Women’s Day: Amazon India’s Snehal Meshram on Women in Tech

By Jayesh Shinde | Published 08 Mar 2023 08:50 IST
Women’s Day: Amazon India’s Snehal Meshram on Women in Tech

Snehal Meshram is the Senior Manager at Amazon’s Alexa AI team. In 2013, more than a year before Amazon would launch its first Echo smart speaker with Alexa, Snehal applied for a job at Amazon in California.  In interviewing for her role, Snehal didn’t learn exactly what she would be working on, only that her work related to Amazon’s attempt to get into speech.
I interviewed Snehal Meshram to learn more about her journey as a woman in tech, and highlight her thoughts on some of the prevailing challenges and new opportunities for women hoping to pursue a career in tech. Edited excerpts follow:

How have you seen the tech industry in India evolve, and what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities for growth in the future?

I am awe-struck at the scale of innovation in India across multiple domains and disciplines. It’s a humbling moment in our lifetime to witness the massive contributions coming from India that are impacting the whole world. Customers are at the centre of these innovations which are helping them to choose the fastest, most economical and the most relevant solutions for their needs. The developments in ed-tech, mobile and payment are particularly noteworthy because of the customer segments they are empowering. Simplifying payments and loan applications for Tier 3 customers is a huge impact that is saving time and enabling faster turnaround that would otherwise take weeks. 
Biggest opportunity for growth continues to be whether the tech evolution will keep the guardrails of privacy and security while in parallel aim for hypergrowth. The tech industry should hold itself accountable to comply and do the due diligence for protecting data and privacy of their customers while also scaling at a fast pace.  

What steps have you taken to ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace, and what have been some of the outcomes of these efforts in terms of impact?

I am a strong proponent of Diversity and Inclusion. I have built a strong female representation on my team – 35% of the team is gender diverse with 38% diversity in tech roles and 70% female representation in leadership roles. We also have regional and linguistic diversity in the team, across the team we speak 10 different Indic languages at a native level. This diversity in perspective also helps us in building diverse experiences for our customers. In partnership with a female leader on my team, we initiated a quarterly discussion forum promoting inclusion and diversity initiatives on the team. Some examples of these initiatives include taking goals to improve gender, regional, linguistic and educational representation at the recruiting funnel. Another example is addressing bias in our daily activities by creating forums for employees to voice personal experiences related to bias and collectively identifying ways to address them. 

Can you share an example when you had to navigate a difficult situation or decision as a leader? How did you approach it?

I relocated to India in 2018 after a 16 year stint in the US. This was a major life event for me and my husband. Amazon supported me immensely by leveraging my experience in Alexa and my prior experience to bootstrap and build strong teams independently. Within 1.5 years of moving, I built a 40+ person team that owns and builds the end-to-end experience of Indian English and Hindi Alexa NLU modelling. My leaders in Alexa were incredibly supportive and trusting of me and my team. Within a year, my team was fully functional and operating independently. 

What's your approach to mentorship and supporting development of future leaders in the Indian tech ecosystem?

My approach during mentorship and development discussions is to acknowledge that we’re living in a fast paced and rapidly evolving tech space, it is critical to keep the skills and knowledge current. This can be overwhelming, but one of the ways we can narrow down our focus is by being customer-centric while building and innovating. There can be multiple ways to arrive at a tech solution and if we are laser focused on the customer need and customer experience, we are more likely to create products, tech solutions that delight the customers. 

What are some of the biggest myths and stereotypes about women in tech that you've encountered or heard of?

One of the common stereotypes as women start climbing the career ladder, is that most leadership roles in tech involve long and laborious hours and are best suited for men. Or that, when faced with a situation of a new born child in the family, the woman is better suited to reduce their working hours as men are not equipped to support the child. Corporate entities and leaders are accountable to create equitable working environments considering these constraints that women are specifically faced with. At Amazon, new mothers are provided an option for a slow ramp back at work after maternity leave, and new fathers are provided the parental leave as well to participate in child care responsibilities.  

What do most people don't understand, get wrong or underestimate about women's impact and influence in India's digital workforce?

Female representation in the tech space is crucial – according to the Pew Research Center, the gender distribution is likely to even out by 2050. As we design and build tech products and solutions, we cannot overlook that women might design, innovate and contribute to these solutions equally and potentially in different ways than men. Most of all, we need to ensure that the solutions are designed to succeed equally for both the male and female customer. To create this equitable environment, we need a diverse and inclusive workforce in tech. 

What are some of the biggest challenges that women (and underrepresented minorities) face in the tech industry, and how can senior leaders help address these challenges?

Equitable representation in the tech workforce is one of the biggest challenges women and underrepresented minorities face. Senior leadership needs to acknowledge and recognize that in order to create a fair and balanced workforce, we have to re-examine if opportunities to hire, grow and develop are being provided equitably to all employees. Women and underrepresented minorities particularly are vulnerable to their male and majority community counterparts, as the opportunities afforded to them might be different from the beginning. Creating equal learning and development opportunities takes work and effort, the results of this effort are a more diverse and multicultural workforce, with stronger representation of underrepresented communities and women in leadership positions. 

How did a more diverse and inclusive workforce help drive innovation and business success within the company?

I’ve been at Amazon for close to 9.5 years. I’ve had 2 distinct memories, I’ll talk about one of them – Launch of Hindi on Alexa in Sept 2019. In mid-2018, I relocated to India from California, to pursue the opportunity to build a team that would be focused on delivering for customers in India. Soon after I moved, I started collaborating with global teams on building the Natural Language Understanding models for Alexa in Hindi. This was an immense opportunity to build experiences directly for a multicultural, linguistically diverse customer segment. We had the opportunity to be inclusive and we leaned in – we spent lot of time researching on the variations of Alexa requests users from different parts of India are likely to use, and continued to invest in building multilingual models where today, both the English and Hindi NLU models are representative of the way we speak with each other. Alexa understands you in the way you speak. My team is representative of our customers as well, both linguistically and regionally. In many ways, I consider this experience as a way to give back to my community, an opportunity to develop experiences for Indian users but also to hire the talent and provide opportunities to grow and develop in a diverse and equitable environment.

How did you navigate gender-related challenges and other forms of bias at work, and what advice would you give to others facing similar challenges?

Snehal – Some ways to navigate gender or other forms of bias at work, is to ensure that in workplaces there are goals, training and forums to openly discuss DEI and bias topics. It is crucial to sensitise and educate all members equally on these topics, including the leadership. Navigating through these challenges is not just the responsibility of the members who are facing the bias, leaders in tech companies are all responsible to ensure a fair and balanced workplace where all members have a level-playing field and feel that they have similar opportunities to develop and grow.

What advice would you give to women who aspire to leadership roles in the tech industry, particularly in India?

My journey at Amazon is an example of sheer perseverance and dreaming big. My parents instilled the importance of education and ambitions very early on, they set incredibly strong precedents through their lives by rising up amidst social and financial challenges. At Amazon Alexa, I persevered with a vision of improving experiences for my customers and my team members, and pursuing my dream of contributing to speech recognition and AI. 

My tips to women leaders in India is to dream big, chase your passion, celebrate your wins, and own your careers. We might come across a lot of naysayers, but don’t lose sight of your goals and your milestones along the way. Building multiple networking circles has helped me in times of doubt, distress and ambiguity. Reach out and ask for guidance when in doubt, don’t give in to imposter syndromes! We need to set strong examples for girls and children, each one of us holds this responsibility. 

Jayesh Shinde
Jayesh Shinde

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