Jayshree Ullal: Queen of the wired world

Priya Sundararajan | Updated on July 03, 2014

Jayshree Ullal, President and CEO of Arista Networks

India-origin Ullal is a big name in the networking business.

Jayshree Ullal, President and CEO of Arista Networks, is not just another Indian name that has made it big in the global corporate scene. She is, to quote the Forbes magazine, among the top five influential people in the networking world, and has been giving Cisco, the technology behemoth and her one-time employer, a run for its money. In a free-wheeling interview, the 53-year-old Jayshree touches on a range of issues and topics close to her heart.

Born in London, grown up in Delhi, and with a degree and post-graduation in the US… how do you see yourself? Still essentially Indian, or more of a global citizen?

I definitely see myself as an Indian when it comes to food, family, values and culture. However, my thought process and business philosophies make me feel more a citizen of the world.

You are rated among the world’s top 50 influential tech people. In school/ college, was this the trajectory you predicted for yourself?

Not at all! I am honoured by these ratings, but never predicted or imagined myself being there.

You were doing quite well in Cisco when you decided to move to Arista. What went into the decision?

When Cisco acquired the company I was in (Crescendo, Cisco’s first acquisition), I never imagined that I would stay for 15 years in Cisco. My contract was for two years. Thanks to the incredible support of Cisco CEO John Chambers and my boss, Mario Mazzola, we were able to grow the switching business from zero to a more than $10-billion business in a decade. Basically, it was a very exciting ride, capturing the start-up spirit within a large company. However, I had never imagined or intended to become a senior executive in a large public company. It was unplanned and accidental.

But I wanted to go back to my entrepreneurial roots again, as the CEO of an independent company. So, I am living the Silicon Valley dream again.

Was it particularly difficult being a woman and a leader in your field? Any sacrifice or compromise that you had to make?

Not much. Unlike mature industries, the networking industry was hungry for talent, and embraced skills independent of gender. But balancing family and career was not always easy, and would not have been possible without the huge support of my family (parents, husband and sister).

Have you ever regretted being where you are and doing what you do?

I did wonder in 2000 if I was being a good parent and mother, or being too driven by my career. I took a leave of absence from Cisco for several months and tried to be more of a full-time mom. You will have to check with my daughters on what they thought of that, but a very telling comment from them was, “Amma, when are you going back to work?” So I did return to Cisco, perhaps with heightened awareness that my calling was to balance my career and family.

You have often said that despite a plethora of female names that dot the tech landscape, it is still a man’s world…

I think it’s a man’s world because not enough women enter the technical field. When I went to college, I was one of two [female] students in electrical engineering — out of 70… we need to encourage girls to pursue science and math in early school years. We must not let students opt out.

Building capability in children through the right kind of education is a subject close to your heart. As someone familiar with both Indian and US models of education, what do you think needs to be done in India?

India has developed some of the greatest talent from its technical universities, yet most students leave for the US for graduate and higher studies. Why? I believe that the universities in India provide a fantastic foundation but do not always encourage the creativity and problem-solving techniques we see in the US. We need an education system that blends the best of both worlds.

What’s your view on sexual harassment at the workplace?

Rape is the most extreme form of crime in any part of the world. There has to be respect for women, both at the workplace and in the public space. Women should feel safe. India is one of the most respectful countries for women. However, in my view, there are a lot of undercurrents. When it comes to workplace, some people misuse their power. In the West, there is much more awareness and training on code of conduct. If you know how to respect women at home, you better know how to respect them at the workplace. When I was growing up, the only men in my life were my father and uncles. But now in India, there is a happy interaction between men and women.

What does work-life balance mean to you?

It basically means you don’t try to be perfect at everything. You have to make some trade-offs. I have had tremendous family support. Quite honestly, my children were almost raised with three sets of parents… my parents, my sister and her husband. There are other things too. >You don’t try to make a breakfast, lunch and dinner meal. You take shortcuts. So the concept of work-life balance means you have to be realistic.

What kind of role did your husband and children play in your success? Do you worry that you may not be spending enough time with them?

My dear husband for 30-plus years, Vijay, is a successful high-tech executive in the semiconductor industry and the President of Fairchild. He has been my pillar of strength. We have two lovely daughters. Our eldest daughter graduated with a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from MIT/Harvard in Boston this summer, and our youngest daughter is doing DVM (Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine) graduate programme at UC Davis. We try to spend quality time with our daughters, immersing our weekends in their social activities… tennis, dance, music or just chauffeuring them around. But it was easier to separate the pressures of the job from home before the advent of always-on devices!

Apart from technology, what are your other interests?

The Ullal family is very much into music, we all sing (in tune!), and appreciate it as a hobby. I love to read a good book or go for a long hike or run in the midst of nature. I find writing and expressing myself therapeutic. I also enjoy Bollywood movies that do not take themselves too seriously and are entertaining.

What would be your advice to career women?

I suggest three guiding principles, which I myself live by… in fact, this applies to both men and women:

Follow your conviction, and find your special skill or gift;

Create your own career opportunities and turning points;

Value your human connections and create the right culture.

Published on December 26, 2013

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor