I never expected that a chance encounter at WE18 would lead me to Pune, India in December, but I jumped at the invitation to help John Deere celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their WomenREACH employee resource group. It was an incredible opportunity and a lot of activity crammed into one week—including almost 60 hours in planes and airports!
Day 1 (a very long day…)
On Sunday, December 2 I left at 11:15 am on a 16-hour flight to Hong Kong, where I had a quick transfer before heading to Delhi. Flying premium economy meant I had a reclining seat with a little more legroom, at a price comparable to coach. I got a surprise upgrade in Hong Kong to Business Class, which made for a very comfy 6 ½ hour flight to Delhi, arriving around midnight local time. Unfortunately I had to wait a few hours to check in for my next flight to Pune. Delhi is a huge airport but most of the amenities are near the gates, with limited seating in the ticketing area where I was. Thank goodness I had slept a bit on the flight from Delhi.
I arrived in Pune around 7 AM and was so glad I had arranged for a car to meet me at the airport. Although a taxi would have been cheaper, after almost 30 hours of traveling and with no knowledge of the local language, having someone there with my name on a sign was a welcome sight. It was a quick but chaotic trip to the Hyatt Regency nearby (my first exposure to traffic in India). I grabbed a light breakfast and a quick shower before meeting up with Samruddhi Mangrulkar, President of the SWE Affiliate at Maharashtra Institute of Technology – World Peace University (MIT-WPU) around 9:45 AM.
MIT-WPU, whose motto is “Let the peace prevail across the world,” is a private state university founded by Dr. Vishwanath Karad in 1982. Their SWE affiliate was inaugurated in August 2018, and my visit as SWE President was their first official event. The theme of the event was “ineffable” or “too great or extreme to be described in words”, which seemed perfectly appropriate! Several women engineering students spoke about SWE, university staff spoke of their commitment to diversity, and I had a chance to speak about my career and my involvement with SWE. The young women I encountered were all so enthusiastic and professional – I can’t wait to see where the future takes them.
After the meeting I had a delightful lunch in the university cafeteria with several faculty and SWE affiliate officers, and was given a tour of the beautiful campus. It was a pleasant surprise to come across my picture on a poster while walking around campus – definitely not something I expected to see so far from home. After lunch I met with the civil engineering department staff, which included an employee who had earned his graduate degree at my alma mater, Michigan State University. (We Spartans are everywhere! Go Green!) We had a lively discussion on the challenges of attracting more women in civil engineering programs in India.
Although I’m used to crazy drivers in Los Angeles, California, I’m not used to traffic in India and I found my ride back to the hotel a bit harrowing, much like the ride in the morning. Lanes seem to mean nothing, a street that looked like it would hold 2 or 3 lanes had 5 or 6 lanes of vehicles weaving in and out—many of those scooters or small, open taxis. I was especially intrigued by the intersections that had no traffic signals; it was every man and woman for themselves. I managed to arrive safely back at the hotel around 5 PM, and took a short nap before having a light dinner in the restaurant downstairs and heading off for a good night’s sleep… almost 48 hours after I left my bed back in California. As I looked back on that first day, I realized how very fortunate I am for this opportunity where I’m meeting some really interesting people, learning so much, and sharing a positive SWE message.
The next morning I slept in a bit which felt great and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Thanks to the friendly staff who remembered my name from the very first encounter, I was encouraged to try some different local dishes. Throughout my stay I tried Indian specialties such as dosa, panipuri, uttapam, aloo paratha and medu vada. I loved everything, and the coffee was really good, too!
Just before noon I was picked up at the hotel for a trip to the John Deere offices, and another adventure in the streets of Pune. I was again in awe of the traffic, and even saw what appeared to be the result of 2 scooters crashing; they both just picked themselves up, got back on and rode away. I’m not used to seeing that in LA!
After arriving at John Deere, I met with their WomenREACH core team as well as Anca Eisele, who works for John Deere in Germany and had served on the SWE Board of Directors with me a couple years ago. It was great to catch up with Anca and I benefited from her guidance in navigating around the city for the rest of the week.
Mid-afternoon we all headed off to a local school, C.B.T Sadhna Kanya Vidyalaya, where the women of John Deere have held Wow! That’s Engineering events for the past several years. The school is part of an organization that was founded in 1919 and is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. This particular school was founded in 1971 with 4 girls initially, and today has almost 5,000 young women from grades 5-10 attending in two shifts each day.
What an incredible afternoon – the school really rolled out the red carpet! Anca and I were both honored upon our arrival with a traditional local ceremony including a bindi being marked on our foreheads. There were also beautiful decorations called rangoli all around the school. Rangoli is an art form in which patterns are created on the floor or the ground using materials such as colored rice, dry flour, colored sand or flower petals. They were remarkably beautiful and it was amazing to me that something so intricate is so short-lived.
After introductions over coffee with the head of the school and several faculty, we all went to a large classroom where approximately 150 girls were awaiting our arrival. We were honored with several cultural performances including different styles of native dance and song. There were a number of short speeches, and although English wasn’t the main language at the school I think I was able to get my point across: “I hope you all become engineers because we need people with diverse perspectives to help solve problems to make the world a better place”. The girls were so interested in us (possibly our blond hair had something to do with that?) and surrounded us as we were given a tour of some of the classrooms and as we walked across the grounds to leave. They were very friendly but shy—I wonder what they were thinking of us and what, if any, lasting impact we may have on their life decisions.
Back at the Hyatt, we met with around 15 SWE ambassadors from different companies in Pune including John Deere, Cummins, SAS, Air Products and Black & Veatch. I think another great benefit of my trip was serving as a catalyst to bring these women together and I really enjoyed seeing them interact, some of them meeting each other for the first time.
