Shilpa Gulati - First Among Equals… by Quite a Margin
She is the first woman CFO at IKEA - the first Indian at the position. But it is how she got their while fighting cancer that makes her a superwoman.
In Greek mythology, a Phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. As the legend goes, the bird dies in a show of flames and combustion, before being born again from its very own ashes. Over the centuries, the Phoenix motif has been transmitted and retold a thousand times, embellished and versioned for effect. In the historical record, the Phoenix metaphor has come to symbolize renewal in general, as well as the sun, time, resurrection, existence beyond life etc. But more often than not, in common parlance, the ‘Phoenix’ stands for The exceptional being… a superhuman, endowed with the ability to go down in a blaze of glory, only to rise again with bigger wings and an even bigger heart.
In Goa Institute of Management, Shilpa Gulati is the Phoenix, as she also is in the global retail be-hemoth IKEA. An alumnus of GIM’s batch of 1998, Shilpa Gulati is the Country HR Operations Manager for IKEA in the U.S. The twist in the tale is that till a few months back - June 2016 to be precise - Shilpa was the CFO, IKEA, a position she voluntarily relinquished in the best interest of the organisation. For those looking for biases of gender and race, those man-made barriers were well and truly broken by Shilpa on her way to the top. However, it was an intervention by destiny that dictated her decision to move out of the CFO’s role.
In 2012, Shilpa was the deputy manager of one of the largest IKEA stores in the U.S. when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
“My son was 7 and daughter 2 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So it was tough and emotional for me. The chemotherapy sessions started. My daughter hated that I lost my hair, but they were surrounded by family at home all the time.So, in a way, it was actually fun for them having grandparents and cousins around a lot.”
Breast cancer is confidence-ripping and often life threatening. But those who’ve been there know that chemotherapy can be quite devastating too. So many families come to a standstill, devoid of all means and purpose. Not for Shilpa Gulati. Right through those 18-months of chemotherapy, Shilpa never stopped, juggling family, chemotherapy and her job at IKEA with a zen-like approach. By mid-2014, she took over as the store manager, and that financial year rang in annual revenue of a whopping $100 million. Soon she received the call she’d been waiting for ever since she walked into IKEA as an intern15 years back.
“The CEO of IKEA, USA, wanted a CFO who would do good for the company in the long run and not just the short term. I had shown in IKEA that my leadership allows for long-term sustainability and strong teams. The numbers don’t matter; what matters is the clarity about where we are headed together, and what we would like the team to look like 2-3 years down the line. In IKEA it’s been easy to identify with the company’s values and use that as the core foundation to nurture compe-tence - by building relationships with people around me, by constantly striving to inspire trust and faith in my team, by being there for them, by coaching them, by ensuring that I understand what motivates them, by being open and transparent with them. It pulls different skill sets from me.”
In September 2015, at the age of 41, Shilpa Gulati took over as the first woman CFO in the history of IKEA. She was also the first Indian in that position. The announcement was made almost 3 years after she was detected with cancer. The Phoenix had risen.
Barely a couple of months in the elevated chair of the CFO of IKEA, while still in the blaze of glory, Shilpa was informed that despite everything, the cancer had gnawed its way to her brain.
“I had just been promoted to CFO. For 20 years now, I’ve led a healthy, spiritual life. When I found out the cancer was in my brain. I was shocked and unhappy. Life felt unfair.”
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