Sonal Naik: “Find a way to self-promote in a way that feels authentic to you”

Find a way to self-promote in a way that feels authentic to you. Some women don’t feel comfortable voicing their accomplishments and success — I too have struggled with this until I realized I can self-promote in a way that still feels like me. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and […]

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Find a way to self-promote in a way that feels authentic to you. Some women don’t feel comfortable voicing their accomplishments and success — I too have struggled with this until I realized I can self-promote in a way that still feels like me.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonal Naik.

Sonal Naik is a national leader of Deloitte Catalyst, a Consulting Innovation team that is at the intersection of Deloitte, its clients, and the startup ecosystem. She brings over 20 years of consulting experience to this role with a focus on innovation and client experience. Sonal leads and coordinates across four Catalyst Hubs — Silicon Valley, Austin, New York and Tel Aviv. The Catalyst team is responsible for curating and building targeted relationships across the startup ecosystem in a prioritized set of technology and sector domains, including AI, FinTech, and Healthcare.

Prior to this role, Sonal was a founder of the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience, a unique offering for Deloitte clients focused on designing breakthrough experiences in the areas of visioning, strategy, innovation and transformation in dedicated spaces called Greenhouses. Sonal designed and facilitated over 350 immersive experiences on a variety of focus areas across multiple industries and Fortune 500 clients. She also applied her innovation skills to re-define the client experience across Deloitte and cascaded it to 60K+ practitioners through a disciplined learning & development strategy. This included the development of client experience IP (named Moments that Matter and Business Chemistry) that have been instrumental in developing Deloitte leaders and extended to clients as a toolkit to improve their customer experience.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I knew early on that I had a penchant for math and a quantitative way of solving challenges, so I sought out a career where I could apply these inclinations. I entered the field of engineering with a view to develop a strong foundation of critical and analytical thinking — plus, coming from a family of engineers, it felt natural to follow this path and I was able to draw on their experiences as I started out.

When I began consulting, I was so energized by the vast range of problem sets I was solving for, and the opportunity to work across a breadth of industries.

At some point, it occurred to me that the common denominator to any business problem my firm was working on was technology. Even then, I could see early indicators of how tech solutions and large enterprises could intersect to generate business value — so the roots of the Catalyst program were already there.

During this time, I was exposed to work that Deloitte was doing and met a number of incredible people from the firm. It was immediately apparent that each one of them was deeply connected to their client’s work and mission; it was more than just another paycheck for them. I was looking for more purposeful work, and Deloitte seemed like the place where purposeful work was happening. I’m delighted to say I haven’t been disappointed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Across economies, we’re seeing a rise in ecosystems and how different sectors can collaborate to be more efficient, but that has always been core to our model at Deloitte. We have always played the role of conveners.

A great example of that is how we responded to the Cares Act of 2020, which had significant implications on the financial system through the PPP and other small business protection programs. Banks went from processing a handful of loans to having to intake hundreds, if not more, and needing to move very quickly to get disbursement to businesses in order for them to pay their employees and survive.

As a team, we had several relationships with fintech companies, and we quickly recognized the need to work together to find solutions — fast. Each of these companies focused on different aspects of the process from managing data ingestion, loan onboarding, and managing credit and risk profiles — we saw an opportunity to bring the full ecosystem together in order to provide our financial services clients with a one-stop-shop solution to their business challenge. Normally this would take years to bring together, between building the strategy, complex contracting and interfacing these solutions. We were able to make huge progress within weeks taking a MVP to market. This was ultimately the foundation for a new Deloitte Consulting business offering for the financial services industry. It’s a testament to the power of ecosystems.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

One of my colleagues has a great saying: “You can’t read the label if you’re in the jar.” Through the Catalyst program, we’ve recognized that to innovate, you need to look outside your walls. This is critical to address the problems of today and explore the opportunities of the future.

We designed the Catalyst program to help organizations connect what’s happening within to innovations outside their organization, primarily in the start-up sector, but also in incubators, accelerators and the investment community, to build the best solutions. We think of it as a startup ecosystem. This is not a nights and weekends effort; rather, a dedicated, structured team with Deloitte that is responsible for helping our Consulting business examine the issues and find effective technology solutions that allow us to build and sell with startups as partners. We always look at the full landscape of possible collaboration options and choose the right one with the right solution.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There are so many exciting things in the works. The beauty of the Catalyst program, and why I love my job, is that these startup ecosystems touch every industry and area of academia, spanning private and public sectors. You name a big-picture issue today and we’re probably working on it. Ecosystems allow us to combine the best from every sector and technology to create more value than the sum of their parts and drive a real impact on markets, lives and governments.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

There are still several challenges to involving more women in STEM fields. I think of three main ones: a lack of young girls in STEM; a small talent pipeline overall; and retention in tech roles at all levels. These are all connected. If we get more girls involved younger, it’ll have a trickle-down effect to the others. I see evidence of this root challenge when I drop my daughter off at a coding camp.

There have been a lot of positive, encouraging changes, though. There are more women in leadership positions right now who realize the importance of sponsoring, mentoring and being more vocal and present examples for young women. More women who have made it recognize the power of their platform. They’re starting or participating in organizations like Black Girls Code.

