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From Intern to Group Vice President

Raj shares his incredible journey spanning 26 years as he worked his way up from Intern to GVP and the sound advice he received along the way.

Raj Shah
Raj Shah

When & why did you start at Publicis Sapient?

I joined Sapient Corporation, as it was at the time, in August 1995.

There was no official application process, but what happened was I went to school at MIT and Sapient was based right off the campus at the time. I was part of a group of students at MIT who helped run the student software network – managing the software available to students, researching new software for new technologies on this thing called the ‘internet’. We had to make a decision to purchase some software and one we picked was this software called “Mosaic,” which was the very first web browser. One of my friends who was working at Sapient told me about an opportunity to come in and talk to engineers about web technology, due to my background and knowledge in the area.

So I put on a dress shirt, the one tie I had, and gave them a two-hour presentation about the browser and HTML. At the end of the presentation, the VP approached me to see if I was interested in an internship or working part time. I said sure. So he said great, but you’re going to need a suit and a white shirt, so let me see what hiring can do for you. He came back with the head of hiring who had an offer letter and a gift certificate in his hands so I could go get my first suit, shoes, everything! It used to be that you’d get a $250 gift card back then to help with this -- he gave me two and said, “You start Monday!”

I bought my suits, shirts, and ties and I was ready. I structured my classes so I had classes in the morning, labs in the evening, and in between, I’d go to work at Sapient and meet with clients. The first thing we sold from a web perspective was with National Geographic as we were helping them with their web design. We went on to help Wells Fargo build the first online banking capability in the United States. It wasn’t a regular three-month internship it was a ‘come in and help us build this web practice’ which started out as just two of us and grew to become 20+ people.

 

What has your journey entailed? Tell me about your career journey

I was employed officially as an ‘intern’ in 1995 and worked flexibily, similar to how we work today. I graduated in 1997 from MIT and my interview process for my full-time position was with Stuart Moore, one of the two CEOs/co-founders, who pulled me aside right before I was about to graduate and encouraged me to go and interview with everyone and anyone. He then said bring me all your offer letters and I’ll beat the best one. That’s your interview process. I know you, I know the value you bring to us but you need to know the value that you’re worth in the market. You need to know your value. He then said if you find a place that is a better fit for you than Sapient then by all means I support that. I did just that and walked into Stuart and Jerry’s [Greenberg, the other co-CEO/co-founder] office with 15 offer letters and the best one of those at the top of the pile. Jerry’s first question was ‘why is the first offer the best offer?’ and I told him it was the most money. He said are you judging the best place for you to work as the one that’s paying you the most money? I was floored by the question but told him that the company would support my career path, they have a similar culture and values to Sapient which I value and are important to me and they just happen to be paying the most. In that instance, they handed me a napkin with a better offer and had hiring present me with an offer letter except for this time they didn’t give me the gift card!

In 1998, we went all web. From 1991 to 1998 we had been primarily client-server focused but our founders realized the future of the technology world is going to be in using web technologies. So they changed the entire organization. From there on I became a technology strategist, then became a business strategist, then a client executive, to where I am today as a business lead in the organization.

Our values have evolved but been a consistent foundation. If you were to take a Publicis Sapient person today and invent a time machine and send them back 25 years, the colors would be different and on the surface, things might look different, but everything would be the same underneath. Our values work to unite our people under a common purpose and bring us together. We have changed the words over time, but the fundamentals of the values and the DNA of the company have stayed true from the beginning.

 

What has kept you at PS for this long?

FirstIy, I can see the impact of the work that I do and have done, through my career, I can point a direct line from conversations I have had, decisions I have made, code I have written, to things that have happened, projects that have launched, and new strategies. That’s pretty amazing. I can say ‘that is the impact I have had in the world’. Being able to say this is certainly part of it.

The second part is the people aspect. Not just the values, but the investment in me by my mentors and as I’ve grown, the investment as a mentor I have made into other people. You get a sense of accomplishment when someone you have invested in does great things. It doesn’t take away from the things that they did, but you feel pride in helping grow that person. That constant sense of learning, growing and helping others. I constantly feel that opportunity.

"After 25 years there is nothing unattainable for someone walking through the door now."

How would you describe your time at PS?

