“Why You Should Be A Life-Long Learner” With Penny Bauder & Aditi Sharma

Be a life-long learner — Being up to date with the trends in technology and developing the skills required to perform optimally is critical. Through my journey, I took the time to continually reinvent myself by seeking feedback, pursuing design programs, and devoting around 5% of my week to reading about best practices. As a part […]

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Be a life-long learner — Being up to date with the trends in technology and developing the skills required to perform optimally is critical. Through my journey, I took the time to continually reinvent myself by seeking feedback, pursuing design programs, and devoting around 5% of my week to reading about best practices.

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

Aditi Sharma is a design champion with over 12 years experience and passion for agile, user-centered practices aimed to drive inclusivity, sustainability, and innovation. Aditi studied design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Hyderabad and attended Loughborough University’s Industrial Design program in the UK. While pursuing her masters degree, she created Adisha — her own social impact design agency whose work was recognized by the President of India. After five years leading Adisha, she ventured to the U.S.,enrolled in Stanford’s Inclusive Design program with IDEO and then on to the Human-Computer Interaction program at MIT CSAIL. Today, she is Vice President of Digital Experience Design at J.P. Morgan & Chase, while also serving as a lecturer at Pratt Institute in New York City.

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

As a young girl in India with a humble upbringing rooted in social consciousness, I approached life with an inherent curiosity further encouraged by my parents. They are economists with a keen interest in social work and would often engage me to discuss creative ways to support social outreach programs such as girls’ education. It got me interested in exploring the power of design and led me to the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Hyderabad, India. After undergrad, I worked with urban infrastructure and lifestyle products company to delve into the material and product R&D with a human-centered approach. I was then offered a scholarship to Loughborough University’s master’s program in Industrial Design. While pursuing my master’s degree, I consulted for clients in India, ultimately founding Adisha — a social impact design agency. After five years leading Adisha, I ventured to the U.S. and enrolled in multiple design programs such as Stanford’s Inclusive Design program with IDEO, where I came to recognize the critical role of diversity in digital transformations. From then on, I have continued to evolve in my design-centric career path, focusing on user experience and digital platforms that have led me to where I am today.

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

Within a week of my joining the firm, we moved to a work from home model. I remember I was packing my bag ready to go when I received a message stating not to come into the office. I joined the firm to lead the digital experience design of two unique operations platforms aimed at internal and external audiences. As with any product design process, collaboration is critical when researching, ideating, or validating concepts. It was an exciting challenge to get stakeholder buy-in into the design process without having met them in person. Starting by facilitating remote design thinking workshops, I could instill a sense of empathy, collaboration, and creative expression with extended teams from both product and technology.

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?

At my first full-time job as a product designer in India, I worked on a crucial project for urban infrastructure design for the Commonwealth games. From July to September, we have the monsoon season in North India. During that time, on a rainy Monday morning, we had a big meeting with the government officials to present our design concepts. While commuting to the office with only a few miles to go, the car I was in started to fill up with water and the engine died. Committed to the presentation, I decided to brave the last few miles by foot and ventured onto the flooded roads. I soon realized it was not the best decision, wearing my heels while avoiding potholes like land mines. As expected, I got stuck in one, only to be rescued by a rickshaw driver. Drenched and drained from the ordeal, I still made it to the presentation. Was it worth it? Yes, we got the go-ahead that day! It turns out that only 10 to 12 people showed up at work, and I was the only woman. The lesson I learned was that we often let privilege get in the way of our courage, but by knowing when not to let go, you can always show up.

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

JPMorgan Chase (JPMC) has a strong commitment to design as an enabler to reach our clients’ business outcomes. Besides this, as of last year, 49% of the 256,000 people employed by JPMC are women. JPMC programs like ‘Women on the Move’ or the ‘Re-entry Program’ focus on empowering and advancing our women employees and clients. This client-centric way of doing business, coupled with its commitment to inclusion and diversity, especially as a finance space leader, made it a strong candidate for me to join. From my early conversations with the team to now, I feel fortunate to work with a set of diverse and talented people committed to making a positive impact in the world.

