Do the circumstances of your birth dictate your trajectory in life? If that were the case, Kanchana Gupta would probably not have ended up as a consultant, nor would she now be in Singapore, double-hatting as an artist and the founder of female-centric mentorship platform vLookUp.Ai.
You see, Kanchana is the second in a family of five daughters and one son from a very small town in India, where her family’s only expectation was that she’d get married. If not for the incredible foresight of her “kickass” mother, who moved her five daughters to a nearby town to send them to school, her life might have been very different today.
“I come from a lower middle-class family,” explains Kanchana. “I was good at studies, but my parents didn’t have money. So I started making my own money when I was 14. I would give tuitions and would also do embroideries on bedsheets and saris.”
She adds, “The society I grew up in expected me to get married by 20. But my mother and my father said no. My mother is my biggest role model. She is one hell of a woman. She fought for me.”
Kanchana saved up enough money to pursue an MBA in a town called Ranchi in India and eventually scored a job in Mumbai.
Like most “small-city girls”, Mumbai intimidated her. “I was not at all a confident girl. I was a very different person back then and was always inhibited by the fact that I came from a small town and by the fact that I didn’t go to an English-medium school. I was very good at what I did, I was well-read and used to study a lot of literature. But I think at that time, the small-town girls always carried a little bit of this inferiority complex.”
Nevertheless, she proved herself as one of the top performers, and ended up excelling at every job she undertook. This success built up her confidence and saw her quickly climb the career ladder – she would eventually take on leadership roles at Accenture and subsequently Telstra. She moved to Singapore 18 years ago with her husband, continuing to build her career here. She joined the NCS Group as global resource management lead in 2021.
Mid-way through her journey, she decided to take a break and pursue her passion for art, enrolling at the Lasalle College of Arts. Today, the celebrated artist is represented by international gallery Sullivan+Strumpf.
Mind over matter
A turning point occurred in her life in June 2020, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45.
Kanchana showed the same resolve that she’d had throughout her life, facing this challenge with unwavering solidity and strength.
Instead of wallowing in “why me”, she instead found herself asking: “Is this my life? Will my life end like this? And I refused to accept that, and I said no, [my life] will not [end like this]. Then, of course, I started thinking that my life has been good: I have loved, I have been loved. I have built a career, I have supported my family, I have [supported] my parents. I have beautiful children. I have done everything – but this is all for me. You know, certain things have bothered me throughout my life, but what have I done about them?”
Going through this brutal exercise germinated the idea of vLookUp.Ai, a mentorship platform that connects women to successful leaders. In August 2021, vLookUp.Ai was launched with 10 mentors and nine mentees. Today, the platform has over 170 mentors and 350 mentees across 12 countries and 210 organisations.
One of the main drivers for this platform was Kanchana’s own experience in the corporate sector in India, where she noticed that she was excluded from the different cliques that were formed based on the schools her colleagues had gone to.
“When I was in corporate, I met people from all the elite business schools, but because access was limited, I didn’t fit in any of their groups. I just felt like education should break these barriers and there should not be barriers of ‘us versus them’. It should not be, ‘We went to the same college so I’ll give you more access, or you will have more privilege to know about these opportunities or networks.’ I observed that phenomenon, and I also found supportive mentors that allowed me to break those barriers.”
This is why vLookUp.Ai is free to use. The company has also partnered with polytechnics in Singapore to connect young graduates with leaders they admire.
“The idea is to attract the right mentors, and to make the whole experience very seamless, including finding a mentor, communicating with one another, and even keeping in touch when the mentorship is over.
“When I thought of the other girls like me 25 years ago, they might not have the courage to reach out to [mentors] like I did. At that time, I couldn’t have solved that issue as digital platforms didn’t expect. So during my entire chemotherapy, I was researching for vLookUp.Ai. As soon as the treatment was over, my concept was ready.”
How did she manage the pain and exhaustion from chemo and juggle her work on VLookUp? “Physically I was very exhausted. But I also realised that it’s a lot about mind too. I think you feel more drained if your mind feels defeated. But if your mind says that, yeah, this will pass, then yes, it will pass. I continued making paintings during that period in a very limited way. I truly realised the power of mind, and the power of spirituality, meditation, and acceptance. It became much easier once I accepted [my diagnosis]and stopped asking why.”
This August, the platform celebrated its two-year anniversary. The technology simply serves the idea, and Kanchana’s ambition is to “create this global community beyond the barriers of organisation, country, school. How can we democratise [access]? How can we give access to every woman who’s looking for a mentor?”
Kanchana herself has benefitted her own mentors she’s has throughout her career. One of the most influential figures in her life has been AWS’ director of HR Lynne Barry, whom she met when they were at Telstra together.
In fact, she’s the one who encouraged Kanchana to take a sabbatical and pursue her passion for art. Having had no prior experience, she took on a class at NAFA to create her portfolio, and then joined LaSalle College of the Arts for a diploma in 2008.
“She has been the most influential mentor in my life. She gave me the confidence to take risks. She stood by me she said, you go and do it. I’ll give you the courage. She really gave me the courage to go out of my comfort zone and perform and blossom, and even take risk and join an art school. She gave me the sabbatical to do that. And I truly realised the importance of having supportive mentors.”