This is part of our HERStory campaign, featuring women who are changing the world with their innovative work in STEM fields. In interviews conducted by Technovation Girls alumni and student ambassadors, we’re sharing stories and advice from women in STEM.
Meet Swati and Gitanjali. Swati Handa is a Senior Product Manager for Cybersecurity at Cisco, leading the strategy for Cisco Networking Academy. Gitanjali is a Technovation Girls alumni and 2019 Finalist who developed an app to help identify opioid addiction. Gitanjali is also a Marvel Hero, with a comic about the tool she developed to detect lead in drinking water for residents of Flint, Michigan.
Swati and Gitanjali sat down to talk about being a woman in STEM, pursuing a career in technology in the face of skepticism, and the value of role models in staying on track. Watch most of their conversation below, and keep reading for an edited version of their interview.
You can also watch a longer version of Swati and Gitanjali’s conversation here.
Gitanjali: Thank you for joining me. This is going to be awesome, I’m really excited. My name is Gitanjali. I’m 14 years old and I am an inventor and a promoter of STEM. My recent work combin[es] a lot of different fields. I have a really big passion for biology, and especially biotechnology. I’ve [also] done a lot with computer science and computer engineering.
I’m excited to ask you a couple questions – will you introduce yourself?
Swati: People know me as Swati Handa. Who I am is a loaded question! I lead learning strategy for the cyber security program at Cisco Networking Academy (NetAcad). We essentially provide cyber security education to a global audience. I have the pleasure of leading its strategy and what the future should look like.
Gitanjali: That’s awesome! I was part of a competition called CyberPatriot. We base our entire cybersecurity education off of Cisco NetAcad, so it’s an awesome opportunity to be speaking with you. Looking more in depth, what are some of your day-to-day responsibilities?
Swati: The best way to explain that would be through an example like CyberPatriot, [which] you talked about. NetAcad is embedded in CyberPatriot ,which is meant for a general audience – [it’s] open to the public, it’s very competitive, it teaches you skills around how to secure the network. We already have a strong presence in traditional educational institutions globally, In addition now we’re trying to figure out is how [to] expand our in reach non-traditional education systems, say, the prison system. How would we take the same education to somebody who’s in prison, yet wants to […] keep up with their education so when they come out, they are already prepared for a career?
We’re also experimenting with drones, VR – anything that would enable individuals to find interest in the subject. There is definitely more, but these examples will give you a flavor of some of the initiatives among many others that we focus on.
Gitanjali: Wow, that’s incredible. What we can do today with the latest developments in technology is absolutely insane. It’s out of the roof, the things we can think about. What do you love most about your day-to-day activities or your profession as a whole?
Swati: What I love most is the challenge of it. Cyber security is never boring. When you get to decide how the future should go, that’s never boring, because even the smallest decision has a huge impact. Right now, we have 2 million students who we reached in 2019. If any decision you made had that big of an impact, you would think really hard about it, right? Having that impact in that community, that’s the fun part. The profession itself is very exciting, plus the ability to make an impact, I just love it. I love my job.
Gitanjali: How did you come to your current career?
Swati: I have a very supportive family, and they were always like, “Okay, go explore! See what you want to do.” I entered a couple of competitions. I was pretty pumped up. [I wanted] to do this on a daily basis, not just one-off.
With all of that excitement in my head, I walked into my career counselor and said, “Could you guide me on what I want to do?” I clearly remember, I walked in and she picked an envelope up, and she had it ready, and she passed it to me. I open the flap and I see a whole bunch of brochures. Most of the options, in fact all the options, were catering to traditional roles that you would attribute to a female. There was nothing around engineering, or anything around computer science. I just assumed it was a miss – I closed it. I thanked her, and I said, “I’m actually interested in engineering.”
It was very interesting, Gitanjali. Believe it or not, I got an eye roll, and I was totally taken aback. I think I became an engineer not to spite her, but rather in spite of her. “Ok, you think I can’t handle it? You watch how we do it.” I think that was one of those pivotal moments which helped me steer more strongly.
Gitanjali: Experiences like that are something you remember, and something that goes with you for the rest of your life. My parents are super super supportive of everything that I’ve chosen to work on and do, and so it’s really a completely new experience when someone doesn’t really agree with your personal choice, even though it’s something that you want to do.
That actually was a perfect segue into the next question, which was, did you have any female role model or mentor that you looked up to, especially in the earlier years of your life?
