Becoming a Country Manager: A Conversation with Charishma Chotalia
Charishma Chotalia, senior director for growth operations at Brightline, joins the podcast to discuss her experience as India country manager at Branch, a fintech company.
Ankit Mishra: So today on the Alariss podcast, we have Charishma Chotalia joining us to chat about her experience as country manager. Charishma is currently working as the senior director of growth operations at Brightline, a health tech company in San Francisco. Prior to taking up this position, she worked as a country manager for Branch, a fintech company, in India, and for Viamo and Samasource. Charishma received her BA in psychology from Stanford and her master’s in public health from Columbia University. Charishma, thank you so much for joining us.
Charishma Chotalia: Yeah, really happy to be here and excited to be chatting with you today.
Thank you so much. Yeah, let’s get started. So obviously prior to taking up this role, you worked as a country manager in India. Let’s just get started, how did you get onto this country manager position at Branch, and what really motivated you to take this position?
Yeah, absolutely. So I was really interested in the fintech space, particularly in emerging markets. And so when I was looking to switch jobs around late 2016, I reached out to friends who were in the space just to learn about the industry and get a sense from them on which startups I should be looking at. I was specifically looking at startups within the space. So that is how I learned about Branch, one of my friends was actually their first employee, and he told me that they had an opening for the country manager role and if I was interested, he would be happy to make an introduction. So that’s how it happened, and I kind of took it forward from there. So, got really lucky on the timing front, but the key thing here was really being able to reach out to and leverage my network here to say, hey, what’s interesting and happening in the space?
Besides doing my own research and reading on this front. In terms of what motivated me to take on the position once I received the offer was, I think there were three main reasons here. So one is the mission of the company, two is really looking at the executive leadership team and did I feel like this was a team that would build a successful company, and then the third one was really the chance to build something from the ground up. So in terms of the mission, throughout my career, one of the key drivers of where I’ve chosen to work has been the mission of the company, and Branch was focused on providing financial services to people who have traditionally been closed out of the formal financial institutions. So this mission of financial empowerment really spoke to me. Secondly, like I mentioned, looking at the executive leadership team and specifically the CEO, Matt Flannery who is the CEO of Branch, has deep expertise in the financial services space and emerging markets because he was also the founder and former CEO of Kiva, and I knew that working for him and with that team, I would get the chance to really work with and learn from experts in the space, and that really appealed to me. And then lastly, the opportunity to launch and grow Branch in a completely new market for the business really felt like an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up and I knew would be really the opportunity of a lifetime.
Awesome, yeah that’s exciting to hear. And obviously, fintech was a booming industry back in 2018, 2019, and obviously must’ve been exciting to work there. Obviously, as you grew to the position, it was obviously a new position, you were building a team out in India, and India is obviously a very big market. Can you just quickly talk about some of the key learnings you had as an early country manager? And what skill did you have to obtain at the start when you took up the role?
Yeah, great question. So in terms of what I needed to learn as I took on the role, there were so many things I needed to learn honestly as I took it on. So this was, first of all, my first foray into the fintech space. So prior to that I had worked in startups and had that experience, but in terms of fintech, this was kind of my first experience there. So for me though, that felt really energizing, and in the first six months in the role while I was getting the business set up, I really focused on learning as much as I could about fintech and specifically fintech in India. And so how I did that is I went to every single fintech conference I could find and I also reached out to other country managers and founders in the fintech space so that I could continue to learn about kind of where people felt like fintech space in India was really heading, what challenges they had faced, getting a sense of the regulatory landscape, and really just building out my fintech community in those first six months. And then when we did launch, so once we got our NBFC license or our non-banking financial company license, which is needed in order to start lending, there was so much to learn and figure out on the operational side.
So how to successfully scale a customer service and loan review team, how to market and differentiate Branch in a pretty crowded lending market like India, how to handle our collections, how to find and hire excellent talent when we were still building out our name and brand as a company in the Indian market. So lots to figure out and in terms of how I did that, really again it’s how I learned about the fintech space as well, by asking a lot of people a lot of questions. So one of the things that being in this position really reiterated for me is how important it is to be able to admit when you don’t know something and be able to say to people, hey, this is an area that I’m really trying to understand and you seem to have done it really well. What’s worked well for you and what are some lessons you learned along the way? And people are, when you approach it with that way, with that kind of humbleness, people are willing to help out and in whatever way they can.
Awesome, yeah. It’s definitely every job nowadays is a learning experience, and everyone has to acquire new knowledge as they go along. In terms of understanding leadership and management skills, obviously, you are obviously building a team, you’re requiring new talents, and you’re hiring for new roles. At the same time you’re also collaborating with the team in San Francisco. So in some ways, you had to make some leadership decisions on your own front but also management decisions as well. So could you just talk about how did you maneuver those aspects of working with the leadership team in San Francisco, but at the same time being the point of contact for all of your Indian operations?
Yeah, great question. So I was very much in lockstep with the San Francisco team, I would talk to them multiple times a week, we generally at the beginning of a quarter would set OKRs, so objectives and key results across the company as well as across all of our markets. And so in general, we were very aligned on the direction that we were marching towards. I think one of the great things about working at Branch and working under Matt’s leadership is that he truly gives his country managers a sense of autonomy, and I felt comfortable with the alignment that we had in order to obviously make the day-to-day decisions that we needed to succeed as a company in India. Especially given the time difference, you know? It’s completely opposite from San Francisco, and so I was able to drive a lot of that forward and it’s because we had that alignment from the start.
