Creating opportunities for work-life choices with Dr Sirisha Kuchimanchi

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What is your personal worth? From an internal perspective, it's about having confidence in your sense of self and your values. But let's expand on that. Your worth can also be viewed in the connections you have made in your personal or professional communities, be it the kids' soccer parent who knows a job you'd be great for, or the ex-coworker whose passion project is your passion, too. It's also of course your financial position and what you can do to change it. Because growth in all these areas gives you more space to grow as well.

Join us as we speak with Sirisha Kuchimanchi, entrepreneur, speaker, and former engineering and manufacturing executive, about navigating her career through economic downturns, and how the different aspects of your personal worth give you more options.

About Dr Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Dr Sirisha Kuchimanchi is the Founder of "Sahita", a Global Community for South Asian Women for Career & Financial Empowerment. She is an active investor supporting Women funded businesses. Her aim is to promote gender equity by empowering more women to take control of their careers and finances. Sirisha is a Former Engineering & Manufacturing Executive with over 17 years of experience at Texas Instruments (Fortune 200) a Semiconductor Design and Manufacturing Company. She co-chaired the Technology & Manufacturing Women’s ERG which supported over 500 women across 3 continents and 8 countries. Sirisha hosts the podcast "Women, Career & Life", ranked at the top 30% on Spotify, where she provides practical ideas and resources for women to further their career & life goals. She also hosts a weekly Live Radio Talk Show "Life Beats with Sirisha" on 104.1 FM which has a reach of over half a million listeners from the South Asian Community. She strives to create a platform for diverse voices & perspectives to be heard, so listeners can succeed both personally and professionally while building a stronger community. Sirisha is on the elected Board of Governors of The Podcast Academy which supports podcast makers and globally advances the cultural merit of the medium. Sirisha successfully traversed her return to work after getting laid off less than a year after entering the corporate world. A few years later, Sirisha made a conscious decision to be a stay-at-home during which time Sirisha earned her Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

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  • [00:01:05] Sirisha's beginnings in physics.
  • [00:02:43] The transition to material science and engineering.
  • [00:04:24] The value of being able to explore the industry while pursuing higher studies.
  • [00:05:34] We all leave social breadcrumbs and create networks through our interactions.
  • [00:07:13] The experience of layoffs.
  • [00:09:40] The contrast of working as a contractor vs a permanent employee.
  • [00:10:33] Sirisha's second career break and the decision to return to school.
  • [00:14:25] Sometimes the market makes the decision for you.
  • [00:15:25] Financial literacy and preparation gives you choices and flexibility.
  • [00:16:37] Looking after our financial futures because work shouldn't dictate our lives.
  • [00:21:04] The stigma attached to speaking about money or death matters.
  • [00:23:31] Risk management and your priorities.
  • [00:25:44] Everyone is a potential candidate for an information interview.
  • [00:28:23] The grass is always greener. But you don't know unless you try.
  • [00:30:36] Your background and culture in a work context as an asset or liability.
  • [00:34:06] Ask for what you want, but you have to know what you want first.
  • [00:35:29] Considerations as a woman or POC in leadership.
  • [00:37:29] Leveraging what you know and building relationships with people.
  • [00:40:51] What advice would you give someone who would like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?
  • [00:44:02] Finding out more about Sirisha and her work.
Michele Ong

What's your personal worth? From an internal perspective, it's about having confidence in your sense of self and your values. But let's expand on that, because your worth can also be viewed in the connections you've made in your personal and professional communities. Be it the kid's soccer parent who knows a job you'd be grate for. Or the ex coworker whose passion project is also your passion, too.

It's also about your financial position and what you can do to change it. Because growth in all of these areas gives you space to grow as well.

Join us as we speak with Sirisha Kuchimanchi, entrepreneur, speaker, and former engineering and manufacturing executive, about navigating a career through economic downturns, and how the different aspects of your personal worth give you more options.

I'm Michele Ong, and this is STEAM Powered.

Good evening, Sirisha. Thank you so much for joining me today on STEAM Powered. I'm really looking forward to speaking with you today about your journey.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Thanks, Michele. I'm looking forward to our conversation, too.

Sirisha's beginnings in physics.

Michele Ong

Amazing. So we'll get straight into it and start at the very beginning. And you actually started studying physics and you're now doing engineering stuff. But what actually drew you to physics in the beginning?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I always liked science. Between math, chemistry, and physics, physics was the one that kind of pulled me. And interestingly, in India, at least when I went to school, there was an exam you took when you graduated high school before you went to college to enter engineering school. But I told my parents I didn't want to take the exam because I figured if I got in, I would have to do engineering and I didn't want to. So I wanted to study physics. And, though I don't know if this had anything, per se, implicit, my father and I found out recently my grandfather are also physicists by training. So yeah, maybe, maybe they had a, you know, kind of a, thread behind that conversation. But I just like physics.

Michele Ong

That's cool. So, where did you think doing physics would take you?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Oh, if only I knew then. I don't think I had that much forethought into what it was going to do. I think it was just something I liked studying and talking to my friends nowadays. It's kind of hard. I don't think we all envision the future as most children or young people tend to do nowadays. It's just something that was interesting. I don't think we even knew what opportunities were there from a work standpoint.

