More often than not, the strategic decisions at the top level are strongly influenced by core research and development that happens on the ground, especially in the clean energy sector !
Kasturi Gomatham,our next pathbreaker, Deal Principal at Shell, works on M&A deals as well as strategic partnerships for Shell in the domain of green energy – Renewable energy, E-mobility, Hydrogen.
Kasturi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how her first job as a Chemical Engineer at Daimler (Germany), on core research related to fuel exhausts, shaped her career in green energy.
For students, it doesn’t matter what role you play in the journey towards sustainability, what matters is the mission to drive a positive change !
Kasturi, what were your initial years like?
I was a South Indian kid who grew up in North India. Home for me is Delhi. My biggest privilege in life is to be born to my parents – both from simple, conservative beginnings yet in a powerful way – never shy of taking a leap of faith.
In our middle class, West Delhi home, this is how conversations went:
My dad, a Chemical engineer, who would spend days offshore on the rigs at Bombay high – recalls his turning point. Scouting for a small newspaper cutting and a good old posted application, he for the first time as an 18 year old, ventured out of Andhra. A small suitcase in hand, no knowledge of the language (Hindi), he shows up on the other side of the train in Kanpur. He pretty much winged and aced his journey to a top Chemical Engineering college (HBTI). He taught me to be fearless. He is the wind under my wings.
My mom, a botanist who switched careers to be a computer science teacher, had a journey of her own. She learnt computers at NIIT, while teaching and raising two young kids. I remember sitting next to her endlessly, learning about how every child can be turned around. She is the teacher you would want by your side on your toughest days. She taught me to be resilient and reach for the stars. She is the wings.
This is the one thread you will find in my own journey – the belief that you put one step after another, show up and things will happen. Most times.
As for me, I was a shy, studious kid. My extracurriculars were about trying new things, many times uncomfortable to my geeky little self. Debates, drama clubs, poetry, electronics. I could do with a bit more sports. I was as shy a kid as you could find at school.
Two things shaped me,
One – nothing is insurmountable. I went from a sub 50/100 score in Social studies in my 10th pre-boards to being a country topper at 98/100 in boards, within 2 months.
Two – do more, expect less. This would change over the years. I learnt to understand, learn, and share my worth. More on this in a bit.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I am a Chemical engineer (BITS Pilani) with an MBA from IIM Bangalore. You can throw a stone in any direction in the country and you will find one.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I had many influencers along the way. My parents have been a constant support who always said, ‘Why not’, a partner who said ‘do more’, a brother who said ‘I have got you’ and my one year old who reminds me to ‘leave some for her, I mean the planet’.
I wasn’t very influenced by peers most times, a missed opportunity. But I value the advice and opinion of most people I meet and a lot of leaders I worked with. I have learnt it the hard way, that I need to decide, every single time. It’s alright to be wrong, but important to make the decision.
Over the many roles and choices, I realized that I enjoyed the breadth and freedom of things. I loved the lack of boundaries and almost didn’t notice the noise that came with chaos, and lack of clarity. I have become the person to bring a method to the madness.
Eventually, I chose my career when I could visualize the change I wanted to bring. It took me a good 6-7 years to find my path. It is to make it easier to breathe on the roads we walk, it is about making everything that moves green.
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
Can you plan? – the short answer is, you can plan your next 2 steps at best. But you need to continuously look for what you enjoy doing. It can be one thing or many. Knowing what you like or dislike, what you are good at or not is important.
And everytime you make a decision, get out of your own way. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it or you are not ready. Stay open, give yourself a chance.
Now to my own journey,
When I started off, I just wanted to be good at what I did. I loved everything from Physics, the workshop lathe, electrical to fluid mechanics and coding. I did not focus, I was just curious.
In my final year, I was driven by two thoughts,
One – influenced by my professors and peers, who believed I could be a good Chemical engineer. My dad being one himself, guided me through the internships. I worked at two of the most charged up houses for process engineering brains – Engineers India Ltd. and Indian Institute of Petroleum.
