“I was born in Calcutta but didn’t stay there for long. My mother is a philosopher, and my father is an engineer, so we moved a lot as they taught at different universities. We relocated to Stuttgart when I was three, where I became fluent in German. Then we returned to India when I was four; and when I was five, we immigrated to the US. Of all places, I grew up in Utah.”
Mala’s parents had already done their master’s degrees in Seattle, so America was not new for them. But, for Mala, living in the Rocky Mountains was a fascinating new world.
“Despite any racism that I may have experienced, my recollections of my youth are delightfully carefree. What I cherish are the family hikes and the wonderful friendships in the university's international housing. Children have a way of knowing that they are not responsible for the burden of someone else's ignorance, so long as they have a strong core foundation of self-worth.
Mala says she was fortunate to have this reinforced by her parents, who have taught her many things in life but not ever what her limits are.
"I had a great childhood. I am an only child, but I never felt lonely. I have lots of cousins and I'm always surrounded by a super tight-knit family. In India, we don't have a word for 'cousin' that is not brother and sister. That's how I saw my world."
“Moving so often has been such a delight and a privilege; it’s such a natural part of my life that it never occurred to me I couldn’t take my relationships with me.”
Mala’s family returned to India when she was 12. She graduated from high school in Rajasthan where her mother was teaching.
“We then moved closer to Calcutta, as my parents began working at the Indian Institute of Technology. I then moved to southern India with the intention of starting medical school.”
Mala was born into academia and research appeared to be her life’s path.
“My family’s ‘family business’ is getting PhDs. For a very long time it wasn’t a question of if I would get a PhD, but more of in what my PhD would be. Education is one of the most important things for people with an Indian background. With his dying breath, my grandfather corrected the nurse who mentioned he had a PhD: ‘Two,’ he said. ‘I have two’.”
After finishing college, Mala was invited into the doctoral program at Dartmouth.
“Everything was all lined up. I was this golden child who received an early track into getting a PhD at an Ivy League university. I was on the safest of safe tracks. Plus, I was set to study cancer immunology: something about which I was genuinely passionate. It should have been right; it should have been where I belonged. But if I don’t make a dent in someone’s life, then I feel as though I’m not doing enough.”
“There are so many fascinating fields and technologies, yet I had to ask myself If I could not somehow make a tangible impact somewhere else. It’s so hard for me to walk away from a problem though, which is why cancer research appealed to me.”
It took Mala four and a half years to realize that she didn’t belong in a lab.
“I loved being on the bleeding edge of technology. I loved walking through the children’s cancer ward and feeling my purpose seeping in with every step. Then I would get into the elevator and just wonder: Why am I even here?”
“There are phenomenal people doing phenomenal work, but I didn’t know how I fit in. All I saw were a sea of pipettes and plastic tubes, and I didn’t understand how I could I make a change. That lived with me for a long time because there’s always the sense of not wanting to disappoint this long legacy of people who have pursued with such integrity and passion. And I hate quitting. I always equated quitting with failing. That was perhaps one of my earliest lessons.”
When Mala was 12, she would read the financial section of the newspaper, swapping the names of CEOs with her own. She always loved creating and building.
“Letting go of that PhD enabled me to explore that space for myself. After moving from Hanover to Philadelphia, I did some consulting together with the Life Science Consulting Group at Wharton Business School. I worked with people on a team, which was exactly what I needed to break out of my shell.”
Mala then started thinking about business school. At that time, her mother was teaching at Lund University in Sweden, and her father was at the Åbo Academy in Finland. Mala says choosing to move to Scandinavia was not a difficult one.
“I did a little Google Maps Street View and asked myself: Can I see myself walking down the streets of Stockholm and do I feel happy with what I see?”
Indeed, she did. Mala continues to walk down those exact streets with her husband, with her child, with her parents ... and it still feels perfect.
“I am often asked how it feels to be away from or to go home to India. I guess it’s because I look Indian that people assume India is supposed to be home for me. But it’s never felt that way. In fact, none of the places that I ever lived in, have ever really defined the word home in its entirety. I see home as a really big house with many rooms: one of those rooms is in India; one of those rooms is in Germany; one of those rooms is in the United States; and perhaps the biggest room of all is right here in Sweden. I happen to go from room to room, but I’m still always home.”
Mala Valroy does not mince her words. Each thought is formed and adorned with images like gemstones, handpicked from a tray of jewels.
“Sweden is the first place where I have actually chosen to stay. I love to travel, and I feel like I need to leave so that I can always come back here. One of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had was traveling with my father to Brazil. I’ve worked in Colombia and in Myanmar. I loved those experiences, but I’ve really loved coming back home. I can go to the far edges of the earth ... and then I see Stockholm. As I’m coming over that water, I suddenly see a sunrise or a sunset, and I know that it’s mine. It’s the one thing that I’ve been missing despite all these gorgeous places I’ve seen.”
“My time at SSE was amazing. Everyone in that program came from a non-business background; in fact, fifty per cent of the students were international, so I felt like I was walking into a family of people with so many different backgrounds. We had much more in common than we had differences, so we became very close. And when you have something like that to start with, you don’t sense an absence of other things.”
Mala says there was a lot of trepidation because she had left everything behind to start up again.