It was the idea of being able to study and learn something new and kind of challenge yourself.

Michele Ong

So, after physics at university, you went into an engineering firm, is that right?

The transition to material science and engineering.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I actually studied my Bachelor's and Master's in physics in India. And when I came for graduate school to the US, I switched to material science and engineering.

And in some ways it was a fairly natural transition because the thesis sort of research work I did in my Master's in physics was more experimental physics sort of bridging materials work already.

And... By then I realised there was so much theoretical and quantum physics that it was overwhelmingly math and I knew I couldn't sustain it. It was going to become much more incomprehensible to me. So, I kind of like the practical work of doing stuff so... material science seemed like a good transition because it's oftentimes a melding of metallurgy, physics chemistry, and a lot of other things.

Michele Ong

It is. And it's a very applied kind of science in comparison to the physics that you were studying before.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Exactly. And so... What I realised is when I switched from physics from science to engineering, it was a, bit of a hard transition because the way you think and process is kind of different. And just learning the basics, because you didn't go through basic engineering school, right?

In a class of I think maybe we were 20 to 30 people. In grad school, me and a friend of mine were the only people who came from outside of material science or engineering fields. So we found the transition a bit challenging in the beginning. Because we didn't understand the basics of it. But over time, of course, we figured it out, asked questions, and learned, but it always helped kind of figure out how to switch. And in a way, I think it's, a good learning process. Of course, when you're going through it and the pain of it, it doesn't look like fun. But looking back, I think it was a good way to, you know, put your feet in two different aspects of things.

The value of being able to explore the industry while pursuing higher studies.

Michele Ong

So, because you did make that switch consciously, like did that one have a particular vision for what you could do with it?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I knew I wanted to work. I wasn't sure if it would be academia or industry or what kind of roles were there, because oftentimes, I mean, and it's true even now, right, when you do sort of materials or certain things, they become almost very niche fields. And if you end up in graduate school, or at that point, I was pursuing a PhD, that even becomes even more niche. So your options seem fairly limited.

My advisor was amazing. So we went to conferences, we would present in front of these 400 people, you know, he'd give us opportunities. I actually did a co op for six months. So it gave me some practical experience and sort of helped me interact in an industry environment and also help build a resume because internships especially really help you get some work experience on the plate to get you ready for the next one. And for a long time I debated between academia and industry, and I kind of stopped after my Master's because we moved cities when I got married, and I took a break. I eventually did go back to my PhD, but I had my Master's and then ended up in industry.

We all leave social breadcrumbs and create networks through our interactions.

Michele Ong

Right. so is that one of the career breaks that you had taken that you mentioned in your bio?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yeah, so I've had two, and I don't know if you consider this third one sort of an official final career break. Uh, but I joined my first job, you know, I went to a job fair in the local town. And I, didn't know driving, so I actually took a cab to this job fair, and most of the people, like I said, weren't looking for material science, and it was the last company that I ended up talking to, which was an equipment vendor for semiconductor manufacturing, that was looking for people, and that's how I got hired.

And the downturn came and less than a year later I got laid off. I mean, now people talk about layoffs very openly, but that time layoffs, you know, nobody talked about them.

So I got laid off.

But what happened is, because I was working at a client's site, a few months later the clients called me and asked me if I wanted to come back and contract with them.

So it's always been that, in my experience, at least for me personally, that I've always gotten a callback at the time I'm looking for a job actively as well.

And so when I talk to people, I tell them, whether you know what a mentor is or what networking is, we all leave these breadcrumb trails around when we are working without realising what impressions you are creating, because for someone to want to call you back, I feel you must have left a fairly positive impression, otherwise, they wouldn't probably stick their neck out to hire you so, you never know how your, um, work experience lays your future path, because I figure if I didn't have that first experience, I could not have transitioned through the economy downturn, because, you know, you always need some experience for someone to want to hire you again.

The experience of layoffs.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. And because it was in a period where... Talking about layoffs or being laid off is almost a taboo at that point in time. How did you manage that for yourself? Was it a process where you just went, yeah, I need to get a job and you start applying again? Or was it a time for reflection for you?

Especially because it was so early in your career.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yeah, and you know, I'm, I was an immigrant as well, so there's visa complications as well sometimes.

And it was, it's-- it's very disheartening when you get laid off because even though layoffs have really nothing to do with you because it's the economy, the company, whatever the revenue process models are. But it's very disheartening to... feel like, oh, did I do something, right? In some ways, that's this residual feeling. I knew I had like a package, I had a certain time frame, I was actively looking I did go for a couple of interviews. I actually remember one time, I was watching tv and one of the companies called me for like this phone interview out of the blue.

Oh my gosh, it was a horrible experience because I wasn't expecting-- I should never have picked up the phone, and it went really badly. But it it did work out. So I ended up contracting for this-- I mean, there was time for reflection, but really not a lot of time because I didn't have a choice. But I ended up contracting in this company and then eventually, you know, looking for full time jobs within that organisation. And the interesting part was the company that I got laid off from, every quarter they kind of went through the sequence of layoffs. And so this contract role I had, I had friends who would get laid off and they had more openings. So I would kind of help recruit these people to come into the company.

