As an undergraduate in India, Chaitra Yarlagadda, MBA ’19, suspected her focused, introspective personality would make her well suited for a career building software. She studied electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and then interned at Qualcomm. But six months into her job writing code, something nagged at her.
“I enjoyed writing code, but I couldn’t see the impact of my work on communities around me,” Yarlagadda says. She thought back to her father, who’d helped to bring roads, public transportation, and jobs to his village. Eager to create opportunities as he had, Yarlagadda left her software job, turned down job offers from Goldman Sachs and Qualcomm, and went to work for Unilever’s Future Leaders Programme.
For one year, she traveled across India, working on strategic projects that created value for the business and the communities; for example, in one of her stints in rural India, she recruited poor women to sell Unilever goods. Yarlagadda called the program a “character-defining experience.”
A Leader Who Listens
After her training, Yarlagadda went to work in a village near Nashik, home to Unilever India’s largest ice cream plant. The first months were challenging. Yarlagadda was only 23 years old and supervising 400 male employees who spoke a different language. It was a time to call on her ability to listen. “I asked about their 20 years with the factory,” she says “I truly respected their insights into products and manufacturing technology. I broke down barriers by learning and growing with the employees.”
Over the course of four months, Yarlagadda became one of Unilever’s youngest supervisors to negotiate a wage settlement, and the factory became one of Unilever’s top-performing plants in South Asia. She also mentored employees’ children to find educational opportunities on their smartphones and beyond their small towns. This confirmed something for Yarlagadda: Companies can generate economic value in a way that also generates value for society.
“We spent time not just upscaling the lives of workers but also of their families,” she says. “Unilever’s role in giving people opportunities really moved me.”
Bringing Beliefs, Culture to Stanford GSB
Companies’ opportunity to uplift their employees’ communities became an ethos that Yarlagadda wanted to explore in an MBA program, but moving 8,500 miles to go back to school presented challenges. Yarlagadda and her now-husband had gotten engaged just a few weeks before her acceptance into Stanford GSB and the Reliance Dhirubhai Fellowship Program. She knew they would have to spend the first year of their marriage living on separate continents. They spent time catching up between her classes and meetings.
Heading into her second year, Yarlagadda wants to encourage others to consider India when starting companies. So she has teamed up with four classmates to create a Global Studies Trip for first-year MBA students. For 10 days in December, 25 students will meet with prominent business leaders and government officials and learn about India as an emerging market.
“Our goal is to inspire students who are visiting India for the first time to invest in the country and help them understand its cultural nuances,” Yarlagadda says. She hopes to develop new leadership skills on the trip.
“I want to see how I can lead a cross-cultural and diverse team, despite not being in a hierarchical position as I was at the factory,” she says.
Yarlagadda will have spent nearly a year preparing for the global study trip, but there’s something else to look forward to — she and her husband won’t have to be apart — he is an incoming MBA for the Class of 2020.
Photos by Kiefer Hickman