At some point during all of the networking, Anca was reaching out to a SWEester who used to live in Pune to ask about the best place to buy saris, and I soon found myself in another car heading to the shopping district. I had no idea there were so many decisions involved in buying a sari! There were hundreds and hundreds of choices, and the fabric comes in a huge bolt that includes a couple yards at one end to be used for the top so it’s a perfect color match. I chose a royal blue and gold combination, as well as a jewel toned kurta (tunic and pant) for around $350 US. They tailor each one to fit your measurements, so we made plans to return later in the week.
On Thursday morning I had some time to catch up on work before meeting with Anca and Dr. Chetona Favankar, Assistant Professor at Cummins College of Engineering for Women (CCEW). We had a nice chat in the car (which helped to take my mind off the traffic) and, after mentioning how fragrant the flowers were from the garlands at the Sadhna school yesterday, Dr. Favankar decided I needed some of my own and stopped at a roadside market. Everyone here is SO NICE. And the flowers smelled wonderful!
Arriving at CCEW around noon, we were given a tour of the museum dedicated to the college’s founder, Dhondo Keshave Karve. He was quite a pioneer and visionary, defying the norms even back in the early 1900’s to bring education to the young women of India. The college is named after Cummins as a result of the support they provide, though the graduates are actually hired by a number of different companies in the area. CCEW became an affiliate of SWE in 2016 and has a strong base there in the faculty and students. We had a great conversation about the many activities at the school, where they are truly making a difference in young women’s lives.
At 3 PM we headed to Halliburton, where we met with a couple dozen employees for a panel discussion with myself, Anca and Johanna Haggstrom, Halliburton’s Director of Technology. It was a great mix of perspectives as we answered questions such as how we overcame major challenges in early and mid-career, tips for transitioning across disciplines, and mentoring within and outside of work.
Thursday evening Stueti Gupta, a John Deere employee and friend of Anca’s, kindly opened her home to us for dinner. I enjoyed being able to authentically experience the local food and environment, and while we were there Stueti showed us her extensive collection of saris. They were so gorgeous!
I spent a very full day Friday at John Deere for the culmination of a week-long celebration of their 10th anniversary of Lakshya India WomenREACH. (Lakshya means “aim”.) It began with a meeting with a small group of core team members highlighting some of their impressive accomplishments in those 10 years, including establishing on-site day care and a mother’s room. I met with Rekha Gore who won SWE’s Global Team Leadership Award at WE18, and who had extended the invitation that brought me to Pune. I also met with the country manager, and during our conversation he asked me for suggestions on how they could further improve diversity. Within a few minutes after I left his office someone came to ask me for more details and next steps. Now that’s follow up!
During the celebration I had the opportunity to present SWE’s Distinguished New Engineer Award to Rupali Patil, who wasn’t able to travel to WE18 in Minneapolis as she had just had a baby. It was really moving to present this to her in person, in front of her peers and management, and I know it meant a lot to her. Later in the morning I spoke on “Owning Your Own Career Development and Leveraging SWE”, which seemed to resonate with the audience.
Anca and I had lunch with the newly named Lakshya leadership team. (I found it interesting that we had Indian food while they all had pizza!) We worked in a round of speed mentoring and I had time for a quick chat with SWE Senator Shivani Koul. Late afternoon there was cake and a group photo before Anca and I headed back to the Hyatt. Along the way we stopped at a local market where one of the John Deere women loaded us up with local goodies including bakarwadi, gulab jamun, and chiwda.
At the Hyatt, Anca headed to the airport, and I had dinner with Mark Firth, Chief Technical Officer for Cummins in India. Mark is on assignment in India from the UK, and we exchanged stories about work and travel. Can I just say how cool it is to simply “have dinner with a CTO”? How often do you get the opportunity to do that??
On Saturday SWE ambassadors Shruti Khalwadekar and Shalvika Patil showed me around Pune. We visited the Aga Khan Palace, where Gandhi was held under house arrest in the 1940’s, and a nearby temple as well as shopping areas where I bought some gifts. We made a stop to pick up my sari and had lunch at a seafood restaurant, where I tried a drink called ‘solkadi’, made from coconut milk and a tart purple fruit called kokum; it looked like a berry smoothie but was savory rather than sweet. It was all so very delicious.
We got back to the hotel just in time for me to head to the Pune airport. A 2-hour flight got me to Delhi, where I had a 4-hour layover before a 5½-hour flight to Hong Kong. I enjoyed the airport lounge in Hong Kong for a few hours before boarding my premium economy 13-½ hour flight home. I managed to get some sleep, so when I landed in LA at 9:35 a.m. on Sunday I was able to stay up and get back on West Coast time, at least for a day or two. Jet lag eventually hit a couple days later.
I extend my sincere thanks to everyone who made this trip possible, and in particular:
- Rekha Gore and Anca Eisele of John Deere, for extending the invitation at WE18
- Samruddhi Mangrulkar, President of SWE MIT WPU in Pune
- Dr. Anagha Kulkarni of Cummins College of Women
- Shreyasi Goswami of Halliburton
- Priyanka Tharayil of John Deere, who made many of the arrangements
- Shruti Khalwadekar and Shalvika Patil, SWE ambassadors who arranged the meeting with the other ambassadors and showed me around Pune
- Stueti Gupta, for inviting me into her lovely home for dinner
Overall it was a fabulous opportunity and I met some incredible people. This is definitely one of the best parts of being SWE President!
Penny Wirsing is the SWE president for the 2019 fiscal year and a longtime SWE member of 30+ years. Since receiving her civil engineering degree from Michigan State University, she’s held positions as an environmental engineer, including her current role at the Torrance Refining Company, where she works to ensure the refinery’s compliance with local, state and federal regulations.