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SWE Member Breaks Boundaries at WE Local India

Riya Thakkar reflects on her experience attending WE Local India in April 2019, hoping to inspire even more women to attend next year's conference.

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SWE member Riya Thakkar in front of stage

This article was contributed by Riya Thakkar, SWE Pune member, past Global Ambassador and Senior Functional Safety Engineer at Harman.


Riya Thakkar's WE Local India photo collageA couple of days back, I had asked my office buddy whether she would like to join me for a Society of Women Engineers (SWE) local annual conference – WE Local India. Her inquisitive side took over and she started with a list of questions. Her questions ranged from know-how about SWE, its presence in India, SWE conference structure, and all the way to the benefits of attending its conference and more. I tried my best to quench her thirst for knowledge by sharing my SWE journey, sharing few facts and statistics (courtesy of my past Global Ambassador position), and finally giving out info on the conference’s theme (‘Breaking Boundaries’) and its structure. However, being a firm believer of experiential learning, I prompted her to accompany me for the conference to get best of the answers. Owing to event conflicts, she decided to skip it this time but, made me to promise two things: first and foremost, I would literally break boundaries literally during the conference; secondly, I would outline the event for her.

SWE President Penny Wirsing in salwar kameez
SWE President Penny Wirsing

On the conference day, when I entered the room it was full of 600+ highly energized, enthusiastic, and jovial-looking women dressed in smart formal dress along with a fair number of men. The surprising sight was to see the high number of ladies confidently carrying Indian formal dress i.e. saree and salwar kameez. Amongst them was SWE President Penny Wirsing herself who was also smartly dressed in red and green salwar kameez.  To top it off, the presence of significant number of men in this conference reinstated the fact that to gender balance the technical world, men have an equal role to play as allies.

The conference started on a very high note with the keynote by Sabina Nawaz. The audience was mesmerized with her power poses and stayed glued to her entire speech on how to deal with emotional struggle of ‘junk emails’. She quoted during the conference, “Courage is a choice; you can choose to shine your light into the world, or you can hide in the junky recesses of your mind.”

Sabina Nawaz speaking at WE Local India in April 2019
Keynote speaker Sabina Nawaz

Post-keynote there was a panel discussion with the theme of “Breaking Boundaries” which brought in amazingly diverse panelists—one who had broken boundaries in terms of moving to a different continent for an expat role, to another who was the first woman in the family of generations to work in a corporate office and so on. One of the panelists went on to describe that what others thought to be breaking boundaries, he only thought it to be the right thing for him. This statement was quite reassuring as many of us struggle to find our footing while breaking our own barriers. The panel discussion led me to think of boundaries I had broken and the ones I was going to break during rest of the conference.

Fast track to two days post-conference, I recalled that I had a promise to fulfill in terms of reporting boundaries I had broken. My mind wandered back to conference location and brought me back with the vivid memories. There were three instances that stood out from WE Local India and thus, I decided to report them:

  1. Overcoming my fear of public speaking. In my 2nd grade, I had won 2nd prize for enacting “Nirma Girl” in a fancy-dress competition. I was appreciated for being a confident and vivacious girl on the stage. However, with passing age I only remember getting more anxious as I approached the vicinity of the stage. This time around when I got the selection email for SWE Local Conference, I decided that I would kill my lightning talk. Moreover, my accountability to an office buddy only helped me stay motivated. I practiced my speech multiple times—each time perfecting every loose end. The proud moment came when Smita Tharoor mentioned my speech in her closing remarks.
  2. Connecting beyond my existing network. Can you imagine being surrounded by 600+ diverse yet likeminded people? Ones who relentlessly support D&I and believe in self-growth? By being part of WE Local, I felt this energy and positivity surrounding it. The bonus to attending this conference was that I met and connected with around 30 new people. They not only got connected with me on LinkedIn, but a few of them even added me to their personal WhatsApp contacts. Again, these connections did not start with“tell me about yourself” and end with formal talks or elevator pitches. But, we got involved in real conversations of common problems being faced by normal working people (men and women), of discussion on future autonomous cars, of ERP and much more. I felt honored and privileged to be meeting these ladies beyond my amazing SWE Pune network.
  3. Breaking the myth around buzz words. There were a variety of topics such as Artificial Intelligence, Block Chain, Big Data, Robotics, Diversity and Inclusion and others with its focus on variety of applications. If I were my usual self, then I would have attended sessions on automotive application considering it’s the field of my experience and interest. However, on my husband’s insistence, I attended diverse talks each one unique from the last one. This not only helped me understand trends in other fields but, made me aware of the myths behind the industry buzz words. For instance, I did not know that email attachment of 100 MB can also be considered as big data in context of email outlook application. To quote one more – there exists male-led initiatives for boosting D&I such as Men Advocating Change (MAC), an Employee Resource Group (ERG) of Medtronic which does much more than being a women’s club. All these diverse talks helped me shatter the myths and thus, grow beyond my assumptions.
Riya Thakkar presents at WE Local India
Riya Thakkar presents at WE Local India

As I wrapped up contemplation on my conference experience at WE Local India, I could not help but think of the benefits it had brought me. Thus, I planned to share this summary not only with my friend but, with a larger group. The intention was to motivate them for participation in the next relevant conference. Did you attend any similar conferences in the recent past where you broke boundaries? If so, I would love to hear about it. Lastly, I would like to leave you with a quote by my favorite Robin Sharma:

The only limits in your life are those that you set yourself.”

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