As humans, we’re all resilient creatures. We’ve survived world wars, epidemics, recessions, and have grown through them. Some of the biggest companies were founded during recessions. So this experience, too, will make us stronger — individually and collectively. This is our time to find what’s meaningful to us and create time for it.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heena Purohit.
Heena is a Lead Product Manager at IBM Watson IoT where she leads the development of AI and IoT based offerings for industrial and manufacturing customers. Prior to IBM, Heena was a technology consultant at Accenture where she helped Fortune 500 companies transform their business processes. She has a dual major MBA from the University of Notre Dame and was awarded the University’s Recent Alumni Service award for her work in supporting women in STEM and workplace diversity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Thank you for interviewing me. Since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by technology. As a kid, it started with playing computer games and grew to trying to understand how the internet and cell phones helped all of us stay connected. I decided to learn more about this by pursuing an undergraduate degree in electronics and telecommunication engineering. During school, I designed IoT solutions even before the term “IoT” was mainstream. Post school, I worked as a technology consultant at Accenture and later decided to pursue my MBA to gain a more well-rounded business acumen. Post my MBA, I pursued a Product Management role in IBM’s Watson IoT group, where I could bring together all my previous experiences to make an impact.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
More thana story I want to share a realization. While my interest at IBM Watson IoT started with my background on IoT and my desire to create products that help customers leverage sensors to collect exponentially more data, I slowly realized that the value for companies was driven by the what they did with that data. That’s where the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and IoT data comes in to help companies achieve the digital transformation they are striving for. And interestingly enough, companies don’t need IoT sensors to begin this transformation journey — IoT is just one more way of capturing data. Since then, my attention and interest has shifted to leveraging data and AI to make better decisions and to transform the way organizations and people work.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve been involved in launching products that use AI to solve key business problems. My first product helped quality engineers use computer vision to detect product quality issues. The next one I launched helped technicians obtain AI-driven guidance on the procedures they should follow to maintain, repair or operate equipment by using NLP to process the “dark data” in their systems or external data such as work history, industry blogs, journals, maintenance standards, etc.
With every product decision, I’m asking myself and our team the question: “How will this change help our users perform their jobs safer, faster and more effectively?”. And we know there are some things humans do really well and some things that AI does really well. Of late, I’ve been focused on making sure we are designing AI solutions that combine AI and human intelligence in a way that empowers users and augments their knowledge to help them make better decisions. We’re excited to launch some key product features based on empowering users with augmented intelligence as one of our guiding principles.
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?
My father has been one of my biggest role models and cheerleaders. He’s always pushed me to dream big and supported my biggest life decisions, no matter how risky they were, and made sure I knew he was by my side. Being a STEM enthusiast himself, he would always ask me brain teasers involving STEM concepts to fascinate me to keep learning more — so I also owe my natural curiosity in STEM to him.
We’ve also helped each other through reverse mentoring. Growing up, he could see instances where I was assertive, ambitious and demonstrated natural leadership skills and since he always perceived these as typically masculine traits, he would call me one of his “sons”. Until one day as a teen I told him I enjoyed being a girl, wearing dresses and putting on makeup. I think that opened his eyes and made him see how girls can be strong, career-oriented and be “GirlBoss(es)” before that became mainstream.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has made all of us rethink various aspects of our lives. As a millennial living continents away from my “high-risk” baby boomer parents, my biggest family related challenges were pertaining to the health and safety of my loved ones.
While I’ve been closely tracking the pandemic outbreak in my city and taking necessary precautions, my parents started off taking the situation very lightly. My biggest challenge was making them adjust their attitudes towards the situation.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I wanted my parents to be alert while not getting scared or paranoid. I would check in on them regularly and tried to stay involved in their lives, constantly reminding them to be careful. I would share all the preventative measures I was taking to try and set an example and encourage them to do the same. For them, this meant not attending any social gatherings, including volunteering activities and avoiding unnecessary contact with people or errands.
I also sent them videos of what was happening in other parts of the world such as Italy, despite quarantine measures. This helped them understand what they’ll need to be prepared, including stocking up on food, supplies, and medicines. I also helped them set up online grocery ordering, preventing them from going in-store, trying to use technology wherever possible.
While I understand these moves upsetting their daily routine, what I found most effective in getting them to listen to me was appealing to their parental instincts and just revealing that I was scared for their health and wellbeing. This way, they tried to listen to me wherever possible to support me and keep me from being anxious and fearful.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Most technology firms were ahead of the curve in asking employees to work from home. While this helped make sure the employees were (relatively) safer, we all had to reset our workplaces.
