By Poornima Apte, contributor, and Sara Downey, Dell thought leadership
Namrata Kripalani grew up in Mumbai, in a family that placed a heavy emphasis on professional education. Seeing older cousins become doctors and engineers, Kripalani felt inspired to seek a leadership role, and equipped to tackle any manner of complexity, with her quintessential humility.
By her mid-20s, she had completed an MBA in supply chain management and brought her understated flair for operations and supply chain management to Dell Technologies, resulting in an illustrious career that has spanned more than 18 years. Today, she is the vice president of Customer Data Strategy and Governance and gets her kicks from leading teams with her trademark magnanimity and encouraging fellow Asian Americans at Dell to aim high.
For all the reasons that become clear as you read on, Kripalani is our latest Breakthrough Champion. I sat down with Kripalani to discuss her definition of leadership and how she works to energize others to deploy their strengths in the workplace.
What led you to choose supply chain management as the focus for your MBA?
My background was in operations and to some degree in finance and accounting. But I was attracted to operations management—how you can start with simple raw materials, create value for customers by building products and processes, and optimize an entire operation. After my undergrad, I had an interesting job selling and managing projects for large air conditioning systems. In the process, I learned how to run efficient operations; of which there are always supply chain interdependencies.
I became fascinated by these interdependencies. Even businesses, two or three layers down the supply chain, can have a profound impact on the ability of an organization to serve its customers. We see this time and time again: companies ascend or fall, based on their supply chain’s resilience, efficiency and flexibility.
Dell’s response to the pandemic is a case in point. Thanks to its world-class supply chain, it shipped vast amounts of much-needed technology to customers around the world, under extreme conditions.
The culture piece is also fascinating. In supply chain management, you’re effectively trying to marry operations across companies with varying ways of working, cultures and ethics. For instance, a supplier of a supplier isn’t a Dell entity, but if they want to be part of our multi-layered supply chain, they must conform to our values. It’s a minefield and a multi-faceted challenge. But where all supply chains converge is the central task of fulfilling customer needs. First, we must articulate demand. Then, we must work across teams and suppliers to meet these demands.
I made supply chain management the focus of my MBA because I enjoy solving problems and protecting what I think is sacrosanct in business: meeting customer needs.
Tell me about your early years at Dell and your advancement into leadership roles.
Two years into my career at Dell, I decided that I wanted to build and grow teams. This was in the early- or mid-2000s, when there weren’t many women leaders in high-visibility positions, especially if you came from Asian heritage.
My first management position was on the factory floor. I worked the second shift as a supervisor running teams of associates who were building servers.
Many people said, “Why are you taking a job that you don’t really need to do?” But I was eager to learn how to be a good manager and add leadership skills to my widening tool belt.
In hindsight, I can see now that the greatest hurdle was imagining myself in such a role. Over time, I have learned to overcome the inner voice that says, “you’re not worthy or someone is better equipped.” However, the struggle has shown me why it is so important to affirm young women, and combat messages they may have imbibed since childhood.
Be curious and keep learning. Use that learning to have a point of view. Have an opinion, honey it, develop it, and keep talking about it. That’s when true breakthroughs and innovation happen. -Namrata Kripalani
The pandemic has rebooted the discussion about supply chain management and customer service. How do you lead your team to view this as an opportunity to try new things?
We’ve celebrated data’s value for some time. The pandemic has taken that appreciation, and demand for real-time data to a new level.
It’s also shown that companies like Dell, in conjunction with our customers and vendors, are truly interdependent. Hence, we need to understand contextual data. And we need to use this data to create an ecosystem, where siloed data is banished.
We’re doing that now. We understand our customers better. We are working with sales teams to plan customer demand and integrate these data signals into our planning. By using contextual data to give high-quality forecasts to our suppliers, they can predict demand better. That’s one win. There are many more wins ahead.
Talk about your participation in Asians in Action, the employee resource group at Dell. Why is that important to you?
I’ve been part of the group as a volunteer, then as a leader, and now as an executive sponsor. Asians in Action focuses on helping team members advance their careers, but especially helps those of Asian heritage. We provide members with networking opportunities and continue to recognize and celebrate our cultural heritage. But beyond that, I’m passionate about creating a platform where folks of Asian heritage can see leaders that look like them, in positions where they are influencing others to drive change or innovation and solving difficult problems. It allows members to imagine themselves in these leadership positions and to pursue them. We encourage them toward these goals.
Crucially, we don’t seek to be the same as everyone else. We explore: how can we do similar jobs, but do them differently and gain benefits for customers and for the company through that diversity? That’s an important nuance.
You have said that other people have mentored you and that you are a strong believer in mentoring. Could you talk about that?
Over my career, many people have been part of my growth. But it was not always a formal mentorship relationship. It was really the relationships that we nurtured over time that created a level of engagement and trust. I learned by observing people, that it’s not so much about them telling me, “Hey, here’s what I think you should do.” It was more about the mentors guiding my thinking. They encouraged me to keep learning and be better, to think deeply about not only my motivations, or my team’s motivations, but also the motivations of the cross-functional partners that I was working with. My mentors helped me imagine something for myself and my team that was bigger and better than what may have been imagined for us.
What advice would you give to professionals who are just starting out at Dell in terms of overcoming barriers?
Be curious and keep learning. Use that learning to have a point of view. Have an opinion, honey it, develop it, and keep talking about it. That’s when true breakthroughs and innovation happen.
Breakthrough Champions is a series on Perspectives profiling ordinary Dell employees doing amazing things to advance digital transformation. The series is inspired by Dell’s “Breakthrough” platform and the belief that progress happens at the intersection of people and technology.