First Movers: Surabhi Pokhriyal

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SURABHI POKHRIYAL leads global eCommerce acceleration for J&J. She is a retail and consumer goods sector leader & has worked with companies like P&G, Kimberly Clark, Estée Lauder, PepsiCo etc for over 15 years. She has been instrumental as industry evangelist for eCommerce and digital marketing and brought about forward looking, disruptive and innovative solutions in the area of digital transformation. 

Why did you choose to pursue eCommerce in your career? I’d say eCommerce chose me by serendipity. I was leading digital transformation programs for a major hotel chain during my advisory career and got exposed to direct to consumer hotel website booking, consumer loyalty and brand reinvention work. But I had always been a Consumer Goods native through all my career and it made me think about the amazing headroom CPG sector has in building omnichannel relationships with the consumer. From then on it was a dominoes effect of seeking, doing and doing some more of all things digital marketing and eCommerce. The one thing that drives me to do more in the area is that literally there is no ‘perfect’ way to do it, it continuously evolves, pivots and keeps you so nimble on your toes to learn more every single day as you deliver more.

What is your biggest strength, and how have you used it for your success in eCommerce? If you allow me to state two.. I will say resilience and curiosity. For all of us in eCommerce we need daily (sometimes multiple) doses of resilience to push the need for change, need for speed, need to unlearn and learn on a continuum. And incessant curiosity comes in handy if you have a challenger mindset, as that helps you build new hypothesis, question existing assumptions in a fact based, data driven manner. But then we know data doesn’t always immediately change decisions and challenging status quo needs generous amounts of vitamin R!

What is the weirdest skill or talent to come in handy in your eCommerce experience? When I started reading as a kid I would read everything, like literally anything I could lay my hands on. So from books and newspapers to candy wrappers and product packs and everything in between. And to this date I read tops, bottoms and sideways descriptions, dates and nutrition labels etc. on packets, packages et all. That offline reading made me curious to checkout the same brands online on the retailer sites and compare and contrast brands to see what good looks like and I would go into hours of digital shelf browsing to just see what brands were upto. It helped me kick off many a large projects for several companies simply by auditing and analyzing what is out there and building business cases from there.

How have you most successfully influenced change within your organization (or with your clients)? I would like to say that I am learning and trying to practice RBG’s recommendations on this.. “Fight for the things that you care about…but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

What was your most “valuable” career failure, and why? I’d say each and every failure is extremely valuable and truly makes you reflect, re-align and evolve in a new way. Few such instances I’d say I have come across when a handful of leaders in the company may be able to see the end outcome of a new strategy but the larger teams are still either oblivious or half-interested. In those scenarios while motivation talks, outcome bias and objective thinking may help but many a times the road to execution can be super slow versus ‘your anticipated pace’ for change. In those times I have learnt that going to point A to point B may be not have the teams take the shortest path to execution and can sometimes be the long winded road to reach the same/ better outcome and it’s okay. As hard as it is to accept a pace of change that is not to your expectation it’s alright, and it comes best when the level of ‘awareness for need to change’ that comes from a larger cohort and you can be a catalyst in doing that.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior or habit has most improved your life? Five years is too long a time to reflect but in the last five months my reading, and listening especially to many business and strategy podcasts etc has increased a lot…and so has some amount of exercise and yard work. Noise cancelling headphones with good podcasts are a potent combo and has been a fantastic new habit for me personally 

What are you learning right now? Spanish! My younger one is enrolled in dual language immersion this year and has Spanish as the first language of instruction at school. Thanks to her, I am trying to get to conversational level this year, fingers crossed!

What are the 1-3 songs that would make up your career soundtrack today?

  • Eye of the Tiger by Survivor,
  • Stronger by Kelly Clarkson
  • Happy by Pharell Williams

What are the 1-3 books you’ve gifted the most or that have greatly influenced your life, and why?

  • Freakonomics by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner: My favorite book and the one I have gifted most often is Freakonomics. Economics can often by dry and not always macro level interesting if you don’t study that as a core subject. Dubner and Levitt have the gift of storytelling of everyday topics with fabulous wry insight. It’s like exploring the hidden side of plain sight thinking and challenging conventional wisdom…they study human behavior with incentives, many correlations and causations etc. I first read the book over 13 years back and now go back to Dubner’s podcasts which are equally fantastic.
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth: The power of passion and perseverance that I am trying to read with my tweenager. 

If you could have a gigantic billboard for the world to see with anything on it, what would it say, and why? This is something I heard recently and it really spoke to me..

“What you are unaware of..controls you and what you are aware of… you can influence”

What are the worst recommendations or advice you have heard related to eCommerce? “eCommerce is only a fractional percentage of our business and we are cannibalizing our in-store business by selling online …so we don’t need to focus on eCommerce as such ”…famous last words ????

What advice would you give to a future leader of change about to enter business, or specifically the eCommerce field? Stay hungry for raising the bar and stay tenacious ..for change isn’t easy and there may be reactance to go from mediocrity to excellence in elevating eCommerce. And importantly always be open for unlearning and re-inventing with growth mindset. Eventually you will not just enable to bounce back but actually leap forward the company to a better and brighter place.

What specific, industry-related change do you believe will happen that few others seem to see? The pandemic has made executives in the consumer goods sector start seeing the tremendous headroom eCommerce has ..as well as realize the fear of brands becoming irrelevant if companies don’t respond fast enough. Though I will say that while mobile first & digital first became buzz phrases in the past decade we are at the cusp of a transition into doing mobile now and digital now. For organizations that move with speed and with purpose from stating those objectives to actually living those objectives it could mean staying relevant (or not!) in the next 5 years. And in this time those that lead the change as early adopters or fast followers versus others can make or mar the existence. 

What is the last thing you bought online, and why? Battery charger for John Deere powered ride on truck for my daughter. Cos’ a girl needs to keep her truck ready to go!


First Movers is a change leader interview series featuring select industry pioneers who are boldly driving the evolution of digital commerce, the consumer and everything in between.

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