After a career spanning two decades in the corporate world, Sharn Bedi has found a sense of peace with her new company Embrace Worldwide by helping champion women and leaders for greater happiness, confidence and success.
The youngest and only daughter in a family of two elder brothers, Sharn Bedi admits to doing many things in the public eye growing up. She had a talent for dancing and took part in a lot of extra-curricular activities. She was also rebellious and eloped to get married at a very young age. “I broke norms growing up in a traditional Punjabi family.” But Bedi’s story does not end here. She would go on to eke out a successful career working with companies such a Toyota, as Asia Pacific Managing Director for DDB, an advertising and communications agency within the Omnicom Group, and as the APAC lead for WebMD, the leading healthcare portal globally.
Born in India, Bedi was nine-years old when her family immigrated to Australia. The primary school years were interesting, she recalls, adapting to school in a language she was unfamiliar with but by the end of the first year she had half forgotten her Hindi or Punjabi, languages she was fluent and brought up in. But what stands out more from memory is the protective environment she grew up in under the shadow of her two elder brothers who could get away with anything, whereas she was confined to a different set of rules. At one stage she even had a T-shirt that screamed “Anything boys can do girls can do better”.
“For some reason, Indian families place a greater responsibility on the ‘girls’ to maintain or potentially destroy ‘ghar ki izzat’ (family respect). This mindset results in a stark difference between what rules apply for a girl and a different set of rules for the boys – my brothers were allowed to go out with friends more freely, whilst I was not. They were allowed to attend parties till late at night, whilst I was not allowed – yes I rebelled and sneaked out or told lies,” she candidly admits, adding “Gender bias in the home takes away our freedom.”
At school, Bedi says she was never a topper but quite the average student but in Grade 7 she won a scholarship program. There was never a great emphasis on the need to excel in her studies. The mindset, she reflects, was for girls to be sufficiently educated for them to be good mothers and homemakers but the pressure was more for boys to perform well because at the end of the day they had to earn the bread and butter. Contrary to this, Bedi believed that “instead of waiting for others to give us the freedom, we need to give ourselves the freedom”. She realised the need to be independent and pursue a career from a young age.
But things did not fall to plan in the beginning. She fell in love and just five days short of her 20th birthday she eloped and got married. Her parents were not too pleased that she was marrying someone who did not wear a turban at a time when her cousins back in India were getting married into other communities. “I really don’t see how that is a judgement of character or a loss of character that if somebody is wearing a pug (turban) or has a belief of going to the Gurudwara every Sunday or not.”
However, getting married opened a new journey to freedom and a career path. She drew inspiration from her mother-in-law, a doctor who blended her career and home life with perfection. Still at the final year in university studying Bachelor of Business, Bedi went on to do her MBA, passed with high distinction, and soared into a corporate career which, to an extent, altered the judgement of people who wondered whether she will be successful or not.
But soon Bedi realised that in pushing herself towards success, she was harming herself more than benefiting from it. “You get to a point where you are becoming like a normal distribution curve, this is no longer optimal.”
Moving to Singapore 12 years ago was her real break. Following her husband who had relocated for work, Bedi chose not to go on a dependent visa but independently so she could challenge herself to work full time after a 2-3 year hiatus. “It was interesting and a hard one. The more fears you have in your head, the more barriers you foresee,” she recalls. At the start she got involved with business development of a medical tourism publication firm. From there she went on to spearhead a failing company in the health care sector and brought the business up from its brink. That’s when her career just took off.
“It is pro-activeness to learn and find out information yourself, the concept of the growth mindset that gave me success. I just learnt and learnt and built up the business and within a few years it was regarded as the thought leader in healthcare advertising,” says Bedi, adding, “To be quite truthful we had challenges in terms of what the product could deliver but we built it up to be the top three in healthcare and it was regarded as the top. We created the Singapore office from being nothing to being regarded as the regional hub, and for global company a regional hub is important.” When she left the company, DDB House, at the end of seven years, Bedi was a name to reckon with.
Interestingly in 2014, Bedi also dabbled in a career as host of a cooking show on television. In fact she has hosted two TV series – ‘A Kitchen Abroad’ (cooking show), and Secrets of Womanhood’ (talk show to empower women).
Being in the hospitality industry was a dream she nurtured from a young age but it was something her parents were opposed to. So when the opportunity came, she felt the universe aligned for her dream to come true. But doing the show made her realise that real satisfaction was in feeding and nurturing someone, not through the celebrity status the show garnered. “It made me realise that the core to me was developing people, I had a very core desire to give back, to develop. That was an interesting path to grow and realise.”