And so then it kind of, we built this pipeline and then eventually many of us ended up getting full time hired into this role. And that was kind of like my first break that I went through and it was a good transition.

And looking back, I think it was the best thing ever. I mean, that's what I tell on hindsight. It was because I think it really showcased to me like sort of risk tolerance of not feeling uncomfortable with certain decisions, like even taking a break from work or quitting your job. And also the fact that people come together in different ways and that you can always get hired back. And you just have to figure that it will work out and it gives you the opportunity to self reflect and say, What do you want to go look for next time? And if I hadn't done that, I think the career trajectory would look completely different.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. So after that, where did you go from there, and what happened once you started working as a contractor?

The contrast of working as a contractor vs a permanent employee.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So I worked for about, I think it was like six months or so. And then I was interviewing full time in that company.

And during the contract, it was great because we were doing R & D research, you know, developing these new technologies and processes. So it was, it was great fun because it is industry sort of research, sort of grad school combination and got to work with some really brilliant people, and to see that go into production. And then eventually when I got hired full time it was a completely different type of role. So, when I was a contractor, I worked a very specific process inside the semiconductor called like, thin film PVD processes. But when I ended up as a yield engineer for a semiconductor company at Texas Instruments, I learned the whole loop. So, I got to see a different side, first of all, not from a client, but inside a company.

And got a much more broader exposure and working in different teams.

Sirisha's second career break and the decision to return to school.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So it was a very good experience and I moved roles four years in within that organisation, and I realised I wanted to take a break because at that point I had a two year old at home. I was expecting my second one. I was actually going to school to take a couple of classes. I decided to go back and finish my PhD and working. And I was like, there was too much on my plate.

Michele Ong

That's very ambitious.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yes. And actually somehow I did manage to pull it off. I mean, I remember I would have class at like, I think it was like 6:30. And this restaurant would open like at 5:30. So every Monday and Wednesday we would go there at 5:30 as the restaurant opened. And we knew, because of my two year old was there, right? I mean, he's hungry, so we knew exactly what we were going to order before I got dropped off to class. So it was like this sort of very streamlined process. And by then, I mean, we'd already kind of had a plan that I was going to take a break from work when I had my second one. Obviously, with all of this going on, it was also a bit too intense.

I decided to quit my job and be a stay-at-home mum and kind of work through my PhD when I was a stay-at-home mum to graduate during that process.

And I mean, that was the best experience ever because I got to make friends. That's what I tell people. This, these are the same friends I've had for, you know, my youngest is 16 and my oldest just turned 19, so I've had the same friends for, you know, more than a decade and a half, and it's, it was really good.

Michele Ong

That's very, very cool. So, when you were doing your PhD, did you do that over an extended period part time? Or was that also a full time study program as well while you were being a stay-at-home mum?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yeah, so it turned out that I did a lot of research when I was actually doing my my Master's before I ended up taking a break from my PhD program during my co op and stuff.

So, when I wanted to go back, I reached out to my advisor and asked him if I could come back, and the university and department were very gracious in extending my, because you have these qualifiers and they expire after a certain time. But, you know, on requesting it and kind of talking about my personal situation, they were willing to grant me like, I think it was like a year or two year extension. I think I needed a second extension when I realised I was expecting my second one, but then they gave me that, I had to travel a couple of times.

So, a lot of the research I had done was still very much valid. I had still some more work to do. I traveled only like once or twice, mostly for defense and things like that. And just did work at home. So, oftentimes I worked once my kids went to bed at night. And then did the work that way and kind of paced it around, and, like I said, they were also accommodating. So, I knew kind of when I had to graduate and work towards that.

Looking back, I don't know if, you know, sometimes my friends say, Oh, you should think about going back to school. I'm like, no, it's, it's, it's, I, I'm kind of done with school. I will learn in different ways, but I don't think I, I mean, I never say never, but I don't think I would want to go back to school. I think it's, it's a heavy lift.

Michele Ong

It's a heavy lift, and I mean, considering you've kind of done this technically twice or three times now, because you had the physics, and then you had the material science, and then the PhD, I think that's enough.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yeah, I totally agree. And and, you know, when they say, Oh, MBA this, I'm like, you know, I have leadership experience from work. Why do I have to go back to school to get more? And I want to do different things anyway. So it doesn't really matter.

Michele Ong

So is that why you decided to return to the PhD, to be able to pursue other leadership positions?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I think it was partly challenging myself to see that I could do it, I was capable of it. It was sort of a technical challenge. It was also a avenue, I mean I kind of felt like I'd always abandoned it in a way. So I wanted to go back and finish something I'd started on. And also opens doors because I had not resolved this sort of academia versus industry dilemma at that point.

Sometimes the market makes the decision for you.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So when I finished up, I was thinking about it. I was looking at academic positions.

I don't think I actually applied to any, but it was something that was very much a push and pull trying to make that decision because it was hard to decide. And again, it was sort of the 2008 downturn, so jobs were also incredibly hard to get.

