Abha Kumar is a Vanguard systems integration principal
Despite challenges faced as a “minus 2,” Abha Kumar has come far in technology and business. She brings both elements together for the workplace of today
Mutual fund investment firm Vanguard (Valley Forge, PA) manages $2.2 trillion in U.S. mutual fund assets, including nearly $286 billion in ETF (exchange-traded funds) assets. Abha Kumar is a principal in the organization, responsible for corporate systems integration, including all the firm’s corporate and international applications and its Enterprise 2.0 agenda.
Kumar’s organization has approximately 300 people, with six direct reports. She is a senior leader reporting to the chief information officer.
“Enterprise 2.0 involves the consumerization of IT,” she explains. “A lot of companies have enterprise applications that have been around for twenty-five years. How do we bring these cool technologies into the workplace?” she asks. “And how is that changing the workplace of today?
“All our new crew members (Vanguard employees) coming out of college are already working in an environment very different from ours. They’re constantly in touch and constantly collaborating. Consumerization of IT is all about a better, faster way of developing applications that work for communication, collaboration and mobility.”
Kumar is pleased at how well the businesses have embraced these technological innovations. “Some of our businesses have blogs with daily updates,” she says. “Our chairman has a blog. I have a blog and we constantly get feedback on what we are doing.
“We’re moving out of our inboxes and into social media communities,” Kumar believes. “Today, I essentially work out of my inbox. I bring up my e-mail and that dictates how much attention I pay to what task. Tomorrow, we’re looking to change that so my communities determine how I organize my work. This will allow us to be a lot more flexible.”
The emphasis on crew engagement is part of Vanguard’s “best places to work” agenda, but it also reaches Vanguard’s investors.
“The same videoconferencing technology that we use internally is being used by our representatives to communicate with their clients. Additionally, we use SharePoint to collaborate with our institutional clients and prospects. We employ instant messaging to respond quickly.”
Because this is a highly regulated industry, Vanguard is scrupulously attentive to security issues. “We use it internally first to be sure that we have the kinks out of it,” says Kumar, “because it needs to be secure. Security is paramount to us.”
Getting her start
A native of India, Kumar earned a bachelors degree in business administration from Birla Institute of Technology in Pilani, India, and a masters degree in business with a concentration in human resources from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India.
“I was getting ready to be an engineer. My father believed women should be educated. We always went to the best school wherever we lived and his expectation was that I would always stand first in class,” she recalls.
“But I realized if I went for an engineering degree then a masters degree, I’d be in school for seven years before I could start working. So I decided to get a business administration degree instead. I was eager to be in the workplace. Don’t ask me why,” she laughs.
“My desire was to be a leader, not necessarily a technician. My first job was at Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd (BHEL; New Delhi, India), an integrated power plant equipment manufacturer.” She was part of a two-year program for new MBAs, working in corporate HR.
A pivotal conversation
“I got into technology when I was working on a succession planning project at BHEL and needed to go to the head of IT. I asked him why we didn’t computerize our HR records, which he thought was a great idea. For me, it was a pivotal conversation.”
Kumar married and came to the United States. “Our intention was that we would spend two years here and then go back. But that’s not the way it turned out.”
She took a job with InSci (Montvale, NJ), the first organization that sold commercially viable HR application packages. Her job was to implement the packages for Fortune 500 companies.
“This is how I got into technology and corporate America,” she says. “After the product was sold, my job was to help the clients understand the capabilities of the software and implement it in their own environments. I was an entry-level analyst but I was doing the work of a project manager three levels above me.
“My clients appreciated the work I did for them. I believe that comes from being business-focused. Technology is just one part of my toolkit. I have to understand it really well to solve business problems.”
A wise mentor
After three years, Kumar moved to the Hackensack, NJ location of the ABC network. She was responsible for HR and affirmative action applications. “I had a great mentor there,” she remembers. “He told me that if you want to be successful, you need to learn to talk about your accomplishments in a way that you are comfortable doing. If I am here today, it is in large part due to his mentoring.”
After five years at ABC, Kumar moved to the New York Times. She became a group director, a position she held for thirteen years before moving up again, to vice president and divisional CIO at Dow Jones. After eight years at Dow Jones, Kumar decided it was time to leave the publishing industry.
On to Vanguard
She joined Vanguard in 2007 as head of corporate systems integration. “We are a virtual company,” explains Kumar. “We were on the web before it was cool to be on the web.”
Kumar is a member of the Vanguard diversity leadership team. She helped create a new Asian employee resource group called LEAP (Leadership & Engagement for Asian Professionals) that launched in May.
“Being first doesn’t come easily,” says Kumar. “You have to work at it. I always say that, throughout my career, I have started with what I call a ‘minus 2.’ People look at me and they see an Asian female. Even to get to par with some of my colleagues, I have to be twice as good as anybody else. But my father always told me I could do anything I put my mind to, and I’ve never forgotten that.”
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