Women’s Day: PayPal’s Srividya Rajagopalan on Women in Tech in India

By Jayesh Shinde | Published 08 Mar 2023 08:51 IST
Women’s Day: PayPal’s Srividya Rajagopalan on Women in Tech in India

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I interviewed Srividya Rajagopalan, Senior Director, Data Science, PayPal to understand her views on women in tech in India, the challenges women still face in the tech workforce and the opportunities ahead of young girls and women circa 2023 and beyond. Edited excerpts follow:

Your journey through the tech industry? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

I started my career in analytics working for international clients in the retail consumer finance business, after I finished my Master’s in Business Administration. The first few years was about learning and only learning, with a view of laying strong foundations for the future. I performed roles across strategy and analytics, built credit and fraud related models and strategies for international clients in the retail consumer finance domain. 

My personal life also progressed in parallel – I got married and my family expanded. However, not long after, the balance tilted as I was unable to manage my personal life and work together. That was when I made the difficult decision of taking a break from my career. 

Following a career break of over 2 years, I applied for an opportunity at PayPal on a whim and was offered a role after going through the hiring process. After careful consideration of the kind of opportunities that may hold for me in a leading tech company such as PayPal, I accepted the offer and joined as a risk analyst. While the teams were very understanding and helpful, having joined after a career break, I did feel overwhelmed by the kind of work I was responsible for.  One of the challenges in my journey came here wherein I had lost a lot of confidence in myself and my professional capabilities and was also fighting a parallel struggle in my mind of mother’s guilt. 

My family always stood by me. At work, it was the support I received from the immediate team and my extended team that kept me from leaving and helped me regain my confidence. I was offered guidance and clarification from logistics and real estate to analytics and coding whether or not I asked for it! It was comforting yet humbling, especially with the warm and light workplace environment. The system was intriguing and enabling all at once, which was a big factor in me being here with PayPal today, having completed over a decade in this wonderful and enriching workplace. Now, as a Senior Director at PayPal in the Data Science domain, I lead a global team that’s based across 4 countries and 6 PayPal offices. Together, we’re driving end-to-end strategy and policy in the seller risk domain through analytics and insights. 

The roles we perform continue to grow in their importance, challenges never take a break, and the ‘guilty mother voice’ in the head is never silent. But PayPal to me has been more than just a workplace. It is here that I transformed from being a raw talent to holding the leadership position I do today. I owe this to my mentors, my team, the entire company and the rich culture it fosters.

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

The Indian tech space has gone through a very steep development curve in the last few years, and this is expected to continue. We need a strong growth mindset coupled with learning agility to sustain this momentum. The ability to pivot and embrace change as it comes, is key to the success of the industry. We are educated in academic skills, but  it is the life skills – like adopting a growth mindset and curiosity – that enable our success in the real world. Mentorship can play a very big role here; at all stages in one’s professional journey. It is more powerful when a mentee seeks out a mentor because the person is then hungry and eager to know, learn, and seek help, and they will find their answers one way or the other. But not everyone is comfortable, nor do they have the avenues in seeking out a mentor. So it is also the responsibility of today’s leaders to ‘show up’, be open and vulnerable so that prospective mentees feel comfortable approaching them. By sharing their wealth of knowledge and experience with aspiring and potential leaders, we can collectively build the next generation and enable their success. 

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

Work-life balance is over indexed towards women. Women have traditionally been the primary caregivers in many homes, and this rings true even today. A homemaker’s job is very complex and demanding. Add to that a career, and she is pulling a double wagon daily. This means that she is working twice as hard and needs a support system that enables her to stop being a slave to her ‘perfection gene’, as Indra Nooyi calls it. It is never about ‘women seeking better work-life balance’. It is always about ‘the caregiver needs a support system’. 

Women do give utmost importance to their families. But so do men, and kids, and everyone who is a part of the family. It is the profile that should matter, not the gender. 

