June 2022 | 849 words | 3-minute read
What does Shilpa Rao, head of AI platform – TCS Optumera, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), have in common with Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and Pablo Picasso?
They have all used their respective spheres of influence for good, refusing to let their dyslexia get in the way.
Growing up at a time when there wasn’t much awareness about this learning disability, Ms Rao took the condition in her stride, devising creative methods to remind herself of things other kids might take for granted.
She says, “I couldn’t tell my left hand from my right, so I painted the nails on my left hand. I couldn’t distinguish between D and B, so I drew a bat on my right hand as a reminder. I even memorised chapters of my language classes to counter the problem of having to read aloud in class.”
Such creative solutions helped Ms Rao to work her way around situations that seemed overwhelming at first glance. The young girl tinkered around with school problems to figure out solutions that worked for her. It was this ability that cemented her desire to invent ideas to help herself and others.
Tata InnoVista broadened our perspective; the thought-provoking questions asked by the jury opened up different avenues for us. The culture at TCS nurtured and mentored us. It gave us the nurturing space to innovate.”
The habit of seeking excellence through the difficulties posed by dyslexia put her on the path to seeking a better way always, paving the way for her achievement as the Serial Innovator at Tata InnoVista 2021.
She says, “We innovated TCS OptumeraTM as a team. We worked with TCS R&I (Research & Innovation) and various teams across TCS. These innovations happened over the years.”
Ms Rao began her impressive career at TCS with a bang. At her first posting in the UK, she found herself having to wait for the bus to work. To make the wait less tedious and to stay warm while she was at it, she took to spending time at a grocery store close to the bus stop. She says, “I noticed a store associate throwing away packs of pre-cooked meals in the litter bin. Believing that it is criminal to waste food, I questioned the associate about it.”
It turned out to be a problem of excess quantity of packs, reduced shelf life, and space constraints. Ms Rao felt sure she could resolve the problem. Returning to the lab, she created a software solution for it. The solution took off when a client expressed interest, thereby filling a need in the market.
That solution was the precursor to the Optumera platform, which is a profitable and strategic business at TCS, with over 35 patents and several awards to its name. Over the years, the platform has expanded from space and assortment into price and promotion optimisation across industry verticals, to integrated merchandising and supply chain, to now a cross-industry strategic decision making and innovation platform.
She credits her success to both TCS and Tata InnoVista, saying, “Tata InnoVista broadened our perspective; the thought-provoking questions asked by the jury opened up different avenues for us. The culture at TCS nurtured and mentored us. It gave us the nurturing space to innovate.”
Finding a voice
The use of creativity to solve tricky issues has spilled over from her personal and professional life into community spaces. Returning from the UK, Ms Rao was posted in Chennai. She moved to Thaiyur, on the outskirts of the city, home to a reserve forest and Lake Thaiyur.
While out walking her two dogs, she noticed that the lake had dried up completely, but no one seemed to care. Ms Rao realised that she needed to make a buzz on a big stage to get her point across.
She had read about how beauty pageant contestants use the platform to raise awareness about a cause. So, she signed up for the Haut Monde Mrs India Worldwide 2019 pageant. She says, “I was an overweight tomboy, with no regard for make-up and fashion. Still I went ahead. My pitch to the organisers was that I could be their transformation story.” Ms Rao ended up as a winner of the sponsor’s award at the competition.
Over the course of 10 months, leading up to the finale in Greece, Ms Rao readied herself for an internal transformation, learning new skills relating to make-up, social media, interacting with the media, etc. Most importantly, she used the opportunity to speak to local authorities and environmental organisations about reviving the lake. In time, the inlets were cleaned and the lake began to fill up again, thanks to a good monsoon.
People often denigrate dyslexia as a reflection of low intelligence. On the contrary, dyslexics are often problem solvers, thinking out of the box. Ms Rao used her challenge to propel herself into striving for a larger purpose. She says, “I am guided by a quote by Thomas Edison, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Being energised and focusing on the big picture has helped me.”