Anybody’s time in 25 years has ups and downs and there have been times where I’ve had to learn a few lessons. The network that I created and the people that were invested in me always saw my potential of having both the brand and the capital to acknowledge my mistakes so they always helped me to get back on my feet. That’s part of being here for 25 years. If I was an intern walking in now, I wouldn’t say that creating a network, creating a brand, and putting your hand up to achieve your goals is an unattainable goal. Most of the time there is a safety net, if you make a mistake, it’s ok, that’s how you’re going to learn. It’s going to feel uncomfortable at times, and if you’re not feeling uncomfortable you’re not growing. So you need to go out there, take a risk and trust the net. The business wants you to grow and part of that is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, not shying away from those opportunities.

After 25 years there is nothing unattainable for someone walking through the door now. Start thinking about setting goals, having conversations, building networks, and making those connections.

 

What has been your highlight?

My finest memory: I was on a project in Chicago and I picked up a copy of the New York Times. On the front page, the president of MIT commits to putting all courses online for free. One of my advisor’s names shows up in the article as someone figuring out how to make this happen. I sent him a note congratulating him and telling him to let me know if I can help at all. He writes back that it’s great but we have no idea how to do this. I write back and said, funnily enough, I work for a company that might be able to help out. So, the two of us had lunch and I introduced Sapient. It was a huge project and it spawned a relationship from 2000 to today. People from all seven continents and every country have access to the materials, access has been banned by North Korea and was restricted in China, that’s when you know you’re changing the world.

Another highlight I have, I was finishing up a project in DC and had gone to dinner with a group of new hires. I was struck by one of the women at the dinner and I found a way to stay in DC a little longer which eventually turned into six years working with government services and that woman is now my wife. So literally I’ve lived Publicis Sapient for the majority of my life, I married at Publicis Sapient, my children will probably work at Publicis Sapient, all things considered.

 

How has PS enabled you to thrive?

I don’t know if this is unique to me because of my tenure here, but I’ve never had the organization say no to me. Which is different from other organizations. I’ve always been able to sit down with my mentors, career managers, supervisors and say ‘this is what I want to do’ and what I want to do has ranged from ‘being known as the strategist guy’ to ‘traveling the world working’ to ‘I want to be a father’ and how can PS support me?

The company has fundamentally always said ok if that’s what you want to do let’s make it happen for you. And it still happens now. Whenever I sit down with someone new who joins the organization I say to them you should get a piece of paper and fold it into three columns, you should write ‘What am I good at’ in the first column, ‘what am I not good at/what demotivates me’ in the second column, and ‘what do I want to be good at/what are my goals’ in the third column. Then if you can lay this out and have this conversation with your mentors, your network, and your peers and track this over time, that’s the path to moving through the organization. That’s the advice I give to everyone for having a successful and fulfilling career.

I remember back in 2013 having a conversation with Ron Shahmah who was my boss at the time and pointing to ‘be a good dad’ on my list and saying this is important to me, you’re bringing me into your team and taking a risk but this is a priority to me right now and Ron was like ‘Ok let’s do it’. Ron is still one of the greatest influences in my career here and I try and carry this through with my teams to this day.

 

What advice would you give to new/future interns?

Right now in your career, you want to focus on your personal brand, ask yourself how do you want others to experience you, what behaviors should you set into place. University or college is a solo achiever kind of world, you may do team projects occasionally but you’re not used to being on teams as big as we are and our company is so team orientated that what you’re used to falls by the wayside. If you are an ‘individual hero’ that’s not what we want. We don’t want you to put the world on your shoulders. To transform our clients, to transform Publicis Sapient, and to transform yourself, is not an individual sport, it’s a huge team effort. So, a lot of what I talk about is around building a personal brand in the workplace, understanding what you want to be known for, and how you get to a point as teams are being built, that you move from being a role player as an intern to a crucial part of the core team. And now is the time when you lay the foundation for what your brand is.

How you create space for others is as important as how you create space for yourself and building a good brand.

Raj Shah
Raj Shah
Group Vice President
Raj has been with Publicis Sapient since 1996, starting as an intern and working his way through numerous career stages, offices, and crafts to his current position as a Managing Partner in PS’s Telco, Media and Entertainment, and Hi-Tech vertical. Married with boy-girl twins aged 8 and a 4-year old son, Raj’s downtime is spent playing Minecraft, Roblox, LEGOs and with long visits to American Girl stores. He’s told his favorite Paw Patroller is Rocky.

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