It started in a lab at the University of Mumbai. That’s where Rani Borkar earned two degrees in physics before going after a master’s in electrical engineering — the degree that launched her computing career. Since then, she has worked for some of the world’s most recognized technology firms, including Intel, IBM and Microsoft, where today she leads the hardware teams that bring the company’s Azure cloud computing platform to life. Azure serves more than 95 percent of the Fortune 500, meaning Rani and the employees she oversees have many hills to climb all the time.
Rani is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in business and she helps forward Microsoft’s D&I goals, toward which the company is making steady progress: There are five women on its 12-member board of directors, its CFO is a woman, and Microsoft is a signatory of the Women’s Empowerment Principles. Microsoft is one of the largest holdings in the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Leadership Fund, which includes only the highest-rated companies in the world for advancing women. But Rani is quick to note the company’s work on diversity and inclusion is far from finished. We sat down with her to find out more.
Jenifer Cannon: Microsoft continues to stand out as a global leader in advancing women and diversity. What drives the company to prioritize diversity in leadership?
Rani Borkar: The diversity of our workforce and inclusion of talented people from different backgrounds is essential to designing, building and selling technology and services that truly are for everyone. We don’t build technology for the sake of technology; we build technology because it’s going to do some wonderful things for the user. We have to have open minds and a diversity of mindsets so we can ensure that whatever we’re working on will help the consumer. The consumer is the diversity of the world.
Microsoft is serious about diversity. Three of our largest markets are led by women. We share our progress toward increasing diversity globally through our diversity and inclusion report. We have embedded D&I into our culture. We invest in our diversity pipeline through our LEAP program, through the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy, through hiring programs designed to attract those with disabilities or autism, through DigiGirls, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and many other initiatives.
I’m very proud of how Microsoft is going about this. We are walking the talk.
Jenifer Cannon: Are Microsoft’s leaders measured on promoting diversity and inclusion within the organization?
Rani Borkar: Absolutely, and not just leaders, everybody. It is a part of our reviews. We are all accountable. We all need to hold each other to high standards in creating an inclusive culture.
Jenifer Cannon: As you have grown and managed your teams, what has been one of your greatest discoveries?
Rani Borkar: When you create an environment of inclusivity, people feel at ease to speak up. They give their opinions and they bring their full selves. I started in the industry three decades ago in a very male-dominated world, but there were people I was working for in those days who supported me, and there are people I work for today who support me, allow me to bring myself to the table, allow me to be me and not fit into a certain norm.
When working in an environment that is so safe, it’s OK to admit when I’m wrong. I’m not afraid. I’m OK saying I’m not an expert at something, and I want to learn from others. And when you’re learning with everybody around you, you level that playing field and enable others to be comfortable speaking their minds. I can’t hide my title from anybody. I can’t hide my position from anybody, but I can create an environment where I level the playing field.
Rani Borkar entered the workforce in the late 1980s, a time when “the word diversity wasn’t in the dictionary at high tech companies,” she says. We asked her if, in terms of gender diversity, she sees a day when every company realizes the value of having women in leadership positions. Here’s what she said:
“Absolutely, yes. It’s heartwarming to see the industry is talking about diversity now. Companies are realizing that when women are in leadership positions, the diverse workforce brings ideas to the table that actually represent the world. When I’m at work here at Microsoft or when I speak to customers, I find that we can work better when we leverage the strengths of the whole community. That’s when magic happens — when you unleash the incredible potential of people around you. We all bring different strengths. Can you imagine if we all worked together and made one plus one greater than two? Wouldn’t the world be more productive, more efficient?
You will often hear us say at Microsoft we are not a “know it all” culture, we are a “learn it all” culture. I think every leader, if they want to unleash the potential of the people in their organization, has to be looking in the mirror and asking what they can do to actually enable that. It’s really very easy; the behavior has to change in the leader, not the people around them.
Jenifer Cannon: What are some other ways managers can unleash the potential of their teams?
Rani Borkar: Sometimes simply asking “How can I help” changes the dialogue in the room. I’ll tell a story to explain what I mean. A team that builds the technology for one of our products had just come under my leadership. They didn’t know me yet, and we had a meeting so they could brief me on a big project.
As soon as I entered the room, I felt tension. I had no idea what I had done. I’m not a threatening-looking person, I’m five feet four inches tall. I’m pretty friendly. I’m thinking, what did I do? When the lead engineer finished explaining the plan, the team looked distraught. So, I asked a lot of questions — really probed — and I asked them how I could help.