While this move did not change our day-to-day work, it required us to design our own rituals for working from home effectively. Some of my biggest work challenges have been around this transition to working from home for such an extended period.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I spent the first few weeks working much longer days and as someone living alone, I was struggling with social isolation. I had to hit the reset button and introspect on how I spent my time at work and outside work to identify aspects that were important to me. I then tried to be intentional about designing a ritual around it.
I missed the sense of community and culture we feel in the office. To combat this, I tried to encourage team members to use video wherever possible to replicate the in-person experiences. We’ve now also created a virtual office culture through events such as happy hours (kids and pets welcome), and coffee chats to discuss semi-formal topics to replicate office experiences. We also have a lot more group chats on Slack where we not only discuss work but also have competitions for the best memes and giphys. Things like these help us stay connected as a team.
If you’re leading a team that’s working remote for the first time, it is also very helpful to set ground rules such as turning off phones, no multitasking or emails, etc. One of the biggest reasons I was having longer days was because of more meetings, so I’ve started to decline invitations if items can be discussed over email. So I had to be mindful of where I was spending my time and try to optimize it.
On the personal front, I’ve allocated a target start and end time for work and dress up and prepare for work the way I would if I were going to the office. This helps shift my mind to “work mode”. I also try to make time for the activities important to me such as working out, reading, listening to music, etc. With the blurring lines between work and personal time, I also now have “offline” hours where I resist any temptation to check email or IM, unless I receive a call or text regarding something urgent.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
‘Know thyself’ and know what helps you stay sane as a person. And do everything you still can even while sheltering in place. As women in STEM, we’re often open to experiment with new technologies. So if there’s a technology solution for the problem you have, try it.
For example, if you’re an extrovert who’s accustomed to a lot of social contact, make sure that still happens. Ask yourself: “How will I protect myself from feeling lonely or isolated?” and make a plan around it. I’m someone who enjoys working in groups and had to flip 180 to work 100% remote. So I’ve used different virtual office applications such as Tandem and Regus to replicate the team experiences.
On the personal front, I set up Zoom/Hangout sessions and play virtual games with my friends and loved ones to stay connected. Similarly, if staying healthy and exercising is important for you, create time for that in your day. In sum: make sure you make time and space for you and your priorities.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
We know it’s an anxious and uncertain time for everyone. But like everything else, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Here are my Top 5 reasons to be hopeful:
- As humans, we’re all resilient creatures. We’ve survived world wars, epidemics, recessions, and have grown through them. Some of the biggest companies were founded during recessions. So this experience, too, will make us stronger — individually and collectively. This is our time to find what’s meaningful to us and create time for it.
- There are stories of unsung heroes all around us. Our frontline workers, for example, are showcasing selflessness and bravery by stepping forward and risking their own health and safety to improve the lives of the people and world around them. Remind yourself of acts like these stories to build hope and strength in you to keep pushing yourself
- Think about the time saved: No more commutes and office distractions. This is the perfect time to remind yourself of all the things you felt you didn’t have time for, and go do them. Maybe it’s cooking home cooked meals every day, trying to learn to meditate, picking up a new hobby or skill, sharing bedtime stories with your kids. This is your opportunity to finally do those things in that extra time you saved
- Remind yourself that you do not have power over outside events, but you have power over your mind. So take care of your mind by acknowledging your feelings, journaling to process your emotions and practicing mindfulness — all while setting limits on news since it’s designed to make you fearful and anxious.
- Social distancing does not mean you have to socially isolate. Stay connected with your loved ones and schedule virtual hangouts with friends. Experiment with different apps such as Hangout or other party games if you want to, but remind yourself that you’re not alone. And in this connected world, you can use this time to build your community. I met a group of wonderful Women interested in AI through a Facebook group, and we now meet every week to have virtual learning parties and I’ve been enjoying the peer sharing and learning experience.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
There is no doubt these are stressful and volatile times. And I understand why we all feel powerless and afraid. When offering support to our family and loved ones, it won’t help to just ask them to remain positive and grateful. Instead, what will help is to showcase messages that we are all in this together.
There are many online posts which showcase the power of love and community during these dire times. There are touching videos of people singing to each other and playing live music together on balconies and rooftops in Barcelona or Italy. There are people leaving supplies and kind messages for mailmen and asking them to pick up whatever they need: groceries, beverages, medication or supplies. Whenever I come across a post showcasing such love and kindness, I share it with my community to remind us of the positivity in the world. Spread kindness wherever you go, online or offline.
If people around you share their anxiety with you, to support them you should ask questions to find out what’s driving the anxiety and try to break their thought patterns by telling them stories of how they’ve overcome similar hard situations in the past or by creating a distraction to take their mind off it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” — A perfect reminder to always keep dreaming bigger and to continue chasing your goals
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