Facebook India MD Kirthiga Reddy Steps Down

Facebook’s best face in India, Kirthiga Reddy has stepped down as Managing Director of Facebook India. The move came soon after Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) rejected Facebook’s Free Basics program in India. The sudden decision to step down only triggered speculation about her role in the Free Basics program being rejected and her future within the company, going forward.

Kirthiga Reddy was Facebook’s first employee in India and takes the credit for making India Facebook’s second largest market, after the US. That’s a tall achievement and one that saw her being included in the Top 50 Most Powerful Business Women in India list released by Fortune India in 2011.

Starting operations in India came with its own set of challenges ranging from acquiring all necessary government clearances to building up a competent team, and Kirthiga handled it all in her stride.

Humble beginnings

Born in 1972 in Chennai, Kirthiga Reddy had a normal middle class upbringing. She completed her Bachelors in Computer Engineering from MGM College of Engineering, Nanded, in Maharashtra, where she stood second in her University.

After passing out, she joined author Yashwant Kanetkar, helping him with computer programming illustrations for his popular book on Engineering Colleges in India – Learn with C.

Shortly thereafter, she left for Stanford University in US to pursue her Masters in Business Administration. She then finished her Masters Program in Computer Engineering from Syracuse University. Her career in the US started with a stint with Silicon Graphics where she was the youngest and only woman at her level as Director of Engineering. She worked with telecom major Motorola before moving back to India in 2008 where she joined a US based company Phoenix Technologies.

By 2010, riding on the telecom boom and increasing internet penetration in India, Facebook planned to begin its India operations and this was Kirthiga’s big break. She was Facebook’s first recruit and soon emerged as the company’s most popular face in India.

Facebook bets big on India

As India began racing towards emerging as one of the fastest growing markets for mobile telecom, Facebook increased its India focus and investment. Marc Zuckerberg rightly saw in India the potential to grow rapidly along with future possibilities that the world’s second most populous country had to offer.

While mergers and acquisitions remained part of Facebook’s strategy, Marc Zuckerberg had larger visions of blending internet penetration and access in underdeveloped and developing markets with philanthropy in mind, pretty much on the lines of Bill Gates. And Zuckerberg was increasingly making news across the world.

Enter Modi and Facebook gets a boost

2014 was a landmark year for not just Narendra Modi but for Facebook as well. Narendra Modi’s dramatic victory riding on the back of a very successful social media campaign, of which Facebook played an instrumental part as a platform, brought social media to the forefront of national attention. Facebook was becoming more popular and Marc Zuckerberg was emerging a darling of the masses.

This was further reinforced when PM Modi chose Facebook Headquarter as part of his itinerary during his high-profile state visit to the US. His much publicized personal equation with Marc Zuckerberg got further highlighted during his emotional meeting with Facebook’s staff members that included several staff of Indian origin as well.

All that seemed to fit very well with Zuckerberg’s ambitious plan for India that revolved around the Free Basics initiative. And Kirthiga Reddy was an important pillar in that plan.

Zuckerberg’s gamble with Free Basics

With 85% of the world’s population living in areas where mobile services are available, the cost of accessing the internet has been a restricting factor in increased internet usage and therefore, most people, especially those from economically weaker sections, are unable to derive the benefits of internet in improving their lives.

Internet.org, now renamed Free Basics, is an initiative from Facebook to offer free internet access to sites offering education, information etc, in collaboration with mobile service operators.

Free Basics is currently available in 38 countries in Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America. However, Free Basics has been embroiled in controversy with a raging debate on whether Free Basics impinges upon a consumer’s right to net neutrality.

With India becoming the second largest market for Facebook, getting regulatory approval for launching of Free Basics in India was critical to Facebook’s future growth and market penetration plans in India. And with his direct access to PM Modi, Zuckerberg was hoping to get the necessary regulatory approval.

However, that was not to be. TRAI is an independent body and has been consulting all stakeholders on whether Free Basics compromised net neutrality or not. With strong opinions advocating rejection of Free Basics and favouring net neutrality, TRAI had little choice but to reject it. This has come as a major blow to Facebook and Marc Zuckerberg personally, who had staked his reputation on getting the necessary clearance in India. And the first casualty has been Kirthiga Reddy who stepped down from the Managing Director’s position in India.

She has announced that she shall remain with the company but will prefer to relocate back to Facebook’s Menlo Park Headquarters in California, in another six to twelve months and take up a new assignment.

Meanwhile, she is busy assisting Asia Pacific MD for Emerging Markets, William Easton and Asia Pacific VP Dan Neary, in identifying a suitable replacement for the India MD position.

Speculation on her role in Free Basics

Rejection of the Free Basics initiative by India has been most disappointing for Marc Zuckerberg but what caught everyone’s attention in India was Facebook Director and investor Marc Andreessen’s tweet attributing India’s rejection of Free Basics to an ‘anti colonial’ mindset.

Interestingly, Facebook released an official statement to the media stating that Kirthiga Reddy had no role to play in the Free Basics initiative in India and tried to insulate her from TRAI’s decision. That comes as a surprise, as Kirthiga Reddy was India’s MD and in the forefront of all operations, including Free Basics.

Had the decision gone in favour of Facebook, the credit would have been attributed to Kirthiga and her team. So how does one explain Facebook’s announcement stating she had no role to play in the Free Basics initiative, especially since she heads the second largest market for Facebook?

Kirthiga Reddy still has a lot to offer

She has announced that she is ready to take up fresh challenges within Facebook but it remains to be seen whether Facebook can offer her acceptable options or whether she would like to move on to other challenges, outside the company. Either ways, we shall be hearing a lot more from the humble girl from Chennai.

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