Two – I was influenced by my dad, who is still the wind under my wings. He thought I could do anything. My parents were convinced that I should do my Masters. And unlike the popular view at that time, I was also convinced that it wasn’t to settle down in the US but to make it big in India.
So, the choice was – is it an M.Tech or an MBA?
I picked an MBA. Why? – I loved the idea of being able to go wide and having a credible path in India.
My first job and the next two years were in preparation. I had three job offers (Daimler – Research Engineer, Oracle – A coder, Indian Institute of Petroleum – Process Engineer). I took the one that came with a promise of International exposure, that was Daimler. And boy, did I love it! I was in Germany a lot, working with colleagues from Germany, India and Japan. And, I prepared for my MBA exams. Also picked up a bit of German.
I was amongst the 5 Chemical engineers amongst a team of 200 odd researchers. My job was to tune the exhaust pipe and everything that went in it. It was almost like catching the right radio frequency to ensure what came out of the marvelous Mercedes cars and trucks, was less polluting. My work desk was full of post its on chemical equations, coding tips and my favorite poetry (I love to write).
The magic was almost 18 months into the job. The chief scientist pulled me aside to show me a car prototype where my code went. There were water droplets coming out of the pipe, not the black smoke!
I cracked CAT, it was my second attempt. I made it to IIM Bangalore, this was just after pop culture painted the campus in full glow – ‘3 Idiots’ was shot there.
As an MBA graduate, I again wasn’t choosy. I loved Economics as much as I loved Social Entrepreneurship and Product development. Initially, I believed the stereotype – if you are analytical, good with numbers and not outgoing, you have your best shot at being a finance person. It was absolutely the wrong answer for me. I soon realized, I wasn’t a finance person. I worked hard enough to be good at it but I didn’t see myself being the best at it. This took me a year to realize.
When it was time for placements, I knew a bit better this time. I enjoyed the breadth, so I went after Management consulting and General management. I was also an underdog, I ended up at one of the top consulting firms (PWC) on campus (PRTM). This was an absolute boot camp – I loved the breadth, the freedom. I never minded the hours. I was lucky to have fantastic champions and mentors. They pushed me forward even when I wasn’t in the room. It mattered.
No wonder, even through the placement process, PRTM was known for its culture and for respecting authenticity. Clients valued them too.
For the next 3 years, I wanted to be the best consultant on the planet. This was while the startup ecosystem in India was buzzing like a busy bee. Flipkart had happened. Leaders I worked with moved there, I followed – wanting to get my hands on building a business. I got to do it twice, once setting up a new business from scratch and once to scale an existing business. At some point, I was talking to the head of Refrigerators at Bosch about helping them grow 20-30X in India. The same day, in my broken Telugu, I was convincing my warehouse lead and the truck driver to let the stock in.
Again, I learnt more about myself. I thrived where there was freedom, less or no rules and just pure ambition and vision. I remember first walking into the Flipkart warehouse, with lines and lines of stock, an experimental robot and an automated sorter. This was built on 2 people’s vision. It’s powerful.
I wanted to double down, and then came Ola. Much like a theme, I followed leaders who had influenced me at Flipkart and with a desire to get closer to moving things – automotives. I took almost the same path, joined as a strategist and got down to building the business.
Within a few months of joining Ola, we were discussing what’s the next growth opportunity? There were many – International expansion, Electric vehicles, Food delivery. On a late evening in the Domlur office, I sat a few seats away from the CEO, hoping that I would be put on EVs.
I got myself together, walked up to him and said – “I know cars, I have researched them at Daimler. I think I should be the one on it.” He said, “You are on it!”. This moment decided my fate for the next many years to come.
We built India’s first ever connected, smart and electric 3 wheeler ever. I wrote the ad scripts, met local MLAs and worked with every function from Engineering to Design to Partnerships. I loved the breadth, I loved the impact. For the first time, I could see it clearly – If I did it right, I would make it easier for me and those around me, breath easier on the roads we walked.