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

At my firm, we are accelerating an outcome-driven approach in how we serve our clients and their growing business needs. I have been at the epicenter of this digital transformation, working on two principal channels to empower clients to self-serve with technology and to self-serve by co-creating concepts. I’ve also been designing a governance framework of inclusion and diversity through remote design thinking workshops. I’m excited to lead with the power of design to make iterative shifts into a more inclusive, client-centric, and outcome-driven user experience for our platforms.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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?

Though I remain positive about the growth thus far, I am not satisfied with women’s status quo in STEM. Women make up only a quarter of the workforce in STEM, and only about 12% of board members are female. Besides this, there are even fewer women of color in STEM. There is a need to address this gender gap at the systemic level, and I believe it starts with efforts to keep women in school, especially in underserved communities, and establishing long-term mentor-led programs that can track their career paths in STEM professions. We should also popularize women in tech, in hopes to inspire young girls to pursue a STEM career. Besides the current practice of keeping a gender-balanced workforce, business leaders must create a supportive environment for all genders, which is adaptable to their changing life needs due to personal events — this can range from flexible work schedules with assistance outreach programs to create opportunities to re-join the firm in case they do have to quit.

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?

Statistics show that women in STEM jobs get paid 89 cents per dollar that men in STEM make. It means we may work the same (often more) hours than men, only to make much less. Most women in tech tend to quit their jobs due to a hostile work environment and a ‘boys club’ mentality. Being interrupted, talked over, ignored, or penalized for speaking out is common for women when men outnumber them. Many women-focused initiatives worldwide aimed to bridge this gap inspire me every day, but we must do more to create a culture of respect for creative expression based on merit, irrespective of demographic diversity. The onus is on everyone too, whichever gender you may identify with, if you see something that defeats this inclusive thinking, raise your voice, and be the change agent.

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

The biggest myth I have experienced is that women are not equal partners in STEM and may not prioritize their full-time careers over their family. On the contrary, an increasing number of women choose to study STEM in college (50,000 more since the last decade). Silence in meetings is often considered a lack of expertise, when it is, in reality, reflective of a lack of empathy for how women think. Studies show that most women are perfectionists and perform much better when given a chance to prepare before a meeting. Women have also been considered ‘not smart enough’ for STEM throughout history, while contributions through the 19th and 20th centuries by remarkable women like Ada Lovelace, Joan Clarke, and Grace Hopper helped us create the first computer. Companies that are performing well have more female senior staff than less successful ones, such as Facebook, Accenture, IBM, to name a few. And yet, more than half of women in tech earn less than men in the same position, sometimes even within the same company.

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 mentor — Teachers played an influential role when I was pursuing science in school. As I joined organizations, I started to reach out to leaders in the industry who were kind to give me a few pointers on my career path. I am also thankful to leaders I worked with daily, who recognized my passion and supported my growth at the firm more actively. Take the time to communicate with leaders who inspire you. You never know what you’ll end up learning.

2. Be a life-long learner — Being up to date with the trends in technology and developing the skills required to perform optimally is critical. Through my journey, I took the time to continually reinvent myself by seeking feedback, pursuing design programs, and devoting around 5% of my week to reading about best practices.

3. Never give up — When I moved to America after getting married, I was out of the workforce due to strict immigration laws. Despite having multiple years of experience and being a successful entrepreneur, I remember cold calling numerous firms to consider my work and often had to work pro bono to earn back credibility in a new country. As a woman, one may go through more breaks than men, but believing in your talent, hard work, and passion will help you recover and come back stronger.

4. Believe in your voice — Women struggle with the confidence to present in a male-dominated work environment. In the beginning, I had to learn it the hard way when I went through multiple meetings where my ideas were often ignored only to be ‘discovered’ when someone would present it a few weeks after. I knew I had first had to find my voice, and then the courage to express it. When the world would sleep, I would be up thinking of talking points and reading relevant materials before a big meeting. Slowly with preparation, I gained the confidence to drive consensus on my ideas and was recognized as a change agent.

