Leaders Talk

Infusing Creative Elements into STEM will Increase Women in Technical Fields

Sarika Aggarwal is a seasoned & self-driven IT Professional with strong technical, project management, and entrepreneurial skills, as well as extensive experience in software development and digital content services. She hastwoand a half decades of progressive IT industry experience across many geographiesand across multiple industries.

She graduated from MKSSS Cummins College of Engineering for Women with a bachelor's degree in engineering and is now General Manager (IT – Emerging Business Unit) at Jubilant Foodworks Ltd., India’s largest food service company with popular brands like Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hong’s Kitchen, Ekdum Biryani, Popeye’s and Chef Boss across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and newer international markets.

Sarika has earlier worked as Director (Engineering – Digital) at Truminds Software Systems, and also has held various roles in corporate technical space in Max Life Insurance and Aricent. She has extensive experience in telecom, edutech, insurance and food tech domains. She also forayed into the entrepreneurial arena running her own digital content creation company for marquee clients across multiple industries.

In a conversation with Women Entrepreneur India, Sarika talks about her career in STEM, her successes and challenges, and some thoughts on how we can amplify the number of women in STEM roles.

Tell us about the formative years of your life. How did you develop an interest in technology and decide to pursue it professionally?

I was introduced to programming by chance in 1985, at nine years of age. The nuns at my all-girls’ school were progressive to facilitate exposure toprogramming for us,when a couple approached the school with a desire to do so. I enrolled in the program because it seemed fancy and exciting.But as I grew older, I became increasingly interested in technology, and it became an integral part of whom I am.

My craze for programming was so strong that after 10th grade, I had to transfer to a new school because it had a computer lab, which my prior school did not. Programming was never about a profession for me; it was just fun, but one thing led to another. India’s tech boom happened to coincide with my passionand soon it became a career for me!

Take us through your prior industry experience that spans over two decades and a half.

After graduating, I spent over 13 years working as a developer for Aricent. I began as a software programmer, then became a tech consultant, then finally a senior project manager there. The company changed names during that stint, I always joked that Ichanged 3 companies without any interview!Personally I grew in that period, having gotten married and becoming a mother to 2 beauties. My professional learning was great there.

Then out of the blue, I started to feel exhausted of the corporate grind. I just decided a take a break in 2010 without any other job offers in hand.

To fill my leisure time at home, I started to support in a school for lesser-privileged children. But the techie in me couldn’t stay away! For the following three years, I was able to instil a passion of programming in those children. They were accepted to prestigious schools in the after-school programmes, or via EWS quotas. A few of them went on to get computer certifications and programming skills, and are placed well. That’s one of the high points of my life!

My love for programming kept me busy first with taking fun coding classes for school kids and then drafting programs to train computer instructors to teach ICT in an engaging way to students of a chain of schools across the country.

Then I started writing, and I had my own content creation setup which spanned a variety of genres including lifestyle and luxury. But here too the tech bug bit me soon enough! I found myself developing tech content for leaders and CXOs of my client companies. I began managing tech websites, social media, digital marketing, as well as into web development.

Never to be satisfied with one thing, I wondered, "Why not try corporate once again?" It was at that time that I earned my project management certification.

Lo and behold! After a seven-year hiatus, I was back in the corporate world, chartingdigital innovation programmes. I was lucky to be paid to learn and experiment with various technologies! That's what I did for three years, and I've not looked back. I came into Maxlife Insurance because I had a technical background as well as an entrepreneurial spirit, and they were searching for someone who was willing to take risks and think outside the box.

Then I moved to Truminds as Engineering Director which is a global software services organization dealing with latest digital technologies. Recently, I have joined Jubilant Foodworks Ltd (JFL), leading tech to support their emerging brands. The current role is exciting as JFL is foraying into food tech with an aggressive enthusiasm!

Did your gender ever impact the way you were treated in the Indian IT and technology industry? In your opinion how does gender impact women’s career trajectories, especially in the technology space?

It has, in fact, I must say, in a very, favourable way. Maybe, unlike what I hear and read and I'm not sure if I'm the exception, but my life has always been great in IT! I pursued my engineering degree at an all-girls engineering college. Mostly everyone from my batch started working in IT, that’s 200+ women in just one batch!Hence, I believe a large number of women enter IT. However, in my years in the industry, I have noticed a decline in the number.

