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Distinguished Invincibelle: Neerja Raman

The Beginnings

Q: What brought you to this country?
A: Graduate School. I was born and brought up in Dehradun, went to Miranda House, Delhi and after finishing my Masters in Chemistry, I found there was nothing much to do in India in technology at that time. There were no jobs, Post Graduate programs, or research opportunities. When I applied to Stony Brook University here for the graduate course I got in with full scholarship.

Q: What problems did you face when you got here?
A: Actually I didn’t face any major problems. The issue that every body faces is loneliness. Life here is so much more isolated. I was the only single Indian woman in my class and hostel. The other issue was I was a hardcore vegetarian. I couldn’t eat anything in the hostel dining room.

Q: What were some of the things you learnt on the way?
A: I learned to put the things that I took for granted into perspective. In India, we are recognized for who we are in the context of our family, father’s name and family’s standing in society automatically. But when you come here and you find yourself walking through the streets of New York, every body ignores you. And at that time, the Indians were assumed to be poor and not conversant in English.

You learn not to get attached with what people think about you or else you would end up hurting your morale. I taught myself this life long lesson to never stereotype anyone. Also, I learned to assume that people mean to do the right thing, until proven otherwise.

Soft skills are important. Initially I was of the opinion that for a technical researcher, people skills are not necessary but I found I had the knack for knowing how to get things done in group situations. I understood, to make high impact decisions you have to know management and switched from a technical to a management track.

The Transition

Q: What challenges did you face in the transition to get to where you are today?
A: It has been hard work. I have this equation about energy. The people who do more are the people who have more energy. If you are tired and exhausted you are not at your best. I think the trick is in recognizing how much energy you have to do anything well. Because, it is better not to do it, than to do it badly.

The other challenge was to change the image of Indians as not being results oriented.  There was also a perception about Indian women as being barefoot, pregnant and dependant; I found people could not relate to an Indian woman doing well in the high tech field.

I was very good at research at intersection of disciplines. I understood chemistry, biochemistry and its applications, and also software programming. I decided to specialize in automating instruments for chemical analyses. My first job at HP was real time automation and reporting—a new field at that time. I had planned for it and was ready for the opportunity. 

Q: If given an opportunity, what would you have done differently?
A: Not too much. I feel if I could have taken charge of my career, instead of letting it all happen. It could have accelerated five years. I would have liked to have been more aware of my career progression, and taken charge of my life and career.

Q: What kept you inspired to do better?
A: Whether I liked it or not, I was often the only woman at work and an ambassador for all things Indian. I am from a background where my mother was a professional, and my father was way ahead of his time in thinking that women should go out there and take up careers. I felt the need to prove myself on behalf of other women as well as Indians.

The other thing that keeps me motivated is that I like to do different things. I am good at multi tasking. It is also good to keep yourself detached and multitasking helps. When I find myself not doing something well, it helps to find something new to do.

The Present

Q: What are your current personal and professional pursuits?
A: At Stanford, I am researching business models for socially motivated businesses with a focus on multimedia technology as a tipping point for literacy and education. I hope to be able to leverage my corporate skills, business, management, and technical research, to this new field. I am also working with universities in India to create an ecosystem that supports social entrepreneurship.

Right now the world is facing tough problems with environment, poverty gap, and other issues. So it is more important than ever, to tap into the intellectual capital especially of women, as we need creative solutions in science and technology as well as the social problems.

Q: What are your hobbies? How do you relax? Are you able to manage work life balance?
A: I like to hike. I used to be a black diamond skier. I read fiction. I write non-fiction. I knit scarves. I like to change my look; for my book readings I am flamboyant while my corporate look is pretty sedate. I like to attend book readings, plays, and dance—especially ballet.

For work life balance I list my jobs. And I prioritize everyday and avoid doing the bottom half. If you are well disciplined you can prioritize for the month and not do the bottom half. Super woman doesn’t mean doing everything in every arena. It just means knowing what needs to be done in all the arenas. I have observed that people focus on the little details, which sometimes sucks up unnecessary energy.

The Future

Q: What is next in your life?
A: I want to pursue what I am doing right now in the field of social enterprise. I want to put together whatever I know about managing, trading technology in new markets, my business skills and the technology skills and especially work with entrepreneurs who are socially motivated. I am writing articles, giving talks and hope to write a book about this.

Q: What resources at do you think would help women who wish to come to this country?

A: The area in which you can help them the most is about self-empowerment. Help them to find the power within themselves and they can do whatever they need to do.

1. Give them role models to admire and emulate. The role model has to be someone who can fit into your value systems and must be actively doing something. This will help because women are very good at visualizing.

2. Buddy system is another way to empower, where you get a group formed and give peer mentoring.

3. Help with the big picture; think ethos level. We can teach them not to worry about the little stuff when on the way to doing something big. 

4. Workshops—teach how to leverage themselves in a multi cultural environment where you are going to be different from everybody else. How do you take that and turn it into an advantage?

You can help them to manage their weaknesses and build on their strengths by identifying key skills.


Q: From your vast experience, what is your message for women who wish to either move to this country or are already here?
A: My advice to women who come to this country is to become main stream. Volunteer. Do things for the community. America is race conscious; Indians are new here. When you get accepted in the main stream you can alter the system faster working from within the system.

The next thing is to get accepted by women who have been here for generations and get them to see you as an asset. This might require some reprioritization. Indian women feel compelled to be home for their family so that their children don’t grow up as rebels. And they try to stick with their community rather than integrating with other women.

Women here indulge in guilt; and guilt is the most crippling of all emotions. In the past women either stayed home because it made them happy or they developed into powerful women, like business tycoons. These days this is not so. We have many examples of women building a career and trying to raise a family. It is possible to do both without guilt.

Everything in life is a choice. But you make the choice. If you do the value test in decision-making, then you have the courage to follow through on your convictions. You can take the decision that is right for you.

In a multi-cultural environment the issue of diversity according to me, is a business issue first. Then it trickles down to being man’s issue and then to women’s issue. In the corporate world, deal with it as a business issue.

Q: What should a multicultural woman do to grow as a leader?
A: Leader makes every choice a conscious choice. That way you take ownership for what ever you do.

Passion is really important. You need to really want something so then you put all the creativity into getting it done. Other wise you are just following a routine.

Women in transition sometimes have miss-aligned expectations. To succeed you have to align expectations and be practical.

My favorite quote is—be the change you wish to see. It is action oriented. Whenever there is a problem, people always complain. Instead of complaining do something.

You must share credit. You cannot do anything or manage solely. In Gita it says, you do the right thing, the good things will happen. Don’t judge others. Don’t judge situations.

Success comes to leaders who can think across disciplines, are comfortable with getting challenges and who don’t compromise with self and don’t take things for granted.

Q: Every woman has to keep up with one or more roles—a mother, a wife, a professional. What advice you have for multicultural women who need to keep a healthy balance between these roles?
A: One must have priorities and understand what is important. Be aware of what gives you satisfaction. What keeps you happy? Happiness isn’t just about today’s happiness. Think a little about two to three years from now. Everything takes a little while to work out. What you do today could impact your future. Actually, I think, it isn’t very hard for women. We just have more opportunities today and it is up to us to decide. It is harder for men who must cope with these changes also.

Photo courtesy of Invincibelle