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How a Journey Around the Globe Led to Facebook India

Born and raised in a small town in Kochi, India, Ajit Mohan lived life within a two-kilometer radius of his childhood home. His school was a short walk from home. His classmates became his friends on the weekends. He didn’t leave the close-knit community until the age of 18, when he boarded an airplane for the first time and headed to Singapore for college.
Moving from a township of a few thousand people to a bustling cosmopolitan city of millions set the foundation for what would become a career defined by growth and opportunity. The move also put him on a path around the world that eventually led him back to India, where he would become responsible for overseeing all of Facebook’s efforts across its apps and technologies in one of the world’s largest countries.
In Ajit’s words: “Today, you simply cannot imagine the connections between friends and family in India without thinking about Facebook and WhatsApp. Instagram has also opened up exciting new ways for people to follow their most passionate interests. WhatsApp is the defacto app for communicating in India. It’s also creating economic opportunity for small businesses across borders. All of the Facebook apps play different roles in people’s lives, each very purposeful and highly consequential in their own way. And there’s still so much we can do.”

A rare opportunity to have life-defining impact

In 2008, after a career-exploring journey around the globe, Ajit returned to India—a country that had transformed itself in the same way an entrepreneurial mission had transformed his career. Last year, he took on his most ambitious role yet as the head of Facebook India. Ajit joined the fg-s.company because he sees “huge potential for the company to have life-defining impact for a very large number of people.”
“This is a very special time in Facebook’s history. It’s very clear we are coming off this amazing period of growth for tech companies around the world where the scrutiny has shifted to important topics like privacy and data. We are now in a period of renegotiation of the relationships between government, large tech companies, and the people we build products for around the world.”
“One example is our recent partnership announcement with the International Cricket Council (ICC), the global governing body of cricket. Facebook now has exclusive digital clip rights for the next four years for ICC events in India. It’s very exciting for Facebook, for India, and for all cricket fans. Joining Facebook was an easy decision. I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a role in the conversations that will help create new rules for the Internet while helping the company play a defining role in India’s economic and social transformation.”

Many small businesses throughout India are in a period of hypergrowth, in part because of the opportunities provided by Facebook apps and services. And people are able to connect with each other—and with the businesses they depend on—in ways that weren’t possible when Ajit was growing up in India. Today, Ajit and his team are “focused on harnessing the power of our platforms while channeling that energy to be an ally for India during a period of total transformation and economic growth.”

Leading through change

Ajit recognizes this is a time of intense media focus for tech companies like Facebook. That scrutiny was also one of the reasons he joined. Ajit says the sincerity and belief in the mission is very high within Facebook. “People here are genuinely excited about our mission. Many company missions are often lighthearted. Facebook’s is deeply felt throughout the company every day.”
When it comes to leading teams and scaling for growth, there is a strong emphasis across Facebook on designing an environment where people can be authentic. “We want to give people the power to dream up new ideas, create new products, and build community. Leaders and managers at Facebook genuinely care about the teams they’re working with. And the people who work here genuinely want to do the right thing. This is in sharp contrast to the public narrative about the company.”
Ajit thinks of his role as more of a conductor, orchestrating a team of future outstanding leaders. “You don’t need to control everything. A lot of it is nudging and creating context and room for reflection. Your job is to ask the questions that create thoughtfulness and openness. To me, that's the most effective way to manage a team of people who are extraordinarily talented and self-motivated.”
He also sees problem solving and ensuring the team stays focused on impact as key traits of a strong leader. “Problem solving is less about governance and more about focusing on tough problems that require a lot of thought. How can I challenge my team to think bigger, bolder, differently to solve challenging problems? Those are the questions that are always top of mind.”
And on impact, he adds: “When companies grow, it’s quite easy to fall back on incremental approaches that have worked in the past. But we all have to pause and ask ourselves how can we notch things up to get the next win? Where leaders can provide the most value is clearing hurdles and making sure there is enough focus on the bigger picture. All while ensuring that teams are thinking ambitiously and delivering products that have real-world impact for billions of people. This is my greatest source of inspiration every day.”

The path to Facebook and advice for future leaders

To hear Ajit’s story is to feel as though you’re on a trip around the world with him. Earlier in his career, he went through a period of meandering, as he calls it. In all, Ajit spent nearly two decades in different countries—Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the United States, and Latin America—giving him a unique front-row view of the evolution of the global technology landscape.
After college, Ajit spent five years in Singapore. His career in telecom and consulting started several years before the introduction of iPhone and Android. His experience spans advising broadband companies to being in traditional and digital media roles to consulting on policy and sustainable cities. An entrepreneur at heart, Ajit was the founding CEO of Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform. In many ways, Hotstar paved the way for traditional media companies to transform into technology companies by providing new ways for people to interact with digital content.
The idea of meandering—wandering the world and exploring different industries and disciplines to create your own path—has been fundamental to his personal and career growth. It’s also advice he gives to future leaders.
“A lot of the time we tend to over-direct our careers. That idea never worked for me. There’s enormous value in exploring different ideas, and having a steadfast belief that doors will open for you in a more meaningful way if you’re less deterministic about the specific path you take. For me, it has always been about finding my own direction and purpose. Facebook also embraces this way of thinking. The strongest leaders are multidimensional and bring a unique perspective to their teams. That is also part of what drew me to Facebook. The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of billions is what motivates me every day.”

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ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON Jan 8, 2020

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