I've never received any special appreciation for being a woman at work, nor have I experienced any disparity as a woman. Just like everyone else, I have had my challenges. There was a period when I was sailing fastand then also times when I wished I could slow down. Companies where I've worked have been very attentive to the fact that I hold two jobs, an employee and a mother.

When I was first starting out in my career, maybe the first four or five years, there were professional challenges juggling with personal responsibilities. However, I believe my roles of a wife and a mother has actually been my strength for the past two and a half decades. I learnt the fine art of balance and am (humbly!) proud of my accomplishments. I'm extremely contentwith who I am today.

Women and their representation in STEM roles is still shockingly low across the globe. What is your take on this?

I can tell you that women make less than 5% of the team I'm on today. In recent years, either the women have not joined or have opted out. One thing is for certain: IT is extremely competitive. If you ask me why they are less women, I believe it is because women are more creative, and STEM courses are still not creative enough.

Both my daughters, who are excellent programmers, have chosen to opt out of STEM. One is currently studying fashion design at the prestigious NIFT Delhi, while the other is exploring media courses. The issue, I believe, is that STEM courses do not allow you to bring your creative side as well as technology bent together. With things like NEP and liberal education programmes, I believe it is changing. That is what women connect with, so we must provide it.

The other argument is that if you don't treat a woman like a woman and ask her to work outside of the regular&recognized norms, you're creating impediments for her. People expect you to work late at odd hours, and if you skip any meetings, it can be perceived negatively, and that sometimes holds women back.

In the industry, there is thismind-set of fierce competition and rat race. Everyone is expected to progress up the corporate ladder and follow predetermined career paths. It is necessary to provide women employees with the necessary space in order to keep them happy; happiness does not always come from more. When this is not the case, they begin to turn down opportunities and choose to leave.

The entire ecosystem is now churning. And I have faith in the next generation’s ability to change. However, stereotyping persists, and it is one of the reasons why women are underrepresented in STEM and finance fields. It’s extremely sad for me as well, because I come from a college of women engineers, but when I get out into the industry, many are gone. We need to break through this facade as a society.

It's fine to admit that I'm not feeling well because my child had kept me up all night. It's all right. You don't have to judge a woman for being herself. Men tend to keep a farce at work. Even now, we don't see many men speaking up for women and openly admitting to assisting women with home duties. You will not see progress unless we shatter these gender stereotypes and value people for who they are.  

What steps can be taken to increase the number of women in STEM roles?

Bringing creative elements into STEM will help to drive change. We need to incorporate more compassionate culture into corporates to raise the number of women in IT. Diversification and inclusion programmes in companies are still more of a marketing gimmick. Why should diversity and inclusion revolve around women?  I believe it brings inwonderful opportunities for persons with special abilities as well (true diversity).

Why do you single out and celebrate women differently than men? Why are working women celebrated? Whycan’t it be normalized? Do we take pride in the fact that men work? Not at all. Women should have access to the same ecosystem as men. Give them the roles they need, respect they deserve, and the pay for their efforts regardless of gender.

How do you foresee digital and technology trends impacting the Indian business landscape?

It's an interesting and exciting era today. I can attest to this because I'm currently working on the business side of technology. Earlier, an IT department or IT technology used to support the business. However, digital and technology have now become business enablers. Without digital technology, no firm can exist, and this is true for any business.

Everything is blending; you're no longer thinking of technology as something done by so-called engineers or STEM professionals. We are surrounded by technology in all sectors of life from the day we were born. Technology has become so mainstream and familiar to everyone that even ‘traditionally’ non-technical people are leading IT companies.

There are two types of people: those who have spent their entire careers in technology, the so called engineers, and those who have worked in non-tech fields. But today, both of them are working together using technology to enable the businesses. Not only in businesses, but in every organisation; schools, hospitals, even local groceries have all integrated technology into their daily operations.

What would your advice be for young girls and women who also aspire to build a lasting career in the field of technology?

Every young girl needs to go out with confidence; don't think of technology as a skill you need to acquire outside of what you are as a person. The fact that you're a woman, or a girl who grew up in a different trajectory in our so-called male-dominated world, you bring in that subtlety, which is required today in the world of technology. The way technology trends such as artificial intelligence &robotics are going - they need a human touch, they need a psychological angle and they need the sensitivity that a girl or a woman brings in.

You have the prowess; you have the power to follow your dreams. So,be proud of who you are, and move forward without fear!