What’s the real difference between corporate and startup HR?
We asked two Canadian HR pros to find out
Jul 28, 2017
Meet Sneha (right) and Shalaka (left).
One works for Canadian mega-brand Shoppers Drug Mart. The other is employee #7 at foodora Canada, a startup success story two years in the making.
…And did we mention that they’re sisters?
After a chance encounter at DisruptHR Toronto, we sat down with Sneha and Shalaka to talk about modern HR and the unique challenges of working in corporate versus a startup.
The first thing to know about the ‘HR sisters’ Sneha and Shalaka Khambaswadkar is that their openness and affability are contagious. We first met waiting in line for drinks at DisruptHRTO and within seconds, we were talking as if we were old friends.
The second thing is that they love being HR professionals.
And third, these two facts are not a coincidence.
Putting people first is just one of their shared philosophies on how modern HR can best serve employees and business needs in companies of any size.
In case you’re wondering how the siblings wound up in the same profession, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “It was a natural decision,” says Shalaka. “Our father has been practicing HR very passionately for nearly four decades. Growing up, we heard tons of interesting stories. It definitely had an impact on us.”
Here’s the rest of our conversation, edited for space and clarity.
On corporate vs. startup HR
First off, what are your day-to-day roles and team structures?
Sneha: As HR coordinator [at Shoppers Drug Mart Specialty Health Network], I’m the first point of contact for any questions our 250+ employees have. So my day-to-day can be anything and everything. It’s up to me to help them feel comfortable and to decide the best way to help them.
If it’s a specific question, I’ll work with our Centres of Excellence—specialized HR professionals who provide support in compensation, benefits, recruiting, etc. I also work closely with our HR Business Partner to implement new policies and programs and develop long-term strategies for our business’ goals.
“I’m the first point of contact for any questions our 250+ employees have. So my day-to-day can be anything and everything.”
Shalaka: Our team is structured pretty differently. As the sole HR manager for all of foodora Canada, I divide my time between implementing global programs and working in the ‘trenches’ of HR: full-cycle recruitment, conducting payroll, benefits administration, office management, time off management…anything that affects the employee lifecycle.
My main go-to is David [Albert], managing director for Canada. But I also work closely with all of our department heads. My job is to figure out what they need from me to make sure their teams are successful. That can be a hiring need, employee development, or new employee perks.
When you hear about HR in the news, there seem to be two opinions: corporate HR is stodgy and bureaucratic, and startup HR is underdeveloped—to say the least. As part of the new generation of HR professionals, how do you feel about these ideas?
Sneha: I truly believe that you lead by example and if you buy into that school of thought, that’s the kind of HR you’re going to get. But that’s just not the kind of HR department I want to be in. My policy is being relatable, trustworthy, having an open-door. As much as metrics and knowing your business are important, so are people skills! The more I’ve worked on this, the better my results have been.
Shalaka: I would obviously say that you need HR. Even if you have five or seven employees, you need HR. It’s so much more than the transactional stuff: it’s about building culture, it’s about talent strategies, it’s about helping managers get the best from their teams. And that starts right away.
“You need HR. Even if you have five or seven employees, you need HR.”
On being employee # 7 at foodora
Shalaka: It was such an interesting time to join the company. They had no policies whatsoever in terms of HR, and I came from a corporate background, where we were thousands of employees to deal with.
So yes, it was a challenge. But I told myself, ‘after all these years, I have all this knowledge. This is my time to make an impact’.
Our family has grown from seven to sixty in less than two years, which is phenomenal growth. It’s been very meaningful to be a part of that early story and see our vision come to fruition and to evolve from a true startup to an established, global company.
I came here with the intention of building a great employee experience, and to see the culture we have built and maintained makes me very proud.
“Yes, it was a challenge. But I told myself, ‘this is my time to make an impact’.”
On the best and most challenging aspects of HR
Sneha: The thing I’ve loved working on the most is culture and engagement. Culture is not a buzzword. I will say that forever.
The most challenging part is definitely the pressure of keeping records and employee information in check for payroll. You want to make sure everyone gets paid what they’re supposed to and on time, it has a huge impact. If I was doing it alone, I’d have a lot of anxiety.
“Culture is not a buzzword. I will say that forever.”
Shalaka: During my very first interview with David, I was upfront about wanting to implement all of these really big ideas, and he was like “hold on, I think we need to focus on the immediate needs first.” He was right, and he helped me prioritize my objectives in those first months—hiring, obviously, and getting the initial policies in place. As that started settling down, I had the opportunity to look into bigger, more exciting projects.
But still, I have to constantly choose my battles in terms of what to do next. We don’t have the budget for everything, so I have to determine what is going to have the biggest impact on the most people. That’s the greatest challenge: constantly having to prioritize and justify what’s best for our people.
On studying HR at NYU
I haven’t met many people who can say they’ve done their Masters in HR Management at NYU. What is one lesson you’d share with someone studying HR today?
Sneha: I absolutely loved studying at NYU. The most important lesson that I walked away with is that no matter what your HR expertise is, you have to be business-focused.
We had one professor in particular that I’ll never forget. Every single class he started off by saying “let’s talk about balance sheets.” He’d tell us that if we ever wanted to be validated, we had to understand our business.
“No matter what your HR expertise is, you have to be business-focused.”
Shalaka: The two biggest lessons I learned are, first: take every opportunity you can to network. There’s so much value in continuous learning, and I really believe you can learn from every person, especially if they are from different industries or career levels.
The second lesson is to understand your numbers and HR metrics. To Sneha’s point, you need to speak the language of your CEOs and CFOs. Take the time to learn your business, it’s the only way you can make the case for programs you want to put into place.
What are the specific HR metrics you look for?
Shalaka: Engagement scores, turnover, sick days…I’m constantly measuring ROIs on different programs we’re trying, like wellness or benefits programs.
I’m constantly coming up with ideas for programs to try, and it’s up to me to quantify the programs we’re putting in place. I use HR metrics every single day.
On HR technology
Shalaka: I’m huge on HR technology. At foodora, we started with Excel and spreadsheets, but it just wasn’t a sustainable solution, we needed to be more organized. We’ve now standardized our HRIS company-wide, and it’s made our life so much easier. Technology is scalable, it’s modular, it frees up so much of my time.
“Technology is scalable, it’s modular, it frees up so much of my time.”
Sneha: I’ve worked at a company before where we didn’t have a real HR system—we were using Google and spreadsheets. We were 300 employees, but that was just the norm, it seemed to make sense.
When I came to Shoppers, I was terrified of learning a new system…but when you start using it for just one thing, you see how easy it is, and then it makes sense to add another feature and another. It makes my job a lot easier because no matter the size of the team, I have these great reports I can pull. It helps us validate what we’re doing.
On switching roles
Last question: what would happen if you switched roles for a day?
Sneha: It would be a big adjustment to get used to a ‘loose structure.’ You know? They have policies, they do have structure…but it’s nowhere close to when you work in such a big company. So I’d have to get used to that, but it would be exciting.
Shalaka: For me, it would be like getting to see where foodora should be in a few years, in terms of how a bigger company is structured, how their processes work. We know we’re going to continue to grow, so it would be a glimpse into foodora 2.0.
Thank you so much to Sneha and Shalaka! Read more interviews with Canadian HR leaders here,here, and here.