Harsha Shivdasani

Operations Director @ Hosts International | London, UK

How did you start out?

I suppose I really started out with a quest to come to the United Kingdom and start my life when I was 16. I had a long association in mind and spirit with all things English from an early age, having been educated at a convent school in Sri Lanka where I was Head Girl for many years. I would dream of Jane Eyre, men in bowler hats and Enid Blyton! I must say that as much as it was a dream come true when I moved to London, it was also one of my first disappointments and set backs!

Leaving family, friends and home comforts behind, setting off all by my little self with limited means. My first job (cliché! You won’t believe it!) was working at McDonalds doing the graveyard shift! I soon moved on to working at a university students union in catering and was thrilled to win employee of the year within the first year. It may not seem a lot but for someone who hadn’t worked or faced much hardship, feeding some 3,000 hungry and cash strapped students at lunchtime in the bar/restaurant, was no mean feat! I wasn’t expecting to peel potatoes when I started out!

I do believe this was one of the best experiences I’ve had and it’s held me in good stead since when I joined Hosts International, first to visit host families from an international students perspective having lived various host families for a number of years and now as Operations Director.

What helped you get as far as you have?

A need to work in a nutshell. My workaholic tendencies have paid off! Sheer determination to succeed I think, against all odds. Odds of being young in business, being Asian/brown and being a woman! Triple whammy. Perhaps in the early days these things didn’t seem like obstacles but it was apparent that I was being judged based on these and also on looks. I do think looks matter, image is everything so that was not necessarily a bad thing. To get far in life, in career, one has to care above all else.

I dislike the saying ‘don’t take things personally’, I think it’s good to take things personally as it just means you are human and you care about what you do. I am emotional and am certain this is one of the qualities that has got me this far, that I care - about the people I work with, our partners, family, friends. My biggest fear would be one day to be brain dead, there is never a dull moment in what I do, working with people mainly directly or indirectly, service makes me tick. Good service that is!

If you could give one piece of advice to your 21 year old self, what would it be?

To be less shy, be more forward, self doubt less, be more confident. I suppose I would still tell my almost 40 year old self this! I have never been hugely social, I am private and not extrovert, I am shy and get awkward easily especially if I am not discussing work; which is a topic I am not shy and am very confident in!

In many ways I have had to teach myself these qualities and it is through working with our partners and the diverse range of cultures and nationalities that I have learnt so much about myself and the qualities needed to succeed.

Can you tell us about a particular low point in your life/and or career and how you overcame it?

Life and work is so closely knitted together than generally when one happens, the other follows suit. When I moved to London, within a year of starting my career, my father passed away some 5000 miles away. I recall getting the call at 5am when I woke and rang in to work to plan and flew out for a few days with laptop in tow. Many say I was ‘not normal’ but having work and something to divert and keep me focused kept me going. I recall planning the funeral like a work project and a military campaign!

Anyone successful, on the top of the tree, will tell you that you have to have many falls before you are able to climb up and get to the top! However, people never cease to amaze me; not everyone wishes you well. This was a revelation! As I was climbing the career ladder, there were many innuendos about looks, age, personality that I had ‘used; to get to where I am. At first I was most upset by so called well-wishers dropping me right in it, but very sad that I was not being judged on merit, on ability but people very easily pass judgement, probably out of their own insecurities and jealousy. I suppose it just made me want to work harder!

I am not a quitter, I remember spending hours and days and months perfecting my many roles in the school plays as a child aged 5 to 10 when I was starring in 10 out of 12 events that were happening at school. Now that I’m all grown up, I find it amazing how quickly people quit! Hard work, work ethic, loyalty in business seems to be a thing of the past. I don’t believe in throwing in the towel, I am the eternal optimist, I don’t see people’s bad intent so am shocked by it regularly!

There is a crazy man at Oxford Circus who I see, or rather hear, on my way to work each day screaming ‘be winner not a sinner’, I have been preaching it ever since!

How would you describe yourself in one word?

Determined

How old were you when you had your first paying job, and what was it?

At the age of 12 teaching English to and mentoring the younger primary students. I also started my ‘business’ wrapping gifts and making hampers for the very rich, much like a personal shopper, when I was 14. I was thrilled that it took off and was one wealthy 14-year old!

I have always been a saver and am absolutely of the thought, never a lender or a borrower be. So I had to get paying jobs early on as I would not even ask my folks for money!

What do you do to keep yourself centred?

I work daily, on the “shop floor” and do the work - if you know what I mean. I’m very hands on or a control freak as some may call it! I don’t believe anything in life is ‘free’ so I remind myself of this and not take things for granted.

Since having a baby, I think this has centred me too and put life into perspective. I was all work and no play a lot of the time, but I have been trying to find more of a work life balance now, having never been maternal, I’ve been told I have mellowed from being a tough cookie into a softie… I must be losing my edge ;)

What is your favourite quote?

It aint’ what you do it’s the way that you do it! – Bananarama. Honestly, take a minute, play the record, all the lyrics are ace.

What would the closest person in your life say if I asked them, 'What is the one characteristic that they totally love about you, and the one that drives them insane?''

My husband, the sorcerer. I’m sure he’d say stubborn or determined, same thing I say! He says quite openly that I’m a pain as my sheer ability to ‘go on’ until things get done (i.e. nag!). I hate hate hate having to ask anyone to do something more than once. I think it’s just pure idleness if anyone doesn’t.

This makes me a pain in the backside but without this, perhaps we, Hosts International, the company would not have a reputation of quality, service and the ability to say Yes and get things done.

What would your superpower be?

Time manipulation I think. Then I can savour my breakfast, have no deadlines and prolong mini breaks.

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