When Vodafone appointed its technology director for the Hungarian business back in 2015, it knew that person would face a number of challenges. For a start, in an almost homogenously white country, they had opted for an Indian national. But according to Amrita Gangotra, by far the bigger surprise for her colleagues was that, in a predominately male-dominated field, she is a woman.
“My team were more shocked that I was a woman, and at the pace of change that I wanted to work, than by the fact that I am Indian,” she told the Budapest Business Journal in an exclusive interview. “I guess there were four-to-six months of assimilation – on both sides.”
But Gangotra does not seem to view that as a particular negative. She admits to having fallen in love with the country, and says there have been many positives. “The people have been more culturally accepting than I expected, much warmer. Initially I found my team a little quiet, but they are much more open and forthcoming now!”
She puts much of that acceptance down to the fact that Vodafone Hungary’s operation in Budapest is multinational, with a much higher percentage of young people working at the 1,000-strong office at Lechner Ödön fasor 6, in District IX.
What she calls the “vendor landscape”, however, presents a somewhat different story. “Larger multinationals have a different DNA than smaller Hungarian companies. They [Hungarian SMEs] also have the language barrier, and with that comes a certain shyness, too.”
So, while there was a degree of tension to overcome, it was nothing out of the ordinary, Gangotra says. She moved from India to London in December 2012 to take up the role of head of enterprise technology. That brought a much bigger culture shock, one that was underlined once she moved to Budapest.
In India, she says, talented children are pushed towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, and beyond that towards careers in science, regardless of gender. She was stunned to discover that there seems an inbuilt bias in European culture that pushes boys towards science, but not girls.
“That is pretty different from what I saw in India. I was always into science at school; for me, science was a given. In the early ’90s India was opening up, IT was beginning to really boom. Basically, then ‘science’ meant you became an engineer or a doctor. Now there are many more options, but they are equally open to boys and girls; you only need to be talented enough.”
For the record, Gangotra clearly was “talented enough”: she graduated with an M.Sc. in Operational Research from the University of Delhi (India’s largest institution of higher education and one of the largest in the world) in 1988.
The shock was greatest in the United Kingdom, because that is where she experienced it first, but the “girls don’t do science” mentality is just as prevalent here, she says. Little wonder, then, that the technology director has become something of a STEM role model for girls and women.
“With Vodafone’s HR and technology departments, we have programs where we try to involve more young girls in technology. Girls are not encouraged to take up technology: medicine maybe, but not engineering, and it is even more important to encourage that in Hungary. We began working with the universities last year, and ran our first summer camps this year for school girls around 13-15, at that impressionable age. What was interesting was that there were two clear groups. One set came without any real idea of why they were there, other than their parents had sent them. The other, smaller group was clearly interested in technology/IT.”
It is not just schoolgirls who need to be given more opportunities. Anxious to bring technology and business closer together, Vodafone had already told Gangotra when she was appointed to the London job that she would be moving on within a couple of years, although where exactly would depend on what became available and her performance. The move suited both parties because, from Gangotra’s perspective, it would allow her to fill in a gap in her C.V.
“I have a predominately IT background. In Vodafone, the technology division is responsible for IT and mobile network technology, and I was keen to learn the mobile telecommunication technologies.” She has certainly been filling in those missing pieces from her professional career. As technology director, she is part of the general management team headed by the CEO, but her specific tasks have focused on LTE rollout and development of 4G+, modernization of the core networks, enterprise connectivity product development and IT digital transformation.
She has been impressed with the level of the human talents she works with (she says she was surprised at the relatively low employee attrition levels, compared to India), and notes that the supporting environment is also a big help.
“From Vodafone’s perspective, this market is the right size to support innovation. We try a lot of new things here in Hungary, such as the instant network which was used during the recent hurricane Harvey in the U.S. What we see, particularly with 5G and 4G+, is that this is a good market to launch and thoroughly investigate new technologies. With bigger markets, the data you need can sometimes be lost in all that size. The fact that the government is focused on being at the forefront of 5G is very much part of this positive background.”
That sense of being on the developmental cutting-edge appeals to Gangotra, she admits. “In my previous job, I handled scale and the complexity of legacy organizations. Now, dealing with new technologies and mobile really excites me. I love playing with new technology.”
Socially there have been positives, too. Because the Indian community here is smaller than in the United Kingdom, for example, it is more tight-knit. And the food, with its use of paprika and spices, is closer to Indian tastes than some of the blander Western cuisines. The fact that she likes “playing with technology” has helped too. Her daughter, an electronic engineer, is currently in Auckland, New Zealand doing a Ph.d in Nanotechnology, and her husband commutes between India and Hungary. “We all like technology, and use it to keep in touch,” she says.
Vodafone expat postings last three-to-five years, and while Gangotra still has big projects to handle here, she says she cannot predict what the future might bring. “But I do not think I will ever sever ties with Hungary. I have made a lot of good friends – Hungarian and Indian – and I really love the seasons, the city. I will always have good memories of this place.”