I went to a job fair. I think there were like a thousand people and maybe like I don't know maybe 10 or 20 jobs. I mean it was like there was nothing there, so I decided to take it was two years into being a stay-at-home mum. So I decided okay I'll take another year off because this is incredibly painful to try and find a job and the economy is doing really badly.

So that's when I decided To stretch it out for another year.

Michele Ong

Yeah. And the fact that you had the opportunity to do that. If you have the ability to do it, then, of course, because otherwise why are you wanting to struggle in a job market that is so highly competitive in a period that's quite poor for the economy?

Financial literacy and preparation gives you choices and flexibility.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I mean very true and maybe this is a good segue for this conversation as well, because, you know, a lot of people listening to us in STEM fields is much as we are invested in our careers and our education, let's not forget the financial piece that plays a huge role in whatever decisions we make.

So I think it's important for people to be cognisant of how they manage their money, budgeting, whatever, investing, all those are important things to start early on and it's never too late to start it today because it gives you a choice and every decision I've made in some ways has given me some flexibility because there was sort of a buffer.

I mean, I sort of had the luxury of choice, but I worked towards building that choice in a way also, because obviously when I came for grad school and stuff, you start as a student so you're not starting with much. So it's like how do you build up and look at your financial picture in conjunction with your career.

Because most of us, if it's women listening to this podcast, you know, even men too, but largely it's seen that women do. You end up making a lot of choices and it's always this push and pull and like how do you decide. So there's all these things play into that ecosystem when we are making decisions.

Looking after our financial futures because work shouldn't dictate our lives.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So looking further into that, what sort of decisions should we be considering? I mean, some of them are fairly obvious, but some of them you need to be reminded.

So how should we be viewing our financial futures in this way?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I talk to people, young college students and at different stages of life. First of all, I mean, sort of the basic, right, you need to know how much you're making and how much you need to save you need to save a certain percentage, whatever, 10, 20 percent and make that and put it away and start investing early.

I didn't know much about investing, but many of us don't learn it when we are young, sometimes or how to do it. But usually, if you're working for a corporation or somewhere or even otherwise, there are these sort of schemes. I mean, you're in Australia and I'm sitting in the US, so it's not the same schemes, but there are ways of sort of indexing or you can get a basket of funds and essentially put money into a market and then the market grows and you kind of have to put it almost, I think, in an autopilot way, so you're not watching it like a hawk because that's just going to stress you out. But obviously making a conscious sort of sensible decision around it and talking to people about it. Talking to friends, talking to other people, listening and learning from others. And there will be mistakes. I mean, as I was learning, there were like pretty bad financial mistakes along the way. And it takes time to correct them, because even to correct them is a risk, right? You have to... Pull money out at the wrong time to correct the mistake and I've had to do all of that.

And then over time, if you have the opportunity or maybe even sometimes a luxury, maybe you get a financial advisor to help give you some guidance. You don't have to let them do the investment, but this is how I look at it.

You know, there's a lot of conversation about self worth, right? Especially focused when they're talking about women. But I also think we should be talking about net worth, like what is that number you need to sort of retire, let's call it retirement. Retirement not in the sense like, you know, you retire and stop doing stuff, but at that stage in life and you think you have enough to make the next decision or--

Michele Ong

To be comfortable.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Exactly. And every investment firm has a simple calculator in it. I think it's like 25 X of your spending amount for your final retirement. So somewhere in that between maybe you're only four years and you plan to work 10 years, but you want to make a decision now. Look at what that buffer zone is, you know, your emergency fund of three to six months.

You're investing some money, so you can make that choice and you have kind of a game plan. When I quit work to be a stay-at-home mum, I didn't think where I was going to come back to but actually ended up going back to the same job I was in in interviewing because they, uh, called and asked if I wanted to come and it was a great transition and it was a good role to go back to, but I implicitly believe that everybody needs to have some investment in their financial future because we go to work, you enjoy it, oftentimes, maybe you don't even enjoy it, but you also go to work because to make money.

Let's be clear about that. And you don't want the work to dictate how you live your life, right? You want to have some control over it. A lot of control over it. The only way you're going to control it is by essentially controlling your money.

So how are you going to make the decisions? Not to be overly vested in it. It's not like I'm looking at my accounts all the time. Or I'm looking at this. I have a very vague idea in my head. I look at it every few months or weeks. And it just kind of runs, like I said, pretty much on autopilot.

But I have spent enough time learning it and oftentimes, I think there's sort of an intimidation around the idea of money management, talking to friends and others and people I meet. But if you look at it, it's basic math that we learn in school, so it's not really that complicated. I think it's just this sort of, um, you know--

Michele Ong

There's a stigma around it as well, because when you're at school and if you have a bad experience with maths or they teach you-- there was someone who was saying that, you know, they teach you things about appreciation and depreciation and all that, and they don't actually teach you financial literacy.

They teach you what the terms are, but not how to apply it. And that leads to a stigma in, oh, finance is hard, because I don't understand, you know, how that works. And it's not necessarily about understanding the terms, but understanding, as you said, what your net worth is, and how to change that position.

The stigma attached to speaking about money or death matters.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Very true. I mean, there is a stigma attached to it, right? I mean, talking about money itself is considered very, um, uncouth in a way. Not even the taboo of money itself, but the fact that you're talking about it. But we should be talking about it with our friends. Maybe you don't want to talk about the numbers, because I totally understand, that the numbers make you uncomfortable.

But you should be talking about it. How are you investing? Are you investing? Like, and at certain points I started to talk to my friends about wills and trust, which is even more uncomfortable.

Michele Ong

It is, because nobody likes death. Ha.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I mean, there's death and taxes, as they say. But if you have children... At least in the US, the state will decide, make decisions for you if you don't make decisions for yourself. You're not working to someone else to decide, so you have to and it's, it's been uncomfortable in the beginning, but now we've all gotten comfortable talking about it. And I talk about it in all sorts of forums.

And it's interesting that you talk about it in this time, because like I said, I'm doing a TEDx talk in October, and it's about money conversations with kids because I think we should be talking what I think of as money stories with our children early on.

And I have teenagers in high school and college and we talk about it often like they, they've got an allowance, they manage it like mine is in college, you know, we went shopping and he wanted to know what his budget was and he was looking at it and it wasn't something I even told him and he was trying to figure out.

Okay, this is how much it should be for the year, for my college, and this is how much. Okay, I spent this much, so it should really come down. And it's kind of intuitively coming to him, and I'm glad he's thinking about it, because otherwise, I would be, you know, holding his hand for much longer on that discussion, and it's good for him to try and figure it out and make his mistakes along the way.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. And it is the basic thing, because you don't want to have to be in a position where you have no choice but to live paycheck to paycheck. And it's such a fragile position to be in, especially in this economy, when jobs are coming and going so quickly.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Exactly. Yeah, and it's interesting, right?

I talk to, like, I have colleagues and you know a lot of people I know who are senior executives. The fact of money and retiring is hard no matter how much you make. You could be like, a new entry level, you could be a senior. Just making that decision to step away from a corporate role or from something that is consistent is very hard, because you know, when you feel like you've turned that faucet off, you're like, oh my gosh, what am I going to do?

No matter how much you have.

Michele Ong

It's a form of dependence.

Risk management and your priorities.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yes. And it's a hard decision to make, but the way I did it in the beginning and probably I would, I still tend to do is, because there's so many thoughts going on in your head when you're making decisions is, I tell people you write it on a paper, I guess now an electronic device or somewhere, the pros and cons and then you make the decision and then you move on because you can look back, you'll be like, Oh, I should have done that.

But at that point, that was the right decision. Looking back doesn't really solve anything for you. It was the right decision then, and you move forward. And even like your investing decisions, that's all. you sometimes have to take the hit and decide, Okay, it was the wrong decision, and pivot, or figure out how you want to move forward.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. And it's, it's also developing the ability to be resilient to those sorts of changes, whether it's literally financially or mentally, because you do need to be able to think about being agile in that way as well.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yeah, I mean... To the point, right, when we're talking about taking career breaks, getting laid off, being a stay-at-home mum, I feel like were pivotal moments because when I came back to work from that you know, being a stay-at-home mum, it changed how I looked at my career. I was willing to take more risks, maybe in some ways a bit more clear on my path, wanting to try new things. Maybe in the way people would classify, a bit more pushy about it. Because I'm like, okay, this is what I want, this is how much I'm going to do for it, what I'm going to do, what I'm going to ask for. I mean, it didn't all come easily. It took time to learn. Also, it made me much more incredibly efficient, and I think this might resonate with a lot of people, when they go back to work after having kids, is your time value is different, at least for me, it was very different from how it was before, just because you're trying to look at different, and it doesn't have to be kids, it could be that you have a passion project, you have something else that you want to invest in, or maybe you just want to break from work, and you want to put boundary conditions around it, whatever it is, you know, there are ways to create these compartments to invest time the way you want to and I just found that I was willing to try new things and kind of ask for things, have conversations.

Everyone is a potential candidate for an information interview.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

I spent the first year, I think I went back maybe like six to nine months and realised that, you know, I would want to move from that job pretty soon. So I was starting to look. I had this mentor through an official program. And she kind of taught me this information interview and I didn't know at that point what she wanted me to do.

So she introduced me to this first person who was kind of her friend and made me create like a single slide PowerPoint giving my top level experience. And I went to talk to this lady about her job profile. And so what I learned from that experience is every time I talk to somebody, I would ask them who I should meet with next and if I could help them in some way. Because it kind of helped keep a connection, only if the conversation went well.

And I ended up talking to pretty much every role that the company had. I worked in manufacturing and sort of this business was on the other side of the fence. It was very siloed, so you didn't really know anybody at that point.

I think that's how it was very often structured. So I talked to people in finance, operations, sales, marketing, project management, business. Like all these roles, just to find out what their job profile was, to see what I wanted to do.

Because in my organisation, they tended to stick within manufacturing, which was fine, but I wanted to see what was on the other side before I made a decision.

And I spent a year talking to people and meeting so many people and I ended up getting like a stretch role through one of those conversations and ended up trying something new and meeting new people. And by asking and talking to people, we learned so much more than kind of working by ourselves.

