It all starts with a dream, which is fueled by an unwavering passion and an insight into the unique solution you’re offering. (Even if the world doesn’t know they need what you have created, they will once you introduce it!) #embracedisruption!
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing D. Sangeeta.
D. Sangeeta is the founder and CEO of Gotara, a global career growth platform for women in STEM+. Its mission is to close the gender gap and help STEM+ women stay and thrive in their careers. It’s a passion for Sangeeta because she came very close to being one of the 40% of STEM women who leave their careers within the first five years.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a home where my siblings and I were encouraged to be curious, get an education and have big dreams. We lived on the Indian Institute of Technology campus in Kanpur, where my father was a chemistry professor. My mother didn’t have an education, but both my parents were adamant that my sister and I have the same opportunities as our brothers and that meant going to university. After completing my master’s in chemistry, I set my sights on going to the States to do a PhD. At the time, no one in my family had been outside of India, but my dad was my biggest supporter. He never batted an eye when I said I wanted to go. I left the country as a single woman when most girls my age were getting married, but my dad knew I had bigger goals to achieve. I completed my PhD and post-doc work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then spent the next 26+ years working at GE Aviation, Nielsen and Amazon. Just before the pandemic hit, I quit my job as VP of Connections at Amazon to launch Gotara, a global career growth platform for women in STEM+. In addition to my Dad, I’ve been fortunate to have amazing mentors along the way who encouraged and pushed me to explore avenues I hadn’t even considered. Being open to new experiences and opportunities has led me to where I am today and I’m immensely grateful.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I left my role as VP of Connections at Amazon, I thought I would launch my startup in either Seattle or Cincinnati and hire a local team and set up shop. Instead, I embraced what’s coined “the future of work” ahead of the curve and hired a virtual team. The pandemic came along but we were already functioning virtually with the best talent from the US, Canada and India. We didn’t skip a beat.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Building a team virtually requires some imagination. Once we tried to have a happy hour, but with a global team it was early morning for some, mid-day for others and the middle of the night for the crew in India. We still call our virtual gatherings “happy-hours,” but the emphasis now is on sharing stories about our lives and sharing milestones like the birth of our first Gotara babies!
This isn’t really a mistake, but I always found it an amusing challenge, when I’d ask my CTO to share his opinion in one minute. He has the kind of brilliant mind that when you ask him for the time, he tells you how the watch is made. He’s become more succinct, and I’ve also learned to appreciate how his coding brain — with all its complexity — is the reason we were able to launch an enterprise platform in record time. And that’s the time that matters most!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In many ways, growing up (and sometimes fighting) with my two brothers — prepared me for dealing with the challenges of being one of the few women studying sciences at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It’s a great ratio for dating, but that’s about it! I didn’t know anything different, and I learned to use it to my advantage. Leaders tell you when you’re starting out to try to get yourself noticed. Well, when I walked into a room — the only woman and often the only person of color — I got noticed! Everyone knew who I was, and I made sure to make a lasting impression. That’s not to say that I was indifferent to the biases and hurdles I encountered. When I was 29, I took the risk to openly challenge a key business decision because I knew it wasn’t technically sound. I thought I was doing the right thing for the company — and our customers — but no one backed me up. I thought I would be fired, and for the first time, I thought about quitting and leaving STEM. For me, the environment was toxic, and I felt undervalued. Luckily a mentor stepped in and encouraged me to continue, and months later, I was vindicated when the data proved my point. But until that time — and as I lost sleep over this fiasco for a couple of months — what I didn’t know was that I was valued for what I did.
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 mentors in my career — some of them were senior to me, others were peers, and some were juniors. I’m a big fan of reverse mentoring. The mentor who has had — and continues to have an impact — is Dan Heintzelman. I met him early into my career at GE at its Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY. He was the corporate officer at GE Aviation and had come to review projects his department was funding. Mine was one of them. At the end of the review, he tapped me on my shoulder and asked if I would be interested in a marketing role at GE Aviation. I looked down at my lab coat, the goggles in my hand, and steel toe boots and thought, ‘Marketing? What’s that? I’m a scientist?’ I was anxious but excited that such a senior leader took an interest in a junior scientist.