This made me eventually double down. I moved to Shell, consciously picking up roles that would contribute to this impact – from E-mobility strategies to acquisitions. Understanding electrons to batteries. The journey has just started.
How did you get your first break?
My first real break was as a Research Engineer at Daimler. 2009 – It was the year of recession, most campus offers were being deferred, so it was worrying. I did the only thing I knew, just kept at it. I considered no opportunity too small. I applied to 100+ companies – mostly for engineering roles, some for coding and believe it or not, even to SBI as a banker.
Daimler was similar, I found the opportunity through a friend in an email forward and applied immediately. I remember I wanted to respond to them within 2-3 hrs of the posting, so I prepared the application midnight.
This gave me security and choice. I was fortunate to then pick what I thought I liked most.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
There have been many challenges along the way. Let me share two that have been most transformational for me.
The first one, is being a textbook introvert in roles that demanded excellent social skills. This meant, many times I got in my own way. I told myself that this is not for me because everyone around me says so. Thankfully, I was stubborn enough to make it happen just because people said I couldn’t. I address it the only way I know how, I sign myself up for absolutely uncomfortable situations that need me to be social. And I show up. Practice makes it better. Now I am comfortable being social and an introvert.
The second one, which for you all is a long way from now, is making my choices as a working mom. I had my dear daughter after a long journey and when I was ready to return from my maternity leave, I was split in many directions. I made the choice to move to another country, with my one year old and my dad. Believe it or not, my daughter helped me make this decision. I did what I would want her to do.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
My job is to help Shell build a green energy business fast, across the world and at scale. I work at Shell as a Deal Principal. I buy companies and strike partnerships for Shell in all things green energy – Renewable energy, E-mobility, Hydrogen.
This will help Shell become the world’s largest and most loved green energy business.
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Skills you need –
Building a strategy – answering what the company should do, why, and how.
Deal making – negotiating, structuring deals that is who does what, who gives and gets what, at what terms.
Taking people along – you work with a deal maker on the other side to a business executive and a deep technical expert, all in the same day. It is important to understand people and learn to take them along in your work.
Most of these skills you pick up on the job. Find people who are more skilled and experienced than you and continuously find ways to work with them. The trick here is to not shy away from any type of work – the smallest task to moving mountains.
What’s a typical day like?
There is rarely a typical day, but there is a typical week.
Deal making –
Externally, talking to counterparties, preparing for and conducting negotiations. I also work with a lot investment banks and legal advisors who help me on my deals.
Internally, talking to senior stakeholders, businesses and most importantly, amazingly diverse teams of engineers, safety experts, HR, economists, lawyers, external communications and finance. On any deal, typically 10-15 experts from different subjects come together. My job is to lead the team to deliver a deal.
Most times, I am also shaping the business strategy. Right now I am answering how we partner and build more renewables and clean energy projects with the same amount of money.
How does your work benefit society?
My work helps society reach its climate goals faster.
When I acquire a renewables company for Shell, it helps Shell scale faster, bring better, greener solutions to customers. It helps create an active marketplace where clean energy companies are invested in, bought and sold. Together, we do more.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One of the most memorable pieces of work I did was at Ola Electric – Reimagining and building India’s first smart and electric 3 wheeler. Though the business beautifully pivoted to being a leading Electric 2 Wheeler OEM (currently), the 3 wheeler set the foundation of what was to come.
It is memorable because of the people I worked with. An absolutely diverse team that wanted to reimagine the trusted, loved and hated 3 wheeler that continues to be a part of us. We literally upturned a rickshaw, weighed logs of wood to test how much the battery could weigh and designed the software that would not let it topple, all in 6 months.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
It’s a superpower to know what you enjoy and what you are good at. Continuously ask yourself that question.
Every step of your way, give everything you can. Then, try to be open for what’s next. Most amazing and inspiring journeys are made from staying open.
Third but important, secure yourself financially. Financial independence frees you and makes a lot more possible.
Build the most loved, accessible and largest EV business. Do everything in my power to make it happen.