Interacting with a diverse range of customers and understanding their pain points is an eye-opening experience especially when you want to blend your technical background with real world experiences that help achieve your mission of contributing to society through science.

Prachi Jha, our next pathbreaker, Marketing Specialist at BASF, applies her detailed understanding of chemistry to translate complex, technical jargons into a language that is easily understandable for end consumers in the chemical industry which also helps them in making informed choices. 

Prachi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transitioning to Technical Marketing to address the gaps between the market and product development through collaboration and co-creation of effective solutions based on customer needs.

For students, technology by itself is meaningless if it cannot bring benefits to the society. You can use your science or engineering background to be the pulse of the market and help build technical products that solve some of the most pressing issues in the country

Prachi, tell us about Your background?

I was born to very supportive parents who encouraged me to learn through experiences. I did not grow up in any specific place. My father was in the Indian Air Force. Due to the nature of his profession, my brother and I had the privilege of studying in several schools across the country while witnessing different cultures. The latter part of my secondary education was however at one place, Secunderabad. There, I studied in Army Public School, Bolarum. I think that’s where most of my major life decisions were taken. As a student, I wasn’t the one to shy away from any sort of extracurricular activity. I participated in everything: dance, music, debate; I was also an avid reader and would frequently engage in story writing as well. During my school days, I represented my school in various regional competitions such as Quizzes, Debates, Extempores and Science Exhibitions. It was during these times that I developed a keen interest in Science. Our school encouraged experiential learning because of which, I found myself engulfed in encyclopaedias for hours altogether. This was one of the reasons I picked up Engineering. In hindsight, I think I can safely say that these early hobbies and experiences were critical in helping me follow my innate curiosity.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I went to ICT (Institute of Chemical technology) in Mumbai to pursue Chemical Technology. ICT is one of the only few colleges in the country that provides undergraduate students an opportunity to specialise in extremely niche subjects. I did my B.Tech in Surface Coating Technology. Despite its specificity, Surface Coating is a very vast subject. It has everything to do with surface materials, engineering and technology; all at the same time. 

Right from understanding Colour Physics and the kind of visuals one can create with materials, to going ahead and synthesizing functional surface materials while understanding the chemistry behind them, studying surface coating helped me understand polymers and other materials very well. The subject helped me gain a plethora of knowledge within Chemical Technology. By virtue of having studied at a research oriented university, my interests were largely influenced by the kind of interactions I had, both at the university and as well as during my internships. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Honestly, I had never planned on doing what I am doing currently because this career path seemed very aspirational (if not undoable) to me at that time. I believe that this career choice was not due to a single decision, it was possibly due to a series of decisions during the course of my journey. 

I met some incredibly talented professors, students and individuals during my time at ICT and also during my internships at Tata Chemicals and Pidilite Industries as a part of my Summer Internship. These people inspired, motivated and pushed me to perform better than I would otherwise have. In addition to the direct influence of my parents, the greatest inspiration I received was from my peers. Science is not just a profession, it is a vocation. It requires dedication, perseverance and the desire to bring about change. Science has the capability of serving communities and my time at ICT strengthened my understanding of what it truly meant to be an Engineer.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

During my last couple of semesters at ICT, the one question that haunted almost all of my batchmates was, what next? While the number of opportunities as a graduate from a Tier 1 institute such as ICT are immense, the plethora of options/opportunities that one can choose from can be baffling. We knew we had to be mindful about our strengths, weaknesses and how those fit into our career choices. 

Some of the options available to us revolved around either stepping into the industry or pursuing higher education. Based on my experience till then, I decided to step into the industry. This decision was a result of my stints at Tata Chemicals and Pidilite Industries. 

I was one of the fortunate students to have had the opportunity to intern with Tata Chemicals at their Innovation Centre in Pune. It was my first internship, and my first break into the professional world. I went in with many inhibitions. But during the course of that internship, I had a great time doing research with some of the most inspiring scientists of the country. I had the chance to work on Graphene and learn the functioning of instruments such as FTIR, Spectrophotometer in a very amiable environment that encouraged learning. Now that I think about it, my first internship wasn’t just about learning the functioning of these instruments, through this opportunity, I learnt that science is all about perseverance and dedication. 

Some of the scientists I was working with were working on projects for industries. That was the first time that the thought of working in an industry struck me. But it was not until a year later when this belief strengthened, due to my internship at Pidilite Industries. During that internship, I directly assisted the chief scientist of the Dr. Fixit lab. This internship was around the month of May and my colleagues at work were keenly working on a project to help eradicate seepage (and other problems) issues in the city during monsoons. This was a life changing encounter for me. Through this internship I realized that my role may have just been that of an intern but the contribution one makes to society while being associated with science can be immense. Science for Society made a lot of sense to me and I decided to try my tryst with science through an industrial exposure at the start of my career. 

How did you get your first break?

I am currently working at BASF where I had my first break, my first job. 

BASF is the world’s largest Chemical company that finds its roots in Ludwigshafen, Germany. This was a dream job on campus and it seemed so aspirational to me that I considered to not even sit for the interviews. All of the classmates I had really admired all along and was also moderately intrigued by, were going to be a part of the process, and the chances of being selected seemed abysmal to me. 

BASF had come on campus to recruit for their flagship GROW Trainee Program. As a part of this program, the company selects around 15 students from across the country and trains them in several functional as well as divisional roles over the course of a year. This program is quite popular on engineering campuses such as ours. Despite the odds, I sat for the interview. It was a long procedure with over 4 different rounds of assessment in various forms (aptitude test, technical test, group discussions and interviews). At the end of the process, they selected one student out of almost 50 candidates who were contenders for the job. I was that student. 

