Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, August 16 2011
Snapshot: Sonu Ratra, President, Akraya Inc.
Sonu Ratra is cofounder and president of Akraya Inc., an award-winning, woman-owned Silicon Valley-based IT staffing and consulting firm that caters to eBay, PayPal, and similar Fortune 500 giants. A respected industry leader and a dedicated advocate of women's empowerment, Ratra’s story is exceptional.
She arrived in the United States with her husband, Amar, with only $50 in their pockets and a dream to build a better future for their family. Ratra left her comfortable job at health care giant, Roche Genentech, where she was in charge of corporate recruiting, to do the unthinkable: start an IT staffing and consulting firm right in the thick of the dot-com bust.
Today, Akraya's revenues total $32 million, and Akraya was named one of the Fastest-Growing Staffing Firms in the United States in 2011 by Staffing Industry Analysts. Ratra lives with her husband and daughter in Northern California.
Womenetics: Articulate your dream in building this business – who or what inspired you, what was the need/space you wanted to fill?
Sonu Ratra: After more than a decade in recruiting and management experience, I founded Akraya along with my husband, Amar Panchal, in 2001. This was in the midst of the dot-com crash.
Having worked in the IT staffing industry on the corporate side for companies like Adecco, Cisco, and Genentech, I clearly saw a gap in what IT managers wanted and what was provided by agencies. Instead of simply matching requirements with résumés, we wanted to build a staffing firm that truly understands the resourcing needs of organizations and is a strategic partner.
In other words, we sought to go above and beyond the requirements and send temporary IT “superheroes” to our clients. Over the years, our clients’ loyalty and the level of return business we receive have validated this plan.
Womenetics: What has been your biggest challenge?
Ratra: Upon founding Akraya, our very first challenge was overcoming this overall negativity toward starting something new in the midst of a recession. Our friends and family advised us against starting a new business in such turbulent times. However, we felt that this was the right time to jump, and we never regretted it.
Another big challenge that we faced was hiring the next level of leadership for Akraya. You cannot delegate this responsibility to anybody else. You have to do it yourself because you know best what you want for your company. As a growing company, you want to bring in people from large organizations to take your company to the next level. The catch is to find exceptional candidates who are not looking for a big brand.
After you have found the right candidate, you have to convince them that you are not just another small company. You have to make them want to join your company. Apart from selling my company and sharing my corporate vision with the prospective senior employees, we invite the person to the office to talk to all the current employees. Thus, the candidate gets an idea of the culture and also gets an employee perspective.
If you have good people, they will sell the company for you. At Akraya, our employees are proud to be called Akrayans. They are very happy to share their pride, thoughts, and experiences about Akraya to a prospective colleague. This strategy has helped us face our challenge of building an exceptional leadership team.
Womenetics: How hard is it working with your husband? How do you divide the responsibility?
Ratra: We have found a great balance between our personal and professional lives. Our responsibilities at work are well divided based on our aggressive growth plans. We both contribute equally to the growth of the company. We do talk about work often at home; it would be difficult not to, since Akraya is our passion, like our second child, and it means so much more than a job.
Womenetics: Do you have children, and, if so, how do you manage the work hours to grow a business to this scale?
Ratra: We have an 11-year-old daughter, Ananya. We make a conscious effort to spend time together as a family every week. Friday night is movie night, when the three of us make popcorn and watch a movie together. We also take time every year to go on vacations. We like to travel to a different country each year so we can experience the culture, history, and foods of the world. These shared family vacations are some of our most treasured memories. We are fortunate enough to have been able to strike a work-life balance.
Womenetics: How did you fund your new business?
Ratra: I am very proud of the fact that we founded our business out of our own pockets without any venture capital funding.
Womenetics: What do you do to build for future growth?
Ratra: The staffing industry is a highly fragmented, very competitive industry, thus being one step ahead of the competition is crucial. We are always seeking new innovative ways to improve Akraya's services and to stay ahead of the game.
My vision for Akraya is to become a trusted and preferred source of talent solutions to Fortune 500 companies globally. There are several aspects that make Akraya stand out from among the competitors, and I would like to focus on enhancing these strengths.
