The founder and CEO of Speakin and author of 101 Lessons To Be A Damn Good Speaker! on making mistakes, seeking support and staying true to yourself

When Singapore-based entrepreneur Deepshikha Kumar and her team decided to track the words ‘speaker’, ‘consultant’ and ‘thought leader’ on LinkedIn they were surprised at what they discovered. “Nearly 300 people add those words to their profile on a daily basis. But you can't become an expert overnight,” says Kumar. “There’s way too much noise building up out there.” Since she founded her startup Speakin four years ago in India, she has been sifting through the noise to find credible mentors and experts who can help to coach others. Today, her company has emerged as Asia’s largest digital platform for professional learning covering several hundred topics including entrepreneurship, public speaking and motivation.

Kumar herself has been widely celebrated as a pioneering female entrepreneur in the region. She has received numerous accolades ranging from Indian newspaper The Economic Times’s Most Promising Women Leaders award in 2021 to the Asia Women Icon Award, which she took home in 2017 and 2019 in Singapore. Last year, she also published a book titled 101 Lessons To Be A Damn Good Speaker! sharing strategies for public speaking.

It’s no surprise that Speakin counts the likes of Accenture, BCG and Shell among other major corporations as its clients who sign their employees up to receive one-on-one mentoring or participate in group sessions. “The idea was to provide learning from the best people that are out there,” says Kumar, who adds that the platform also has a blog, e-learning content, live sessions and podcasts. “In India there’s a saying: ‘The son of a king becomes a king’, but I believe he becomes a king not by virtue of being born in the [right] family but because he has observed what his father has done all his life. That’s what I wanted to bring in.”

Unlike tedious group training sessions that HR heads often have to coerce people to attend online, Speakin takes a more personalised approach and offers a chance to receive one-on-one coaching from fascinating individuals who you may normally not be able to access. After taking a psychometric assessment and inputting your goals, platform users can be matched with mentors ranging from TV personality and businessman Daymon John from the show Shark Tank to Bear Grylls, a former British special forces soldier and survival instructor. To become an accredited mentor on Speakin is not an easy task. At the minimum, it requires having an impressive CV and several years of experience. As many as seven out of ten people who apply are rejected.

Kumar says that experienced mentors have played a critical role in her life. “I have had many. I get stuck all the time. I'm not intelligent, I'm just resourceful,” she says candidly. “That’s why I always recommend women go out, talk and find their support.” Among her earliest mentors were her parents. She grew up watching her mother contribute equally to finances in the home which was inspiring. Her father also played an instrumental role in laying a foundation for her public speaking skills. From a young age, he would ask her to sit and read books and magazines aloud and give her pocket money to motivate her. “Then, in the early '90s, when we started getting English-language movies in India, he would ask me to read out all the names when the credits would roll at the end,” she says, explaining that he was eager for her to master English.

Later when Kumar was about 16, she recalls her car broke down in the middle of a busy road so she got on her knees and started changing the tyre. “This was 22 years ago but I still remember, cars were stopping and people thought what is happening? A woman is changing a tyre?” she says with a laugh. “But my dad just said ‘Do it, it’s normal. Why do you need anyone else to do it for you?'” While it may sound insignificant, these early experiences were pivotal in building Kumar's self-confidence.

She would go on to become a successful management consultant working for Ernst & Young. But after more than a decade in the field, Kumar decided to strike out on her own. She noticed that the field of professional learning suddenly exploded around 2015. “There was a boom around LinkedIn and there was an emergence of influencers and thought leaders on various platforms. That became a big part of shaping Speakin. We realised that it’s important to curate this emerging sea of experts,” she says. “So I entered the ocean, and I was one of the small fish moving around, but then I told myself: even if it's a puddle, I need to have something of my own.”

Fast forward to present and Speakin is anything but a small puddle. Kumar expanded operations by moving to Singapore earlier this year. Now she can barely keep up with the number of new mentors and experts joining the platform and her client list is growing. “Covid has been very good for us. It has made the world borderless. Also the appetite of people to learn from across different cultures and countries is there now,” she says.

How is she juggling family life, raising two daughters and running a demanding start-up? She admits it hasn’t been easy but her husband and parents have been a huge help. “I think for women especially, we naturally have grit somewhere in us, you just keep at it,” she says. “Once you show results, I think everything will fall in place … make your mistakes but cultivate a support structure around you; it’s super critical for you to move forward.”

While Speakin isn’t focused primarily on mentoring women, Kumar says she has worked with many organisations whose leaders are waking up to the need to focus on females. “What organisations have realised is that oftentimes women lack the ability or the motive to speak out. Even if they're right, the probability of a man holding his hand up versus a woman is much higher,” she says. “Therefore we need to train our women to speak up and that it's okay to not know [everything]. It is okay to look slightly foolish at times. But take that risk.”

She says she gives the same advice to women when it comes to public speaking. “I think as women, we need to let our inhibitions go. That's number one. It's okay to not look perfect all the time,” she says. “I've seen all kinds of people do well on stage and there is only one common factor: they are themselves, they're not playing anyone else. You need to be comfortable with who you are.”

In many senses Kumar embodies this confidence and candidness. She shrugs off any challenges that may have arisen as a result of being female entrepreneur. “I have never lived my life like a woman in a professional setting. I've just walked in as a professional,” she says. “A lot of how the world perceives you is out of your control. Right? But you do your best. You walk into that meeting, that conversation, that relationship with your best self. You make sure you’re the most hardworking and most content-driven person at the table. That's all. The rest will take care of itself.”

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