My first role within BASF after having completed the GROW Trainee Program was that of a Product Developer. I was assigned to the Consumer Furniture Team within the Performance Materials Division in BASF. As a part of this role, my job was to understand the chemistry and formulate comfort solutions using Polyurethane for the Furniture Giants in the country. As a Surface Coating graduate, I had spent a large part of my undergraduate years in understanding polymer sciences. This knowledge was very useful for me during my role as a product developer. 

Soon after this role, I graduated to interacting with customers from across the country and understanding their pain points, the ones that are received directly from the end consumers. I spent the next year travelling extensively across the country to meet our customers, understand their pain-points and use chemistry to solve some of the most pressing issues in the industry. Our customer base involves industry giants and I attribute a large part of my learning curve to my interactions with these customers as well as some great mentors I have had the opportunity to work with at BASF. As a part of my job, we use Polyurethane chemistries to make pillows, mattresses and any other functional material one can possibly think of in the comfort segment. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Self Consciousness

I have been fortunate enough to have worked in competitive and challenging learning environments where I have met brilliant minds in my field. Along with feeling inspired, sometimes these interactions can be overwhelming. When you are in a room full of insanely talented individuals, you can unknowingly find yourself trudging down the path of self-consciousness. While this is a challenge I have had to constantly battle over the course of a few years now, I have worked towards ensuring that these emotions do not impede me from doing what I have set out to accomplish. It can be useful to remind ourselves in such moments that it took courage for us to be a force in that room, in the first place. 

Challenge 2: Gender Disparity

It is no news that some industries, including the chemical industry, are still struggling with achieving the ideal gender ratio at their workplace. While I have been fortunate enough to be working for BASF, an organisation that has been continually working towards diversity and inclusion; since my role involves travelling to customer sites and meeting new people in heavily male dominated parts of the country, dealing with gender disparity has been a challenge. However, with time and targeted sensitization, these issues are slowly but steadily melting away. For this issue to completely disappear, more girls will have to explore challenging and off-beat courses, and be a part of the industry.

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?

After the role of a product developer, I transitioned into understanding customers and end consumer pain points. During these interactions, my team and I realised that there is a lot of misinformation out there with respect to the length and breadth of comfort solutions available in the market today. 

The internet is a great place to get information from, but we realised that it was about time to create something that helps end consumers’ make informed choices. That’s where my Technical Marketing role comes into the picture. In this role, I use my detailed understanding of the chemistry of these products and use it in translating extremely complex, technical jargons to a language that’s easily understandable for the end consumers through drives and targeted efforts. This also helps them in making informed choices for themselves, while eliminating misinformation or inhibitions. 

We work towards solving all the problems pertaining to comfort. India is one of the most sleep deprived countries in the world and as a part of this industry, we continuously strive to try and come up with solutions using our knowledge of science, that help people eliminate their sleep issues. In addition to sleep, our solutions also cater to eliminating some orthopedic issues that people face. During the lockdown, since people were spending an increasing amount of time at home, they realized the importance of investing in good comfort solutions. Through our innovations and commitment to providing comfortable solutions to the end consumer, we saw some really fulfilling excerpts from peoples’ experience with us during the pandemic.  

What are the core skills needed for this job? 

The core skills needed for this job would certainly be dedication, perseverance and a thorough knowledge of your industry as well as your chemistry.

What does a day in your life look like?

I have recently taken to practicing gratitude as a way of life. My mornings usually begin with a warm cup of freshly brewed black coffee, followed by my morning walk. I then immerse myself in work until late evening; following which I indulge in a mild workout. My favourite part of the day is when I cook for my family. I find this activity very therapeutic. The latter part of my evenings are usually filled with either flute practice sessions or writing sessions. I also occasionally paint when time permits and usually end the day with a calming activity such as meditation. 

How does your work benefit society?

What I absolutely love about my job is its ability to transpire change in the lives of people. Sleep is one of the most underrated yet the most crucial aspect of human existence. We have been working relentlessly on trying to ensure that people in our country sleep well. Several co-creation projects with customers have helped us solve some of the most pressing issues in the country. On the personal front, my work also helps me implement my creative instincts and that really keeps me moving. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

We have engaged in umpteen number of memorable activities at work that have been professionally rewarding as well as personally fulfilling. But of all these engagements, what stands out the most is a recent CSR activity that we initiated with a customer of ours, where we provided comfort solutions to students of an orphanage. These students were teenagers and had already started complaining of several ailments due to sleeping on uncomfortable floors and mats. Their reaction to this initiative was a highlight for us. It helped us see that what we do has real life implications.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

From my experiences so far, my suggestion to school students would be to be as experimentative as possible. The activities that we usually do in school are often where we learn the most. This kind of nature is also essential in fostering the habit of learning through experiences. It is also important to be in love with what you do or choose to do. Not all days would seem fulfilling at first but our efforts must be directed towards ensuring that our chosen career path doesn’t disappoint us at large.  Finally, be sure to enjoy the process. 

Future Plans?

On the professional front, my plan is to keep working on enhancing the quality of comfort solutions present in the country while marketing the currently available solutions to the best of my capability. 

On the personal front, I would like to continue working on my podcast, and take weekend projects where I either do developmental editorial work for authors or work on my own writing projects. I intend on continuing to paint by using my knowledge of colour physics to make happy homes in the world.