Women naturally are better collaborators and more empathetic. Treat these as your superpowers and empathize, understand and care about your people.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, 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! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you so much 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 and decided to pursue 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 began at IBM?
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.
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?
I’ve had my fair share of mistakes and learning experiences in my career. As a consultant, you work on different client engagements and you go through “mini interviews” for each one to analyze project fit. Right after I joined the company, my first hiring manager called me to say he was impressed with my profile and wanted to get me onboarded. After learning about the project, client, location, and my role, I was elated since it was completely aligned with my goals and the best first project I could hope for. As we were concluding our call, I was still ecstatic and ended the call by thanking him again and casually adding a “Bye, love you! ” at the end, which is the way I often end my calls with loved ones.
As soon as I realized what I said, I started rambling things like “OMG! Wait, I did not mean that. I don’t love you. No, I mean, I don’t even know you…but I look forward to working with you and am definitely not trying to flirt. Sorry”. Thankfully he laughed hearing how flustered I was and hung up politely. Over time, we developed a great working relationship and he brought it up a few times, but only as a joke that got me embarrassed each time. This taught me to be more careful with my words, but also made me feel a bit comfortable that it was okay to make mistakes as long as you admit it and learn from it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
IBM has always stood out for me because of its dedication to diversity and inclusion. The company’s culture involves keen attention and care to support women across segments — be it girls in schools, expecting moms, working moms, etc.. IBM’s diversity initiatives have been recognized by the industry through various awards, too. Not only is IBM led by a woman CEO, but also it is a place where the senior leaders and managers are equal champions of diversity.
As an early professional, I shared my career aspirations with my (male) manager, including my interests in growing and wanting to move up the leadership ladder. Next thing you know, he helped me connect with a female senior leader whose story was nothing but inspirational. She was also a woman of color who had a similar background as me and had gone through similar personal and professional challenges. Having her guide me through the situations I was facing was invaluable. It’s been great to have her as a confidant, advisor, and role model.
This is an example of how supporting women is engrained in the company’s culture through a combination of women willing to be mentors, and male allies — both of which are necessary to help women grow in the workplace.
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 different AI technologies to solve business problems. My first product helped quality engineers use computer vision to detect product quality issues. The next one helped technicians obtain prescriptive guidance on the actions they should take to maintain or repair equipment by using NLP to process the “dark data” in their systems or external data such as industry blogs, journals, maintenance standards, etc. and provide the best recommendations. At each stage of development, I’m asking our team the question: “How will this change help our users perform their jobs safer, faster and more effectively”.
But companies realize benefits from using AI-based solutions by not just leveraging these advanced technologies but by changing the way their people work. So of late, I’ve been focused on taking the combination of a product and process-centric view and looking at ways we infuse AI in existing business process or products to make data ingestion easier, empower users and drive maximum ROI.
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?
I regularly encounter situations where I am the only woman in the room, and especially the only woman of color. If you look at the data, women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs in the US, and this number is even lower in AI, where only 13% of the workforce is women. The data reinforces that this “only one” problem is not something unique to me, and is something most women in STEM face.
While I am not satisfied with the status quo, it shows us where we are today so that we can take targeted actions to improve it. These actions should be focused on a two prong approach: on one hand we should aim towards getting more girls and women excited about STEM careers and on the other we should support women to help them thrive and grow.
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 of the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM is centered around unconscious biases. One of the most profound studies on this topic that I refer people to was a 2012 study that gave science faculty members the application materials of a student who was randomly assigned a male or female name for a laboratory manager position. The study found that both male and female faculty members rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant (https://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full).
This highlights that we all have hidden biases, and the key is to have proper training and education around these unconscious biases: be it gender or racial bias, stereotyping, etc. so that we can recognize them and change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Even more so, we can make intentional moves to ensure we don’t let those biases impact our decisions. This is especially key for critical decisions such as hiring or performance evaluations.
