Ep 91: Sireesha Mandava: Everyone Deserves to Achieve Their Dreams

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing the altruistic Sireesha Mandava, Chief Information Officer and Vice President of Innovation at Greenpath Financial Wellness, a 60-year old, nationwide nonprofit with a mission “to empower people to lead financially healthy lives”, and realize their unique dreams, at all stages of life.   

Coming from a family legacy of social justice, Sireesha was born near Hyderabad, India. “My grandfather was a great activist, who fought and gave up everything he had for the village he grew up in,” she explained.  He passed away in his 40’s, and exhorted Sireesha’s grandmother to intellectually empower their children (her mother, and Sireesha’s three aunts and one uncle). “I don’t care if you even feed them but make sure the girls are educated,” he declared.  A good student, Sireesha felt particularly inspired by her aunts, who received advanced degrees. So she matriculated at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in Pilani, India.  While initially focused on electrical and electronics engineering, “it didn’t take me long,” Sireesha said before “I took my first programming class, in Pascal, and I knew what I wanted.” She graduated with an electrical and electronics engineering degree; took all electives in programming; and performed her senior year internship at a company where she became proficient in managing and programming Oracle databases.

Sireesha’s first post-university job was supposed to be in electronics engineering at a New Delhi, India company (“really advanced in microchip testing”). But then “I was so fortunate” because the company needed her Oracle experience. “I thanked God” because she became their Oracle expert, when a DBA left.  Several years later she moved to TGK, another Indian company, whose innovations included a new variation of SAP software called “i-SAP” a manufacturing ERP system.  “It was amazing. I learned so much there,” said Sireesha.  She also met her life partner/husband at TGK. Sireesha worked there for two years but was eventually feeling restless and dissatisfied.  Confiding in the company’s managing director that she was going to leave, after failing to convince her to stay, he referred her to a friend of his, leading the U.S. office for Metamor Global Solutions, a consulting company which offered her a position in Detroit, Michigan.  

As fate would have it (or a “purposeful plan” as Sireesha characterized it), her soon-to-be husband simultaneously moved to Detroit, for a new position with a different company.  The two re-met, and “a year later we got married,” smiled Sireesha. She took off from work for a very short period but discovered that being a homebody was not for her. So she took a job in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for Triad Guaranty Insurance for less than a year. Missing her husband, she jumped at the chance to move back to Michigan for a position at NSF International.  With a mission to protect and improve global human health, non-profit NSF develops and maintains public health standards and certification programs to protect the global water supply, food supply, consumer products and the environment.  Starting as a Project Manager, Sireesha developed her NSF career over an 18-year period. While there, Sireesha enrolled at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where she obtained her MBA, which “gave me a 10-year acceleration” in career and leadership evolution. She was promoted to Business Applications Manager, and then Director of Business Applications. In that latter job, her team “built this wonderful application” for which Sireesha and colleagues developed a full-fledged enterprise, which they then pitched as a global spin-off.  This eventually morphed into an NSF subsidiary (NSF TraQtion), which she led and gave Sireesha “the ride of my life, doing everything as an entrepreneur.”   

Having fun running that new NSF division, Sireesha was surprised to be approached by Kristen Holt, CEO at Greenpath, to have lunch and take a “culture walk” at the nonprofit’s lovely headquarters in Southeast Michigan.  “The culture of ‘human centered design’ thinking, putting people in the center” is part of Greenpath’s organizational evolution. “She walked me through, and showed how people call in panic mode,” to the nonprofit; how the staff empathized with them and showed them a path to get out of the crisis and achieve their dreams. Greenpath offers financial education, counseling and aid to people in dire circumstances, and serves 200,000 households annually, with free counseling, while receiving calls from over 300,000 people.  “I only do what I love. And I want to make the most impact.” Sireesha was hooked, particularly on Greenpath’s BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to “remix the American dream so that it works for everyone, because everybody deserves a chance to attain their dreams.”

Since Greenpath is a financial organization, “everything runs on technology” according to Sireesha.  Sireesha’s team of 28 IT professionals is charged with ensuring internal technology always works without a hitch.  Her vision includes “technology as a differentiating factor” in everything that Greenpath accomplishes. This includes a significant investment in mobile applications for clients so “they can engage in self-service, see their progress, and be encouraged.”  These apps include debt management, which incorporates gamification to keep clients engaged. One of her other technology investments is in current tech solutions to enable the services team to operate at their highest levels of efficiency. 

