Venkat Gopalan, Chief Technology, Data & Digital Officer of Belcorp, dives deep into the company’s astonishing transformation, the technology behind it, and how this year’s pandemic has actually accelerated it.
A business that’s fully and passionately dedicated to ¨promote beauty to achieve personal fulfilment¨, Belcorp is creating something new for itself that’s not a cultural reset, per se, but a cultural reboot. The message behind this Latin American beauty corporation, which operates across 14 countries, remains the same – but it’s now better, stronger, even more deeply ingrained in each and every fiber of the business. What is, on the face of it, a digital transformation for Belcorp has actually been a full people-centric makeover from the inside-out – it just happens to have been driven by technology. With his hand on the tiller is Venkat Gopalan, Chief Technology, Data & Digital Officer for Belcorp, who stepped in 18 months ago to help push the digital plan, resulting in a hard press on the fast-forward button for the company’s development.
Gopalan has a long history of this type of transformation within retail giants like Estée Lauder, Sephora, Walmart Labs, Nike, AT&T and Target, focusing on digital transformation. He even had his own startup, before returning to the corporate world. “I was very passionate about bringing both products and services to the consumer through technology. That’s my passion. Now, as a leader, my job is to create the vision for the team, and to make sure everybody – both the technology team and business team – is successful.”
Right from the start, with Belcorp, Gopalan’s priority was the human element of business and what the consumer wants. The business had, in fact, already begun its transformation before Gopalan came on board, but the introduction of him as CTO/CDO was game-changing. He drew up his vision for Belcorp, driven by company strategy and business needs by creating a new Technology organization with clearly defined roles, technical career path, product taxonomy model and new ways of working, creating a technology strategy and roadmap with clear outcomes which included foundational capabilities and enablers like Cloud and API first approach, new UX Design system, Data platform & Advanced Analytics, Cybersecurity, Automation, new tools and processes. Even from these broad headings, it’s clear to see that Gopalan’s vision was always about creating a total corporate shift and making sure every part of the business was not only on board, but fully engaged.
Obviously, the dream that I had was that we would be the best Technology team in order to transform the business and consumers’ life. It was important to align that dream to the existing organization before honing the technological strategy. To do all of this, you need the best talent and inspiring leaders. You need different ways of working and to make sure all technology systems are performing exceptionally – you need a full ecosystem. To get started, I did a reorganization within my first 90 days and then measured the outcomes,” Gopalan explains.
The Belcorp mindset
‘The best talent’ also needs to be on the same page, especially in a business as large as Belcorp while widespread change is happening. The Belcorp Technology team is driven by eight behaviors aligned with Company values: customer centricity, the ability to embrace and drive change, transparency, founder’s mentality, data-driven decisions, being learning-obsessed, execution excellence, and diversity. This is where the change begins and ends – with the people driving that change.
“At the end of the day, any transformation is not just about technology, it’s about the culture, the mindset,” Gopalan explains. “These goals were created from a behavioral standpoint, and from there I was able to align the organization. We created OKRs within Technology, specifically three objectives and four results for each of them, to measure where we were going. We also created six KPIs to measure how we would become a high performing team, and we have a Technology dashboard to track that progress. From there, we were able to drive agility. We came up with a Belcorp Agility Index (BAI) to measure business KPIs and consumer satisfaction, faster delivery of MVP, finance and risk reduction, as well as employee engagement.”
In the last 18 months, they were able to deliver 400% more projects compared to 2018 and reduce time to market by 40%. That leap in agility is no surprise, given the depth of change Gopalan has created. In a year marred by a pandemic that nobody could have predicted, one that has shaken our lives to their core and sent many businesses to their knees, the changes implemented at Belcorp have meant that the business has not simply survived, but thrived and grown. In fact, Belcorp has continued to on-board new people and introduce technology as a viable career path to newcomers.
“In Technology, there was only one career path and we needed to create a technical career path,” Gopalan explains. “You can have software engineers, architects, Data scientists etc. and Belcorp is a pioneer in Latin America for creating these paths for our employees. We want staff to really own their careers – it’s important, in terms of retention and satisfaction. So, nine job families were created in different levels, and we moved 50% of our employees to the technical career path.”