5. Give back — It’s essential to carve out time as an industry leader to share your experiences with others who may be interested or are new to STEM. I am a visiting faculty at Pratt Institute in NYC, where I have had the pleasure to coach over 100 professionals in digital transformation with design. Interestingly, almost 80% of them were women. I am also a member of some not-for-profit organizations in India that work with girls’ education in under-served communities. As a mentor to girls in STEM, I feel encouraged by the start of this change; we might be able to break the glass ceiling after all.

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

Lead by example — create opportunities to mentor young girls to get into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If you are in a position of power at the workplace, work hard to meet your diversity hiring goals, ensure once hired, they are paid equally as their male counterparts and then remove barriers preventing women from moving up through the ranks. As a leader, creating a culture of respect while setting a safe space to share any concerns is critical to stay ahead of any risks your team may have. Take the time to meet your team members one-on-one and host other virtual non-work-related get-togethers to know them personally.

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

Again, I think women have to believe in their voice — literally and figuratively — when managing larger teams. I always try to keep an empathetic mindset, while encouraging a culture of mutual respect and creative expression. As a leader having a clear vision and open channels of communication help me create a safe space for team members to share and receive feedback with a positive intent to improve the product offering. Getting to know your team over a cup of coffee while actively listening to their needs will help you forge lasting bonds. More recently with this pandemic, I have enjoyed spending time with my team after work over virtual happy hours, book clubs, and online games.

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 am grateful to my parents, who have always encouraged me to pursue creative design and technology endeavors. As the youngest of three girls, growing up in India despite limited means, our education was still the top priority for my parents. My mother has always been my role model; she devoted her life to female education in underserved Indian communities as a teacher, poet and playwright. She is a published author and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate for her work in education. My mother got me my first drawing book, pushed me to participate in public speaking competitions, and ignored her own needs to support me financially through education. As an educator, she pushed me to give back to the STEM community and was delighted when I started as a visiting faculty at Pratt. I am indebted to her for the many sacrifices she made to get me where I am today. Thanks, ma!

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

My purpose stems from the belief of responsible and well-designed technology to save the world. For years, I have explored the dynamism of design — whether it intends to empower women, sustain economically challenged communities, make services more accessible, or help keep the earth green. Besides being an educator of design and technology, I have also done pro bono work to support not-for-profit organizations worldwide, such as the British Heart Foundation, Girls Write Now, Doctors Without Borders. At Adisha, I often worked with nominal government budgets to design community outreach programs. To name a few — a 2G digital communication tool for rural communities to log complaints about district policies, packaging design to promote female condoms, water conservation programs for Indian households, tiny house kitchens to promote sustainable living, and multiple artisan upliftment programs with product diversification. I continue to do pro bono work for many not-for-profit organizations globally.

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. 🙂

One of the most common forms of gender discrimination experienced daily by women worldwide (especially in developing nations) is their inadequate access to private toilets. Absence of locks or trash bins may lead to stress, embarrassment and gender-based violence. About a quarter of all women are menstruating at any given time, and as such, with this lack of access to gender appropriated toilets, girls miss an estimated four days of school a month, and many others drop out. Today women in rural communities must wake up almost in the middle of the night to walk miles to relieve themselves. I want to champion women-led community programs aimed to drive safe sanitation by installing prefabricated private toilets maintained via a robust digital network of sponsors and volunteers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is pretty straightforward, and the one my father has shared with me since a very young age — ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Whenever I feel things may not be working out as expected, I go back to this quote. It reminds me to focus on the effort and not the expectation. So, despite the challenges, I continue to work hard to positively impact my clients, internal teams, students, friends and family.

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 🙂

I have a long list of people I would love to meet. If I were to name one, it would be Indra Nooyi. In 2006, she became the first woman CEO in PepsiCo’s 42-year history. Her strategic move as a leader to diversify into healthful drinks and foods that many considered risky was inspiring. Her journey started in India, and with her sheer hard work, sincerity, and grit, she has consistently been among the world’s most powerful women on Forbes’ list. Catching up with her over a cup of chai would be a dream come true.

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