Leadership Lessons on Purposeful Technology and Empowering Others

Leadership Profile
Written by Leslie Lang

Kavitha Mariappan

EVP, Customer Experience & Transformation


JUNE 2024

When offered an opportunity nearly 25 years ago to join an emerging leaders program at Philips, Kavitha Mariappan, now Executive Vice President of Customer Experience & Transformation at leading cloud security provider Zscaler, accepted and never looked back. Armed with grit and an appetite for risk, Kavitha moved from Australia to the U.S. to begin a new stage in her career.

One year later, Kavitha moved to a new role at Cisco as a product leader and ascended to lead the networking giant’s corporate development engineering team, which was instrumental in spearheading the technology due diligence for multibillion-dollar acquisitions and strategic investments.

At this point in her career, Kavitha says she knew how to manage a team and lead for revenue growth, but in a more senior role the challenge was different. "You have to develop the ability to inspire people and give them a reason to trust you differently," she explains.

I lead from the front and bring my lieutenants. I empower everyone on my team to own and lead.”

Customer Experience Above All Else  

Kavitha says her energy, curiosity and ability to think outside the "technologist box" helped her rise through the ranks. She stayed at Cisco for 11 years before moving to her next challenge: running the go-to-market strategy for Riverbed’s first software business unit, where she integrated three acquisitions into a unified product family and built a multimillion-dollar business.

The success she enjoyed at Riverbed allowed Kavitha to move into chief marketing officer positions at Databricks and Split, before landing a newly designed role running a one-of-a-kind team she designed with Zscaler CEO, Chairman and Founder Jay Chaudhry -- Customer Experience & Transformation. The new role focused on building a team to deliver Zscaler’s strategy for engaging customer and prospect C-level executives. 

“It’s essential to listen to customers, understand their needs, and operationalize the technology for business gains,” she says. From her time "in the trenches" early on in her career, Kavitha realized products aren't designed, developed, or built as one-size-fits-all. 

Kavitha thinks of herself as a technologist first -- one who is intellectually curious enough to want to solve complex problems. "I love spending time with customers because that's where the change and shift happens. You can sit here and talk about technology. Still, when you think about specifics around verticals and use cases, you create baselines, zero in on a key problem, and can actively address it," she explains.

Combining IT & Cybersecurity Modernization

Today, Kavitha's key priorities center on IT modernization and cyber risk management, which are focal points for all customers. "IT becomes the enabler. When you innovate, you face the reality that your threat landscape will increase, and security modernization will become a second priority,” she says. “But as technology evolves, so do the tactics of cybercriminals."

"How do we make sure we help customers deploy technologies where they are less vulnerable? That means a cultural shift,” she explains, adding that cloud and mobility, coupled with AI and GenAI, have created tremendous, unlocked potential. 

One priority for Kavitha is to help organizations understand the tenets of zero trust security and how to take organizations to a cloud, mobile, and AI-first world. "It's being out there and helping customers solve problems," she said.

According to Kavitha, "If organizations don't speed up, catch up, and modernize, or if they still use security constructs for the legacy world, they're not securing the enterprise for this new cloud-first and mobile-first world.” 

She continues, “Applications are in the cloud and users are mobile, so you have to embrace security modernization." 

You have to know how to articulate your company's risk posture and how you are mitigating risk.”

Embracing Lifelong Learning & Building Resilience

Kavitha shares that two keys to her success are lifelong learning and becoming an expert in your domain. “You should master your craft by being a lifelong student,” Kavitha says. “My personal mantra has always been to reflect on anything that strikes you as interesting or peculiar, and then explore it so that you continually add to your knowledge.”  

Mastering your domain is an important piece of a fruitful career, but not the only piece. Kavitha believes that all the bumps along the road, challenges, and bottlenecks are hidden opportunities to learn. “Use all the challenges you’ve overcome as a force multiplier to build your strength to face other difficult situations that you will inevitably encounter.”

“In the end, you’ll develop the emotional intelligence and resilience where things just bounce off you,” she says. 

Mentoring Employees and Developing Leaders

Kavitha explains that she doesn’t like hiring new team members off a playbook. “I look for brilliant diamonds in the rough. People who have a high clock speed. People who are passionate about creating impact and are willing to roll up their sleeves,” she says. “There is something about resilience, passion, and grit."

You will have a much broader portfolio by being willing to roll up your sleeves and try new, challenging things.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kavitha began offering mentoring calls with colleagues around the world. "I did 30-minute mentoring calls with employees around the world – about 260 calls that year," she says. “We converted that into a formal mentoring program, and it has since become a full-fledged, full-scale program that our People & Culture team is running."

Zscaler also started a 16-week executive training program for high-performing women in the company, each paired with an executive sponsor. In addition, Kavitha’s team organizes events for top women executives in technology and security. 

At a recent event in Florida, every speaker was a woman C-level executive or technology leader. "It was excellent to see these women leading the C-suite in some of the largest banks, manufacturing companies, and the Department of Defense. All are trailblazers," she shares.

Bring Your 'Full Self' to Workplace Culture

As an executive with a large social media following, Kavitha says she is vocal about creating healthy work environments and encourages discussion about difficult topics and “the gnarly stuff.” 

"Bringing your full self to work is a very new thing. Before, we were not allowed to bring our full selves to work -- there were consequences if you did it. It was frowned upon. You were overlooked for promotions and things like that," Kavitha explains. 

"I love where the world is today, and 10 years from now, I want to look back and feel like I have built a legacy that has elevated others.” 

What advice would Kavitha give her younger self? "I'd say to take those chances, take the road less traveled, and make every single one count."

For more conversations on leadership, IT transformation and cybersecurity, apply to join an Evanta community, or if you are already a community member, sign in to MyEvanta to find your community's upcoming gatherings. 


Special thanks to Kavitha Mariappan and Zscaler.