In characterizing the personal traits that have marked her path to success, Sireesha agreed that courage, flexibility and intellectual agility are three.  Her Greenpath colleagues have also pointed out that she possesses a rare “multidimensional thinking capability, applied to problem-solving” complemented by a propensity for strategy and a results-orientation. “I am very driven to make it happen,” she said, simply.  Sireesha derives much happiness from counseling younger people to make career and education choices. Among her volunteer work, she includes SAT and ACT coaching for high schoolers. Her greatest fear is that someday she will “accept mediocrity.” To that end, she picks a handful of meaningful activities (work, her church, her mentoring/coaching with students) and focuses on those, “going all in.”

In the greater global community, Sireesha strives to make an important impact by supporting another non-profit founded by her husband and herself in 2005.  It is called Sphoorthi (which means “inspiration” in Sanskrit). Completely funded by their personal efforts, this nonprofit is focused on providing food, clothing and education for underprivileged youngsters in Vizag, India. “It is my husband’s dream, but his dream is actually bigger,” Sireesha said. “He visits at least four times a year; and we have helped about 125 kids, thus far. Our ultimate goal is to have an orphanage, and a senior citizens home, together. There are a lot of neglected seniors.  We want to bring them together so their experience will help the kids. The kids, in turn, will rejuvenate the senior citizens.” Their plans include the orphanage, a holistic health center, a school, and a senior center, centralized together in a single positive community, including power sources through sustainable energy.

Sireesha’s counsel to striving women and girls includes some practical and altruistic advice:

  1. “Never undermine yourself.  The way you portray yourself is exactly how others will see you.”

  2. “Network, network, network.”  Sireesha regrets personally forgetting to do this at points in her career and is trying to make up for that now.

  3. “Always make it a point to make a difference for someone other than yourself.”

Sireesha believes in forward movement, as much as possible. “I look at career development as mountain-climbing,” Sireesha said. “There is the peak.  But your next, best option could be sideways. Always have your eye on the peak but be in the present; don’t just sit there, move sideways.”

Sireesha Mandava can be reached at sireeshamandava7@gmail.com.

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Ep 90: Teri Takai: Giving Back and Getting Things Done

Diva Tech Talk was honored to chat with Teri Takai,  former CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense; former CIO for both the state of California and state of Michigan; and automotive industry technology executive with robust accomplishments.   Today, Teri is the Executive Director for The Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic, focused on innovation and best technology practices for public sector.

Teri’s parents grew up on the U.S. West Coast where “in World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in (concentration) camps.” Just graduated from high school, her mother and father were fortunate that the University of Michigan entered the camps to help. “If you could get security clearance, you could (with $25 and one suitcase) take a train to Ann Arbor and get a job.” Her parents were respectively employed as an elevator operator, and a surgical assistant when they first arrived in the Midwest. “I always give the school so much credit! They got these kids into productive situations.” But wistfully, she said: “My dad had a year of junior college,” before moving to Michigan. “He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. but didn’t feel that as a Japanese American, he would get that opportunity. He decided to go into civil engineering.” However, the concentration camp, and subsequent move, disrupted his plan.  “While he did not have the opportunity to get a degree, my dad was always interested in engineering,” Teri said. He became a draftsman in the automotive industry, ultimately working for several small automotive suppliers. 

Teri is one of four siblings, two brothers and a sister. “I wasn’t interested in technology, at first, but I was good at math. Really enjoyed, of all things, geometry!  It was the problem-solving.” Valedictorian of her high school, Teri matriculated at the University of Michigan as a mathematics major. “I found the University to be daunting. I kept trying things, came back to math, but the challenge was I didn’t want to teach.”  Her family was mired in ethnicity, and “as Japanese, felt they had to overcome their past, blend in, and succeed on the terms of the world around them.” A friend of Teri's mother suggested she pursue computer programming. At the time, the university computer science program was highly theoretical.  Practical Teri devised an individualized curriculum of statistics, industrial engineering and more. Graduating with strong Fortran skills, she joined a  small division of Ford Motor Company, focused on tractors.   “There I learned Cobol.”  More importantly, Teri developed a fascination for “the way technology impacted and supported the business.” This inspired her to go back to school for a Ford-financed MBA. “I loved being at a small division, because I wasn’t caught up in the big company,” she said, and afforded varied opportunities and challenges. Teri worked in engineering, manufacturing and traveled internationally, staying with the division for a decade, and enjoying steady promotions, many of which involved people management. 