From the very beginning, my plan was to become a top service provider to large businesses. I seek to continue to expand our service line besides our core IT and engineering staffing services, most recently with our creative and marketing and payroll services so we can become a one-stop solution to our clients.
Our recruiting team consists of subject-matter specialists trained in the art of recruiting thus our sourcing/filtering process is designed to be efficient, saving the client time and resources.
One area where we have invested significant resources over the years is technology. Early in our evolution, we invested in using best of breed applications for CRM and applicant tracking. For our back office functions, we built custom applications; as a result, we've grown over fivefold in number of transactions without having to grow our operations/back office team. I would like to continue investing in custom-built technologies that can keep Akraya one step ahead of the competition.
Womenetics: How have you selected your trusted advisers?
Ratra: Akraya has a large network of contacts and friends. Thus we were able to select some of our most trusted partners (our lawyer, CPA, technology support team) through the referral of our network.
Womenetics: What women-focused associations do you belong to that have helped you with your business?
Ratra: I am a member of the global committee of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council or WBENC, as well as WITI (Women in Technology International) and IBPW (Indian Business and Professional Women). I am also involved with The Institute of Economic Empowerment for Women’s Peace Through Business mentorship program.
Womenetics: How do you vet new employees?
Ratra: One important thing I consider when interviewing a candidate for a job at Akraya is how excited the candidate is about joining Akraya. We are always seeking to add people who are eager to join a close-knit corporate culture. On the other hand, we also realize that good candidates may have many jobs to choose from, thus besides determining if the candidate would be good fit for us, we also try to emphasize the benefits of working at Akraya. I realize this is a two-way street; we choose the candidate but the candidate also has to choose us.
Even though Akraya is a smaller company, the candidate goes through a series of interviews and meets representatives of each department and employees of all different levels prior to getting hired. Candidates are often surprised by the depth and length of our “Google-style” interview process; we know it is unusual to take the candidate through so many interviews, but we feel it is very important that he/she meets every department and people from all levels. This elaborate, in-depth interview process also ensures that many members of our team get to meet with the candidate and can participate in the hiring decision. The CEO and I typically reserve our opinion for last so not to influence the other interviewers.
Another important thing I follow when it comes to the hiring process is not to rush hiring for a position. Hiring in a rush can be very costly, and it’s better to not have somebody on board than to hire the wrong person.
Womenetics: Are you in touch with other Indian businesses?
Ratra: Yes, Akraya has a large and very trusted partner network that includes businesses both here in the United States and in India. In addition, I serve as the vice-chair of the Northern California Minority Supplier Development Council’s Minority Business Enterprise input committee, and in this role I also have the opportunity to mentor other Indian-owned businesses.
Womenetics: Who has most inspired you?
Ratra: My mother is my primary role model. In spite of being paralyzed from a spinal cord tumor, she raised two daughters to face the world and its hardships with a smile. She provided precious education, counseling, guidance for her family although she was completely bedridden herself. This determination and positive energy helped me through my life and inspired me to work hard toward achieving my dreams.
Womenetics: What lessons have you learned?
Ratra: One piece of advice I would give to young women professionals starting their journey toward success is to never underestimate the strength of female friendships. I wish I would have realized this earlier in my career. A close-knit group of girlfriends can become an anchor guiding you through difficult situations both professionally and personally. I think of the lessons learned from women mentors and friends as larger lessons in life. These women helped me understand the importance of building my career on my beliefs and never compromising on the values dear to me.
Womenetics: And last, do you take time for yourself and if so, what do you do?
Ratra: Like most women, I enjoy shopping, meeting with my friends for book clubs and some chitchat, spending a day in a spa relaxing, or cooking a family dinner surrounded by my loved ones. I also love to explore new countries and cuisines. I have enjoyed planning our family vacations to places like New Zealand, Spain, or Alaska and always seek to find ways to blend in with the locals so we can fully experience the culture. Besides these, I am a “neat freak.” You will most probably find me cleaning or reorganizing some area of our home in Northern California.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.