Getting Candid with Harbani Malhotra

Shruti Mittal
7 min readJul 30, 2021

This week, I had the privilege of interviewing Harbani Malhotra, a product leader with a passion for building products that add value and people love. She has a strong track record of conceptualizing and launching successful out-of-the-box products, re-imagining user experience, and being a part of the global e-commerce story. She has worked across a wide variety of audiences and markets across the US, UK, and Indian markets.

Harbani has also been voted one of the top 20 most influential Women in Product who build and help others build digital products loved by millions of people by Product School.

How has your journey been as the Director of Product Management at Shipt and then Narvar and now Walmart?

Every company has its vision and every role has been different in terms of what portfolios I have owned, the team that I’ve had, the leaders that I’ve worked with or the CEOs that I’ve rolled into, so even though it might feel like it is probably similar from a role perspective, it has been a very different experience every time. Sometimes the scale just explodes, like at Walmart, the scale of the user base is huge and sometimes the complexities of the business are completely different. Sometimes the problem statements are the same but the industries are different so the scope and the breadth, and therefore depth needed is different.

But the overarching theme in my career path, by design, has been to focus on marketplaces, e-commerce and subscriptions. For the past decade, I’ve always worked in consumer technology and consumer experiences across those business models. So I love advocating for the customers and that has stayed consistent throughout all of those roles.

With every new role, I always aspire to add a layer of complexity so I can continue to expand on my comfort zone and build on my professional roadmap. So for example, I had never led Product Management or been Head of Product at a company that manufactured physical products in-house. Curology is a skincare product that caught my eye since it manufactures personalized skincare products in-house and has in-house medical provider teams. Balancing patient experience while helping scale your medical provider team is easier said than done — how do you make sure that your internal stakeholders are equally well taken care of and that they have the tools that they need to keep up with the business/ user growth? How do you measure and impact efficiency and metrics? These were all learning experiences for me, and I truly believe that each one of my previous experiences has helped me do my current role better.

What inclined you towards Product Management?

Honestly, it wasn’t something that I was pursuing, it wasn’t something that I was even aware of back then. I was doing mergers and acquisitions, so I was in an industry that was miles away from Tech.

I moved from M&A investment banking to venture capital, which is a typical traditional path for folks in banking. And folks with M&A, and I just got lucky — I was at the right place at the right time, where I joined a venture incubator that was headquartered in Berlin, called Rocket Internet, that handed investor checks to seven or eight portfolio companies and set up those portfolio companies in India when e-commerce was almost unheard of. And they recruited some of us from consulting and banking kinds of companies, and a select few of us joined this VC to work closely with the co-founders on business models and strategy and operations. I just naturally gravitated to solving customer pain points. And I would sit in the evenings with design when this wasn’t a part of my role I was chartered with, but I would sit with the designers, I would sit with the engineers and would work on building products. I started focusing on user metrics, customer adoption, going deep into customer pain points across the board for the portfolio company that I was working with on business strategies and operations pieces. Some of the things that I implemented in the experiments that I did achieve great benefits and it caught the attention of the central team in Berlin. So they asked me to join their centralized product team and focus on Product. And that’s how I got introduced to Product. And I just fell in love with the problem-solving aspect, the fact that you can sit in your seat at the table to advocate for the customer. Just applying all those things that I enjoy around marrying numbers because I come from an investment banking M&A, and also having worked on design before was just so exciting — and it then suddenly made sense that product was going to be that long term career path for me. And so I just jumped in and I’ve never looked back. All my thanks to Rocket Internet for introducing me to product management.

What does a day in your life look like?

There are, of course, a bunch of meetings that happen — like brainstorming meetings, alignment meetings, strategy meetings, meetings with my team to make sure they’re supported and well set-up, cross-functional meetings, one-on-one meetings, group meetings and some meetings where I just choose to be a fly on the wall. Product Management is as much about the product as it is about the people, both internal and external. So that’s a fair share of my day. I also like to spend time just thinking about the product, thinking about where the industry is headed, what consumer behaviours are changing, and spending time using the product. Days can be hectic, so I tend to block time to do that every day. I also give a lot of thought to building culture, making sure the team isn’t burning out and that the team is still feeling fulfilled during the day, especially in this hybrid model of work from home and in-person office environment. I love looking at a new metric, or refresh my memory around a metric or analyse any new data. Just last week, I was looking at heat maps and confirming my hypothesis about how far people scroll on a given page.

I love going through some brief readings and documenting my thoughts about what I’ve learned from what I read or what I learnt on the job or what I’ve learned about a product.

What is the one incident you believe has impacted your professional life significantly?

For me, it is getting introduced to this world of Product. I also think that the fact that there was a vote of confidence, not just by the sheer fact that the experiments I did or the product strategy I put in place or the bets that I took at Rocket Internet did well, but also the word of confidence from the team at Rocket that I could do this not coming from a traditional product management background. Product Management is not just about the thought that goes behind the strategy and strategizing, it is also about articulating, storytelling and the partnerships that you build in the relationships. And a lot of that stems from confidence in what you believe in. And I think I got that encouragement earlier on in my career, such that I was not only enthused about the role but also believed that I could be successful at it.

What is the one book that you would recommend to everyone and why?

I’m currently reading this book — The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger, the former CEO of The Walt Disney Company and every chance I get — every evening, every weekend, I find myself reading this book. And I love it. I think the lessons in that book are just so relevant to anyone who wants to be a good manager and a great leader.

What is the one thing that you are working on currently, outside of work?

Even when I was an undergrad, I would always save a little bit of the money that I used to get from my parents to spend on my notebooks, food, in the hostel, to give to children on the streets, or, the old senior people driving the Auto Rickshaw I took. I always had empathy and I think it comes from my mother. I’m a young mother now, and ever since I’ve had my son — he completed four years this year, I think my desire to help the cause of improving the lives of children, especially those that are underprivileged or are without a parent or both parents or just, that desire to help has grown multi-fold.

A couple of years ago, I remember having this conversation with my husband that just donating money didn’t feel as fulfilling. I felt like I could do more. I have the passion and the skill set to help and contribute more. And so, I recently joined a non-profit organization called Crazy House on the Hill where we help women — mothers, either pregnant or already with children — to break the cycle of addiction, we teach the mothers about parenting, we provide for them for a duration of time where they get a roof above their head, clothes for their children and food for them.

I was so moved by that mission because I think that childhood is when a person builds themselves up with confidence, when they build their self-esteem and when they internalize this concept of self-worth. So many things come from these early days and that relationship with your mother is so important. I feel so motivated and excited about the thought of contributing to keeping even one more pair of mother and child together and that is something that I am devoted to, outside of work.

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Shruti Mittal

Carnegie Mellon University | Getting Candid with Influential Leaders | IIT Guwahati