Swati: Throughout my career, I had mentors—I want to give a shout out to my current leader right here at NetAcad, Laura Quintana. She’s a general manager here, she leads the entire NetAcad, and she’s an amazing leader. She leads by example. She questions the status quo, and tells us “don’t assume. Move forward, and at the end of the day, think about the student. Think about how we would make an impact.”
Having strong female role models around you definitely helps. I mean, there’s no doubt about it.
Gitanjali: That’s awesome. I definitely look up to a lot of female role models as well, especially being a girl in science, being of color and 14 years old, I’m basically cracking all the stereotypes. So, it’s awesome to have role models who are the same way, just like you, who have shown me what the future can be like, especially for women in STEM.
Along those lines, have you perceived any changes in the workplace over time regarding the representation of women or any other stereotypes that you see?
Swati: I did not directly see [those stereotypes]. I was always surrounded by supportive folks. I was always treated as a team member. I wasn’t stopped. When I entered the workforce, it was never that my values or my opinions were not valued. So, that made me feel empowered.
What I did learn from my own mistakes was when I started, I started with [extreme] politeness. If I did something and somebody took credit for it, I said, “Oh, we are one team, and it’s all good.” I didn’t stand up for the work that I had done. I did not [say] “No, you know what, I was the one who put long hours and has spent time in doing this. It’s great for the team, but do realize that it was me who put this forward.” It was an evolution for me to learn to stand up for myself.
Gitanjali: Why do you think it’s important to have more girls and women in engineering fields?
Swati: What I’ve seen with my male counterparts is that they like to think in more straightforward terms. They’re like, “Give me a problem, I can solve it” and walk away. And, what we bring to the table, in addition to getting the work done, is the thinking out-of-the-box. Thinking creatively including the edge cases; what about the negative scenarios?
When you’re building a product, especially for me as a product manager, it’s always important to have a good mix of these perspectives, right? You want to see what works, what doesn’t work. So, I think it’s the perspective and the thought process which I feel is different compared to a team which is less diverse.
Gitanjali: I had a couple questions about being a young woman getting into tech. What do you wish you knew when you were about my age, about getting into a technology job?
Swati: Don’t think of yourself as a girl going in. Just get that out of your head. You’re going to go do your job. Take the gender out of it. Challenge anybody or anything who questions your abilities. Always tell yourself that you deserve better. If somebody says, “No, that’s good enough for you” [Say] no. They are not there to tell you that it’s good enough. It’s you who decides what is good enough for you. .
One thing that my mentors told me and has always stuck with me, is while you’re navigating through all of this, always assume positive intent. Assume that when the other person is talking to you, they have something good in mind. Keep an open mind, hear them out, but don’t let their thoughts put you down.
Challenge folks who try to put you down. Keep your chin up, whatever happens – but that does not mean you don’t listen. Listening is one thing that has helped me tremendously. When you listen, you learn and that’s when you move forward.
Gitanjali: Do you have any tips for the thousands of Technovation participants around the world who are already using tech to solve local problems? I’m an alumni from last year who went to World Pitch. I made an application which is able to connect to a device that helps to diagnose prescription opioid addiction, which is a problem that I’m extremely passionate about.
There [are] so many other girls across the world who have equally, or even more amazing, ideas. Do you have any tips for them when they’re starting to create their solutions, and they’re starting to make a difference in the world?
Swati: That’s pretty awesome. Congratulations! I would say, while you’re doing this, get champions. Reach out to people and spread the word. Let them know what good work you have been doing, because sometimes with so much news around us—we need that positivity. We need people to know that there’s good going around and there are folks like you, wonderful people like you who are doing something good. That needs to be amplified.
At the same time measure your impact. Did you, for the opioid problem that you talked about, did you roll it out somewhere? Did you do a pilot? Or is it still in the lab?
Gitanjali: It’s still currently in the lab, mainly because it’s not really ethical to perform testing on humans. So, I’m basically getting yeast addicted to drugs, and testing on that. But, I have received a lot of feedback from physicians and other mentors who I’ve talked to regarding my ideas, so I’m really excited to roll it out soon.
Swati: Oh wow! Tell your story more. Inspire more people! That would be my number one tip. Spread the word, and whatever you do, get champions for your product. And dream big! This is the first step, you don’t stop here.
Gitanjali: Awesome, thank you so much for this amazing conversation. I learned so much, and I hope you did too.
Swati: Oh yes!
Thank you so much to Swati and Gitanjali for sharing their time and conversation with us. Stay tuned for more interviews between women in STEM and Technovation alumni as part of HERStory. You can make HERstory too – sign up to participate as a student or mentor, or lean how your company can help us support more girls and families this year.