Teri feels fortunate that, prior to “diversity” being acknowledged as integral to progressive workplaces, she had a Ford boss who supported her taking a formal leave of absence to move to Germany, along with her husband, who was transferred as an engineer --- before Ford had a formal policy for working spouses.   “I never heard my boss talk about women, or diversity; but he went to bat for me! He did what he thought was the right thing,” long before it was fashionable to do so. The leadership lesson Teri learned and frequently shares, is “what we need to do is follow our belief systems. Do what is right.”

At the end of the 10 years in Ford’s tractor division, Teri was “pretty much tapped out, there.” She got moved to the mainstream automotive side of Ford, as part of a consulting team working to build and sustain Ford Latin America. This opened Teri’s eyes to how people, from different cultures, might view her, as a colleague/leader. “It forced me to get outside myself, learn to be assertive and establish myself.”   Teri did that for 5 years, and then moved to a Ford thinktank directed to meeting the competitive threat of GM’s innovative Saturn division.  “From there, I had a number of great opportunities,” she said. One of Teri’s personal insights is “I am pretty good at getting things done.  I am not necessarily your leader for ‘big picture’ strategies. I am focused on how you organize, bring people together and deliver a product.”  As part of Ford’s software development, she worked on complex internal ERP and administration systems, a large supply chain initiative (CMMS), and then moved to the assembly division, managing plant floor systems. Then Ford gave her an overseas assignment, in the United Kingdom, where she led the development of a global purchasing system, which involved the expansion of a European-based purchasing system all over the world. Then Teri came back to the U.S. to Ford Credit, for a large system launch, and then moved back into leading CMMS.  Teri completed her 30 year career at Ford involved in the acquisition of Land Rover, and Volvo, and then as a leader in strategic planning. “My time at Ford was about delivery.”

Teri’s next pivot came through intense self-reflection.  “I had to say: if I spend another ten years at Ford, what will I learn?”  She took a two-year position at EDS, because “I felt the wave of the future was not going to be big, internal IT organizations.” There, Teri learned the technology services business, and had the chance to work directly with GM.  She left to take a short assignment at Federal Mogul, an automotive supplier;  but was then approached to join Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan cabinet, where she became CIO and Director of the Michigan Department of Information Technology.  “The governor said to me, now is the time for giving back, for public service,” Teri said.  “I am forever grateful to her for that.” The transition was eased for her because a previous EDS colleague, Paula Blanchard (ex-wife of former governor, Jim Blanchard) introduced her to a strong, professional network of women in Lansing, the state capital; and another previous colleague from Ford shared insight about forging public policy. “Michigan had undergone a precedent-setting change in organization.”  Teri inherited a single government organization that centralized all the information technology staff for the state (“at the time, very unusual”). She and Governor Granholm were “great colleagues; I understood her strategic planning initiative, and what she wanted to do across the state.” Teri came to a deep understanding about the collaborative nature of government, and how to effect lasting change.  

She stayed for 5 years, one year into Governor Granholm’s second term.  Then Teri was approached by the State of California, which “had a very rocky history with technology” and had been without a CIO for over 5 years.  “Governor Schwarzenegger, at the time, had gotten advice, from tech companies, that California needed a CIO,” she said. “His team approached me, because Michigan had achieved recognition for what we had done, and I was the President of one of the national associations.”  The team wanted Terri’s counsel on their plan, and then recruited her. “California was a challenging place to be,” since she had to create the Office of the CIO from scratch, get it staffed, and operational, in a limited 3-year timeframe, simultaneously with the state’s budget crisis. While the learning curve was challenging, Teri grew through it, and “a number of women reached out to me, there; influential women in Sacramento.”  She also loved the fact that she could now be “part of an Asian community” since California has a substantial one. “I have a support network now in Lansing. And I have a support network in Sacramento!”

Toward the end of three years in California, Teri made another big transition.  “A friend of mine had become President Obama’s Chief Information Officer,  and Chief Technology Officer. He called and asked me to come and interview for Chief Information Officer for the Department of Defense.  In my naïve way, I felt I was doing him a favor. This was for a friend.” Teri felt the interview would be just a great experience, but nothing would come of it.  However, despite her lack of federal government experience, she was offered the job. “It took me a year to get security clearance! It was the hardest, most stressful, job I ever had. You have a role that is accountable to all the men and women in uniform.  Everything thing DoD did, for security and protection, was based on technology.” One of Teri’s fondest memories was that her dad, coming full circle, attended her swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon. Teri worked for four different Cabinet Secretaries for Defense in her 3-year tenure interacting with other members of the cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“amazing leaders”).  

Having left the Federal Government, Teri is now continuing to give back by leading the Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic. “The overall role of the company is to link technology companies with state and local government.”  Teri personally guides key programs. “We do surveys, so cities, states and counties can compare themselves to each other, and get rankings/grades.  We try and provide an opportunity to share best practices and celebrate!” Teri also provides advisory services for technology companies, in government. Additionally, she works with start-ups, helping bring tech to the market.  Right now, the majority of companies she assists are in the cybersecurity industry. 

In moving forward, Teri strongly believes her unique background, and skills, emanate from both success and failures. “Sprinkled through the good stuff was a lot of learning, a lot of mistakes, and setbacks. I learned, later in life than I should have, the importance of collaboration. It takes time to understand how important all the different viewpoints are.” She also believes that networking is vital, but a person does not necessarily need to attend a lot of events or act in an extraordinarily extroverted way. Her success at building network(s) has come from “taking the opportunities, extra step, when I do meet people to ‘grow’ the relationships” selectively (focusing on “people I know are going to be long-term friends and colleagues”).   

Teri defines ultimate happiness as “having a mission in life and giving back.” Her advice to other evolving women leaders is:

  1. “Be patient with yourself, as you are going through your career.”  Understand there is a natural pace to growth. Teri acknowledged that she, sometimes, felt she was stalled in her progress, and “I think I made that into more of a crisis than it was.”   She counseled that you should simply stay open to opportunities, and appropriately ask for help.

  2. Teri is proud that colleagues have called her “a survivor” because she learned from every obstacle. “Believe in yourself. Stay the course.  Keep moving ahead.” 

  3. And finally, “follow your intuition; do what feels right.”

Teri can be most easily reached via LinkedIn.  Her profile is at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/teri-takai-607b279/.

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Ep 89: Noramay Cadena: Clean Your Closet

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing Noramay Cadena, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at MiLA (Make in LA) Capital, an exciting early stage venture fund, in Los Angeles, California.  Launched in 2015, her endeavor is a “high touch” venture capital firm, founded on two major beliefs: hardware technology can be brought to market more frugally now than in the past; and Los Angeles is an ideal ecosystem with expertise and resources to support founders who “play in the physical world.”   One hundred percent of the companies launched and supported  by MiLA are hardware ventures. 

Born in Colima, Mexico, Noramay and family emigrated to California’s San Fernando Valley, where she grew up. “My parents worked in factories, primarily,” she said. “I didn’t quite know where I wanted to be, or what I could be.”  A good student with a propensity for math and science, she noted in high school, “the world around me showed me a succinct list of possibilities.” But she was lucky. “I was tapped on the shoulder by a returning high school alumnus.”  He shared his inspiring story of “growing up around the corner,” the son of a janitor, but now studying at MIT.  Motivated, Noramay matriculated to MIT to become an engineer, with her BS in Mechanical Engineering.  Later, as she worked as an engineer at The Boeing Company, she obtained her MIT MS in Systems Engineering, and an MBA in Business. “It not only changed my life but changed the course for my parents and my siblings.”   Noramay was also a teenage mother. “And my daughter added that ‘fire in the belly’ that made me bold enough to move and do something different.”

“When I got to college, I met lots of other women, like me, who had been tapped on the shoulder,” Noramay shared.  Spread across the country, many of these women were trying to pay it forward in their communities. They banded together, first in a Facebook group. Further inspired, she co-created a foundation (The Latinas in STEM Foundation). “The organization started in 2013, and I led it for a couple of years,” Noramay said. “It is still active, inspiring and empowering young (Latina) women,” supplying programs, bilingual content and role models for them, their parents and communities. 

At the end of her professional tenure at Boeing, Noramay “realized there were forces I couldn’t control, and I was not going to grow any further” there.  Simultaneously, many in her MIT cohort had founded their own companies or moved into the venture world. “The experience of Latinas in STEM, and scaling something, and building community,” instigated her next move, to found MiLA.  “My partner and I were suckers for the ‘underdog story,’ “she laughed. So MiLA finds “smart people around the world; invests in them; and builds community around them to make them successful.” 

Since it launched in 2015, MiLA has invested in 19 companies; sponsored five accelerator cohorts; and is in the process of raising its second capital investment fund.  Looking forward, MiLA is exploring its ability to help supply chains networks become more efficient. “We are also looking for new opportunities for our founders,” Noramay said, globally. “It’s about options.  We want all our founders to be equipped with all the options and opportunities.” Noramay noted that MiLA is very “hands-on” working daily with prospective founders to overcome any challenges they might encounter, and coaching, planning and more with them.  Noramay is proud that over 33% of MiLA’s companies have female CEOs. MiLA will be focused on high opportunity verticals in the future including mobility, health, food tech, and “manufacturing 4.0.” Noramay noted that funding, particularly post-startup, is a challenge.  A key value of MiLA is it helps with “de-risking the solution and building a capital-efficient company to enable the team to attract investment.” Noramay has high expectations. “I want our fund to be seen as the primary source of deal flow for Series A investors,” over the next 3 years.

Along the way, Noramay said “I have been on the receiving end of incredible mentorship.”  When she was offered her MIT scholarship, a woman at Boeing read about it, and extended an internship at the company.  “She became my mentor throughout my full 10-year tenure at Boeing.” Her mentor acquainted her with “the corporate game,” focusing Noramay’s attention on “how to play, and how to win.”  Another mentor of hers (“a geek”) advised her to examine her career inflection point “as a system” noting that at some point “the inputs no longer affect the outputs.” This encouraged her to continuously look at her own journey, and career strategically --- a lesson she freely passes on to her MiLA-supported company founders. 

Noramay shared that her personal strength emanates from circles, friends, and family. As the new mother of  two-year old now “I really rely on groups like ‘Moms In Tech’ for support, and my ‘WhatsApp’ chat strings with my girlfriends.”   Noramay’s first daughter is a rising senior in college, and her mother said “it’s about resilience, character and grit. I see it in her. She has an incredible compassion and sense of service for others.”

Noramay has key advice for other women: “Clear your closets.” In other words, divest yourself of “the baggage” that does not contribute to positive momentum (“the experiences of parents, or past relationships”).  “It’s important that we power through and clear through some of what we are carrying so that we’re not unconsciously perpetuating” unproductive behavior. “Recognize there might be something in your past that makes you more vulnerable” to being manipulated; face it, and get rid of it.

Noramay Cadena can be reached on Twitter at @noramayc, and via the web at https://www.makeinla.com/.

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Ep 88: Michelle Greene: Bring Your Authentic Self

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing the well-traveled, accomplished, dynamic Michelle Greene, Vice President of Information Technology at Masco Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of products for home improvement, and the construction market.  An $8.5 billion conglomerate, comprising more than 20 companies, Masco operates nearly 60 manufacturing facilities in the United States and over 20 in other parts of the world.  It designs and produces cabinetry, windows, plumbing, and exterior products, with brands including more than 50 household names like Merrilat, Behr, Kraftmaid, Cardell, Delta, Brasscraft, Duraflex, Milgard, and more.

Michelle was born and raised in Valdosta, Georgia.  “My mother believed that, due to my close relationship with my aunt, I might be a school teacher.” But her predilections took her in a different direction. “What I recognized quickly was my ability to lead!” So Michelle completed her business bachelor’s degree at Valdosta State University, and a masters’ degree with a dual focus in higher education and information sciences from Florida State University. “I had a great mentor at Florida State,” she said, who assisted with her resume, negotiating skills and perspective.  With masters in hand, she entered the workforce as a business analyst at Mellon Bank, at headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa.   After two years, she migrated to Raleigh, North Carolina for another analyst position at Ericsson, “which soon became Sony Ericsson,” a global leader in mobile communications. 

Michelle progressed from business analyst to project manager, which eventually led her to accept a Sony Ericsson global program manager position. “I went to Sweden on a short-term assignment,” Michelle said.  That assignment doubled in duration, helping Michelle recognize “my own ability to make it work, wherever I am. If the opportunity and the job is good, I will figure the rest out!” She developed an appreciation for Sweden, the lifestyle, and customs.  The career positions helped hone her variety of skills. “The first big global program I led was a datacenter move,” she said, shepherding the company’s formerly outsourced center back inside the corporation. That project propelled a variety of promotions, with Michelle moving from managing the center, to a service management job back in the states, to the global management of Sony’s network services, to her final Sony Ericsson job, Director of Business Infrastructure worldwide. In that role, Michelle directed an annual budget of $70 million; managed all global infrastructure resources on three continents; and led global outsourcing, partners and suppliers for information technology. “That was the first time I had a leader approach me and say: ‘I am planning to move to something else; once I move, I would like you to be ready for this’….” said Michelle.  “I was groomed and mentored. It was amazing.” This resulted in Michelle getting promoted and returning to North America. “My reputation preceded me. I was someone who could get things done. I was a bit of a ‘turnaround’ person.” While she appreciated the promotion, she struggled with moving back. “I enjoyed living abroad!”

Michelle believes in the magic of connections.  Within a year of her return to the states, “The CIO for Sony-Ericsson (Colin Boyd) who had previously moved to Johnson Controls reached out and said:  “I think you will be great for this company!” Boyd was instrumental in providing the chance for her to move to that larger company, further test leadership skills, and take on new challenges. Michelle stayed with Johnson Controls for nine years, first working in their Buildings Division in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for 3 years; then heading up the Automotive Electronics and Interiors Division in Holland, Michigan from 2012 to 2015. Then she moved back to headquarters as Vice President of Business Partnership, for the entire enterprise.  Like Michelle’s previous functions, this represented a chance to prove her ability to impel a turnaround. “Many people don’t get the need for partnerships from the IT standpoint,” she said. “I was the first person to do this job. We built a team and made progress from there.” Michelle credited her mentors at Johnson Controls, and outside the company, for inspiring and empowering her. “I have had some very good coaches, along the way.” When Masco reached out to recruit her, “I had people I could go to” who provided advice about the appropriateness of her next career steps. “At this point in my career, it’s about the next move.  Do I need to step outside my comfort zone?”  

Following mentors’ advice, in 2018, Michelle joined Masco, in her current role as Vice President, IT. “I have been blessed with good teams,” she said. “I’ve made it my practice, when I take over a new team, to do one-on-ones with every member, so I can understand and I can meet you, where you are.”  She emphasized that her mission is to offer “authentic and strong leadership” in her current role, and all future roles. “I feel like we don’t have enough leaders in IT. I have the ability to effect change because of my leadership style.” Michelle noted that her personal strengths include authenticity, being a life-long student of leadership best practices, and wielding “influence without authority” in order to “get things done” without direct resources, in some circumstances. 

Michelle’s primary rule is “take chances.” In her career, she has been unafraid to move or travel to new countries; tackle new problems; and start new initiatives.  As she coaches teams, she is a strong believer in clear communication. “I am finding, day-to-day, our biggest source of issues is you did not have a conversation with someone, or you did not take the time to be effective in the way you were getting across your message.”   She is enthusiastic about her “fantastic” Masco team. “The majority are long-time Masco” employees and seem to appreciate her “outside-in perspective,” helping Michelle “navigate the waters, internally, at Masco” while she offers them an external lens. Her plans include the ability to extend the benefits of the information technology organization throughout the larger global organization, not just at headquarters but across the enterprise. “We don’t always leverage and maximize our spending, our licensing, our approach, our solutions.” Her vision is to propel that, worldwide. 

Along the way, when she met either gender or race bias, Michelle candidly said: “I recognized, I cannot wear it on my sleeve. That’s their problem; not mine.” Her key pieces of advice when contending with prejudices are: “Don’t take it personally.  And don’t give away your power. Don’t let it define you; and don’t carry it around with a chip on your shoulder, because, in reality, there are more people who do not” exhibit racism nor bias.  

Michelle is often asked to speak to girls and women, on the topic of leadership.  She recommended a book by Carla Harris called EXPECT TO WIN, which outlines ten proven strategies for thriving at work.  Michelle also enthused about Marshall Goldsmith’s WHAT GOT YOU HERE WON’T GET YOU THERE, which exhorts successful leaders to examine the small “transactional flaws” that keep even the most high-performing individuals from reaching the next pinnacle . “We do need to make adjustments” along the way, according to Michelle. 

Key success tips Michelle often offers to girls and women are:

  1. “Be clear about who you are, and what you would like to do. Understand WHY you are doing something. Know yourself and be true to yourself.”

  2. Don’t give in to limits nor allow barriers to success. “We say we want these glorious and fantastic careers,” but then often make excuses, or compromises, that impede personal progress.

  3. Find the balance between “sharing too much” personal information and being both authentic and personable. “It’s important to be business colleagues but find a common ground” to cultivate empathy.

Michelle also stressed how crucial it is to understand “authenticity,” and clarify “what it means to you, so you know how to show up” in professional settings.  The earlier you get a mentor and a coach, the better it will be for your career development.

Essentially, Michelle is balanced, focused and extremely happy. “For me, I am working all the time: night, mornings.” She does commit to activities that allow for some life balance, defined as fluid for her. (“I love going to the spa. I enjoy traveling! Although sometimes traveling with my friends means I bring my laptop,” but then she puts it away to have fun.)  

In her volunteer life, Michelle is very active with nonprofit organizations to give back.  She sits on the board of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Goodwill; and is also a key board member for PEARLS for TEEN GIRLS, a unique leadership development program serving middle schoolers and high school girls in Wisconsin.  She also recently joined the board of Michigan’s DPTV, viewer-supported public television in Southeast Michigan. 

“I have been blessed to make conscious choices. I wanted to be in a position to focus on my career, and I don’t have to make compromises or sacrifices when it comes to my family or other relationships.”  The elements of her joy include: “great career and great wine!” She also stressed that “failure, for me, is not an option. I keep it in the back of my mind, to keep me grounded. But I am not allowing it to be an option.”

Michelle can be reached at mgreene0289@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

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Ep 87: Sonja Gittens-Ottley: Remember Your Power and Worth

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana, a leading work management platform designed to help teams organize, track, and manage work, for team clarity and collaboration. (Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, is also co-founder of Asana, which undoubtedly elevates the company’s standing among Silicon Valley startups.) Sonja’s major mission is setting standards to drive inclusivity and equity in the workplace. As a first generation transplant to the United States, she immigrated in 2004 from The West Indies. “I am the married mother of a 4-year old boy,” Sonja said. “That has shaped my work and my approach to diversity, because I am bringing up a child in this society. How can what I do today, impact his life, and shape his opportunities for the future?”

Growing up in The Republic of Trinidad/Tobago, Sonja did not have aspirational limits placed upon her. Growing up “we had really structured expectations of what were ‘cool’ jobs. Good jobs were being an educator or lawyer or perhaps an engineer. But the idea of being a technologist did not exist.”  Sonja became an attorney, earning a bachelor’s of law degree from The University of the West Indies in Barbados, and a graduate degree from The Hugh Wooding Law School. As a lawyer, she worked at both the Ministry of  Legal Affairs/Office of the Attorney General in her home country, and the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. Now she is adamant that “Inclusion is defined by thinking about all the opportunities; ensuring that everyone has access; not being confined to what society says you should be doing.” 

Sonja’s transition from law to the tech industry was prompted by her marriage and move to the U.S. for what was originally planned as a two-year stint. “But I got the option to work at a company called Yahoo.” There she implemented project management and did legal internal consulting: “an opportunity too good to pass up!” When Yahoo established a human rights program, Sonja played a significant role. That naturally led to working with Yahoo’s corporate policy making team for diversity and inclusion. “Multinational groups and organizations, and human rights activists were using the company’s tools in a really different way,” Sonja explained. To better understand customer product needs and motivations, she emphasized that  “The company has to look like their diverse customer base to really be representative of how products are being used and the potential products that they might use. Imagine the products we could build if people inside companies reflected all users!”

From Yahoo, Sonja moved to Facebook as the company’s Global Diversity Program Manager, and then to Asana as Head of Diversity/Inclusion, where “I get to work across the entire company.”  To empower Asana’s diversity, she focused on two strategic pillars: recruiting candidates (“how do we get the best people from everywhere”) and employee evaluation and growth (“how do we ensure they are assessed in a fair manner.”) She stressed that “the culture is really supportive” and that neither pillar can exist without the other; diverse recruitment and accommodating a nurturing culture must work in tandem.  She works closely with the company’s University Recruiting team and targets other events that attract diverse attendees and potential talent. To expand inclusion and diverse thinking she works with a variety of supportive initiatives like ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) for internal communities where, “making space for the community, and space for allies to learn more is paramount…”. Today, there are three groups:  Asana Women, Asana Gradient (for people of color), and Asana Team Rainbow (for LGBTQ employees). According to Sonja, “They are open to people who identify in those communities and also to employee allies of these groups.” Each group autonomously sets its objectives, but all three are aligned, overall, to the greater Asana mission. One practical approach that Asana initiated to support inclusion is the Asana Real Talk series where people can engage in honest, authentic discussions about overcoming challenges, communicating purpose and driving change, individually and in the greater world/workplace. Sonja also does onboarding sessions with all Asana team members ensuring , “ what is important to us,” is emphasized and they understand how vital inclusion is to the company. Additionally, Sonja concentrates on initiating and strengthening policies such as the liberal Family Leave policy (“this is something open to everyone --- all genders”) to support a diverse, inclusive culture.  When speaking about feedback on programs and innovations in this area, Sonja proudly exclaimed: “The beauty of Asana is that it is really transparent,” so any question asked about progress is answered with data. She added, “People are not shy, they ask the questions.”

