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Betting big on Indian tech revolution, Arundhati Bhattacharya of Salesforce India says country has shifted at right juncture


Salesforce announced a $1.1 million donation to United Way of Hyderabad, Concern India Foundation, Rise Against Hunger India, and Youth for Seva, to support the COVID response across India. Through corporate and employee donations, the company will impact the lives of more than 2,00,000 people across the country

A former top banker, leading the State Bank of India (SBI), the country’s largest lender, is now the India head of global tech giant, Salesforce. Arundhati Bhattacharya speaks exclusively with CNBC-TV18's Nisha Poddar on the growing importance of technology in businesses as part of the digital disruption during the pandemic as well as the assistance it has provided to the country in its terrible second wave. The company also made several efforts to provide the COVID-19 relief as part of its commitment to India as a growth market for salesforce and is currently on a hiring spree.
Edited Excerpts:
Question: You have moved to the tech side at a very exciting time in the world when the digital revolution is underway. We've known you as a banker, which has been the backbone of every Indian industry, and now it looks as if technology has become the same backbone for every sector. How do you view India's technological revolution, especially in the last one year? Do you see a change in the kind of progress that we have made from India?
Answer: I think India has already started on the digital journey, especially if you look at the government, what with the Aadhaar and the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform. What I see now, however, is when individual businesses interact with the government, or with any agency, in fact, there is the urgency to use more digital. Not just that, India is also figuring out that it's time to start using the Cloud. The other thing, which is very important now is that you need to be able to talk to your customers from any channel, be able to own your own customers, and approach them accordingly.
Similarly, you need to allow your workforce to work from anywhere. I think these are the realizations in India today that we really need to go for digital transformation. Today, the idea is very clear in people's minds; using digital for the sake of payments or doing something for KYC (know your customer) is no longer the only reason why we need digital. In order to ensure that the business survives and that the business is a guide, the business is able to take on these kinds of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) events without really impacting their bottom lines or their ways of ensuring efficient delivery of services.
Question: That's right. It has become an essential area of every business, but how do you see some of the companies, the large companies, the traditional business houses, really adopting technology because now there is a clear distinction between tech-based companies and non-tech companies.
Answer: My belief has always been that all companies will have to become tech-based. And that's the way I ran the bank as well; we were recruiting many more tech people than generalists, because today unless you have a very strong tech backbone, you are not able to do almost anything. You look at the employee side of it. Today it is so important for us not only to get employees back to work but to get them back to work in a safe manner. Salesforce has innovated on, which is a platform that enables you to monitor the health of employees and their safety to ensure that whoever comes in, comes into a safe environment. Not just that, we are looking at vaccination being the deliverer out of this pandemic, and for that, we have created what we call the vaccine Cloud. It helps you connect with the supplier of the vaccine, get them registered, and ensure that they are responding right after the vaccination. This way, one can really track both the supply and the delivery chain.
I'm not saying that this cannot be done manually, but if you look at our population of 1.3 billion, we cannot keep track of all of them, unless we use technology to do what we believe is equitable distribution of the vaccines in order to ensure that there is safety for all.
There is also the realisation that you cannot just limit safety for individual groups. It must be safety for all, because any space that is left vacant or unattended, becomes the repository for the next infection to start. Technology is the only answer. Very early on, I had realized that if we are to do banking properly and bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, it would have to be through technology.
Today, whether you talk of medical practice or education, it is a technology that's filling in the gap. Children would have missed out on school years had it not been for technology, which has provided them the platform for continued learning. So, whether it is tech companies or schools and colleges that believe in brick and mortar, both have migrated to the tech platform to enable them to keep the students engaged and in the learning mode.
Question: How is Salesforce poised to play a bigger role in this opportunity emerging in India?
Answer: Salesforce is Cloud-native. It was born in the Cloud, all our solutions are Cloud-based, and today without Cloud you cannot have the agility and the nimbleness needed to address demand. So, Cloud is really the solution for all of this. To that extent, Salesforce becomes very relevant. But more than that, it is a company that was born with the customer in mind. Our first product was a CRM or a customer relationship management product. Today we have products that we call Customer 360 because it addresses all customer needs. Mind you, for us the definition of a customer is not merely a customer; an employee too is a customer of the HR department of any institution. So, we are addressing all stakeholders. A company like Salesforce becomes very relevant in these very difficult times.