I didn’t realize then that he was to become my sponsor at GE. At the time, I didn’t even know what a sponsor was, never mind how to build a network or find mentors. Dan was truly an angel that came in and swooped me up into a career that I am very thankful for. It was his role as a senior leader to spot talented employees and to help them grow into leaders. It was how his success was measured — and for me, it was life-changing.
From that point on, I took on new roles every two years and eventually became a general manager responsible for both technical and business roles. Today, I can lead my company, Gotara, because of the early lessons I learned about leadership and business at GE. My global experiences at Nielsen and Amazon prepared me to run a startup that is global and virtual!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you will land amongst the stars!” — Les Brown.
When I look back, there are many high points in my career and life that I would have thought impossible, but I achieved them. So did many of my team members! When you set your goals high, and you are determined, no force can stop you!
Here are four of my favorite “shoot-for-the-moon moments.”
- I was the first in my family to leave the country for higher education.
- I am one of the few STEM women to succeed and reach executive roles in male-dominated industries.
- I achieved 26 patents and two books in 4 years.
- I’ve thrived (and soared) through many major inflection points in my career: GE scientist to a marketer, Left aviation world to enter the world of market research at Nielsen, and to my latest shakeup from senior tech leader at Amazon to founder and CEO of a startup.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
There are three key points.
- Individuals: Forty percent of STEM women leave their careers within the first five years. We completed a survey of our members, and we asked them to identify the most significant factors that would influence their decision to quit or stagnate in their careers. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not primarily about compensation, benefits, or struggling to balance work and family life. The most significant factor is a toxic workplace, with 69% of the survey participants saying it would be a significant factor in their decision to leave or stagnate. Due to the lockdowns — and people’s ability to work from home — they’re not interested in returning to settings that are toxic. For businesses, it’s critical that they invest in building inclusive cultures that can survive the new virtual working reality and offer support to ensure women don’t leave or stagnate. And that’s what we focus on with our employer members and the nano-learning programs.
- Employers: Because of the #1 pain point above, employers spend up to 9 billion dollars annual in attrition-related costs, including lost productivity. Every time a resignation letter lands on a manager’s desk, it costs them. Then there is the dampening of intellectual curiosity and stifled creativity when teams lose the diverse minds that spark innovation.
- Society: It’s predicted that AI will replace up to 80% of decisions made by humans today. Today, 78% of the global AI workforce is male. If that dramatic imbalance isn’t corrected, we’re faced with a future seen and shaped primarily through the lenses of men. It’s a bias that will only further entrench the gender gap and that’s painful, sobering news. In 2016, McKinsey & Co released a report that suggested it will take a century before women close the gender gap in senior roles in corporate America. Here’s the real kicker. They found that advancing women can give the economy a boost. Enabling a genuinely female-friendly workplace could generate an additional 2.1 trillion dollars in the US economic output in 2025.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First off, our global career growth platform for women in STEM+ is disrupting the mentoring and coaching world! We have reimagined how employers can offer affordable, personalized training to grow and retain their female STEM+ talent and create a robust pipeline of future leaders. Instead of “off-the-rack,” one-size-fits-all e-learning courses or costly or ineffective 1:1 coaching sessions, we offer bespoke In-depth STAR nano-learning courses to layer into their talent strategy plan. And — here’s what every employer wants to know — we give them insights into how to help make each participant more effective and productive, insights into potential attrition risks and an early warning, so they don’t have to resort to “dive-and-save” strategies which seldom work.
