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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Roopa Unnikrishnan

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-29

Roopa Unnikrishnan is a sharpshooter.

Give her a stack of statistics concerning business practice outsourcing - the field where she's a team leader at Katzenbach Partners - and Ms. Unnikrishnan will unerringly find the core numbers. Not for nothing is she widely regarded as one of America's leading authorities on outsourcing, a controversial $300 billion industry.

Give her an album of competing arguments about whether American corporations should transfer back office operations out of headquarters and to distants lands such as China, India and the Philippines, and Ms. Unnikrishnan will quickly produce syntheses to illustrate the specific corporate benefits of such moves - and, in the process, demolish canards that outsourcing hurts the American economy.

Give her a rifle, and Ms. Unnikrishnan will, just as unerringly, find the bull's eye. She has won gold and silver medals in international competitions. She is the recipient of India's Arjuna Award, the country's highest sports honor. She holds the Commonwealth record in women's small-bore rifle shooting, not to mention several records in India, where she was born, and at Oxford University, where Ms. Unnikrishnan obtained an MBA.

Give her 16 minutes with a woman victimized by domestic violence, and Ms. Unnikrishnan will have steered her toward shelter as well as pro bono legal services offered by Sakhi, a not-for-profit group for assisting abused women that she chairs.

And give her 16 seconds after she's walked into her Upper West Side apartment, and Ms. Unnikrishnan - who's married to Columbia University professor Sreenath Sreenivasan - will tell her twins, daughter Durga and son Krishna, where they can find their misplaced their books and toys.

So how does she do it?

"What's important is to be present in the moment," Ms. Unnikrishnan said. "Whenever I'm in any situation - whether at home, or at work, or in a sports arena - I say to myself, 'I'm here. I'm here for a reason. I need to focus to the exclusion of everything else. You do what you have to do.'"

If her remarks evoke karmic notions, that's because Ms. Unnikrishnan's work ethic and sensibilities are rooted in the teachings of Hinduism. In her view, Hinduism isn't an Asian religion as much as a secular theology that exhorts its adherents to undertake a life of self-discipline.

That view was shaped while she was growing up in the southern Indian city of Chennai - formerly known as Madras - where her father, K. V. Unnikrishnan, was a senior police official. Both her and her mother, Jaya, emphasized to Roopa, and her older brother, Srinath, and older sister, Deepa, how essential it was to do well at school and also lead the moral life.

"I was always the difficult one - I was the one who'd constantly ask, 'Why?' and 'How?'" Ms. Unnikrishnan said. "I remember looking at Picasso's 'Guernica,' and dashing into my father's library to find out all about that painting."

That a 12-year-old girl would even be able to comprehend what critics have described as "the ritual of the corrida, the myth of the minotaur, images of Christian martyrdom, and suffering women" during the Spanish bombing in 1937 of the city of Guernica - which was associated with Basque nationalism - suggested how precocious Ms. Unnikrishnan was.

But she doesn't see herself as having been especially exceptional in those years.

"You have to know how competitively kids are raised in most Indian households," Ms. Unnikrishnan said. "My parents believed that it was important to make information accessible to their children so that we could go on a journey of intellectual exploration all through life."

It was the year following the Guernica episode that Ms. Unnikrishnan discovered the thrill of sharp shooting. Her father had taken her to a police range one Saturday instead of his usual golf course. He looked at an old Enfield .303-bore rifle and handed it over to his daughter.

"I aimed at the target and kept hitting the bull's eye," Ms. Unnikrishnan said. "People around me were amazed. All those big police officials kept me looking at me, this little girl who'd upstaged them all. Their shots had kept going all over the place. And I said to myself, 'This looks like a fun thing to do.'"

The fun may have been in hitting her mark. The training, however, was relentless. Starting at the age of 13, Ms. Unnikrishnan would practice for four or five hours every morning before school under the watchful eye of A. J. Jalaluddin, a renowned instructor.

"Shooting made me feel different from the other girls," Ms. Unnikrishnan said.

Winning competitions around India, and then abroad, made her feel different from boys, too - particularly when a prestigious architectural school gave preferential admission to male athletes who'd only competed in local high-school events.

Ms. Unnikrishnan abandoned her aspirations to be an architect and instead enrolled in at Women's Christian College to study economics and politics. Academic prizes cascaded on her. After obtaining a master's degree in history at Chennai's Ethiraj College, she went to Oxford University under a Rhodes scholarship, the 100th student in India's history to win the prestigious award.

At Oxford, Ms. Unnikrishnan completed a master's degree in economic and social history, and then went on to get an MBA. It was on a brief visit to New York that she made up her mind to come and live in America.

"After the stodgy atmosphere of Britain, I found New York refreshingly friendly - people actually smiled at me," Ms. Unnikrishnan said. "I said to myself, 'This is the place for me!'"

Through a set of fortuitous circumstances, she landed at Katzenbach Partners, a highly-regarded consulting firm. Her academic background, coupled with her felicity with figures, made Ms. Unnikrishnan a natural for the fast track. Soon she was leading teams studying the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance, wealth management, cosmetics and financial planning institutions.

Her industry reports, and her assessments of strategic and people-focused projects, fetched notice in the consulting world.

Ms. Unnikrishnan has especially won attention for her examination of outsourcing. She points out the industry is projected to grow to $350 billion by 2008.

In a recent study that was widely cited, Ms. Unnikrishnan said that while the public debate has centered around India, "in reality, even the most optimistic estimates put expected Indian revenues for 2006 from outsourcing at around $36 billion," or just about 10%.

"In reality, most outsourcing services remain within America," Ms. Unnikrishnan said.

The fact that questions about India's attraction as outsourcing venue are being raised suggests to Ms. Unnikrishnan that parochial tendencies still tend to influence politics in America. Such attitudes occasionally also surface in the perceptions of traditional Americans concerning successful Indian immigrants.

"I know I'm different - and it doesn't bother me," Ms. Unnikrishnan said. "So don't let it bother you. The fact that I was born in India and had my formative experiences there - well, there's a lot that's good about that. It's time to look beyond accents."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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