In a career spanning 22 years, Bedi oscillated between marketing, advertising, communications, healthcare, pharma industry and coaching. “This was the ideal path to recognise the value of people and leadership development for better business results. Over my career, developing talent and clients has always been a major driver for me. Being in a service industry such as an advertising agency, the key product retailed is people – not any other manufactured product. A key part of commercial success is Harvard’s ‘Service Profit Chain’; happy satisfied workers, lead to loyal customers and happier profits. This aligned with my personality and beliefs – laughter is the best medicine, life is meant to be lived dancing, and be positive is more than a blood group’ (yes I am B+!).”
So founding her company Embrace Worldwide 19 months ago was a natural progression of this vision and a product of her background. With her co-founder Karen See, who was also her colleague at DDB House, Bedi says, “We championed each other, how we saw our downfall, how we grew and how we learnt from the experience. We were reminiscing and said wouldn’t it be great if more women had what you and I created for each other. That was it, we realised we needed to give back. We had looked at our own stories and realised there were bits we could take from our own stories in mentoring others to realise what could be a journey to success.”
While developing the idea, the duo went searching for the evidence and came across research and scientific principles behind positive psychology and neuro science. “It was exactly aligned with what our experience had been and what we were wanting to take out to other women. So we packaged that up with the scientific proof to actually realise that is bigger than just us wanting to touch a few people. There is a solid methodology. In healthcare, there is a phenomenon known as “the placebo effect”. In research studies, some patients are given a ‘sugar pill’ as placebo instead of the actual medicine – to measure the effectiveness of the medicine vs the effectiveness of the mind and power of thinking as a cure to better health and overcome illness. What you think, you become. If you think you are having medicine to get better, you become better, even if on a sugar pill! Of course in many cases, medicine is important for recovery. But this phenomenon of the brain and power of thought to achieve results was something that intrigued my marketing/healthcare/care for people mind.”
Embrace is an acronym of all the elements that pull together to make a happy, fulfilling thriving person, explains Bedi. It is a consultancy service for organisations to help champion women leaders. “We do a lot of work with women but this is a philosophy of leadership that applies equally to both.” It conducts corporate workshops for men and women, personal coaching etc.
“Leadership is a way of being. It’s not a title and it’s the ability to lead people so they will follow and drive a common goal and common results. Even though I was in marketing and communication, my desire has always been to develop people, to champion people. I succeeded to having a zero to hero scenario because I believed in developing people. You can’t develop an organisation if you are not developing people. Marketing and communication is always about changing mindset and changing behaviours, it’s really about connecting with people to understand what needs to be developed and how to change that behaviour,” Bedi philosophises.
For many organisations, wellness programs have become an important tactic to help stressed and burnt out staff. However, wellness is not just about physical health, but also mental health. “Stress of work and the stress we create due to our own insecurities in life create unconscious biases that we harbour, affecting our success. Marketing and communications seek to find insights to drive behaviour change – this is of value to HR and organizations that get burdened with leveraging policies and processes to drive business results.
“Organisations are concerned with driving better business results through greater engagement, productivity and innovation, and fewer absenteeism and job turnover. These are traditional markers of success used by human resource (HR). HR also deploys policies and processes to reward, motivate, promote and provide flexible and safe work options. Today talent does not stay loyal to an organisation for decades, and retention of high potential talent has become a key priority. Whilst governments have issued quotas to champion more women leaders in CEO and board positions, a big challenge for organisations is retaining quality talent for succession along the leadership pipeline. Many women choose to step put out of corporate life. One reason is ‘time’ to balance life and work. As such, many flexi time and part time options have been put into place. But more needs to be done to truly promote leadership success beyond competence and diversity and inclusion success in organisations.”
Asked to measure her level of success today, Bedi reflects that though she has had the most money in her life, she wasn’t the happiest and her health was at its worst. “So there is this real thing of defining what success is. There is the stress of having a success parameter that is defined by others, society or family. You are chasing something and you ask what is my goal. So I got to that stage of I really want to give back.”
Today, success is a peace of mind and happiness, sums up Bedi. “Financial success and whether I have raised my children correctly or no, is still a mystery,” she smiles.
“I still struggle with judgment of others – it still makes me lose my confidence. But I can correct my internal self-talk to not allow those thoughts to change my behaviour or affect my results. I struggle with changing the mindset of the world fast enough – my generation, the one before me and the generation after me. I struggle when I see people face judgment and failure per society’s norms and resulting negative effect on their happiness, confidence and success.” Rest assured, Bedi has found the place of peace by helping people become happier.
By Indira Laisram