Women in Procurement Wednesday: Kavita Cooper on the importance of education, purpose and staying true to yourself

Kavita Cooper is the Managing Director at Novo-K Procurement Solutions. (LinkedIn photo)

How you portray and carry yourself is important in everyday life but certainly in professional settings. This can sometimes prove tricky, especially for women.

When it comes to how you carry yourself, Kavita Cooper, Managing Director at Novo-K Procurement Solutions, advises that as long as you treat people and their opinions with respect, women can feel empowered to be true to themselves.

“I’m not going to go into a boardroom and be very straight-faced. That’s just not my style,” Cooper said. “I remember getting advice once in my career, saying ‘Kavita, if you giggle in every meeting, no one’s going to take you seriously. You’re never going to get anywhere.’ And I thought, you’re right. Some people may not take me seriously and not think that I’ve got the talent. But, I’ll prove them wrong. I’m not going to change who I am and my DNA because you don’t think I should giggle.”

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Being true to herself — even with the odd giggle here and there — has done well for Cooper. Novo-K, which is currently in its sixth year, focuses on procurement as a service, building procurement infrastructure for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and high performing teams. While Cooper breaks down their services into these three main categories, they do a variety of things each day within the organization.

For example, Cooper is also the Managing Director of SMARTresources, which is a part of Novo-K and offers procurement recruitment by procurement experts. When it comes to the recruitment element, Cooper and her team focus on how to make procurement teams within an organization high performing and to improve retention on those teams. Novo-K helps organizations on the journey to map out where the opportunities lie on that particular team.

The start of SMARTresources came a few weeks before our interview, after several organizations were approaching Novo-K to ask for help with permanent resources. With all these incoming requests, Cooper saw a huge opportunity. She decided to approach 12 different recruitment companies to see if they wanted to partner. They all turned her down. So, Cooper decided to do it herself; hence, the start of the SMARTresources arm of Novo-K.

When it comes to taking things into her own hands, Cooper has that same mindset when it comes to education. Her emphasis on the importance of education comes from her background, as her parents are both immigrants to the UK; her mom is from Malawi and her dad is from India.

“If your skin color or your background or your gender is a disadvantage, education is a thing that’s going to get you out of that,” noted Cooper. While everyone is disadvantaged in some way, Cooper realizes the importance of embracing it and taking the opportunity you have to rise above it.

When it comes to her own education, Cooper majored in chemistry and computer science at university. She started her career as a systems engineer. As a graduate, she moved into the talent pool at BT where she moved around the organization in a variety of roles. From her start in technical engineering, to more client-facing roles in stakeholder management, Cooper knew she always wanted to be an entrepreneur. She wanted to “learn, absorb and absorb and absorb” as much as she could.

After a step into vendor management at BT, the CPO approached her at an event and encouraged her to consider a role in procurement. Cooper decided to eventually give it a go  — and found that she thoroughly enjoyed it. There was rigor and structure, and she found that procurement was really able to have an impact on the organization, not just through savings but also through revenue growth and strategy.

At BT, Cooper came to a point in her career where she wanted to do more. So, she joined BT’s volunteering team and encouraged people in the procurement function to do more volunteering. They would invite charities in who had a problem statement around supply management or saving money, for example. Cooper and the team would help the charitable organization by giving them the tools to fix the problem and sending them back out into the community to do so.

However, Cooper noticed that when she would call the charities four to six weeks later to see if they were able to implement the solutions, the answer was usually no. Most often, the charities did not have the resources, time or capacity to make the changes.

Cooper decided to research what other organizations were offering this sort of service to charities and not-for-profits, and found that at the time, it was only the big consultancies. She saw a big opportunity here.

With her desire to be an entrepreneur, Cooper decided to again seize the opportunity in front of her. She started her business with a charitable focus by taking the corporate methodology and distilling it into SMEs and charities, with a self-service component built in. Whereas Novo-K offers expertise, the client organizations do the day-to-day procurement themselves — which also provides those organizations with transferable skills to take with them into the future.

Speaking of charitable involvement, Cooper still ensures today that Novo-K is very purpose-led. From supporting The MicroLoan Foundation in sub-Saharan Africa to its involvement in the Washing Machine Project, Novo-K as a whole donates to and works with charities that align with its chosen UN Sustainable Development Goals: Gender Equality; Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure; and Climate Action.

Throughout the journey that has led Cooper to where she is today, I asked if she has ever felt disadvantaged being a woman in the field of procurement. She said that genuinely, no, she has not. Cooper recognizes that she, among others, has potentially encountered unconscious bias throughout her professional journey. As I learned, though, Cooper is always one to lean into an opportunity. And in part, she knows that this comes down to her personality — and, again, how she stays true to herself.

“As women, we don’t actually share a lot about our achievements and what we’ve done and how successful we’ve been,” said Cooper. As such, she strives today to work with other women in procurement to shift the focus of the conversation from how women are disadvantaged in the field to championing facts and figures around their success — and how we take the conversation forward.

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