In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) 2021, SWE member Swetha Manickavasagam speaks with newly elected SWE Director, Kalyani Mallela. In this powerful conversation, Kalyani discusses her Asian culture, involvement in SWE, her motivation behind stepping into such leadership positions, and the “glass ceiling” that often hinders the careers of AAPI women.
What attracted you towards engineering/STEM?
Growing up in India, it was always like math and science around me. I had a family of engineers working in different sectors of engineering. So having so many engineers around, it felt like engineering is a good foundation irrespective of the career path I am going to pursue in the future. I especially enjoyed the “why” in everything. I kept on asking the question why. Maybe that curiosity and problem-solving ability got me here into engineering and that’s how my choice of engineering happened.
How did you first get involved with SWE and what inspired you to pursue these roles?
When I was in India, during my undergrad I was very active with IEEE. I was the president of IEEE local chapter wherein I organized several events and workshops. That part of “giving back to the people around” was always there within me. When I started working here in the United States, I got an opportunity to facilitate an outreach event which needed an electrical engineer to lead the experiment. Predominantly, I enjoy teaching and I love giving back. So, I accepted to volunteer and that is how my journey with SWE began.
Also, through SWE Minnesota I got my first mentor assigned. I was in Minnesota, and I did not have any family or friends here, so I thought SWE would be a good network and eventually SWE became a place of home. Later, I was proactive with outreach events and the section offered me the role of outreach chair. I also led the strategic planning in SWE Minnesota which aided me in the professional side. When I became the president of SWE Minnesota, it helped me to gain a lot of experience in managerial positions which ultimately assisted me in becoming a manager in my workplace. I may not have such experience at work but in a nonprofit, I have done the same role as a manager. I leveraged SWE to improve my skills. I was curious enough to take up many roles, I took on some leadership roles as I had the required skills, and some roles were taken to close the gap for my professional resume.
Did you have any mentors who paved the way or shaped your educational/professional career path? If so, what is the one interesting mentorship that most stands out to you?
Yes, I always believe that mentorship is time-bound or topic-bound. One should be specific about what they want from that mentorship — it is more like a contract where both of you should know what you are investing in and that framing helped me a lot. I had mentors in several areas. Some were situational mentors (e.g. they helped me during a job search). Some were lifestyle-specific mentors — like when I first became a mom, I approached a woman who was in a higher position in the organization to understand the challenges of a working mother and to get insights on how she manages her work life. Also, when I joined J&J, I had a mentor who helped me to understand the work culture and the nuances in the organization. When I was at Starkey, I became the people’s manager, and the mentor I had there helped me a lot. Every time we met, he would bring an article and we would talk about leadership style, communication etc. We would discuss the leadership article and how we would react in such given situations. It was like a safe space to share my leadership thoughts. So, if asked what stays close to my heart, they have all had a purpose in my life and they have added meaning to my life.
What kind of mentorship do you value the most?
“The best mentor to have is one who’s always helping you grow, improve and challenge yourself.”
One key thing that I learnt when I was at Boston Scientific is the prominence of peer mentoring. Mentoring is always thought as something which is hierarchical in nature. It is a different kind of strength that comes from peer mentoring because all of them are in the same situation in their career phase. There is a benefit in getting mentorship from somebody who is thoroughly experienced, but there is also value in getting it from someone who is in the same state as you are right now. Consider we are working on the same project and through peer mentoring, we leverage each other to make sure we are in the right direction.
We often hear about the barriers to women seeking leadership positions in the workplace. How did you overcome that?
It was mostly because of my upbringing. My parents would always say, “you do the hard work and rewards will come.” But after coming to the confident America, I realized that rewards do not just come with hard work alone. Most importantly we must be our own advocate.
Today if you ask me “what would you want your next role to be?” I would say, I love to thrive and enjoy in the role of being bold and the one that demands some level of risk.
If you would see my career path, I would always want to take up challenges. I also get so much joy and contentment in supporting others growth. I cannot grow at the expense of anybody, and it is important for me to grow together. Maybe I could also tell its partly from the values I was instilled with since my childhood. My grandmother and mother were both bold in their phases of life. It was not easy for a woman of color like me to get into leadership positions, but I have stayed true to what my values are and that is what had brought me here.
What advice would you give to young girls who want to pursue and excel in the field of engineering?
The first thing I would say is to be bold and to take risks. Secondly, celebrate your wins — we are our biggest advocate, and we must take care of ourselves because nobody else will. Thirdly, be true to whatever your values are.