They began opening up, and I found out they were tense because the plan’s timeline had changed, and they were expecting me to be upset. I wasn’t. There was a lot on the line, yes. But I’ve always believed that when we all swipe our badges and walk into our building none of us says, “Let me see what I can mess up today.” No. We come to the table every morning of our life looking forward to the day and the great things we’ll do. So, I know that blaming or looking back on the past does not change our work for the better.
“Sometimes simply asking ‘How can I help?’ changes the dialogue in the room.“Rani Borkar
As they opened up, I told them stories about things that had happened for me in the past and how my manager had helped me. I let them know that it’s OK to try and to fail and that not to try at all is a bigger failure. We do bleeding edge technology. Not everything is going to go just as we planned. I would rather try and be at the edge of the envelope and fail than just play it safe. The world wouldn’t move if we did that.
In that meeting, that moment, they just needed some faith in their expertise. They had kind of forgotten what they were capable of, and the conversation helped them believe they could solve the problem. They ended up shipping a great product.
Jenifer Cannon: That’s a powerful story. What else can managers do to help employees feel comfortable speaking up?
Rani Borkar: I have an annoying habit of going around the room and saying, “What do you think?” “And what do you think?” It’s very deliberate because I don’t like people in the peanut gallery. In fact, when I go to a conference room, I tell people, hey, let’s sit closer, don’t sit at the back. This is, figuratively speaking, being at the table. So, I include everybody, and I trust their expertise. Nobody gets parachuted into these roles. People have gone to college, they have degrees, they went through the interview process and they landed. They didn’t have an uncle or aunt or someone who landed them there. When you’ve earned your way there, you know you can do it. So, by asking what everyone thinks, everybody is encouraged to speak their mind. It unleashes their potential and really enables the conversations we need to have.
Jenifer Cannon: Microsoft’s employee resource groups (ERGs) are quite active and popular. How has the company created excitement about and attracted participants to these programs?
Rani Borkar: We absolutely have active employee resource groups. They work because they are meaningful, and they work because our leaders are engaged in them — all the way from the top. Our ERGs provide a shared and supportive experience for members through professional development and networking. They promote inclusion and raise awareness through education and outreach events and even social gatherings. We have more than 40 of these ERGs that help foster a close sense of community. You might say “Wow, 40?” And I say, “Yeah!” We all have different needs, challenges, and interests. I encourage everyone in my organization to get involved in groups like Women at Microsoft, Blacks at Microsoft, Hispanic/Latinx at Microsoft, Asians at Microsoft, Family ERGs, LGBTQ ERGs. Our community is so passionate about these groups. It’s not just about the gatherings and the speakers, but really having thought-provoking talks and sessions that encourage dialogue about tough topics. I enjoy these a lot because it’s so nice to hear diverse perspectives on a multitude of topics. To me, it’s really inspiring and important to have these conversations with our colleagues.
Jenifer Cannon: Many of the people reading this are investors in Microsoft and their clients are investors. What do you want these shareholders to know that they might not know already?
Rani Borkar: We feel very proud of what we have done on diversity and inclusion so far, but we are not going to claim that we are done. We continue to strive for increased representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities at all levels. We are also working hard to build the D&I pipeline. It’s a journey. It’s not like reaching the top of Mount Everest and crossing it off the list. We are climbing Mount Everest every day. We know we have more work to do to be more inclusive. We are committed to improving.
Jenifer Cannon: You have a unique approach toward meetings. Can you tell us more about that?
Rani Borkar: I never sit at the head of the table. My comfort zone is really sitting in the middle with people at both sides and across. I want people to feel comfortable talking with me, joking with me, challenging me. For a leader it’s very important because, whether we like it or not, there are hierarchies and titles that create a barrier. As a leader, the more you work at breaking that barrier, the more advantage you gain. That becomes your strength as a team, as a community, as a group of people. As I reflect on my career, every impossible task became possible not because I was so smart — I’m never the smartest — but because we as a community were world-class smart people who were willing to climb Mount Everest every day. And when we got up to the top we’d say: You know what? If we sit here at the top, we’re going to slip very quickly, so let’s find another mountain to climb.
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Microsoft is 5.3% of the holdings of the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Leadership Fund as of 01/31/2021.
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