Women In Analytics – Rohini Srivathsa, Data Science, ML & AI Leader

Here’s the second part of our series Being Women – the Balancing Act, where we have candid discussions focussing on the women of today, who beautifully juggle work and family. We spoke with some of the most prominent women from the Indian Analytics Industry this INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY.

We spoke with Rohini Srivathsa, an accomplished business leader, and consulting and R&D professional. She has close to 25 years of experience in business and analytics leadership roles internationally. Rohini started her career at AT&T Bell Labs working in the data science, modeling and visualization domains. For the last decade, she has engaged in business and strategy consulting at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and lBM, around topics of customer, market, digital transformation and analytics, with focus on emerging markets.  

Analytics India Magazine: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What was your childhood dream?

RS: I don’t remember any one specific dream growing up as a child. I had a very curious mind and my parents instilled in me a strong sense of wonder by helping me ask ‘why’ and ‘how’. My dad was an army officer and a quintessential engineer. There was always a dismantled gadget at home somewhere! He would be trying to repair it, figuring out how it worked; I guess that’s how I turned out to be an engineer. And I think that sense of curiosity has stayed with me throughout.

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AIM: Who is the one woman who inspired you? Why?

RS: I was really inspired by Kiran Bedi. I was in my early teens at the time when she became the first woman IPS officer. I remember being inspired by her courage, her commitment to doing what’s right and her creativity. Over the years, I have followed her career off and on, and have seen her take some interesting approaches to solving problems. Like introducing meditation techniques like Vipassana in Tihar jail.

AIM: What defines you as a leader?

RS: Purpose, integrity and empathy — these are the three qualities that I value highly in a leader and try to aspire towards. I think people look up to leaders in an organization for a sense of direction, a vision, a ‘why’. Integrity is the ‘how’ of pursuing that ‘why’. That ‘how’ is about transparency, consistency and fairness. People see that about you over a period of time. The third quality is empathy. As you work with people from very different backgrounds internationally, people with very different points of view, I think having a sense of empathy is critical in being able to take people along.

AIM: What are the challenges that you faced being a woman in tech?

RS: I have been very fortunate to have really amazing mentors very early on in my career: my Ph.D. advisor and my manager at my first job at AT&T Bell Labs. They were people who inspired me, who encouraged me to aspire to be my best. There might have been prevalent biases, but I don’t remember consciously thinking much about them, at least early on in my career.

AIM: How do your peers react to a woman leader?

RS: I think the world has come a long way; there are a lot more women in senior positions than they were maybe a decade ago. I think of myself as a leader who happens to be a woman. I look at first building relationships with my peers and then seek the ability to influence. There are times when my peers or others in the organization may have a reaction or a point of view, which may be rooted in an unconscious bias. I usually call it out; but I think the fact that I have first worked on the relationship and have created a connect, helps in that communication.

AIM: Equal pay for equal work, where does the tech industry stand on this?

RS: ‘Equal pay for equal work’ has been a topic that has come to the surface in the last five to six years. We have a long way to go, both in terms of representation of women in technology all through the ranks as well as on compensation matters. Leaders, both men and women, in the industry have to consciously work in that direction – towards fairness and the greater good of the entire ecosystem.

AIM: What are the issues women face when coming back from maternity?

RS: I think coming back from maternity leave is a huge milestone in the life of any woman. It’s a time period when she is facing challenges both internally and externally — internally, the woman is feeling stretched in a role that she has never done before, and then professionally as well, she is being evaluated in many ways — so it’s a very delicate time. I think both men and women can proactively prepare much better for this milestone. The most important ingredient in this preparation is open communication. I remember working with my first manager almost six months in advance in preparation for maternity – both time away and transition back – and receiving complete professional and moral support.

AIM: Work or family — what is important in the eyes of the society today?

RS: I think it depends on who are the stakeholders. As more and more women are getting into the workforce, work is gaining importance. Traditionally, the broader community still considers family more important. The question is what’s important to you and who is important in your life — because the reality is that you cannot please everybody!

AIM: How did you balance family and work?

RS: I don’t think I have been very good at this. I have ended up being in a state of imbalance over long stretches of time. There are times when work takes precedence, and there are other times when the family takes precedence. So, I guess over time, they balance each other out. As I have grown older, I think I have learned to keep my priorities straight, but it’s been hard to define ‘balance’.

AIM: Tell us about an instance which motivated you to push the barriers

RS: I can reflect upon a lesson in leadership when I was leading a global team of senior Subject Matter Experts. Our mandate was to help solve and develop large technology transformation deals for clients around the world, mostly in emerging markets. It was important to be nimble, creative, and most of all, collaborative in order to succeed. At one time, there was a sudden requirement to be in Kazakhstan to help shape a business transformation agenda for the country’s President’s office.

I could sense some hesitation in my team, perhaps because of the urgency and ambiguity of the requirement. I remember thinking that if I was expecting my team to rise up to the challenge, I have to be willing to push myself as well. I ended up going to Kazakhstan three times that summer and working some crazy hours to shape that assignment. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot. I think that incident got my team to rally around me even more, knowing that I was willing to take up whatever challenge I expected them to.

AIM: What is your support system?

RS: You need to have a network in place, a support system, to make sure that things keep moving along in life. Over different periods, my husband, my family, my in-laws, and my parents have been deeply supportive of my professional goals. Friends and neighbors have also offered that safety net that one needs through different stages of life.

AIM: What do corporates lack while implementing gender diversity?

RS: I think corporates are starting to pay more attention to gender diversity and that is a good thing. Diversity, in all its forms, has merits in terms of ideas, approaches and creating business value. Different corporations are in different stages of their journey. Broadly, corporates need to imbibe the notion of flexibility, of focus on contribution rather than face-time. Other aspects that corporates can do better on is to unearth unconscious biases that are present in all of us, despite our best intentions.

AIM: Saree or Suit? What empowers you more in the boardroom?

RS: I think what empowers me in the boardroom is what value I bring to the table – in terms of my contribution and the impact that I create. What I choose to wear is an expression; I consider my choice of attire as a way to connect with people: does it allow me to connect with my stakeholders, relate to people, in a way that helps to achieve the objectives of that conversation.

AIM: Your advice to other women in Tech?

RS: My advice to other women in tech would be to: one, keep learning throughout your life and never let yourself get complacent. Second is to find mentors, meet people, don’t restrict yourself to your immediate, familiar network. Third would be to take risks. There will be periods in your life when you may be somewhat risk-averse, and that’s ok. But at other times, push yourself and take a few calculated risks to keep moving forward.

AIM: Your advice to corporates on how to retain Women employees?

RS: As the numbers show, many women enter the workforce but as years progress, there is a significant dropout. This could be attributed to life-work balance issues. I think corporates need to consciously think about supporting both men and women through different stages of life. I’m a big proponent of men being just as involved in different aspects of family life, and so, their needs are just as important. I think retention of women is closely linked to conscious support for both men and women in terms of flexibility, focus on contribution, and an empathetic and holistic mindset.

Corporates can also do better in terms of offering mentorship opportunities, especially as women grow in their careers. Because there just aren’t enough role models. I have greatly benefited from mentorship by some remarkable leaders among men in my career. The third area is the ability to have frank conversations about unconscious biases. Some organizations are beginning to focus on this proactively, but I haven’t seen that consistently across enterprises.

More Great AIM Stories

Bhasker Gupta
Bhasker is a techie turned media entrepreneur. Bhasker started AIM in 2012, out of a desire to speak about emerging technologies and their commercial, social and cultural impact. Earlier, Bhasker worked as Vice President at Goldman Sachs. He is a B.Tech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Varanasi and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.

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