which literally translates into “it is good if you get what you wish for but even better if you do not get what you desire”. What you desire is limited by the extent of your imagination, whereas what you ultimately get might be far greater and more meaningful — much beyond you could have perceived for yourself. This has been true on so many occasions in my life from making career choices to ultimately starting an independent research firm in the Middle East.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
HH Sheikh Mohammad, the Ruler of Dubai is a leader of great vision. The transformation that Dubai has gone through during his reign is phenomenal. I feel lucky to have seen some of the recent transformations that have taken place and hope, pray and wish that someday I get to meet this visionary leader to know more about his vision for Dubai and what inspires him to work the way he does.
Arianna Huffington is another inspirational woman I hope to meet someday. I would love to know what she believes, shaped her as a person and what motivates her to constantly take on newer challenges.
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