[Women in Tech] Success is to see efforts turn into real impact on people and the world, says Kalpana Behara of Uber

As Head – Digitisation, GSS at Uber, Kalpana Behara manages the digitisation function, which entails converting physical signals in the real world into digital assets for the company.
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Kalpana Behara has over 20 years of experience working in leading tech companies like NIIT, Google, Facebook, and Uber.

Kalpana believes, over the years, the constant challenge was to grow with the industry and survive the hypergrowth of every company she worked with.

Speaking of one experience, she says, “During one of my assignments, I was assigned to train a group of senior network tech teams to move their legacy systems to opensource systems. In under five minutes of walking into the classroom, I was asked to leave as I did not fit the profile of someone who is considered experienced in the industry.”

Despite these obstacles, Kalpana worked her way to the top.

In her current role as Head – Digitisation, GSS at Uber, Kalpana manages content curation, validation, and review across all product lines.

She believes working at Uber has been a life-changing experience.

Kalpana explains: “I was strongly attracted to solve the operational problems of managing millions of entrepreneurs in the form of our driver-partners and transporting people safely. As a power user of the product myself, it gives me immense pride hearing the stories of driver-partners where the company has allowed them to earn and prosper and riders whose life has become easier and stress-free. Uber taught me to innovate at lightning speed while not losing sight of the ability of the product to build and strengthen communities.”

In an interview with HerStory, Kalpana talks about her career, women in tech, and her biggest inspiration.

Edited excerpts:

HerStory (HS): Tell us a little about yourself…

Kalpana Behara (HS): My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many others have worked for the Indian Railways, and all my education was in Railway schools and colleges in Hyderabad.

I enrolled to study computer science during my graduation and fell in love with the subject. Back in the late 90s, detailed computer science was being taught at institutes such as NIIT. My parents decided to spend one-third of their income to get me enrolled in a three-year course to pursue a parallel diploma in computer applications at the institute. That was the foundation of my tech journey.

HS: What drew you to STEM?

KB: I have always been interested in STEM. My father, though not educated in sciences, taught me to be curious and always ask questions and seek answers. That manifested into me wanting to study science. Eventually, getting a taste of computer science made me realise that this field would allow me to use my analytical and creative skills equally. I was hooked.

HS: Please take us through your career journey…

KB: I started my career with an internship from NIIT and ended up working there for five years, specialising and teaching network architecture, database management, and web development. This is where I built my professional foundations in tech.

Moving on from there, I was an early hire at Google India where I helped build trust and safety operations and the early version of SMB ad optimisations. I then moved to Facebook India and worked on the evolving social media ads space.

Uber happened in 2015 and I joined the company to build the Center of Excellence for India and Southeast Asia and I currently work with the Global Scaled Solutions team leading the digitisation operations.

HS: Tell us about your current roles and responsibilities at Uber…

KB: I manage the digitisation function, which entails converting physical signals in the real world into digital assets. As part of my responsibilities, I manage content curation, validation, and review across all our product lines. I also manage the MLOps (machine learning operations) function that fuels our AI and ML models. I manage around 30 program managers and over 2,000 vendor operators as part of my responsibilities.

The biggest learning for me in all my years as a people manager is that teams that are cohesive, supportive, and empathetic deliver far superior results across all parameters.  

HS: How did you face the challenges of working in a pandemic?

KB: The pandemic has been tough on all of us. We have been working remotely for over one-and-a-half years now and have adapted to the challenges it brings. Uber has learnt and adapted its benefits to suit the new reality supporting the employees. At our team level, we made Fridays ‘no meeting’ days to give our team members time to manage their week better. From time to time, we have experts in various domains coming over to speak to us to manage our mental health as well as give us advice on taking care of ourselves and our loved ones through these tough times. 

HS: What more can be done to attract women to the tech force?

KB: I am very proud that Uber is an equal opportunity employer. Our team reflects the company values, and we take pride in the fact that we not only hire being conscious of diversity but we also mentor everyone in their journey so there is no bias in evaluations and the pace at which men and women grow. Retaining women in the workforce need us to show we will be fair and will be supportive of their career and growth.

HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?

KB: Success for me is to see our efforts turn into a real impact on people and the world in general. I have been very fortunate to work with companies that allowed me the autonomy and space to fail at critical points in my career and learn from them so my solutions to problems are stronger and impactful.

HS: Why is networking essential for women in tech? Do you mentor women in tech?

KB: Networking is essential for everyone, not just women. It becomes especially important for women as there are fewer role models for them to learn from. Being aware of the direction the industry is growing, the opportunities that are available, and the mentors who are willing to coach is critical to have a healthy career. Networking helps in discovering all of these and more easily. I mentor women on my team, women across the company who reach out for advice from time to time, and I am especially passionate about first-generation graduate women who aspire to be a part of the tech industry.

HS: Why do you think there are very few women in leadership positions in tech?

KB: It is unfortunate that there are very few women in leadership positions in tech. At a systemic level, we need more women to opt for STEM in their academics. While women representation has increased across all countries, it is still abysmally low. There are also a lot of studies showing how many women leave their careers during various phases in their personal lives, be it for weddings or for raising children. Finally, studies also show that women take less risks and do not raise their hand for opportunities that will build their leadership capabilities.

I am proud that Uber does its bit by being an equal opportunity employer where we acknowledge these issues and align our benefits so both men and women can take time off to attend major events in life like being new parents. We have robust mentorship programs where we provide the necessary support and guidance for everyone to feel comfortable to aspire to grow.

HS: Who/what has been your biggest inspiration?

KB: My parents have been my role models and my biggest inspiration. My father triggered the intellectual curiosity in me, and my mother taught me never to be afraid of challenges.


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Edited by Megha Reddy

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