Awesome, yeah. So that’s exciting, and in terms of obviously managing a team in India, you were obviously building OKRs, you’re building a new set of teams just for the Indian market, in many ways you’re obviously at the leadership level. How did you make that decision of which talent to hire? What is the best way to screen talent? Because you would probably assume that the talent in India would have the local knowledge that would support you in your decision-making process. So was that experience a new experience for you in terms of talent acquisition? And what were the best practices for building your team in India?
Yeah, that’s a really great question in terms of how we built out the team. So one of the things we did is set up a pretty robust interview process. So particularly for the India management-level leadership-level roles, my memory is a little hazy now, but generally people would do an initial interview with me, and then we would actually have them do a project that would give us a sense of how they would approach certain challenges. Whether it’s setting up collections or doing research to figure out which project–sorry, which product we should launch next in the market, which financial services product. And so by having them do a project and present to a group of us, we would get a sense of how this person kind of thinks about the problem and then also gives us a sense of how they would approach it within the uniqueness of the Indian market.
Got it. And obviously, because it’s India and you have a team obviously in Africa at that point and you also had HQ in San Francisco, obviously making sure all the cultural dynamics work very well. And you’re obviously based in India, and so can you just talk about how did you make sure that everything was culturally and from a corporate perspective well aligned? Because making sure that’s doing well makes sure it helps the company grow well.
So I actually thought a lot about the kind of culture I wanted in the Branch India office. Honestly, the San Francisco office had done a great job, as had our Kenya and Nigeria teams already, and so I was really building off of that while giving it our own India team flavor. And so in general, we would have a lot of company-wide All Hands where the team would be brought along by our global leadership team on kind of what is it that we’re working towards as a company, celebrating wins across our different markets. And so we had that alignment at the global level, at All Hands, but then in terms of the culture that I wanted to create in the India office, again, it was really things like taking the time to celebrate all wins, no matter how big or small, especially as we were growing. We were working out of a small WeWork office, and we could just get up in the middle of the room and kind of announce various wins and take that time to kind of pause and celebrate.
One of the other things that I did is also, I wanted to make sure that we had the type of environment that felt really like horizontal and flat structure in terms of people feeling comfortable talking to me, approaching me, and really wanted to make sure that we weren’t building out any sort of hierarchical structures in the office, that was something that was really important to me. And so one of the things that I regularly did was taking the time to chat and check in with various members of the team who were not just my direct reports, carving out time to eat lunch with the team, and then also just continuing to bring them along on the journey as we grew, we started doing an India-specific All Hands to focus just on how we were performing as an India team and celebrating those wins. So lots that we did there to really celebrate our culture.
Awesome, that’s great to hear. So in a nutshell, what advice would you have for candidates or personnel who want to become country managers as the next step of their career?
Yeah, so one of the things that I think I can be really helpful is looking at profiles of existing country managers, so looking at their LinkedIns, for example, and seeing what was their trajectory to getting there. So that will give you a good sense of, not everyone is going to have the same trajectory first of all, but it’ll give you a general sense of what are the different types of positions that people held beforehand to get to that place. Right? Or if you noticed that you have common connections, you can always reach out to that person too to get a sense from them on how they navigated their career to get to that position. And so that’s one thing that I found helpful is just looking at, okay, I’m aspiring to be in this type of role one day, let me look at other people who have done it and try to figure out kind of how they did it there. So that would be one piece, I think the other one is just continuing to talk to people, especially in the space where you’re interested, staying really on top of the sector that you’re interested in, and continuing to build out your knowledge there.
Awesome, yeah. And I think we all change careers nowadays, and people move from one job to another in this new environment. Curious to learn how this experience has helped you take on your current role and in terms of your own career development and knowledge?
Yeah, so I think there are a handful of things that I got out of this truly incredible opportunity to be the India country manager for Branch. So first off, I had to problem-solve constantly, right? When you’re standing up something completely from scratch in a new market, there’s a lot that you need to figure out, there’s also a lot that’s not going to go right all the time, and so one of the things that I really got to work on and exercise frequently is quick problem-solving skills. And that is honestly useful no matter what job you take on next and no matter what industry you’re in. So that’s been a key one that I’ve been able to take on to my next role, particularly given that I’ve stayed in the startup space. I think second, growing out a team at Branch really taught me a ton both about hiring and about people management, which I have brought into the new role with me, and while there is of course still a lot for me to learn on this front, I think Branch really gave me a solid foundation in terms of where I can grow from there.
Third, so I think as a country manager, you’re a generalist who is overseeing several different functions with specialist leaders who report into you, and so this really allowed me to learn a ton about different functions within the company. And so while I now work in operations at Brightline, that generalist experience from Branch really has allowed me to see connections more clearly and easily between operations and sales and finance and product, etc. Which may or may not sound like a valuable skill in a world where we’re often told that it’s important to specialize, but I truly believe that this generalist mindset is really helpful in kind of bridging those connections between functions and I found to be very valuable in my career. And lastly, prior to joining Brightline, which is a health tech company, I didn’t actually have any experience in the health tech space. So I was in a position where I was learning about another new industry again. And so having been in this position before, I was really excited to learn about a new space and kind of tackle it in the same way that I had done with Branch. So reading a bunch, subscribing to health tech newsletters, and most importantly, learning from friends and peers by asking questions, including ones that felt silly because that’s really the only way to learn.
No, thank you. That’s great insight and I think a lot of people will be very motivated to take up these types of roles. So thank you so much, Charishma, for your time today. I really appreciate it.