The major challenge for our organization's business and the government is to keep in touch with the customer, to enable people to work from anywhere. Now, these are the things we have been nurturing and creating for the past 22 years, and therefore we become extremely relevant to what is happening in India and across the world.
Question: How has the demand grown in the last one-one-and-a-half years of the pandemic? Have you seen a clear change in the pattern?
Answer: Yes. We have seen that change for the better. Salesforce is doing very well if you have followed our last quarter results. We've never had such a first quarter, ever. Our quarter starts from February and we are seeing demand pick-up, right across the globe.
The only thing is when the demand thumbs, quick implementation is sought. Whereas earlier, people would be content with implementation within 90 days, they now want to know whether it can be done in 30 days! That's the kind of demand, not just for delivering the solutions but delivering them as early as possible. People are truly impatient to go with digital offerings because that's the only way to ensure that the business continues and continues to flourish.
Question: What does Indian business mean for Salesforce globally now and has it become more important now than earlier?
Answer: There is a separate place for India. It's not only about customer demand, which we call sales and distribution. India also contributes a lot to the implementation side of it, not merely through Salesforce, but also through many global system integrators that have their offices here in India. Companies like Accenture, Deloitte, Cognizant, Infosys, TCS, and Wipro are doing enormous business, implementing Salesforce solutions across the globe. Many people are sitting here in India and conducting the delivery. So, Salesforce talent and Salesforce skills are very much in demand. Offhand I can tell you that there must be at least 20,000 Salesforce jobs available, for which hiring is going on at a furious pace. I came into this company when it was at 2,500 strength! In the last one year, we have grown to more than 4,100. Just one year after the pandemic, we would not have gone up in our headcount so drastically, had it not been for the demand.
Question: Which sectors are showing greater demand?
Answer: The one sector that is more demanding than the others is start-ups. Most of them are doing things on the digital platform. So, the start-up and the tech sector are booming. Their businesses have truly gone up. But even in the manufacturing sector, there is a lot of traction. Of course, you know the finance sector, it is always the leader. For us, BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) is something that's really worked. We had some handicaps, in the sense that we didn't have data localization. That was taken care of sometime in October last year when we started what we call Hyper Force. It has created local data; because of it, big data localization is no longer a challenge for us. We are now approaching the regulated sector, which was outside our ambit till about October last year. So, the sectors that are really firing are BFSI, manufacturing, consumer and retail and EdTech professional services.
Question: In the overall scheme of things at Salesforce global, how has India notched up in terms of its business demand, as well as presence?
Answer: Presence-wise, people have realized the kind of talent that India has. That's why I was telling you that hiring in India has gone up to HD, and actually even IBC (Independent Buyers’ Co Op) has predicted the kind of economy Salesforce uses - for every dollar that we get over here, we are creating something like $9 of business for the ecosystem! So, India is a very important part of whatever we do in the tech world.
You know that India also has received a lot of attention, especially during the second wave of the pandemic, the kind of help that we have received from across the globe is unprecedented. Salesforce announced a $1.1 million donation to United Way of Hyderabad, Concern India Foundation, Rise Against Hunger India, and Youth for Seva, to support the COVID response across India. These organisations are focused on procuring medical equipment and supplies, administering vaccine awareness and distribution, building community isolation centres, and providing food security for the most vulnerable populations in the country.
A global employee giving and matching campaign through GiveIndia will further contribute to supporting various organizations in India. To date, the campaign generated more than $1 million including the matching by Salesforce. Through corporate and employee donations, Salesforce will impact the lives of more than 2,00,000 people across the country.
In addition, Salesforce has partnered with HSBC and the Khosla family to deliver medical supplies to different cities across the country. In total, 6,000-plus oxygen concentrators and 10,000 pulse oximeters will be delivered to critical locations through partnerships with the Red Cross and GiveIndia. Oxygen concentrators will also be available to all employees of Salesforce in India and outside of India with families here.