Michele Ong

Yeah. And the information interview thing is, it's not a new idea, but applying it in more than just your jobs or in the actual company that you're working in, is so valuable because there's so many more opportunities with where we can take our careers these days. It's no longer a linear trajectory along exec path and management and stuff like that. So being able to feel confident in asking people for information interviews anywhere, not just within your company, but outside and even amongst your friends and your extended networks, it gives you a lot more scope for where you can take what you do and your skillset in other places that you might not think about originally.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yeah, very true. It could be a conversation when you're playing soccer, or it could be at your community event that you're attending because a lot of thing happens through networks as much as we might look down on it or have a certain impression of it.

It is networking. That's how you find out about opportunities. I, I suspect less than 50 percent or 40 percent of jobs are ever advertised. So, a lot of it happens outside of it and someone knows somebody, they believe in your work ethic or they know of this opportunity.

The grass is always greener. But you don't know unless you try.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So, you have to gather more information and one person's perspective of a job profile is never enough, right? Because they may like the job. I've had friends who desperately wanted this job. Like I had a friend who wanted to work in finance and it took him a long time to get a role. He ended up sort of temping when someone was on maternity leave so that gave him the lead in and he ended up getting a role.

But he realised after three months that this thing he'd been aspiring for like two, three years wasn't what he liked at all. I mean he was able to change and then you know I think it helped precipitate certain decisions for him because he ended up leaving those kind of roles, but sometimes the grass is not exactly what we think but we have to try it we cannot look at it as a bad thing. It is an experience you have to go through to realise that maybe at that stage in life that wasn't the right thing for you and it's an experience you still take some skill away. There's nothing that ever is a bad thing because you will still learn something from it.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. And there are some cases where like that dream job of yours, you've just got this romanticised idea of what it looks like in your head, which is nothing like what it is in reality.

And having the experience of doing it is going, Oh, okay. So yes, some of that is true. And the rest isn't what I was expecting.

But as you said, you learn from it and you're always developing skills to take to the next role.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Absolutely. And maybe it wasn't the right fit then, but maybe it's the right fit in the future. You never know.

Michele Ong

Yeah. And you're still creating those networks.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Exactly. I always look at it as two things. Even if you get, say, demoted in a job, or the job ends, or you go through a layoff, the two things that you never lose are your skills, because you've learned something, and your network. So those are things that get to stay with you.

Michele Ong

Exactly. And as we said, networks are what carries a lot of weight these days, in order to be able to get doors and feet into positions that you might not otherwise have had access to.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yes. And actually I heard, someone I interviewed on my podcast called your network is your net worth. We were talking about network financially, but similarly your network is also your net worth. So, you're investing in that as well.

Michele Ong

Yes. It's always an investment, and people are an investment, whether you're an individual or a company. You have to invest in that.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Absolutely.

Your background and culture in a work context as an asset or liability.

Michele Ong

So there was also something that you added to your bio, and you said 'as an immigrant woman of colour I learned how to leverage my background and my culture to succeed at work', and I'd love to know more about that.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So when I went back to work and at a point in time when I kept moving roles, a friend asked me why I wasn't trying for a management job. I hadn't even thought to try management because for me, managers are like so far off. I thought, okay, the job is hard, how do you lead people? I think the idea of leading people or working with people or managing people usually intimidates a lot of us to do it. So I decided at one point to go and tell my boss that I wanted to try for management and I interviewed for a role in a similar group and I didn't get the job, but what happened from that conversation was the hiring manager, because I think it became a tough call because in some way she knew who she wanted to hire, but once she interviewed me I think it gave her a pause, so she said can I give you feedback? And if anyone's ever asked you that I don't know how you feel about it, Michele, but every time-- I actually seek actively feedback. I have to be honest and I ask people to be direct because I don't like sugar coating because I can never tell like it's my road ending or is that a pathway because I don't want to waste time, but when she told me that, you know, I was like, dang, no, I don't want to hear this.

But I did, of course, say yes, you know, in a glass enclosed room. And it turned out to be a very interesting discussion because she gave me some critical feedback. And she told me some things and this was a comment I made to her. She was telling me how I kind of showed up at work or how I came across. Because, you know, your impression of you is very different from how others perceive you. And she said something and I told her, you know what? I leave my briefcase at the door. What I meant was I leave my personality at the door and walk in. Because when you come from a culture like, when I talk to other South Asian women, or even sometimes people from Latin America and stuff, you know, you're often taught to be humble, and there's a certain way you come across. Talking about yourself, showing off is, is not the norm.

But in the US, in some ways, you have to speak about what you do and what you're doing, in a subtle way, and, and being a woman, also, there is sort of this fine line you tread. There, there is this cartoon that someone sent me, and I use it sometimes when I'm talking to people. There are two women who are typing on the computer, and one of them asks, What is the difference between assertive and aggressive? And the other one, without looking at her, says gender.

And I think that cartoon totally exemplifies everything without saying anything. Because you're always treading this fine line of being, like I said, too pushy and not too pushy, and you're like How do you exercise your voice and I cannot tell you that there is a right way or a wrong way, but you have to figure out what that is and what you're willing to risk for it, right? So like I said, I told my boss I wanted to interview for manager jobs and the first time he kind of asked he was kind of like wondering why but the next day, he came back and he was very nice. He said okay when you're going for that interview, make sure you highlight this skill, this skill, this skill because I didn't exactly have the skills they needed.

