Exclusive: CEO of IIPL, Amita Poole, talks to India Ink

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Amita Poole is the CEO of IIPL, a subsidiary of  IL&FS Transportation Networks Limited. In this interview Ms. Poole talks about the projects she has worked on, including the US Capitol, and what it means to be a woman in a field like hers. 

India Ink: You’ve consulted on Indian government affairs and U.S. government contracting for large architectural engineering firms and construction contractors, and you also served as Chief of Staff to the Architect of the US Capitol; what unique challenges have you felt that you faced as a woman in a position of leadership, if any, and how did you overcome them?

Amita Poole: Being a woman of Indian descent comes in a package, and there are a lot of cultural and family expectations, and never do they totally work well with a full work schedule and 16hr work days. I believe the challenge women have is surrounding themselves with people who support them, as well as understanding that sometimes they do have to work long hours, and that sometimes, they won’t be able to pick their children up from daycare. You can’t shrug off those family responsibilities—you have to do them, and the challenge is balancing it all.

It’s that juggling piece that is hard, once you’ve jumped in and committed to a certain field. It still continues to be a challenge for me: as your parents get older, and your children require your time, the question is, how do you make it so that everyone feels like they have a piece of you, and, in that process, making sure that you don’t stop being you because you don’t have time for yourself.

India Ink: Throughout your career, do you feel as though the dynamic between professional women has changed, as companies increase opportunities for female advancement, and if so, in what way?

Amita Poole: I work in such a male dominated field, so women don’t usually come and knock on my door and ask for a job—it’s very difficult to find women who would be interested in being a superintendent, in being a foreman—I’m the one who has to reach out and make an effort to bring them into the workforce. So, within my field, my challenge is bringing diversity in general, beyond just women, into the workforce.

India Ink: Have you taken any steps within IIPL to foster an organizational culture that promotes female leadership and diversity in general, and if so, what were the main aspects of your approach?

Amita Poole: I believe every organization should allow people to express who they are, whatever their background. We expect everyone to have the same experiences that we have had in life, and I spend a lot of time mentoring my team, as we grow our organization. We have work lunches, where we promise not to talk about work at all for an hour and instead talk about something that is happening in an individual’s life. It changes how you look at that person the next day, because, all of a sudden, you know something new about them that prevents you from putting them into a box—it humanizes them and helps you relate to them. This is a very women- leadership style thing to do, because men are men, and they tend to just do the work. They don’t seem to want too much of that humanization of the workforce. I, on the other hand, think that is what brings a team together.

India Ink: You shared a very powerful story about the immense personal challenges you faced in your family life four years ago, and you also mentioned the that realizing the importance of self-confidence is key to overcoming the doubt that a lot of women feel when facing such challenges. Did that switch flip four years ago for you, in the fact of such adversity, or was it a gradual process?

Amita Poole: It definitely was a more gradual process. I don’t think anyone is born with empathy, and I don’t think anyone is born with confidence. It’s over time that you gain it and learn it—it’s mentors who guide you, tell you that it is ok to jump in, and teach you confidence. What the last four years taught me is that everybody has adversity in their lives, but it is the strength within you that takes you to the next level, and it is through those adversities and failures that you learn the most. You don’t learn the most from success. Whenever we lose a bid for a project, we’re all pretty down, but the next day, we come back, sit around the table, and say, “what did we learn?” It’s being able to take every experience in your life and use it to learn something, versus just putting it in your back pocket. When young, growing organizations realize that, they have the power to be resilient, because they have spent the time analyzing why things went wrong. Larger organizations don’t spend that time thinking and analyzing failures.

Women, in general, bring civility to the table—men aren’t going to be as quick to curse or as quick to be macho. We always talk about how women are undermined, but we don’t seem to talk about the strengths of women, and that’s what I would love to be able to bring to other young women and mentor them. It’s not about them trying to push you down, but you having the self-confidence to push yourself up. It’s about removing those mental boundaries. More often than not, it is minority and diversity groups who have those perceived boundaries. I’m not saying that there are no gender preferences out there—they will always obviously be there in any society you go into, but in the last 20 years, we have come such a long way, and I’m so excited to see what women are going to do in the next 20 years and how their actions are going to change the dynamic of the workforce.