“All I could think was: Did I do the right thing? I had already disappointed my parents because I left the family business. I was terrified. Then I walk into the Stockholm School of Economics on the first day and they’ve rolled out the red carpet for us. Everyone is in these beautiful gowns and tuxedos, and they are all clapping for us as we walked down the long hall. We were all half teary-eyed.”
Mala’s fear evaporated. Her eyes are glistening just talking about it.
“I was finally doing what I really wanted to do. By the time I sat down, I was convinced that giving up everything to come here was so worth it. I shed all things that didn’t feel right and came to SSE, at the age of 26, to start all over again. Those people I met in those first days and the relationships we’ve formed have played a huge role in my life. We’ve all been to each other’s weddings; we’ve been there for each other when our babies were born. These people are now among my closest friends.”
The greatest friend of all took a seat right next to Mala on that very first day.
“I saw this student walk into class and I could not stop hoping that he would sit down next to me. And he did. I immediately felt like I was talking to an old friend. We were in the same introduction group and I found myself longing for any other reason to be with him. I’m married to him now and we have our son. It’s incredible. It sounds ridiculous to say that we fell in love at first sight. I mean, how irresponsible is that? But you edit your memories retrospectively, and I simply cannot think of a time when I have not been in love with him.”
“They say on the first day at SSE that you will make friends for life. I ended up marrying the first guy who sat beside me.”
Things really picked up for Mala during her time at SSE. She started up a social entrepreneurship effort. Working in startups helped her to pay her way through university.
“That was the most fun: building something yourself; more importantly, being part of someone else’s vision. SSE Business Lab has a very soft spot in my heart. I’ve seen successful startups conceived over cups of coffee. I still value those conversations and treasure the greatest advice I ever received: Double down on what you feel and truly believe, and the rest will work itself out.”
Mala began an internship at Atlas Copco: a wish come true since it was a steady job in an extremely entrepreneurial environment.
“The company is decentralized, meaning they trust outwards. Anyone can raise his or her hand and make a suggestion. And they are trusted with that responsibility. That level of management was very liberating; in fact, we were students and they trusted us with their entire annual report.”
Mala’s first role was that of Sustainability Coordinator. She soon went on to become Head of Corporate Responsibility at 27, the youngest Vice President in the company.
“That’s what I mean by having a company trust you. They didn’t look at me as young or old. They didn’t look at me as a woman or a man. They saw my drive and they understood my hunger to create some meaningful change for business and for people. I’m so grateful they took a chance with me because, apart from the lesson of knowing that I can uproot my entire existence and thrive – which is what I did before and is what I take with me over and over again – I learned that the only person who seems to be holding me back ... is me.”
“I hesitated sending in that application for the job and created these barriers in my mind. Why spend so much time telling myself all are reasons why I can’t instead of focusing on why I can? I’ve learned a lot from looking back on that experience.”
After a few years, Mala yearned to get back into tech and to start building again. Ericsson was in the news at that time, and the headlines were not flattering. Suddenly, it occurred to Mala that Ericsson was, indeed, the startup she had been seeking.
“I thought: If they’re not going to do something brave and bold now, then when? The whole world is shifting; the whole market is transforming. This is what I’ve been burning for the entire time: the ability to have an impact, to build, and to reinvent.”
Mala joined the strategy department in 2016, where she thought these kinds of decisions were being made. She learned an enormous amount there, yet she wasn’t looking at the portfolio she wanted to see.
“I wanted to explore where we were going next, not where we had already been. I found my way to Ericsson Research: specifically, Ericsson Garage, which handles grassroots innovations. There is no dearth of good ideas in the company, but how do you sell them? How do you build speed into a machine that isn’t built for speed?”
“That’s where I started to commercialize these things. I took over the strategy and operations for the Ericsson Garage and we blossomed from three to 13 sites. I’m always thinking entrepreneurial: What is the next step and why? With a task force, I put together the framework for Ericsson One. I was pregnant at the time so, in March 2018, I said: I’m going to go have this baby; you guys go and deliver this other one.”
Mala gave birth to Maximilian and her team delivered Ericsson One.
“My husband and I took advantage of Sweden’s generous parental leave: I had a full year with our baby, and Markus took the next six months. I joined two start-up boards during that time, and I also ended up getting the job I have now. Being promoted while on maternity leave certainly says a lot about Sweden and about Ericsson One.”
As the Head of Ericsson One covering Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia, Mala has built a team to set up the hub, which is now operational. Not only is Mala reinventing herself; she is helping Ericsson reinvent itself too.
“We find new revenue for Ericsson beyond core. Working like a start-up studio, we build things from scratch all the way to commercial viability. For me, a big part is also building the future society. If we’re building it, then it will need to be written by different people. So, I look very heavily and deliberately on those who are the founders in my pool: how many women, people of color, different ages, and representations. Because you can’t write the future if you have the exact same authors. You just get more of the same with a bit of technology thrown in. And we can’t have that.”
“This is a reminder for me that I am allowed to take space and be myself, unapologetically. I am proud of my global roots and have expanded my sense of home accordingly. This is also the greatest hope for my child. This whole push not to be less than who I should be is all for him. I can’t tell him to be brave and bold and to never compromise if I don’t do it myself. I want him to feel at home here in Sweden; I want him to have a relationship with technology that feels like he has a seat at the table. I want him to never question whether Midsummer is his or the Fourth of July is his or festivals in India are his. They all are his! And that’s why I do what I do.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan