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:
“Never undermine yourself. The way you portray yourself is exactly how others will see you.”
“Network, network, network.” Sireesha regrets personally forgetting to do this at points in her career and is trying to make up for that now.
“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 email@example.com.
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