Poornima Vijayashanker is the keynote speaker for Girls Do Hack and founder of Femgineer – an education startup, where she provides tech professionals and engineers with skills to better themselves in product development, communication, and leading teams. Growing up in Texas, Poornima was always fascinated with technology. Her father, a hardware engineer, brought her to his lab at 10 years old and she was amazed how everything was mechanized. Inspired by all that technology could do for humanity, she double majored in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Duke University.
Adler Planetarium: What were you like as a child?
Poornima Vijayashanker: I had pretty diverse interests as a kid. I was very much into science and math, and I also loved geography, which manifested into loving to travel. I played volleyball, ran track, and was on the swim team. I was always interested in learning as many different subjects as possible.
I also loved building things. I remember how much fun I had with my younger brother just taking things apart, like computers, and putting them back together. My father was a hardware engineer, and he always supported and fostered my interests.
AP: What was it like when your father took you to his lab for the first time?
PV: I remember being 10 or 12 at the time, and he said, “Now don’t touch anything.” My father is a hardware engineer and when he said he made “chips” and “wafers,” as a child I thought he made delicious snacks. Also, I didn’t know it was going to be an actual lab, I thought it was going to be more like a conveyor belt.
When I first walked in, I remember seeing people dressed in “space suits,” and the room was entirely white and very clean. The overall experience was eye opening. To see that at such a young age, it made me understand what my dad did and how chips and wafers are made.
AP: Did you have to overcome any obstacles while pursuing your career?
PV: Yes. I think the first obstacle I faced was how do I get my first job? The first job offer came to me very easily, but I decided not to pursue it because it was not my field of choice. I decided to take part in an internship with Qualcomm, which was located in North Carolina. My goal was to get out to California and be in the tech capital of the world, and I knew that this internship would get me there.
It’s very important to keep your head in the game and to remember that you’ll always get pushback from someone. For example, I remember when I was in college and I told my professor that I wanted to be a computer architect. He said, “Well there’s only like, four computer architects in the world so you may want to choose a different career.” I chose to explore my options a little more, it’s important to remember to take the feedback or criticism and use it as a positive.
AP: What’s it like being a female in a male-dominated career?
PV: It depends on who you are. In general what I noticed, at least for myself, because my dad was an engineer and having been to his work place, I knew that engineering was going to be male dominated. When I got to engineering school, I didn’t think any differently. Growing up Indian in a predominantly white neighborhood in Texas, I didn’t think twice about what it would be like as a female in a mostly male industry.
While in college I sought out coaching and mentorship and invited myself into “boys clubs,” instead of waiting for them to ask – I always pushed my way into things. I think for lot of women, perhaps because they didn’t have the same upbringing as I did, it does come as a shock or challenge. Part of what I do with Femgineer is I shed light on how I chose to navigate this career path and share my experiences with the online community.
AP: Why is being a mentor so important?
PV: Early on, I didn’t have the best support and part of that, I think, was two fold. 1) I didn’t actively go out and ask for support and 2) there aren’t people with hours of extra time saying, “Hey, I can talk to you about XYZ.” I managed to pull myself through and ask for support. Then, I noticed that a fair number of people were leaving the [engineering] industry, and moving on to pursue other careers. Part of me thought that the reason for leaving was because either they had bad managers or bad leaders.
Then one day someone reached out to me with a question about engineering. Naturally, I responded. After that, more and more people started to reach out to me with similar questions. It was then that I realized how important it was that there are people who you can reach out to and know that I can be supportive in someway, even if it’s just answering an email or going out for coffee.
AP: Do you have any advice for young women who are interested in pursuing a STEM career?
PV: People get really passionate about a subject or activity, then when they get into a job, and, for whatever reason, be it the environment, their boss, or the company, makes them hate it. People wind up saying things like, “I hate biology” or “I hate computer science.” What I say to those people is: it’s not the subjects you hate, it’s the environment.
If you’re passionate about computer science or web design or anything, then look for a better environment. Sometimes it takes a few trials, but don’t let the environment keep you from pursuing the subjects that interest you.
Join the conversation online with #GDH2013. Follow Poornima on Twitter: twitter.com/femgineer.