Vivek Chadha, Rakuten Symphony’s SVP of Global Telecom Sales for Unified Cloud, has had a career as dynamic and unpredictable as his taste in books. A self-proclaimed “accidental salesperson,” Vivek channeled his early love of gaming and programming to become a successful engineer, a career which has taken him around the world, from leadership roles at software companies and global systems integrators, to a role leading a venture firm, to a role as Global Head of Telecom Sales for Robin.io, which joined the Rakuten family earlier this year. Currently based in London, UK, we caught up with Vivek to learn more about his remarkable journey in tech, what it takes to be a successful leader and his newfound interest in horticulture.
When did you first enter the industry? How did it happen?
I loved video games when I was younger. I still do now. I just don’t get a chance to play them. Plus, my boys snatch the remote. I started writing code back when I was 11, inspired by the ZX Spectrum (an 8-bit personal home computer introduced in 1982). My father was in the Army (now Retired) and some of his colleagues were more on the technology side, so they had access to some computing facilities.
With my exposure happening at an early age, it became a hobby of mine. Only later did my love for programming translate itself into a college engineering degree in Computer Science.
Following graduation, I soon ended up moving to the U.S. and after working in multiple industries and moving to the UK, Australia and then back to the UK, somewhere along the way, I realized that I had moved to sales, an accidental salesperson. Along the line, I began working at Tata Communications, running the sales and P&L for their network managed services business in Europe for about five and a half years, solving problems from a telco CTO perspective.
Just before the pandemic, I decided to do something completely different and started working with a few friends that I knew from before in California to set up a venture capital fund investing in SaaS (software as a service) start-ups. It was an incredible learning experience, and I met some very smart entrepreneurs and investors. While the fund is still active, currently I am no longer actively involved in it.
After a chance introduction to Robin.io founder and CEO Partha Seetala, who impressed me deeply with the company’s innovative cloud-native tech and his deep personal perspective on the topic, I ended up joining Robin. Now I’m thrilled to be part of the Rakuten Symphony family, working to transform telecom around the world.
What aspect of the telco space excites you? Are there any industry trends you find particularly interesting?
In a way, it’s the scariest industry to be in. Blink and something has changed in the technology vendor or competitive ecosystem. Unfortunately, many legacy telco players aren’t able to keep up with this change. The mindset for how to utilize technology today is the same as 20 years ago.
"What’s most impressive for me is that Rakuten is the only operator which has 'taken its own medicine' first with the launch of the Rakuten Mobile network in Japan. I do not know of any current competitor willing to do that."
I am excited because this muscle memory is being completely disrupted by the software paradigm. What Symphony is trying to do is unshackle operators from various cost structures that come with building and then running a network. Once these companies start realizing the benefits this gives in terms of flexibility, speed to market and departure from traditional cost and procurement cycles, the brainpower and the innovative energy that will then be freed-up in their organizations can then be applied to actual value-added services and enhancing customer experience. This is more than a technology change; this is a mindset change.
What’s most impressive for me is that Rakuten is the only operator which has “taken its own medicine” first with the launch of the Rakuten Mobile network in Japan. I do not know of any current competitor willing to do that.
Were there any similarities or shared principles that made Rakuten Symphony such a place for Robin.io to join? How has the transition been?
What I like about Robin, which I find very similar to Rakuten Symphony, is the absolute sense of democracy across the teams. We celebrate energy and enthusiasm. We celebrate the willingness to put forward ideas instead of forcing people to only follow processes and think inside the box. The leadership of Rakuten and Robin have done an incredible job of developing this culture.
"Leadership is about understanding what you can do for others, not what you expect others to do for you. Can you remove roadblocks? Can you truly make people believe that they can do more than they think they are capable of? Can you lead from the front, bring people together despite differences?"
Having worked with Japanese companies before, I knew that language could be a barrier. But at Rakuten Symphony – truly a global company – this has never been an issue. I learnt first-hand when listening to him speak at MWC, how many years ago [Rakuten Group founder &CEO] Mickey [Mikitani] had the vision to build an organization that operates differently in Japan and can go global – he chose to go against the grain and break the mold which I really respect. He made English the lingua franca within the organization, which made sense from a business point of view. Even though he faced a lot of social pressure, he managed to stick to his guns and eventually was proven right. This openness and the global nature of the company have also helped in the partnership between Robin.io and Rakuten Symphony.
What are some of your hobbies and passions outside work?
During the pandemic, I decided I wanted to give gardening a go. Our flower pots (and a lone Valencia Orange tree) have become part of our extended family, taking up a bit of my time each day. A couple of months ago, inspired by our elder son, I also picked up the guitar and now try to practice about four days a week, a habit I find quite enjoyable and relaxing.
I also love reading books. It's my second addiction after coffee. I've also made a transition back to my original format of reading, which is print books. Many years ago, I came back from the U.S. and two months later the postman delivered two massive bags of books I had bought. My Mom wasn’t very impressed with me and had some strong views about me buying books for a while. But I've now decided that with my folks content with having grandkids, I can buy books for myself again.
I have a very eclectic taste in books. I don't have a specific theme or genre. I read a wide range of books on anthropology, ancient societies and cultures, physics, and even economics.
I just finished reading “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. The current books on my reading list are “Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity” by Carlo Rovelli and “Ardor” by Roberto Calasso. While I am not a huge podcast fan, one I do listen to is the Nike running podcast by Coach Chris Bennet, who is the voice of the Nike Run Club app. It’s called “The Starting Line.”
Finally, for all the aspiring leaders, what professional and/or personal advice can you share?
On the personal front, I would say that leadership is about understanding what you can do for others, not what you expect others to do for you. Can you remove roadblocks? Can you truly make people believe that they can do more than they think they are capable of? Can you lead from the front, bring people together despite differences? The morale of the team needs to be driven by the leader via personal example, including a willingness to ask for help and being willing to learn from anyone, anytime.
If your conduct, regardless of authority and title, can generate confidence in people around you to give the best of themselves, that is perhaps the best way to become a better leader and a better member of the team.