The second biggest challenge centers around interpersonal interactions. Women often walk on thin ice when it comes to trying to balance being seen as too feminine to be likeable and too masculine to appear competent. Many women, myself included, have experienced backlash for displaying stereotypically “masculine” behaviors such as being too assertive or ambitious. Almost every woman leader I have spoken with has been called “bossy” at some point in her life — including situations where they were only slightly more assertive than usual — since even a small deviation from typically feminine characteristics draws attention. While these are rooted at biases, they are key since they impact the way women lead and collaborate at the workplace. This one can be most benefited by ensuring women have objective metrics they can measure their performances by and hold themselves accountable to.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
- It’s a man’s world: STEM is often culturally perceived as a “man’s profession” which is only heightened by common cultural stereotypes we see on movies, TV and other media. While there are fewer number of women in the industry, we can perform the job just as effectively, if not more, than men. This is where we need more women in STEM roles to speak up and be seen by young girls around the world
- “I am not enough”: The more women leaders I meet the more profoundly I feel that everyone goes through the phase of feeling “not enough”. Imposter Syndrome is real and everyone experiences is. In times like these, reminding ourselves of our achievements and skills helps.
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.)
- You can always choose to be a leader: You don’t need a ‘Manager’ or ‘Lead’ title or a position of power to be a leader, you need the right attitude and actions. Even as an associate (entry-level) technology consultant, I wanted to develop my leadership skills and started to show ownership and take initiatives when things had to be done and helped my team mates on the projects I was involved with. As you demonstrate these skills, you start getting noticed and shortlisted for bigger opportunities. Even more, you grow as a person and as a leader and build valuable leadership skills such as communication, persuasion, negotiation, conflict management, etc.. So whether you are in school or mid-career, identify the opportunities around you where you can practice your skills to lead by influence.
- Set goals: One of my earliest mentors taught me the concept of goal-setting for your personal and professional life. Ask yourself where you want to be in the next 1/3/5 years, and set mini goals to help you get there. And make them visible: I store mine in notes on my phone, have alarms set to remind me of them during the day, and I have them write them on a whiteboard at home. Each time you look at them ask yourself what action can you take today to achieve that goal.
This long-term and short-term view of your goals and actions will help you immensely because it starts to shape your daily priorities and decisions. And taking these steps consistently day over day is how you can bring your goals to reality.
- Always be a learner: Technology is changing the world at a pace faster than ever before. The technologies in the early 2000s (Nokia smartphones or Nikon digital cameras, anyone?) are obsolete already and this speed is only going to increase. Thus as a leader, you need to constantly keep track of the new technologies, market changes, and stay current to be relevant. This is where working on something you feel passionate about makes it a lot easier. For instance, I am so fascinated about the newest research and use cases in AI that I naturally gravitate towards reading a few white papers or latest reports every week without feeling like it’s a chore. So love what you do and the rest will follow.
- Ask for help: Everyone knows something you don’t. As independent women are used to doing things ourselves and feeling empowered by it. However sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s perfectly normal, and in fact better for us when we ask for others for help. Growing up, I would fear that asking others for help would make me appear less qualified and weak. But it was the other way around. In fact more often than not people were always happy to help. In fact I built relationships with some of my mentors by starting with asking for help as the first step which then turned into a meaningful relationship
- Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes: One of my early mentors said this to me and it’s really stuck with me. I think most women, especially when they’re in a room full of men that love speaking up, tend to tame ourselves down. Remember that you don’t have to speak the loudest or most often, but when you do, make sure you get your point across thoughtfully. It can be hindering to your career if you’re not expressing yourself and your ideas. So make sure to speak up, share ideas, call out if things aren’t going in the right direction. Don’t sit in silence
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Women naturally are better collaborators and more empathetic. Treat these as your superpowers and empathize, understand and care about your people.
We know no two individuals are the same. So understand the different team members on your team and their unique strengths, weaknesses, interests, motivations, communication styles, and so on. You can then accordingly provide them opportunities to help them shine and adjust your key interactions with them.
