John Hoffmire: I sometimes struggle with the notion of a “thought leader”.  In some cases, it just sounds presumptuous for someone to claim they can or should influence the thinking of others.  But in your case, it seems to me that you are a genuine thought leader in the best sense – you are someone who has a positive reputation for helping others expand their knowledge and insight.  In a productive way you share your expertise and insightful ideas and others listen and turn to you for guidance. Would you agree?

Suparna Kapoor: That’s a kind thing for you to say.  I’m not sure I’m a “thought leader” per se, but I do share my thoughts, insights, and experiences and hope that by sharing, I have a positive influence on anyone who comes across what I have to say.

Being in a learning and development role offers me more than enough opportunities to interact with and share not only from knowledge or “Gyan” as we call it in India but also from space of “being” on a personal growth path. During the last decade or so as an Learning and Development professional I have worked with nearly 10,000 professionals and leaders, primarily from Hindustan Aeronautics, but from also other organizations and academic institutions. I also regularly mentor and coach students, young employees, and women professionals.  I write on LinkedIn and share ideas about happiness, wellbeing, leadership, self-awareness, and positive psychology. I am hoping to launch a podcast soon with the intent to bring in some new takes and fresh looks into perspectives. Because of my journey, you might say in American English, I’ve been around the block a few times and I love sharing what I’ve learned, especially if it is meaningful to others.

John:  If you will, tell me how you started your career and the twists and turns it took?

Suparna:  I started out as a shopfloor assembly engineer with a telecom public sector organization after I had just graduated with a degree in electronics engineering. Subsequently I worked for the strategic defense telecom project, ASCON, spread across India’s border, as a communication expert in installation and maintenance of voice and data systems. Transitioning from an engineering to a managerial role, I liaised with various key stakeholders including senior army officials and handled the techno-commercial aspects of the project. I subsequently shifted to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited as a Project Manager in Avionics, moved on to L & D, where I spent a good 12 years, and then finally to HR. One interesting aspect about my professional journey is that a large part of my work has been directly or indirectly for the defense sector of India and I am proud of my small yet significant role in nation-building as well as helping secure our country.

This role agility gave me the opportunity to broaden my vision, leadership, problem solving and communications skills and also helped develop a creative and reflective aspect of my personality. It taught me that I could do “tough stuff” – I never backed away from a challenge or quit when things were hard, and three decades ago things were indeed hard, especially for women. That kind of self-knowledge is empowering, especially as a woman and a working mother.

John:  Tell me more about that please, that is – being a woman professional in a male dominated field.

Suparna:  Manufacturing per se and aerospace are still very male dominated sectors, and I consider myself among the fortunate minority of women who have been part of the transformation when it comes to women in STEM.  Today women can choose a profession they are really interested in: STEM, business, or otherwise, and pursue their passion. They can choose when to get married, who to marry, if and/or when to have babies, and whether to continue to work post motherhood.  These choices did not exist for most women even 30-40 years ago, at least in India. But these choices and opportunities are only available to a certain stratum of the society — mostly urban, educated and financially independent women.

Despite great strides, and diversity and inclusion initiatives, by government as well as business, the reality for most Indian women still is that many opportunities remain closed just because of gender, class or caste. Even today, patriarchy is rampant and, as women leaders, we are still judged as either being too masculine or too feminine. Pay parity is not a norm, sexual exploitation is experienced at various levels, safety is always a concern, and trolling and shaming is rampant on social media. Furthermore, rural women, who have little opportunity for education, have the fewest options for meaningful work, equality and independence.

As for being a working mother, I am fortunate to have a mother and mother-in-law who worked as professionals and paved the way for me. As such, I was born into a time and social strata where it was a given that I would have equal opportunities in education and that I could choose to pursue my interests and passions and lead a life of my own making. Those choices, even today, are not available organically, they are not considered a women’s right but the prerogative of men in their world.  So, while there is progress, it is too slow and not dispersed widely enough or equally.  As I have said many times, there is a lot more to do and miles to go!

John:  I’m grateful that you are outspoken and passionate about this. One of my favourite quotes, I think from Gloria Steinem, is that “feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about fighting for a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking more pies so there is enough for everyone”.

This kind of innovative thinking leads me to ask about your time as a Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership Fellow (CRISP) at St Cross College, University of Oxford.  How did you decide to apply and how has your experience as a CRISP fellow influenced you?

Suparna:  The first time I had heard about CRISP was way back in 2015 from a friend of mine who was part of the fellowship. But those years were professionally engaging and personally challenging for me and I never pursued the application. Call it some form of mid-life crisis or Covid effect that got me exploring new areas, experiences and ways to expand my leadership influence. It was when I was experiencing these things that I applied to CRISP. It was the year 2020 and I was fortunately selected.

The entire experience of CRISP has been like a dream come true for me starting from being at University of Oxford, a unique and historic institution with its spires and integrative knowledge. I loved learning and interacting with experts and influential leaders in government, academia and industry. Being part of an expanded cohort, I developed many lasting friendships with people I would have never met, otherwise.

The CRISP community is always so vibrant and ever supportive and, of course, you and Richard Briant made the entire time at Oxford a meaningful immersive experience.

CRISP also nudged me back to academics. I have recently joined a PhD program at a reputed management institute in India.

The time at Oxford was like a “review and refresh button” which I was able to push. Once I was there, I had to ask the question about how I can contribute to the larger ecosystem in STEM and management education. In the coming year, I hope to establish a different path for myself and give back to the society in more meaningful ways. And all of this thanks to CRISP and change agents like you.

John: It’s been so interesting to reconnect and talk with you. When I met you in Oxford, it was clear to me that you would use your influence, experience, and leadership to make life more fair for women everywhere and to bake more pies so that everyone, men and women, could have their fair share.  The world needs more leaders like you.

Suparna: Thank you so much, John, for the privilege of knowing you and interacting with you once again. Chevening fellowships and scholarships are making a significant impact on not only India, Sri Lanka and UK ecosystems, but on the larger world and I hope that this expands in times to come. I wish that, as a community, we keep making a difference to society and to the next generation of leaders so that the world of tomorrow is more equitable and kinder for all. I truly believe that when we make a difference to one person, no matter how small the difference may seem at first, the impact can be felt far and wide, like ripples of a stone thrown in the water. So, all I focus on is one action, one person, one change in my own way!

Suparna Kapoor is a Future Fluent L & D leader with over three decades of industry expertise. Her last stint being at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. She is now an independent facilitator, coach, consultant and academician. She is a Chevening CRISP Fellow, University of Oxford, 2022.

John Hoffmire is a Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business.