For our individual members on the platform — of which there are now more than 2,700+ from 100+ countries — we offer 24/7 nano-learning advice on how to strategically address a situation that may be urgent and timely or strategic and tactical. The advice comes from Gotara advisors who are STEM+ women who understand their world. There’s a unique twist to our just-in-time nano-learning exchanges because neither the member nor the Gotara advisor she’s matched to know each other’s identity. We did this, so both feel free to have a frank exchange on sensitive topics via text without fear that anyone else will know about the conversation. There’s nothing like this in the market where the advice and support is developed by STEM+ women for STEM+ women.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are now scaling our in-depth STAR programs to many employers from small companies to larger Fortune 100 companies. The impact has been immediate and significant. Participants select two skills they want to develop during the 8-week program. To date, 94% say they improved their skills by 20–60% and 100% of them and their managers, say they recommend the program. The daily 15-min training modules have helped them to be more productive and to feel more empowered and motivated. But don’t just take it from me!
Here’s what a manager and a member said about the nano-learning programs:
“It’s important to me that we don’t just keep trying everything we’ve tried before. We look at new training opportunities to show our women we are investing in them and helping them to move into leadership positions. Each of the three participants was at a different place in her career, but as a technology leader, I liked that the program was personalized — yet structured with a framework and expectations. The STAR program exceeded my expectations in terms of what we could do in 8 weeks.” — Manager
“I know it sounds unusual that an anonymous connection would be so meaningful, but it was a lifeline. It was freeing to just say what was on my mind. It had such an impact on my life, that I’m now one of the “anonymous” Gotara advisors that members can reach out to.” — Individual member
If I may add one more personal note. I’m one of the advisors who answers questions our members send in. I have been humbled and heartened by their willingness to share meaningful and sensitive challenges that they’re facing. We’ve created a virtual space where they feel safe and supported and that’s deeply satisfying. It’s also a responsibility that all the advisors take very seriously. We want our guidance to make a difference and based on feedback we’re hitting the mark. One member described us as her “big sister in STEM.” The members rate our feedback and we’re consistently 4 or 5 out of 5. (But, as we’re perfectionists, if it’s below a 5 rating, we reach out to see how we can help further.)
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Satisfied!? Absolutely not! At Gotara we’re all about disrupting the status quo that sees 40% of women leave their STEM+ careers. These are careers they worked hard to achieve and love but find the conditions untenable. In some STEM areas, finding a woman in a senior leadership role is as rare as spotting a multi-colored unicorn — and that has to change. I think there are many wonderful initiatives to get girls thinking about STEM careers and I think companies are getting better at recruiting them. That’s the upside. The downside? They can’t keep them. And if you can’t keep them, they don’t stay long enough to become leaders who can change the rules! That’s what we want to change at Gotara. We want to work with women and their employers to create work cultures that empower and support them and address the reasons why they leave. (See Question #6 for the answer to that question.)
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
It is clear from our data that women in tech are bullied, undervalued, dumped on at work and have limited opportunities for self-improvement. There are always exceptions to this in some organizations and kudos to those leaders for creating a great inclusive environment. One participant in our STAR program who had 10+ years’ experience said our STAR program was the first training she had received in her career. The STEM+ women like her — with 2 to 15 years’ experience — are ghosted. A few superstars might receive training and encouragement, but the vast majority are forgotten and left to fend for themselves. We need to train them, recognize them, empower them in addition to driving inclusion culture at the organizations.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
My first piece of advice would be to join Gotara and ask our advisors for advice. This is a common request on the platform, and we have some strategic and actionable suggestions that we offer to members. Big picture? I’d recommend they have a candid conversation with the stakeholders and decision makers at their organizations who are in power to disrupt the status quo and create real opportunities. Secondly, I advise women to understand what is required for roles they’re interested in and identify any gaps in their skills. Seek feedback from colleagues, mentors and managers and act on the advice that resonates so they will be ready the next time an opportunity opens. It may require them to pivot to an entirely new role if they wish to grow further. If that is the case, find the best adjacent area to grow in and determine what skills you will need to learn before applying for bigger roles. If the feedback they get from stakeholders and decision makers leaves them feeling that discrimination, rather than skillset, is at the heart of the matter they may have to explore new opportunities outside their current division or organization where they’re valued because of their skills rather than their gender.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I learned early on in my career selling R&D innovations that what customers buy are benefits! If you don’t understand what the customer needs to succeed in her/his organization, nothing else matters. It’s not about selling a product or a service. We get that at Gotara. Our benefit for individuals is that we offer them timely, confidential help from trusted STEM+ advisors that helps them deal with issues, which enables them to grow in their career. We help employers with their talent development strategy and reduce their attrition costs, which also foster inclusive and innovative cultures.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Don’t make any assumptions! Interview your customers before designing a product or service to make sure it’s meaningful to them.