For instance, some individuals may prefer direct feedback on areas of improvement for them while some may prefer the “praise sandwich”. Similarly, some raise their voices in a room easily while others may be quiet and take time to speak up. During team discussions, you can ensure you collaborate to make sure all viewpoints are heard.
Also, be mindful of your language and overcommunicate. Sometimes even simple reminders such as “I understand you and I care about you” can go a long way in building a good relationship.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
When I first started leading a team, I was of the impression that I couldn’t be perceived as “too nice” else I’d have people walk all over me and I wouldn’t be considered an effective leader. While I naturally consider myself compassionate/empathetic and kind, I started trying to act tougher and develop a hard edge at work. But the truth was, behaving that way just wasn’t me. It felt fake and inauthentic, which started making me feel dissatisfied at work.
I was fortunate that at about the same time, I got the opportunity to work with a woman leader and would observe her being friendly and compassionate at work, yet firm when decisions needed to be made. I asked her privately how she cultivated her leadership style and was surprised hearing that she went through a similar journey. This was the catalyst behind my process of self-discovery where I started to behave in a way that felt right to me while still maintaining a focus on the job to be done. Over time, I noticed that by being “me”, my professional confidence grew and I managed to grow an amazing network of trusting colleagues, mentors and mentees along the journey.
So take time to cultivate your own leadership style that’s authentically you.
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?
At each point in my career, I was fortunate to have women who I could look up to and ask for help, and I was constantly surprised by how openly they shared their personal journeys.
That said, I’m most grateful to my father for being my idol and biggest cheerleader. He’s always pushed me to dream big and supported my biggest life decisions, no matter how risky they were, and always made sure I knew he was by my side. Being a STEM enthusiast himself, he would always ask me riddles and critical thinking questions involving STEM concepts in a way that fascinated 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 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 “GirlBosses” before that became mainstream.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I mentioned the importance of role models and mentors in my life. Now I strive to be the same for other girls and women who aspire to get into STEM careers. I’ve taught middle school and high school girls on technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and Security with the goal of getting them curious and excited to learn. So if a girl tells me she wants to be, say, a fashion designer, I’ll ask her “What do you think about designing a dress with lights that change color depending on your mood for the day” and watch her eyes light up and start from there. I think we need to break the “geeky” male-dominated perception of STEM and create teaching initiatives to organically build interest in these subjects and teach girls to be comfortable with the engineering mindset of building, breaking and fixing things.
On the other hand, I also mentor students and professionals who want to get into AI/ML/IoT careers, and it constantly amazes me how many of them are already thinking about the right things. For instance, when I was a judge at Boston’s largest female and non-binary hackathon TechTogether I was impressed by the number of teams that worked on solving industry-wide problems caused by the use of AI such as eliminating bias in the data, improving AI interpretability, building trust and transparency, etc. for key problem areas such as hiring, user profiling, public health and safety. I enjoy coaching these young women to help find the professional paths right for them.
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. 🙂
AI is changing the way we live and work, and we’re in the time where we can shape the impact it makes on the world. On one hand, we’ve discussed the disproportionate amount of women in AI industry and the challenges caused by this.
On the other, there’s a preconceived notion that AI jobs/roles are technical in nature and require a computer science or equivalent backgrounds. This is far from the truth. In order to shape the future of tomorrow with AI, we need people from every industry — be it students, doctors, lawyers, designers, mathematicians, criminologists, astronauts, artists, or any other field to have an understanding of AI, it’s advantages and limitations, and be involved in thinking about how AI can make their domain/world better.
So I wanted to address these two challenges by starting “AI for Her” and building an online community where we can educate girls/women and gender minorities, inspire them and empower them to make a difference and shape the future of tomorrow with AI.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be the change you wish to see in the world — a wonderful reminder for the change maker in all of us. If you see something around you that you don’t like, roll up your sleeves and do something to change it
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’d love to have breakfast or lunch with Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington (or both 🙂 ). They are both women who have risen to the top and are successful by every measure. But they are also using their authentic voices to create movements that empower others around the world — and I find that truly inspirational.