Important to address self-doubt and imposter syndrome women suffer from, says Rajalakshmi Sakthivel of HARMAN
Our Women in Tech series this week features Rajalakshmi Sakthivel, Senior Director, Global Platform Software--Car Audio, Automotive Division, HARMAN. While at APTIV she had the opportunity to create the cluster for Tata Nanos.
When Rajalakshmi Sakthivel completed her BE in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Vinayaka Mission Krupananda Engineering College in Salem in 1996, it took her a while to get her first break though she was a topper. Most of her friends and batch-mates were studying additional courses like Java and IBM Mainframe, and looking to the US for further studies, but Sakthivel was determined to remain in India.
“In those days, tech companies did not visit many campuses for recruitment. The only way to get a job in top companies like HAL, Bharat Electronics, BHEL, Infosys, BPL or Wipro was to pass the Graduate Engineering Test (GET). After the test, there were three to four technical rounds that I cleared with ease. Looking back, I think, probably because I came from Tier-II city like Salem, I did not come across as confident or perhaps I lacked communication skills,” she recalls.
Despite the initial setback, Sakthivel has held key positions in companies like APTIV and Delphi Automotive Systems in a career spanning 24 years. She is now Senior Director at HARMAN International (India) Pvt Ltd, a global leader in car audio, and an independent subsidiary of Samsung Electronics.
No looking back
Despite not “getting into the creamy layer” of companies after completing her engineering, Sakthivel got her first break in ADS Exports as an R&D Engineer. She worked single-handedly on the maintenance and next generation design of a smart telecom product and handled its service team across India.
“The job gave me exposure on design challenges. The challenges and opportunities brought the best side of mine, which I think a job panel could not assess in a 30- or 45-minute interview, she says.
She moved onto CG Smith Software, the offshore development centre for Delphi, an automotive Tier-I company.
This, she believes, has been the turning point in her career, one that veered her towards the automotive industry.
She explains, “I was fortunate to work under a supervisor who empowered me with good mentorship, and assignments that allowed me to grow in the industry. My first salary was Rs 4,500 and here they paid me Rs 12,000–a good jump that illustrated how they treated people and their work.”
Sakthivel transferred from CG Smith to Delphi when it opened its own tech centre in Bengaluru. In 2015, following a restructuring of Delphi, she joined a division called APTIV, where she also became the first female technical lead.
“In Bengaluru, we had a team of 1,000 full-time employees and around 500 contract engineers. My responsibilities included administration tasks like HR, finance, procurement, logistics, legal compliance, and security. On the engineering side, I was the chief engineer for instrument cluster infotainment and Body Control Module,” she says.
A part of history
During her time at Aptiv, Sakthivel was part of the team that worked on the launch of the Tata Nano, touted as the first people’s car in India.
“It was a moment of great pride. The Nano was a fine example of frugal engineering on product design. I worked on the instrument cluster – software and system aspect of design. I started as a software leader, had to take a break, and when I came back, it was nearing production and I was given responsibility for the system,” she says.
Pregnant during this period and carrying twins, Sakthivel was advised bed rest throughout the pregnancy. She resumed work after her maternity leave and says it was an exciting time for Delphi as it was the first product launch for the company in the Indian market, which also allowed it to set up a manufacturing facility in Chennai.
In 2019, she received a call by the HR team at HARMAN. The person was very persistent and Sakthivel finally agreed to learning more about the offer.
“He spoke about starting a new product line in HARMAN, and the opportunity sounded interesting. In APTIV, I was already in the top role in administration and engineering and there was no opportunity to grow beyond these sitting in Bengaluru. At HARMAN, they were offering me a global role in the same city where I could grow to reach the top level,” she elaborates.
Retaining women in tech
At HARMAN, Sakthivel’s role was to put together the car audio group, and from an initial team of 10, it has grown to over 300 people today.
“I was given a senior director position as a global leader for platform software. In addition to this, I was also given a site leader responsibility for the car audio team. This involved consistent practices and implementation of policies and procedures across different functions within car audio,” she adds.
As a senior woman leader in tech, Sakthivel agrees it’s difficult to sustain women in tech because of many reasons. She quotes former PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi, who has said “the biological clock and career clock are in total conflict with each other.” She believes there will be times when there will be a peak in both career and personal fronts.
“Many women are forced to decide between the two. Even if they decide to stay on the job, they do not come forward to take on additional responsibilities because time is of key essence and they feel their personal life may suffer,” she says.
Sakthivel says support from the ecosystem, family, and spouses are changing the way women work, and that’s heartening. But it’s important to also address the moments of self-doubt and the imposter syndrome women suffer from.
“Also, to retain women in tech and help them grow as leaders, organisations should identify women talent at a very early stage and nurture them throughout. They should have a path where they are aware of the journey and what lies ahead,” Sakthivel says.
(The story has been updated to correct a typo in the name of the engineering college.)
Edited by Megha Reddy