First-Gen Series: Embracing Intersectionality
In our lives, it is impossible to ‘be’ only one thing; I am a devoted mother and wife, a loving daughter and sister, an Asian immigrant, a woman of color, a woman with a tech education in Electrical Engineering – a woman who started with little money and plenty of dreams when I moved to the US 23 years ago. The satisfying part about all of the many identities I carry is that I am unique: I am ‘Me’.
The challenging part about my intersectionality is the feeling when others get nervous seeing my name, which they may have trouble pronouncing, or noticing when others hear my accent, one that may not be what they are used to and choose not to address me in conversations. Other times people see me and, in light of their unconscious bias towards me, talk down to me. In these moments, I remind myself to be patient and focus on being true to who I am, to continue to build credibility and relationships, and to turn the situation around. Luckily for all of us the window of acceptance and openness keeps growing.
I grew up in a conservative, middle class, South Indian family. Neither of my parents received a college degree. My father struggled through and funded his diploma in Mechanical Engineering, worked his way up the ranks, and retired as the head of a large manufacturing plant. My mother worked as a stenographer (the days when they used typewriters) and gave up her career to be a home maker and a mother.
Growing up, I remember my parents sacrificing things to make our lives easier and prioritizing good schooling and college education for their kids. Consequently, academics were the only thing that mattered in our family. We could only choose to pursue an education in either Engineering or Medicine. Arts, literature, sports, music etc. were all considered both a luxury and a distraction, else I may have been a tattooed, traveling musician today (ping me separately for that story J). With the conservative background came another downside – I was taught that a woman always stayed in the shadows and didn’t speak out of turn or unless spoken to. I understand now that my parents did this thinking they were protecting me, but this was one of the things that held me back so long and was one of the hardest beliefs for me to unlearn.
Discovering My Intersectionality
I left my friends, family, and budding career as an Electrical Motors Designer in one of the top firms in India, to start my life thousands of miles away in Florida with my husband. That marked the beginning of my journey as a first-gen immigrant at the age of 23.
I soon started working at a managed health care company as a system administrator and webmaster. I was a woman of color, with an accent, who came from a developing country, with a cliche tech education (Indians=tech degree). I was always left out during lunch hours, during office gatherings, or when they shared office jokes. No one even attempted to say my name. I was referred to as “Jay,” the tech. I was called on when someone downloaded a virus, needed to recover their deleted files, to install AOL or Netscape browser, and for their daily backups. They even joked that “Jay” was a guy’s name, and it was odd for me to have that name, but never attempted my actual name.
Fast forward several years: my husband and I relocated to California for a better job and living prospects, where I found more diversity and more acceptance of people like me. I completed my MBA degree and worked at a few hi-tech companies in the Bay Area. At the time, I still believed that I needed to put my head down and let my work shine, while I stayed in the shadows. That is, until a time during my tenure at Symantec, when I attended a workshop on “Strategic Networking and Influence” by Professor Vu Pham and I am still so thankful to him and Symantec for this learning opportunity. This was THE pivotal moment in my career. That workshop is where I learned that I needed to own my intersectionality, step out of the shadows, and put myself out there.
My diversity provided valuable alternate points of view that were needed in most work situations, and I needed to find my voice. At the time, this was not yet enough, as I still worked with people who did not value and respect diversity and worked to hold me back in my career and silence my voice. What solidified that pivotal moment was my move to HP/ HPE and I found strong women leaders in Caroline Tsay, Sue Barsamian, and Genefa Murphy. These strong, talented, women leaders, who had also made their way through these types of situations, recognized and rejoiced intersectionality. They saw me for who I was, recognized my talent, gave me space to grow, and guided me during situations where I needed help. I latched on to these leaders, watching them closely and learning from how they handled themselves in different situations.
Most Rewarding Outcome
Today, I am the Vice President of Digital Marketing at Five9. I am on the board of a non-profit organization and participate in a lot of community volunteer activities, and proudly own my intersectionality. I am very aware of my strengths and my areas for improvement and constantly work on them. From humble beginnings, my family today lives the American dream, and I greatly attribute my transformed mindset and acceptance of myself and my many identities to our overall success.
My journey at Five9 just started in early 2021. I love the company and the culture where everyone is vocal, has positive intentions, and wants to give their 100+ % to make the company successful. My most rewarding career outcome at Five9 and prior to Five9 is being able to give back. I hope to keep recognizing and coaching talented individuals to overcome some of the hurdles they may be facing, like my own. I would like to keep helping people find and own their intersectionality, their talents, their differences and speak up when they have an idea or opinion and not wait until they are spoken to.
Chart Your Own Path
These are some tips to chart your own path to finding your true self:
1. Don’t be shy or embarrassed of who you are or your background. Never assume you are not valued, or that your ideas are not going to matter, always contribute. If you are fearful of suddenly going into big meetings and speaking out, start in smaller settings, or by approaching people 1-1. Greet them with a smile, introduce yourself and your background, tell them about a project or two that you worked on. You will surely notice that in a future setting this person will introduce you to someone and talk about the wonderful work you do, and this creates a halo effect, builds credibility, and multiplies your network.
2. However, it is not one sided – always give back and amplify. Remember to do the same for someone else or the same person in a different setting. Once you have done this a few times, you will see yourself coming out of your shadow and bringing your true and whole self to work and meetings.
3. Look for a mentor to follow and learn from, a mentor who can recognize your true self and help guide you and a mentor who you can watch and learn from.
I will sign off with these words of advice that I keep instilling into my 13-year-old daughter - don’t assume you are not valuable because you are different. Don’t try to hide. Don’t try to be someone you are not. You are unique and that makes you, your opinions, and contributions valuable.
Inspired by this story? Contact Jayashree.Rajan@five9.com to learn more. If you would like to share your story, contact Mia.Andrews@five9.com.