Much of Sonja’s leadership is enabled through wielding influence and her tips for doing that include: “Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Be honest. If you are not sure what the results are going to be, say so. People want clarity on an objective --- possible issues, risks involved, and probable results.”  For those who want to work at a company with strong diversity and inclusion orientation, she advised, “You have power. You have a brand. You can ask for what you want the company to reflect to both internal and external audiences. It can be as easy as asking in an all-hands: ‘You say you care about diversity and inclusion; what are the actions we’re taking? How welcoming is our workplace? For companies initially adopting diversity and inclusion programs, Sonja recommends conducting a company-wide engagement survey with questions about “belonging” to gauge employee’s perspectives. “There are great online resources,” Sonja said, to create the surveys. (Diva Note: SHRM, Society for Human Resource Management, has created one, and evaluated a series of others).  “Think of it as an audit to see where you are.”  Sonja cautioned that acting NOW is more prudent than waiting. “The longer you take to do this, the harder it is.  If you have an HR team, someone needs to carve out time to think about culture, and employee engagement. And you should be thinking about policies.  Are they inclusive and welcoming to everyone?” She pointed to some of the mundane but vital questions a company can ask itself: “What is our restroom situation? Should we have ‘all gender’ restrooms?  Are we thinking about ‘mother’s rooms’? You should be thinking about these questions in terms of creating company policy.” For recruiting in companies without a dedicated diversity expert, she suggested: “You should be thinking about interview skills and training.”  At Asana, the company has reviewed and addressed bias in interviewing and concentrates on skill-sets rather than a candidate’s former companies.  

To measure diversity and inclusion success, Sonja said: “At Asana, we look at it as we would any other objective, in terms of both qualitative and quantitative data. What’s our new hire rate? How is it mapping to our goals? Through surveys, tracking employee engagement as well as monitoring  sense of belonging in terms of the overall company, and how are specific groups doing, and the intersectionality of these groups.” The intersectionality data can offer “very different pictures,” according to Sonja. 

To keep goals on track, Sonja and Asana do several things:

  1. Monthly “All Hands” company-wide meeting with topics focused on diversity and inclusion progress;

  2. Use of company-wide Slack communication channel and Asana to consistently, transparently share diversity and cultural data; 

  3. “Office Hours” and “Ask Me Anything” sessions dedicated to diversity/inclusion/culture, “where people can ask questions” or propose new approaches.

In addition to Asana Real Talk series, Sonja is very proud of the recent apprenticeship program the company launched, AsanaUp. “It was about a year in the making,” she said. “We were thoughtful and intentional about widening that funnel of great candidates coming from non-traditional backgrounds.”  In the AsanaUP apprenticeship, the company welcomes candidates from all backgrounds and without university computer science degrees (with other degrees, from coding schools, or parents returning to the workforce) to join the company for 6-9 months and work alongside software engineers.  The apprentices “are engineers at Asana. I am really proud of the teams I worked with to get this done,” Sonja said, , “It was a cross-collaborative effort, in the best sense.” Asana plans to expand the program in the immediate future.

Sonja characterized herself as “an eternal optimist.”  In her view, “everyone can make a difference. Children are the future, and they have no limits.”  She loves to laugh, and “see the humor in every situation.” That attitude helps her make progress on challenges that can appear, at times, to be challenging.  “There are people out there who don’t have access to the opportunities,” she said. “I plan to be working on lengthening that pipeline. This has to be done with really great partners like the Grace Hopper Celebration conference”. “Part of the work is reminding people that this is really important. We, often, forget that this is new and uncomfortable for a lot of people: to talk about race or gender or any of the other identities that people possess. Getting people to a place of comfort is how you change things.”  Sonja emphatically believes that to overcome diversity challenges, everyone must develop “a real sense of empathy; people might look different than you, might sound different, but we are all trying to do the same thing. Be respectful to others.” The most important thing Sonja would like to do is “remind people of their own power and their own worth.  It makes a difference in what you can achieve!”

Sonja Gittens-Ottley can be reached via LinkedIn and Asana can be viewed via the web at https://asana.com/.

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