An Interview with The Honorable Susmita Gongulee Thomas

By:Luke Wyckoff Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Collaborator Profile susmita-thomas Q: What is the earliest business transaction that you can remember conducting?

A: I used to trade my younger sister stamps for chocolates. It was a kind of a barter deal, but business none the less. She wasn’t keen to hand over her chocolates and I had to keep increasing the number of stamps I would give her because I wanted the chocolates.

Q: When you look back, what were some of the big decisions that helped you get where you are today?

A: The biggest decision I made was to change my profession. I was studying medicine and decided to move into diplomacy. My father pointed out that there were a huge number of doctors in India and that I had a better chance of succeeding at something else. That really put things into perspective for me. Even though there have been hard times, I have enjoyed every second of my profession. I have learned a tremendous amount and have really enjoyed it.

Q: What are some of the major curves that have been thrown at you? What did you learn from them?

A: Well I used to be a very shy person. I was an only child so essentially, I had grown up alone so I didn’t really enjoy going out and meeting people. When I joined the Foreign Service (the Service) I realized that sitting there quietly and being a wall-flower just wasn’t going to cut it. I learned that you have to work the room. So it took me all of six months to force myself to learn the techniques of how to work a room, make contacts, and converse with different types of people.

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In college I was a science major. But when I entered the Service I realized that they needed me to focus on politics and economics. So since science really had nothing to do with my job I had to teach myself about politics and economics. I had to teach myself new languages because I worked in places like Japan and Spain and I needed to know the languages in order to be able to communicate with people. The government then decided to post me in a country that spoke French and I didn’t know a word of French. Right before I got to Côte d’Ivoire’s in 2002, the country became engaged in a coup. In a French speaking country, with no radio or television, I had to force myself to pick up bits of French very quickly so that I could know what was going on by listening to passers-by or from those that worked in my house.

Another curve was learning how to handle myself and help people when I was living in an economy and place that was undergoing a coup and had a curfew for eleven months. There were huge evacuations of the Indian population either to the neighboring country or back to India due to the war conditions. So these were all part of the learning curve in the past 20 years, but as I look back I can say that I enjoyed them and wouldn’t change them for anything.

Q: Where have you been placed throughout your career? How long did you stay in these places?

A: My first assignment was in Madrid, then Tokyo, then Washington DC. I then took a study leave and went to Chicago to pursue my research in the U.S. foreign policy process. After that, I went to my first ambassadorial assignment in the Ivory Coast. After that I served in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. I then moved to Chile to serve as an ambassador and now I am in San Francisco. I have been at these posts for a minimum of three years except in war stations – which are two year assignments.

Q: Who were some of the major influences in your life that helped you get where you are today?

A: Definitely my parents. I grew up in a family where I got a lot of support in doing whatever it was that I wanted to do. In India, women were not granted the same liberties as men. My parents always taught me to be who I was regardless of gender. A number of my teachers were also great influences. They taught me that I could not be held back by the ideas and stereotypes of women in India. They taught me that I had to start breaking the mold. We also had a few senior officers in the Service who helped in invisible ways that I didn’t realize at the time. I had many significant influences and I am grateful for all of them.

I realized that if I wanted to get married, I would need permission from the government to do so. If they denied my request to get married, I would have the option of losing my job or remaining single.

Q: Which of those senior officers really stand out?

A: The most influential was the first Joint-Secretary that I was attached to in the Service as a probationer. He was the one that taught me that being a wall-flower wasn’t going to get me anywhere. He told me to use the “tongue that God had given me.” In the Service, you cannot go into a room quietly, sit there quietly, and come out quietly. By the time you leave an event you need to know at least 50% of the people who were in that room. If you haven’t connected with that many people, then you haven’t done your job. He was definitely the biggest influence outside of my family.

Q: What motivates you?

A: To see how much I can bring for India and how much I can bring people together. I love connecting with people and giving them counsel in terms of economics and politics. In the Service, you cannot go into a room quietly, sit there quietly, and come out quietly.

Q: What deal that you have put together between the United States and India are you the most proud of today?

A: I cannot really talk about it specifically because we have confidentiality agreements. I moved one of the biggest U.S. companies to consider India and got it to start to manufacture and supply the H1N1 vaccine in India. It was extremely satisfying because not only did I help this company, but I also did something that would help India. It was great to help my own people get the timely medication that they deserved.

Q: What are some of the major challenges that you have had to overcome in your lifetime?

A: A lot of the challenges come from the fact that I am a woman. When I first joined the Service in India there were very few women in that sector. It was unusual for women to join the Foreign Service at the time. I realized that if I wanted to get married, I would need permission from the government to do so. If they denied my request to get married, I would have the option of losing my job or remaining single. So, one of the first challenges was getting the Service to acknowledge that men and women should have the same rules. We also had issues with disparity of pay within the Service. Fortunately our constitution guarantees equal pay so we were able to successfully fight it. I also joined the Service very young. I was hit on very often. I had to deal with that and learned how to carry myself and deflect such advances.

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Q: What advice would you give to young women in India and in the United States?

A: For women in India, things have changed a lot – we have it easier now. We now have a tribunal where women can go and complain about sexual harassment. Nevertheless, I would advise women to think about how difficult it would be to have a career in the Service and coordinate it with their husband’s career. I have been lucky enough to have a husband who has given me full support, even to the detriment of his own career at times. He has taken time off and even quit jobs in order to be with me. But this doesn’t happen for everybody. Men in India are more inclined to put their career first. Women in India need to consider that it is difficult to join the Service, support their husband’s career, and be a mother. For women abroad, I would say that diplomacy is one of the most challenging fields of work. Being a female diplomat is not easy.

Q: How would you define your leadership style?

A: I don’t really have a style. I enjoy connecting with people. I like to reach out to people, listen to them, and see how I can help them. I have always been myself.

Q: How do you balance your work and personal life?

A: It has been easy for me because I married a man who has given me outstanding support all along. We have been married 23 years and have a son and a daughter. We do fight and have disagreements. We either agree to disagree or agree to agree and then move on.

Q: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

A: I see myself as a Senior Ambassador somewhere. I want a challenging position where I can contribute to facilitating a relationship between India and the country I’m in. I can also see myself in some sort of challenging position in India itself; maybe working with the Election Commission or the Union Public Service Commission that recruits people into the services. I want to be somewhere I can make a meaningful contribution and change the way things are getting done in India.

Q: Why should American female entrepreneurs do business in India?

A: Two reasons. One... India has always looked up to America as a country that greatly supports women’s rights. I would urge women to move to India and show women there that it is possible to own a business and be successful. It would also be good for American women to show Indian women that they do not have to play second fiddle to their husband and his career. Two... American women would bring in a lot of equalization to the attitude of men toward women. Men need to realize that they have to speak to women as equals. I think that American women in Indian business culture would help to level the playing field.

Ambassador Thomas holds a Masters Degree in Organic Chemistry. She has also successfully completed a Ford Foundation Scholarship program on US Foreign Policy Process from University of Maryland, USA. She is an ardent supporter of utilizing the best practices of new management fields like Project Management and is today recognized by the Project Management Institute USA as an influential diplomat who has contributed substantially to spreading the message about the importance of Project Management especially for developing countries. She has helped to create the discipline of Project Management in the University of Santo Tomas and in the University of Desarollo, Santiago. To learn more about the Consulate General of India in San Francisco visit www.cgisf.org.

Luke Wyckoff is the Chief Visionary Officer for Social Media Energy. He can be reached at Luke@SocialMediaEnergy.com.