[Women in Tech] Today’s CXO is a smiling woman, so smile right back, says Rekha Vijayalakshmi of Mphasis
Even as a young girl, Rekha Vijayalakshmi says she was always interested in “knowing something about everything and everything about one thing”.
She joined College of Engineering, Trivandrum, for a BTech in Electronics and Communication, exploring many fields “with diverse problems that sought new, interdisciplinary solutions”.
Rekha put in a short stint as system analyst in an integrated steel plant, before spending a decade in space research. Almost 20 years ago, she moved from space research to IT Services, and to the US.
“IT services was a young industry at that time. I was one of the oldest in the company that I worked. That’s where I realised that the lessons in creative exploration, systems thinking and project management that I imbibed in my previous job are applicable to software services too,” says Rekha.
In a conversation with HerStory, Rekha Vijayalakshmi, Senior Vice President, Global Client Delivery, Mphasis, talks about her journey, her biggest successes and challenges, and being a woman in tech.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
HerStory (HS): Were you always interested in STEM? Or was there anything particular that drew you to STEM?
Rekha Vijayalakshmi (RV): As a child, I was known for asking “why is that so?” incessantly and was introduced early to libraries. As science majors, my parents enthusiastically set up home experiments to demonstrate physical principles like surface tension, static electricity, magnetism and buoyancy. Mental math and mathematical riddles were part of our bedtime routines.
As children, we were also introduced to books of Y. Perelman, the Russian scientist and educator, and popular science publications such as Science Today. My family had several friends who were part of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP). I was bowled over by their chants about pioneers in science: “the one who walks first will hurt his feet, who among you will walk first?” My high school Physics teacher has been a strong influence in life - she taught us to learn to know, and not for mere marks. But I love arts, history, and literature too, and consider them integral to being complete. In that sense, I like the holistic approach of the renaissance era, more than the narrow specialisations that we do now.
HS: Please take us through your career journey.
RV: My first job was as System Analyst in VISL, SAIL. (Steel Authority of India). I was one of two women engineers in this little integrated steel plant, tucked in the Shimoga Hills. The year in SAIL taught me how software is used effectively in solving process - technology, finance, and HR problems - all these were done by the tiny Software Division.
After a year-and-a-half in SAIL, I joined ISRO, as a Communication Systems Design Engineer.
A decade in ISRO gave me exposure to software, hardware, large program management, successes, failures, and the opportunity of collaborating with people across the globe.
Most of my IT career, which started in 2002, was in the US, with UST Global, Ness, USA and now at Mphasis. I have been in Service Delivery throughout, managing technology projects first, then programs, accounts and then portfolios. It has been challenging and exciting at the same time to be in this career, where there are few women, and fewer immigrant women in leadership roles.
HS: Tell us about your work at Mphasis.
RV: I have been with Mphasis for close to six years now. As the SVP and Global Delivery Leader in the company, I uphold the responsibility for executing all engagements in my portfolio of a few strategic client accounts. I am accountable for customer and employee satisfaction as well as the P&L of these accounts.
HS: How has it been working in a huge team?
RV: My team comprises thousands of people across geographies, time zones, age groups and competencies. One point that comes to mind is that the technical teams have become very understanding and accommodative of various communication styles, accents, and semantics. Today, especially in pandemic, we may have folks from China, India, Croatia, France, and the US all on one call, listening intently and patiently to understand one another. Content has truly become the king now.
HS: How did you face the challenges of working in a pandemic?
RV: The pandemic has been a challenging time for all of us. I am used to working from home – have been doing it for quite a few years so that was not the issue. The complexity of problems faced by my teams challenged my ability to be empathetic, and I had to work hard to understand their actions. So, in the absence of business travel during lockdown, I wound up with longer working hours. In summer, I realised this and started taking walking breaks in the morning, midday and at night.
I have been working with my team to run new online initiatives that enable us to stay connected and invested in one another’s wellbeing during the pandemic.
I am also involved heavily in our company’s efforts to get to sustainable productivity in a world where everyone works flexi hours, but feel overworked due to overlaps.
HS: What more can be done to attract and retain women in the workforce?
RV: I believe retention seems to be the bigger problem here. According to industry sources, in any cohort of fresh graduates joining tech workplaces, 40 percent plus are women. But women leave the workplace for various reasons, or choose against career advancement, and by mid management we have only 15-20 percent.
I would like to institute programmes that urge women to spend time within a year to understand their goals and purpose, identify top aspirants early, and help them remove real and perceived obstacles.
The other step would be to bring the family or the society to the corporation, through various initiatives, by recognising women in the presence of their families, having parent days, showing presence in local communities etc. And most importantly, I believe that it is important to educate men about the need to be allies in the entire process.
HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?
RV: Over the years, successes and challenges have gone hand in hand. At ISRO, I consider the short period I did research for avionics of Reusable Launch Vehicles to be my best contribution. During my previous role, my pride and joy was in transforming a disparate group of client accounts into one business unit that is respected by clients for technical solutions and flawless execution, working with a great group of people.
HS: Do you mentor women in tech?
RV: I mentor young people, both men and women. I like to do this in two ways, I like to share my experiences and viewpoint about what can lead to “achievement of potential” and joy at work in small groups. I also do one-on-one coaching and support – I find that mostly, its people who enjoy continuous learning that come to me.
HS: Why is networking absolutely essential for women in tech?
RV: “Lack of networking” is an ill-used term employed by corporations and women’s groups to explain the sparsity of women up top. But women are natural networkers and do build a strong group of alliances and support systems in the course of doing their jobs. It is true that we should build contacts in their field, outside of our workplace, to stay abreast of the latest, to know of interesting assignments, etc. LinkedIn and other social media groups provide ample opportunities for women to do that in a non-invasive manner, in their own time.
I don’t see a need to make “networking” look like something additional and burdensome that women have to do in order to succeed.
This intimidates women quite unnecessarily, making them say “But I have to take care of my family, I have no time”. In a nutshell, what I am saying is that women who are striving for excellence and are aspiring for growth will naturally have a network in today’s world.
The old boys’ clubs and exclusive networks built in watering holes and golf clubs are a thing of the past- and women should not bother about them. To women, I say, “Today’s CXO (chief experience officer)/XVP (executive vice president) is a smiling, bespectacled woman – just smile right back.”
HS: Why do you think there are very few women in leadership positions in tech?
RV: The first step towards achievement is to aspire for it. I think women are often intimidated by those roles, and think that they are unachievable, and hence do not even take the initial steps or declare their intentions. So, this leads to fewer number of women again.
I think that whoever gets to the leadership positions, man or woman, works with focus and deliberation towards it, making necessary sacrifices on the way.
In addition to encouraging women, and telling them that they can achieve anything, perhaps organisations should call for pioneers. It is also important for women to know that these efforts towards their career, can be made without hurting their family or their children in a big way, and that day-to-day adjustments will only make the family independent, resilient, and collaborative. Perhaps this assurance alone will bring more women forward.
HS: What are your future plans?
RV: At this stage of career and life, I am interested in roles and assignments that are meaningful and impactful. This includes technologically challenging engagements, initiatives that cover large and diverse teams, and in making sure that there’s room for new teams to come up. I am also looking to learn more from younger people about new concepts and ways of thinking.