Due to COVID-19, all on-boarding this year had to be digital – fortunately, Belcorp was already prepared for this, thanks to the groundwork laid down by the Technology team. Before, on-boarding a new employee took several weeks – now, it takes less than a week. Gopalan is passionate about self-learning, and not only does the new-and-improved on-boarding process give new staff an increased sense of ownership, but their learning doesn’t stop there.
“I focus heavily on a continuous learning mindset,” he says. “Technology changes so fast, and it’s important that the organization learns. So, I expanded the Belcorp learning ecosystem, which covers everything employees can learn about technology. We have a partnership with Udemy and LinkedIn for the technical courses and soft skills, we have workshops, and we used to do meetups before the pandemic. We also have an Agile Academy and a Data Academy – there’s a lot of different formats for learning. Before COVID-19, we even had pizza nights where we used to bring in entrepreneurs to talk about their journeys in a casual environment.” Gopalan also instituted the Tech Awards, which rightly celebrate employees and ensure they feel recognized for their hard work and what they’ve learned.
Radical candor in leadership
So, once all of this incredible talent is in place, who leads? Leadership is another vitally important element of Gopalan’s vision; he’s all about leadership development, and what he calls ‘radical candor’, which focuses on having the mindset and framework to enable transparency and honest feedback between managers and staff. “Leaders must care for the employees personally, but also challenge them directly and give honest feedback,” says Gopalan. “Thanks to our strategy of having the best talent, and managing that talent in a successful way, there’s then a life-cycle in place. I did several workshops on talent management with our leaders, and shared my personal leadership philosophy within the team, inviting them to create their own.”
With the right talent and the right leaders in position, Gopalan then shifted his focus to look closely at the vendors to ensure Belcorp was partnering with truly best-in-class organizations. Before he joined the team, Belcorp had to limit itself to what was available within Latin America, but now is working across the globe. “This is actually thanks to COVID,” Gopalan says. “Initially, a lot of vendors insisted on face-to-face communication, but when remote working became a necessity, they broadened their business.” Belcorp worked with Valtech to bring best-in-class experience to their e-commerce and virtual store. They also partnered with Perfect Corp to bring AI/Augmented Reality tools like Virtual Make up/Try on to their consumers, and this especially helped during lockdowns. Companies like Valtech, Inetum, Pyxis, Globant, SAP, Tismart, Altimea and Zoluxiones are key partners in Belcorp’s Digital Transformation. These strategic partnerships bring specialized technology expertise into the corporation, allowing it to continue along its digital transformation journey.
Working with the best has allowed Belcorp to move its workloads to the cloud; 93% of products/workload is on cloud, and by June 2021, it will be 100%. In fact, Belcorp is the largest consumer of cloud in Latin America for Amazon Web Services. “This enables the speed, agility and advantages of innovation that we require. From a digital transformation standpoint, this is a very important enabler for us.” Moving to the cloud has been just one part of modernizing Belcorp’s entire infrastructure – it has also rolled out DevOps using SRE and performs world-class monitoring of its platforms to provide high availability and high resiliency across the board.
And the relationship with vendors doesn’t end with simply integrating their services – Belcorp considers itself a true business partner, with these relationships being a two-way street. “We work very, very closely with our vendors as thought leaders, to drive technology,” says Gopalan. “One of the things we have rolled out is a collaboration tools for the business. During COVID, it has helped us work remotely and communicate across the organization. Plus, we have a vendor management strategy in place to always keep an eye on our relationships, and we’ve developed our roadmap management in terms of how we, strategically, make changes in a flexible and agile way, based on market conditions and business needs. It’s very important for us to move from a siloed mentality to a more cross-functional way of working.”
Testing the waters
With how quickly and efficiently the various changes across Belcorp have been rolled out, you might think there was no room for experimentation in the process – but actually, experimenting along the way proved key to the continued success of Gopalan’s vision. As Belcorp moved into a far more digital sphere, it was difficult to know what the consumer would want. “If anybody says they truly know the consumer, they must be the richest person in the world!” Gopalan jokes. “Understanding those needs meant a lot of experiments, and moving into an experimental mindset requires new tools, processes and a fresh mindset.”
