By Angela Noel
February 9, 2017
“If this program succeeds, you’ll all be proud of it,” Komal Solanki told her team. The long days and constant pressures to meet the deadline took a toll on everyone involved in the huge program. Engineers, business teams, consultants, vendors, project managers, and leaders hunkered down for two years to implement an important technology project. Teamwork was critical to its success.
Laptop always in hand, Komal had to ask her team for more effort and more hours. With grace and poise, she advocated for her people while working closely with the project managers and senior leaders in charge of setting the direction and timeline. When the members of her team felt low, she reminded them of the pride they would feel when the work was done, and done well. Neither she nor her team are superhuman, but they seemed that way at times–and still do.
Cultivating a successful team requires clear vision and the ability to focus on results, no matter what the circumstances of the present moment may be. In work, as in life, the way things have always been done may not be the way things should always be. Komal, balancing tradition and innovation, knows this better than most.
Finding Her Way
Born in India at a time when most of her contemporaries followed a predictable path–do your studies, then get married–Komal wanted something different. The middle child, Komal was always talking. Curious about the world around her, she also spent hours outdoors. Her family wondered, “What will become of her?”
At first, Komal thought perhaps she’d become a fashion model–she loved clothing and design. As she matured and kept learning, another path took shape instead. At about the age of fifteen, she became a serious student. A few year later, she knew many Indian girls at her age would give up their careers. But Komal wanted to work. “It was fun for me to do a job,” she said. “I liked it.”
So, after completing her masters degree in computers from Pune University (a fact that made both her father and grandfather proud), she told her family whomever they chose as her husband had to have two key qualities. He had to have an education equal to her own. And his family had to support the idea that she continue to work after their marriage. Honoring both tradition and her own goals required that she communicate clearly, and stand firmly. Nothing less than her future happiness was at stake.
A Marriage of Equals
Komal wanted her family to choose her husband for her. When she met Anuj she immediately knew she could trust him. They got to know each other over a year-long engagment.
Komal and Anuj had no incentive to be the shiny, happy people most of us are when we begin dating a new man or woman. People they trusted had handpicked them for each other. A successful eleven year marriage, with two children, Arth and Ira, is the result.
In the years since Komal and Anuj left Pune to live and work in the US, Many things have changed. For example, young women face fewer restrictions as Western culture infiltrates more of Indian life. One thing that hasn’t changed much is the propensity for young people to seek arranged marriages. The divorce rate for Indian couples, though increasing in recent years, is still one of the lowest in the world.
In work, as in life, Komal balances between two worlds with competing priorities. She deftly negotiates ways to achieve a desired result without compromising the integrity of ideas, people, traditions, or structures. Komal represents a new wave of women in technology whose path was paved in part by the efforts of a woman named Steve.
A Dame Named Steve
Dame Stephanie Shirley opened a software engineering business in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Women during that time were still prohibited from opening a bank account in their own names (until that country’s Sex Discrimination act of 1975).
Dame Stephanie almost exclusively hired women for her company. Among other things, her team creating the programming behind the supersonic Concord’s flight recorder. Re-naming herself “Steve” in order to be taken more seriously in business affairs, she pioneered many new work arrangements to support her female workforce. Ideas such as flexible schedules and job sharing made it possible for more smart women to participate. She also focused on a simple, “trust the staff” approach. She says, in her 2015 TED talk, “Let me share with you two secrets of success: Surround yourself with first-class people and people that you like; and choose your partner very, very carefully.”
Dame Steve acknowledged both the reality of the environment and the times in which she lived, but refused to allow it to shape her destiny. She didn’t set out to upend the social order, she simply wanted to create a company she’d like to work for. Two generations later, woman like Komal embody the tradition of Dame Steve and other pioneers. Proving again and again that technology and business are as easily a part of a woman’s world as babies and marriage.
Joy in the Effort
Komal, like Dame Steve, sees the infinite possibility in hard work. She believes in the people she surrounds herself with, and takes nothing for granted. She sets clear expectations for herself, and for others, and works to understand rather than judge. This is why, in a room filled with smart people, when the pressure to perform mounts with each passing day, Komal smiles–a towering presence in the room. She knows success is the byproduct of doing the work, finding the joy in the effort, and clearly defining what matters most.
If Komal can do it, so can I. So can you.
Be awesome in real life.
Your turn: How have you addressed traditions in your own community? What work excites you the most?