- Test, retest, and test again. Perform user testing with them to see if what you’re offering works before you launch. This is key to understanding the product market fit.
- Be proactive and reactive: Respond in a timely fashion to every single defect and every single complaint from the customer. Even if the solution is not in sight, keep the customer informed. Never ignore or belittle a customer because they don’t understand your technology like you do.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Churn isn’t good for anyone. You lose out and your customer hasn’t had their pain point addressed. Acquiring a new customer or replacing a customer costs 3–4 times as much! You can limit customer churn by trying the following things:
- Review the right key performance indicators like customer churn rate, every day and take action if something does not look right.
- Be proactive! Understand what stage the customer is at now and anticipate what help they will need in the next week or two. Be ready to deliver!
- Keep them informed throughout the journey.
- Before the next big renewal or upsell, understand their new needs and sell as if you may lose the contract. Never take customers for granted!
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- It all starts with a dream, which is fueled by an unwavering passion and an insight into the unique solution you’re offering. (Even if the world doesn’t know they need what you have created, they will once you introduce it!) #embracedisruption!
- Write a uber-detailed business plan and get it reviewed by experts in the area. During this process, set your ego aside, roll up your sleeves and be prepared to edit and iterate as required.
- Assess the product market fit early even before you release your MVP.
- Build a team that leaves you gob smacked! Be ready to take risks — and to empower your team to excel at what they do best.
- Without data, you just have untested opinions to grapple with. Create rigorous processes and set clear KPIs that will help you run the company. But remember that data, without the storytelling behind it, will miss the mark.
- Understand and build relationships with early adopters who are interested in your offering.
- Finally, you won’t succeed without the 3Ts: Team, Traction and TAM. This is the trifecta that will put rocket fuel in your tech startup!
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. 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. 🙂
GOTARA!!!!! I am already on it! My movement is to address the gender gap in STEM+ fields. Here’s why this movement is so important.
- Right now, 40% of STEM women leave their careers within the first five years. Gotara will help them stay and thrive, which leads to their financial independence and a sense of intellectual accomplishment.
- We’ll save employers money. Every time a resignation letter lands on a manager’s desk, it costs them. In the US alone, it adds up to 9 billion dollars annually in attrition-related costs, including lost productivity. Then there is the dampening of intellectual curiosity and stifled creativity when teams lose the diverse minds that spark innovation
- GDP growth for the country. In 2016, McKinsey & Co released a report that suggested it will take a century before women close the gender gap in senior roles in Corporate America. Here’s the real kicker. They found that advancing women can give the economy a boost. Enabling a genuinely female-friendly workplace could generate an additional 2.1 trillion dollars in the US economic output in 2025.
- For society, there’s an economic boom, which translates into healthier, more engaged communities. Consider this: It’s predicted that AI will replace up to 80% of decisions made by humans today. Today, 78% of the global AI workforce is male. If that dramatic imbalance isn’t corrected, we’re faced with a future seen and shaped primarily through the lenses of men. It’s a bias that will only further entrench the gender gap.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Melinda Gates, Laurene Powell and Mackenzie Scott. I’d love to invite all three to lunch because these are remarkable and inspiring women who care about what we’re doing at Gotara and who would help us achieve our dream to close to gender gap.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!