Interview with Ms. Mala Ravikumar

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“Don’t give up. There’s a bright future ahead of you.”

Today, I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Mala Ravikumar, a fiberoptics engineer for Cisco Systems. She is a leader in both STEM and business.

What was your first memorable experience with the sciences?

I started being interested in math very early-on, probably when I was in 8th grade. I was able to choose between general math, an easier track, or composite math, which was a harder set of math classes. I chose the composite math track. Everything started with math: [after taking classes in the composite math track] I realized that I liked physics.

Did someone inspire you to pursue a career in STEM? If so, tell us your story.

I had a very good math teacher in high school, and he always encouraged me to do better. He wanted me to keep doing math and science. I got very sick when I was in 10th grade, and I was out for several weeks. While I was out, he made me come to his house every day to learn the math that I missed. I went to an all-girls school for 11th and 12th grade, and I was in the M-P-C (Math-Physics-Chemistry) track, and it was very competitive. The fear of math in girls is not there, in India.

What is it about STEM that most excites you?

The ability to solve problems. I went from math to engineering to optical engineering to running a business involving optical engineers. I love the problem-solving aspect of it all.

What is the most interesting STEM-based project that you have worked on?

I used to be a design engineer, and I was a part of a team that designed an optical amplifier for a submarine optical link which would operate thousands of miles under the ocean.

As a mother, I also had other responsibilities, such as helping my sons with their homework, so I didn’t have enough time to continue to work in the lab as a design engineer as I got older, like most men could. I chose business as a career path so I could be involved in technology [but would also have time for family].

If you could solve any problem that your community, state, or even the world is afflicted with, what would it be? Why?

I would love to get clean drinking water to everyone on earth who needs it. I have some friends who have quit their jobs and devoted their lives to start-ups involved in the distribution of clean water. One of my friends has worked with Native American tribes to get clean water. Getting clean water should be a basic human right.

In terms of something that I am able to do right now, I would love to encourage more women to get into science and technology. I am currently volunteering at the Chabot Space Center, to get more students involved in STEM. Kids lose interest in science in 5th and 6th grade, and I think that inspiring children early-on leads to lifelong enthusiasm for the sciences.

As a woman in STEM, what obstacles have you overcome in order to be successful?

The hardest part, at least to me, was getting my ideas across. I was the only woman at meetings. There are a lot of women at Cisco, but that doesn’t mean that they put all of the women in the same meeting! The difficulty was not communication. It was difficult to get people to listen to me. When I went to meetings, I would come prepared with lots of facts. I’m always extra prepared for meetings, and I always bring extra facts. People challenge me a lot more than they would challenge another man.

How would you define success?

Because of all of the years that I have spent at work, I have learned that success is not only individual. Teams must cross-functionally approach a goal. If we fail, we all sit down, achieve a milestone, and work together. I used to be very individualistic in my early career. [I’ve learned that] success is sweeter when you share it with a team.

What advice do you have for young women who are up and coming in the world of STEM?

Don’t give up. There’s a bright future ahead of you. There is a lot of economic disparity out there, and there are a lot of people saying that women only make 77 cents to a man’s dollar. However, a lot of the economic disparity is because men take most of the high-paying STEM jobs. Women make up 50% of the population, and they should take 50% of the high-paying STEM jobs. Many women in STEM get discouraged, and that is why this disparity exists.

Go find a mentor, get that support that you need, and continue to study STEM. If you do not have support in your family, as a lot of women don’t, talk to a teacher or someone else involved in the community, and ask for them to mentor you. There is not only an interest component: there is also an economic reason to study STEM.


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