Advanced data analytics, AI, business enablement tools – these are all just a few of the elements Belcorp has delved into over the past year to give the consumer what they need, along with automation of manual processes which has eliminated close to 1,600 hours of manual processing per month. More processes will be automated in 2021, streamlining the business even further. The sheer volume of projects being developed in the background, while Belcorp continues to improve itself at every level, is incredible. They were able to deliver 400% more projects compared to 2018 and reduce time to market by 40% by improving deployment frequency, lead time for changes, MTTR and change failure rate. “The transformation has been amazing between 2018 and 2020, and 2021 and 2022 will be even greater in terms of not only delivering projects, but the value of the outcomes across the business,” says Gopalan.
At the core of Belcorp, connecting digital transformation, the relationship with consumers, improved leadership, and career progression for employees, is unity. Gopalan is utterly dedicated to the idea of professional togetherness, in a way that goes far beyond the broad range of training and learning offered to staff. From the Tech Awards, to Tech Day – which this year was all about the consumer journey so that Belcorp employees could better understand the end-user – to Data Day, which promotes data culture, to pre-COVID physical meetups, to large-scale video catch-ups, team spirit is a must in Gopalan’s vision of Belcorp.
“And, obviously, we want to have fun,” Gopalan adds. Last year we had a costume contest on Halloween, as well as a Comic-Con-style event. I’m a strong believer in leading by example. I dressed up as the Mad Hatter with full make up for our Halloween contest. This year, we did a remote costume contest for Halloween, and we’ve had dress-up video meetings with everybody joining in. We even had a talent show! I wanted to create better integration, and for everyone to have fun. People really, really enjoy this.”
“For me, as a leader, the last eight months have been challenging because everybody’s working longer hours; since we’re all remote, our people are managing their home lives, sharing bandwidth with family and making other sacrifices as they’re adapting to the new ways of working, and that’s why I didn’t want to stop having spaces where employees can be virtually together, share, learn and have fun. This kind of thing is important; people have been under tremendous stress.”
Adapting to the consumer’s new normal
All of this begs the question: what exactly was Belcorp like before Gopalan joined? Why was the sheer volume of change necessary? “Consumer needs are changing, and customers are demanding more,” explains Gopalan. “And, as Latin America is becoming more digitally-savvy, the consumer is looking for things on an immediate basis, and that means businesses need to be available. As well as that, our independent beauty consultants had to be reframed as influencers to keep up with the trends, and we also had to get into a position where Belcorp could handle COVID-like situations. Hopefully we won’t experience another pandemic in our lifetime, but the ability to weather a disruptive event is necessary for future-proofing.” It’s difficult to imagine how the business might have coped with the pandemic before Gopalan pushed its transformation into hyper-speed.
Part of this new-and-improved flexibility had to involve the business pivoting to handle new needs – after all, when the world went into lockdown, people who previously wore makeup to work every day were probably no longer doing so, meaning they didn’t need to stock up in the same way that they might have before. This could have been a serious blow for a beauty business like Belcorp; instead, it moved quickly to launch a branded hand sanitizer – a real essential in The New Normal – and observed increased demand in other product markets, such as skincare, adapting to those as necessary. “Through our consultants and various digital channels, we’ve been able to keep in close communication with our consumers,” says Gopalan. “We want to be a fully digital business and this year has been the start of that journey. 2021 is going to be pivotal for that path.”
The aforementioned consultants are the main beneficiaries of Belcorp’s desire to empower women. The purpose of Belcorp is to promote beauty to achieve personal fulfilment – it aims to enable woman entrepreneurs to manage their own businesses, developing a diverse range of skills in a way that suits their lifestyle. “We’ve done that successfully for more than 50 years,” says Gopalan. “It used to be that they’d go door-to-door direct selling, which left them restricted by geographical boundaries; now, with the digital tools we’ve created, they can reach out to customers wherever they might be. We’re rolling out more tools next year to improve this even further, and we’re bringing in a new profile, which we call the Beauty Community Manager. This will help the consultant be more of a beauty advisor and influencer and build a stronger relationship with their customers to create loyalty.”
Opportunity in crisis
Gopalan is, rightly so, incredibly proud of what has been achieved during a year which could have been incredibly difficult, and has been for many. “There’s been amazing collaboration and alignment across the board, resiliency, leadership, and putting employees first, overall. We were even one of the first companies to start working from home, because we wanted to protect our staff. People will always come first. Also, mindset change has been a very important aspect of this entire journey, and the next two years are going to be critical in how we accelerate things. Nobody knows the future, but the right mindset makes all the difference. To my mind, every crisis is an opportunity; Belcorp has proven that.”