Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and growing up in India?
I grew up in this little town called Jamshedpur, which is in the northeastern part of India, about four hours from Calcutta. It was the first planned town of the famous Tata steel company. My dad was a professor of mechanical engineering, so we lived on campus of an engineering school. It was a bit of a bubble where everybody knew that your ticket to a better life went through a good education, and that was a big influence.
Both my parents were very ambitious for me, which was unusual. Growing up in India in the ’70s and ’80s, it was the boys who had to get educated, and the girls who had to grow up to become good homemakers. But my parents never thought I should be raised differently than my brother. My dad always said: “The first thing you’ve got to do is learn to stand on your own two feet. It doesn’t matter after that. Everything else is sort of easy.” So I studied and got exposed to the broader world, mostly through books. I always knew that there was a bigger and more interesting world out there for me to go check out.
You were one of the only women in your class at I.I.T. Was it a welcoming environment, or did you face discrimination?
Yes. I happened to become the only girl in my class of some 80 to 100 boys. I almost quit in the first week of landing there. There were these stadium seats where 20 people can sit in a row, and I would go sit on in the middle of the first row, and then everybody would move away from me because nobody wanted to sit next to me. My lab partner wouldn’t come do his labs with me.
I was like, “How am I going to navigate this? Nobody wants to talk to me. Am I going to survive four years?” And a girl who was a couple of years senior to me told me, “If you’re going to quit, who else is going to lose out? Grit it up and go figure out how you’re going to survive this.” And I did.
How did you make your way to Ohio State for grad school?
After I graduated, I went back to my hometown and got a job with the steel company. It became clear to me that the number of opportunities for me as a woman engineer in India were going to be limited. So I worked for a year, saved up money, and a year later, I saved up $800 and took my first plane ride of my life to Columbus, Ohio, on a very, very cold night. I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep that night.
What was the first kind of job that you got after graduating from Ohio State?
It was at an aerospace engineer manufacturing company in rural Pennsylvania. I happened to be the first woman engineer they had ever hired, and I was the first foreigner that they ever did an H-1B visa processing for. So that was my introduction to corporate America.