And when I interviewed that hiring manager actually went to her boss, which was like three levels up and said, you know, I'm finding it hard to make a decision. I don't know whom to hire. And he said, it's your decision, but you know, she gave me feedback.

So in some ways, my name started to roll out on other people's tongues.

Ask for what you want, but you have to know what you want first.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So you know, it helps to ask for what you want in a way. And I have to tell you as a sitting as a manager on the other side I would tell my own team members you have to be clear on what you want because I realise when you're sitting on the other side of management as much as you might be upset or feel like your manager is not engaged, they also have a ton of things on their plate and they want to help you but they do not know how to help you if you don't tell them what you want.

Michele Ong

They can't help you find that.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Exactly, and they are using their social capital and they need to use it efficiently and effectively to be a right fit for everybody, and so you have to be able to do that, so over time trying to figure out, How do you come across feeling comfortable within who you are, your culture, and all of that, and how you want to show up at work.

And I know it means different things for different people.

And I know there's a lot of discussion about being authentic at work, but I kind of have like this mixed feeling about it. I think you can be... Authentic up to a point at work because I feel like there's a sort of professional barrier that you hit against and I don't want to bring everything to work.

Personally I like some some separation of who I am outside of work and who I am at home.

I mean, I'm still the same person, but I'm not talking about everything at work just because I just personally like a little bit of-

Michele Ong

Of separation.

Considerations as a woman or POC in leadership.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Yes, exactly. And so, how do you show up as an immigrant woman of colour is like, because oftentimes if you work in like tech jobs and engineering jobs, I think most of us don't think about it because when you went through school and stuff, you were probably a minority.

It's not something that even strikes you. But then when you sit suddenly in a meeting .And there are all full of women, you're like, what? Then you realise, oh, this is, this is different from the norm.

If you end up in leadership roles, you're very often maybe the one or the two people in the room. So how do you speak up? How do you get heard? And how do you build allyship with-- you know, people have to support you as well and you have to support them. So how do you build that ecosystem, find sponsors, find mentors, this whole ecosystem that you're building either consciously or unconsciously.

And like I said, when you're asking for things, how far are you willing to go? And, and for me, basically, because of my career breaks, I think at certain stages, I was like, Okay. In my mind, what is the worst that would happen? Maybe you'd get fired or laid off, but I'd already kind of experienced that.

So it's like, how much worse can this thing get? You'll always find a job. I mean, you'll find a different job, if not this job. But I'm just saying, generally speaking, you know, we have all these sort of self limitations, these self fears, we think we are not able to do the job. And I remember, um, being interviewed for a job and the hiring manager asking me, would you have applied for this job? And initially, I told him no. And then I thought about it and said, that was the wrong answer to give. I guess I would have eventually, but I didn't even think I was ready for that.

But you never know who's going to tap you on the shoulder and say, hey, you should interview for this role.

And I tell people, if anyone ever taps you, you always say yes. Because they see something in you that you don't see in yourself, and they're going to have your back, because they've already like, you know, used that social capital on you, so.

Michele Ong

Yes, absolutely. Because that's the whole point of the networks, right? They give you the opportunity, so if that presents itself, what do you have to lose by giving it a try?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Exactly.

Leveraging what you know and building relationships with people.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So, back to the, how do you actually leverage your background and culture in this way?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So for me, it's about the style of managing in a way. My style is very collaborative, so I spend a lot of time, when I used to work with people, it took me a time to figure it out. I would end up investing in time and building relationships with my peers or sort of my internal and external customers or stakeholders. In a technical way. I don't mean like fun and games as well, but technical discussions on how can we solve this problem together? In the beginning, there were challenges, in some cases we didn't want to collaborate, right? We were on different sides of the fence, so some of it we had to work through some tough times, you know, some really horrible crisis and pain points.

But eventually being able to bridge that, because what I believe is if you proactively invest in those collaborative relationships when it's not needed, when it becomes a crisis point you can totally leverage it. I could call up somebody and ask them for help and I know I will get help because I know that we've solved this problem together or when they needed help we were able to like give them some help. So that person can then connect you to someone in their network and say hey, you know kind of vouch for you. So in some ways I feel like that's kind of the culture piece because in Indian culture, it's all about being hospitable and I think it's about building those relationships.

And that kind of helped me because it was solving technical problems and it was, you know, customer facing critical issues. Sometimes I didn't have the luxury of building that, but continuing to keep that relationship going by asking for meetings, even meeting people outside, like, their team and our team going for lunch. It's simple things like that. Because then once you make a face to face connection with somebody, it is very hard to stay upset if you've had upsetting emails with each other.

And I, I remember this colleague of mine telling me, which just totally flabbergasted me. So he knew of two engineers who worked in a building, one on the third floor and one on the fourth floor, for 15 years, who actually never saw each other. They emailed each other and I'm like, are you kidding me?

Because every day I went up those stairs and I'm like, you mean they never actually climbed the stairs? I'm like, you know, problems are solved so fast by just meeting somebody because the ideas strike you so much faster and you may not think to invite them to the meeting if you haven't had a conversation with them, right?