I believe that if you don’t see it, then you won’t be it. More women in STEM and leadership positions will help encourage younger generations of girls to get involved, which will driver a stronger talent pipeline and address retention.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One that immediately comes to mind is the drop-off of women leaders at manager and senior manager levels in tech fields. This attrition usually coincides with key life milestones like having a family. To address retention, organizations need targeted programs to mentor and retain women at these key junction points. Equalizing paternity and maternity leave policies will also help formalize the shared expectations between men and women parents, creating more opportunity and equality at work.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

There’s a myth around the success and leadership positions that so many women in this field have achieved — a myth that once you’ve “made it,” the work stops. Just recently, I heard a very senior woman technical leader have to justify why she was in a meeting, when her male counterparts did not. Unfortunately, the work never stops, and women will continue to encounter bias and inequality, despite all the great progress that has been made.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Find a way to self-promote in a way that feels authentic to you. Some women don’t feel comfortable voicing their accomplishments and success — I too have struggled with this until I realized I can self-promote in a way that still feels like me. This will probably look different for everyone. If you’re nervous about starting out, try this: the next time you are one on one with someone, find a way to organically integrate the things that you’ve done into the conversation. We meet so many new people and it can feel more natural to weave in your story to conversation when you’re one on one.

2. Know your story like the lyrics to your favorite song. Opportunities to self-advocate can arise at the most unexpected times — like when waiting in line for coffee or on a plane. That’s why I recommend working on your one paragraph story a few times a year — or more if you can — so that you’re ready when you have an opportunity to self-promote. This paragraph is something that should be revisited and updated all the time because you’re constantly growing your skills and doing great work. It’s important to keep it concise, but the shortest content can often be the hardest to write, so start with a paragraph and hone it every few months.

3. Once you’ve gotten your story down, practice! It’s simple, but so true. Even if you know your story by heart, you’ll only truly be comfortable self-promoting when you’ve said it out loud a few times. We practice presentations for the same reason: it builds confidence and will flow more smoothly. It may even prompt you to tweak a few things!

4. Make an effort to connect with your colleagues. It’s so important to invest time in your relationships at work. I’ve truly benefitted from those who have mentored me along the way, and it’s so gratifying and rewarding to mentor others. Relationships with your leaders and peers are equally important. By developing this trust and mutual respect, you can more easily find common ground and work towards your shared goals.

5. Stay curious and never stop learning. In a field that’s constantly changing, evolving, and innovating, there are so many opportunities for growth and self-evolution. Asking questions, connecting with different groups and staying up to date on the latest industry news is the best way to ensure you’re well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities out there.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Avoid path dependency at all costs.

Path dependency is when you do something one way because that’s how it’s always been done. I’m a creative problem solver, so I’m always trying to approach things in a new way, challenging the norm. Consulting has instilled this in me because we’re always trying on different perspectives for clients. Resisting path dependency and always looking for the best solution — not the easiest — will pave the way for progress and growth.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Managing a large team inevitably requires navigating different perspectives or opinions as you work towards a shared goal. To do this, find common ground between the different individuals or schools of thought and use this as an incentive to bring all groups along the way. You could think of this as influencing, but I think of it as a more precise way to shape collaboration. The art of more frequent conversation and building on areas of shared alignment is easier than constantly debating the differences. I’ve found this approach to managing large teams very effective.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had several influential mentors at different points of my career, particularly when I’ve changed course. When I was considering a big step, I went to a mentor as a sounding board and shared my uncertainty. They gave me very clear direction and pushed me to take this step, but I was still reticent, and they ended up giving me a much-needed nudge by connecting me with the other leader spearheading this new program and suggesting we have a conversation. I wasn’t “volunteered” necessarily, but he gave me the nudge to have a conversation that I probably would have delayed. The lesson for me was that your mentors often know when you’re ready for things, when you may feel otherwise.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

So many of the world’s problems can be solved by bringing together the right people and solutions. I’d like to think that we do this through the Catalyst program I lead at Deloitte. Take my earlier example of financial services and fintechs coming together within just a few weeks to support the roll-out of PPP loans. The pandemic also accelerated our work in the area of digital and virtual health and this progress will have a long-lasting impact on access, health equity and personalized approaches as we make the shift towards health and wellness vs. sick care. I’m really proud of my team for the work we’re doing as it’s centered on the challenges of today and the opportunities of tomorrow.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Access to education and healthcare. My passion for these movements is rooted in my family history, as my parents were immigrants who came from very small means and significantly shifted their life trajectories through education. This embedded a value of education and hard work in my brother and me. I also lost both my parents to illness in 2014, and through this loss saw how important good quality healthcare is. I believe that access to quality education and quality healthcare are fundamental rights, the same as the right to breathe.

What is your favorite life lesson quote?

I have two:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” — Dalai Lama

Who do I want to have a private breakfast or lunch with?

Both of my parents lost a parent very early and the remaining grandparents passed away when I was very young, so I never was able to form relationships with them and learn from them. Despite significant adversity, they found a way to move forward and I would have loved to hear the stories of my parents when they were young. So, I have a real desire to have a meal with my grandparents and talk about their lives so I can better understand my mother and father’s history and my own.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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