Through Salesforce’s Pledge 1% members and a global coalition of 43 companies have collectively contributed $28 million to support relief efforts focused on medical supplies, vaccine awareness and distribution, and food security.
Lastly, Salesforce employees in India and around the world have joined forces to staff a 24/7 volunteer helpline that provides employees and their families in India the latest crowdsourced information on hospital bed availability and how to access resources. This information also spans COVID-19 testing, doctor consultations, quarantine facilities, hospitalization, medicine availability, and more.
Besides that, there is another $1 billion that has gone out to employees. I've also landed three planes of supplies in collaboration with HSBC and the Vino Pasilla family. All this has happened because of the awareness of how important India and Indian economics is. I don't think it would have happened a few years ago when that realization was at a much lower level. India is respected for its skills on innovation, and of course there is demand. A country of 1.3 billion is going to generate a lot of demand and therefore it needs not only proper handling but proper relationship building, and that's what we have witnessed.
We stood up by a 24x7 helpline for three days; we had almost 2,000-plus global volunteers. So, we've seen a global effort by the company to support India.
Question: You were leading the largest bank in the country at the peak of our asset quality concerns and you've seen that cycle. Now when it comes to the use of technology in dealing with the next wave of asset concerns, mainly led by the pandemic, where can technology play a much bigger role in highlighting the risks first and also in taking the right action because the red flags can always be in the system, and some companies have started adopting it as well.
Answer: So really speaking, technology waves the red flags. Let me give you a very simple example. We have a company called Tableau in our pool. What it does being a data analytics company, is it gives its results in graphic details. So basically, if your tableau runs by the COVID map of India, it shows which areas are turning red and which areas are turning green.
What you do is you overlay this map with a map of where your routes are. So you have a map that indicates this is the place where we have our loans, and if you point over there in red, you can actually find out what is your exposure to data, if that area has turned red on account of COVID, you can immediately begin planning what is the kind of response that you should give to this area should you look at restructuring nodes, or should you look at putting in more people over there.
To do the follow-up and the collections, you can find out what is required. Similarly, in areas turning green, you can figure out that the requirements of the demand in those areas will go up. So, you can organize your strategy, as to what you will do for those areas by using technology, and by using technology to show where the red flags are coming up.
These kinds of things would not have been possible when I was chairing the bank. It could have been so useful for me to know the areas that I needed to avoid and ones that needed special strategies; what the areas where a different kind of initiative is required altogether.
The kind of data analytics that we bring to the table, can provide you the red flags, to enable you to understand whether this is the industry that I put my solutions in.
Question: A financial services major, using data analytics for the right red flags has been rewarded by the market above its peers. What is the gap there? How much have we increased digital focus and what is the large scope that you see there? Are PSU (public sector undertaking) banks adopting it?
Answer: At this point in time, I think PSU banks are going through their own challenges, because to a very great extent they must meet a lot of social agenda. But having said that, I think what they really need to do is to get their digital strategy right. And I would say that this is something that needs a lot of thought because along with digital strategy, they also need to come out of a mindset, which means that your IT establishment is all on-premises and not on the Cloud.
Even currently I think most PSU banks have only their peripheral operations in the Cloud; most of their core operations are On-premise, and that doesn't give them the elasticity and ability to change very, very quickly. That’s where capacity utilizations are restricted. A change to Cloud is very much required.
And often, I think that is coloured by a lack of understanding. As for what is the level of security in the Cloud, there is a feeling that On-Prem is more secure than Cloud, which is not correct.
This is something that people really need to internalize and understand. We are a Cloud company and a lot of data resides with us. One of our main jobs is to try and ensure and our first value is trust. And unless we keep this data safe and secure, that trust will get badly dented.
The second mindset of PSU banks that needs a change is that IT is not only for personal use. The reason for this is huge IT departments, which at one point of time, had to be built, because a lot of coding was needed, which lacked the modern platforms of today. For instance, on the Salesforce platform, you can build what you want with just a few clicks. So, it's called a low code platform. You can improve and customize, but also have the choice of going local, which means that you can do things very, very fast on these platforms, build stuff on these platforms very, very quickly. So, the adoption of these digital platforms is also something that PSUs and many traditional legacy industries need to think very seriously about.

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