(Re)Searching For The Best Path Forward
From a research intern to Gojek's Senior VP & Global Head of Research & Insights, Sunita Venkataraman talks about leading the team that champions the voice of the customer.
By Pamela Chan
Travel has never been a foreign concept for Sunita Venkataraman. With a father who worked as a government official in India, Sunita grew up calling cities like Cochin, Calcutta, and Delhi home. The moves posed some difficulties in maintaining long-lasting friendships, but they cultivated in her a strong ability to adapt to each new city, school, language, and culture with increasing ease. “I see myself as a global citizen,” she says, “so, I don’t particularly feel like I belong in one place and not in another.”
Her nomadic childhood well equipped Sunita for her international career ahead. She attained a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Delhi, but it was her MBA program at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad that got her interested in market research. She explains,
“Strategy, per se, can be pretty dry with all the analyses and numbers. Market research married this with real human behavior — what they want and how they behave. To me, it’s a great confluence.”
After business school, Sunita landed her first job at a research agency in Delhi where she dove straight into the then-emerging field of market research. She furthered her career at an agency in Singapore in the mid-90s where she was subsequently relocated to Chicago, USA. However, as a single mother to a young daughter commuting two hours to work each way, and with the aftermath of 9/11 severely hampering the job market, Sunita decided to move back to Asia after four years stateside. For the next 17 years, she would climb the corporate ranks in the American technology company Intel, ending as their Global Head of Insights & Analytics based in Santa Clara, California.
When Gojek is Etched in Your Stars
At Intel, Sunita oversaw marketing for Southeast Asia. Her role necessitated frequent trips to Jakarta where she witnessed the beginnings of Gojek. In 2015, on a trip to visit her sister in the Philippines, Sunita happened to meet one of Gojek’s co-founders at a social event. “Then life went on and I stopped traveling to Indonesia as I moved on to a different role at Intel,” she explains.
By the time a Gojek recruiter reached out to her about an opening in 2019, Sunita was already well-aware of the company and the traction it had gained since her travels to Jakarta.
“When I read the job description, it was almost as if someone who knew me wrote it for me,” she recalled, “I fit this role a hundred percent.”
The gains of this new position were manifold. Along with being closer to her family in India, Sunita was ready to be a part of the blitzscaling internet economy after years of working in the hardware industry. A proponent of the market research industry evolving with the times, she was eager to work closely with first-party data and to marry consumer insights and behavior with the driving forces of these behaviors. “So, when the Gojek offer came, I felt a sense of pride in a company from my region that had, in such a short time, made such a huge impact. I had no doubts about joining Gojek,” she relates.
Couriers of Consumer Centricity
Bidding farewell to nearly two decades at Intel and the golden state of California, Sunita joined the GoTroop family in May 2020. As our Senior VP & Group Head of Research & Insights (R&I), she oversees a centralized function that brings the voice of the customer — the consumers, driver-partners, and merchant-partners of our ecosystem — into our business, product, and marketing decisions. Sunita ensures this voice is built into these decisions.
The R&I division consists of a group of product and platform researchers who are embedded in their respective business teams, as well as a central team that works across products. The central team provides research best practices and methodologies to the embedded teams and has cross-product functions such as brand tracking, customer satisfaction, and market & competitive intelligence.
Collectively, the R&I function provides the necessary insights and customer empathy that navigate the company’s way forward. Their work involves a combination of customer and user surveys, as well as analyses of secondary research, third-party data, and social media, among others. Additionally, the research industry has seen significant advancements in the past decade, integrating sophisticated AI/ML models and predictive analytics and marrying those with deep ethnographic research. Thus, the team has a plethora of data sources to dive into in order to provide strategic and tactical insights to scale the business. Sunita notes,
“The exciting part of our job is pulling all of this together, not treating each of these as independent pieces of information, but stringing it all together to tell a story, address a problem, and make a decision — all the while keeping the consumer at the heart of it.”
One of the most intellectually challenging aspects the team faces, however, is interpreting the information collected. “The answers we gather aren’t always black and white, so they can be spun in different ways,” Sunita describes.
To counter various biases that could creep into analyses and interpretation, Sunita encourages her team to triangulate and synthesize their various data sources. “One of my philosophies in research is to never rely on just one piece of data,” she reveals. Utilizing data from various sources helps analyze the problem through different lenses, providing recommendations that are more actionable and better evaluated.
Insights on the Road Ahead
Focused on growing Gojek’s users in 2021, the R&I team has now entered their next phase of working towards profitable, sustainable growth for the year ahead. One project of particular excitement is creating a customer loyalty program across all GoTo entities which will marry questions like ‘Who are our most valuable customers?’ with ‘What benefits would be most exciting?’. “I’ve never worked on a loyalty program on this scale before, so I’m excited about this,” Sunita remarks.
Furthermore, Sunita is actively building the capability of future thinking into her team’s research strategy and operations: “It’s not good enough being great for today. I have to think about how this function will evolve and how I can create the world’s best market research team,” she states. Instead of utilizing survey results merely to understand what happened yesterday, she pushes their research findings even further, exploring scenario planning to aid in more strategic decisions.
“This is what I appreciate about working at Gojek — the full autonomy to help shape one of the fastest-growing industries alongside world-class talent, all to impact the livelihoods of millions across the region,” she says.
Though her physical surroundings have shifted through the years, Sunita’s determination, curiosity, adaptability, and devotion to her craft have remained constant. Her decades of relentless commitment to the R&I field took her from interviewing respondents and crunching data as a market research intern to influencing the trajectory of an entire business today. Like ground control advising a plane on which route to take, we’re grateful to have Sunita and her team navigating our way forward at Gojek.
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