Because we tend to stick to our own circles, or someone recommends somebody, but there might be a third person who might have a better solution, who's seen it maybe 10, 15 years ago. So, it's a lot of leveraging those pieces when I think about it, and even when I'm talking to the women peers that I have, or the men, like, encouraging them to try for new roles or highlighting their skills and things, because, I mean, this is what research shows, and even I've kind of seen it, women don't always raise their hand or sometimes when they're tapped, they're a bit hesitant to take on the roles, and it's like kind of walking them through that process, I mean, I know each one's needs and wants and personalities differ, but I know we're all at different stages and different decision points to make, so.

I think you end up reflecting at a lot of points, and sometimes we don't have the luxury of time to self reflect as well.

What advice would you give someone who would like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?

Michele Ong

Absolutely. And, you know, that kind of leads into what is one of the last questions I always ask my guests. What advice would you give someone who would like to do what you do and what advice should they ignore?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

First, you have to know, what you want to do. You'll get a ton of feedback, so let's go back to feedback, right? And I remember a manager telling me this. He said, I will give you feedback. You'll get a lot of feedback. You have to distill all that feedback and decide what is important to you and what you want to get rid of.

And you may not even be interested in what they tell you. Maybe it doesn't matter to you. So you have to decide. But also understand that that might limit you in some ways if you don't listen to the feedback. So it's your decision to make. So I would tell people who are, so in different stages, right?

If you're in school or just in graduate. Get experience. Get work experience. Continue to expand your network, and don't look at as transactional thing. thing I'm not saying continue to just send like Michele an email or me an email and just connect. That's one part of it. Absolutely. But continue to build, invest in it. Learn something about it or find something that they might find interesting to connect with. And own your financial power.

That's how I think of it. Own your financial journey because that gives you choice. Whether you want to continue this path, you want to start a side hustle, you want to be an entrepreneur, or you want to be a researcher forever, or be an industrial prof. Whatever it is, it gives you some freedom of choice.

I know we talk about work-life balance, but in the way I've started to look at it, it's work-life choices.

Whether you're making it in that next hour or 30 minutes, the next year, the next decade, you are making choices. And in a lot of ways, financial investment, financial power, as well as sort of your educational because this is a STEAM Powered podcast is it gives you the opportunity to take risks or make the decisions, the tough decisions that you might want to make. So, I would say lean into that networking and sort of the finances are the two pieces you do. And then sometimes when you're ready to make hard decisions lean into your network, maybe talk to somebody who's experienced it or done it and then you make the decision that you think is right at that point of time for you.

Michele Ong

And it's such good advice because it's putting into focus the different aspects of your worth. Both in your net worth, and your personal worth, and your network worth. And, in combination, those are the things that will give you choice in the end.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Absolutely. I mean, life is going to take you in a lot of different directions, right? And it's never linear, as you, as you said earlier, and it's quite rare for someone to have a 40 year career in a company. It's not unheard of, but I think it's less and less likely.

And probably people also do not want to invest the same way in some ways, right?

I mean, if you are able to, that's amazing. But if you want to move around or try something, maybe, yeah, move countries, move jobs, move. Whatever you might be doing or come back and try something new.

Michele Ong

Yeah. Absolutely.

All good things to consider.

Cool.

So, thank you so much, Sirisha, for speaking with me today about your journey, and all this amazing advice and insight into our personal worth.

Finding out more about Sirisha and her work.

Michele Ong

If people would like to know more about you and what you do, where can they go?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

So you can connect with me on LinkedIn. Look for Sirisha Kuchimanchi. I also have a website. So that's probably the easiest way just go to sirishakuchimanchi, it's spelled S I R I S H A K U C H I M A N C H I. So, you know on top of their webpage, there are ways to connect. You can always send me a DM on either of those platforms.

Obviously, I'm much more active on LinkedIn. I talk about leadership with companies and organisations and universities. So there are ways to partner or something. I'm always looking to connect with people and see how we can support each other. Because community is what brings us together.

I mean, Michele, you and I connected through being podcasting and STEAM, right? And ambassadors in a way. So it's given us this huge ocean to connect. Otherwise we would never have come, you know, even crossed each other's spheres.

Michele Ong

Yes, and I'm so glad that we've been able to connect in our various communities and yeah, just being able to share what you do as well is such an amazing privilege me.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Thank you. And thank you for doing this podcast. It enables a lot of women to hear different perspectives from different people's career journeys, right? To see that you're not alone-

Michele Ong

Exactly.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

and invest in finding a mentor, not by asking someone to be a mentor, but investing in a relationship, then you'll get a lot out of it as well.

Michele Ong

Definitely. Alright. So yes, thank you again, Sirisha, this has been an absolutely amazing conversation and I hope you have an amazing rest of your evening.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi

Thank you. You too.

Michele Ong

If you enjoyed this conversation, please let me know. Subscribe to this show, leave us a rating, and share this with your geeky or geek-curious friends. You can also support STEAM Powered on Patreon under steampoweredshow, the link for which will also be in the show notes. Thanks for tuning in, and we'll see you next time.

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