All said and done, the tech space has come a long way in our awareness, understanding and care for diversity and inclusion in the last couple of decades. But we do have miles to cover yet. 

Being a woman in tech, what do most people not understand, get wrong or underestimate about women's impact and influence in India's digital workforce?

Women are strong influencers of consumer purchase decisions; they bring different thoughts to the table and perfection is in their genes. Turn these stereotypes to strengths – women know what would sell. There is no doubt that innovation thrives on diverse ideas and success needs a ‘never say die’ attitude. Companies with more diversity have shown higher revenues – the numbers speak for themselves.

The year 2022 has been a breakthrough for the Indian tech industry with a double-digit growth rate. Good talent is front and centre for this to remain sustainable. It is imperative that we tap into the entire workforce and find the right talent for the sake of the talent and nothing else. Tech companies should reach farther and wider in order to reach more women. The entry point to the education system needs to be addressed to have greater diversity ratios in STEM courses. At PayPal, we have a focus on employee skills alongside a collaborative attitude and growth mindset. This enabling culture grooms multipliers who are our culture champions. 

It is true that today we are in a position much better than we were a couple of decades back. We have made tremendous progress over the years with regard to women's education, employment, and even basic rights. But we still have a lot of ground to cover. The changes and development should be both from the industry and ecosystem on one side and from women ourselves on the other. It is essential to work together, seek help, and stand up where we think we should. This is a journey we need to stay on, and quite a personal and sensitive one for each of us. I’m confident that we are moving ahead full throttle towards achieving absolute gender equity.

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?

Many of us are slaves to our stereotype and our unconscious bias. There is first this thought that we are different, followed by the question if we will be accepted and then the self-doubt that cements this all together! So, we are then uncomfortable stating our opinions because we are wondering in our minds if we are being judged. One option is to ignore the reactions and move on, but that is easier said than done. 

Women and under-represented minorities carry a baggage in their minds and run the career race alongside people that do not have any. This makes their journey twice as difficult. At PayPal, a large part of our culture is about pursuing diversity and inclusion, and it helps foster innovation. Senior leaders are best poised to create an environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing opinions, but also where differing opinions are accepted. Being mindful about facilitating robust conversation, bringing team members actively into the conversation will create a platform for open discussions that can lead to a democratic outcome. Emphasizing that the workplace is a psychologically safe space where people feel accepted and heard is crucial for every single organization. 

Can you discuss a specific example of how a more diverse and inclusive workforce has helped drive innovation and business success within the company?

At PayPal, we strive for a diverse workforce and our culture reflects our commitment to diversity as well. We work in ways that value respect, collaboration and connection—where the richness of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are cultivated to create a strong business impact.  

We tap into innovation and collaboration to address business needs. One of the best examples is the Global Innovation Tournament, which brings together our 29,000+ strong global PayPal community to create innovative solutions that address eight problem statements designed to represent real-life scenarios faced by PayPal customers and the business. The teams are formed across the globe, and the goal is for them to formulate the business plan and build a prototype for the problem statement. The selection process involves several rounds and the selected teams present their idea to PayPal execs in the final round. The winning idea gets funded and supported to become a reality. In our most recent edition, more than 1,560 ideas were submitted globally. Of the top 8 ideas, India-based employees were part of 6 ideas. It was a proud moment!

PayPal thrives on innovation, and the fact that it is decentralised is a testament to the collaborative and inclusive culture the organization fosters. 

Can you discuss any initiatives or projects you have been involved in to give back to the community?

PayPal employees are actively supported through our Employee Resource Groups. As a member of Unity, our resource group committed to enabling women to thrive in the workplace, I mentor a few rising women stars as part of the mentorship program. Sometimes the informal setting works miracles in mentorship, especially for those who do not really know the power of mentorship. A number of times, I have just shown up at informal forums and talked to young talent, and it is here that one gets to spot real potential and raw talent. It is then upon us leaders to shape them and set them up for success. 

Recharge is PayPal’s flagship program that encourages women returning to work after a break, and I have a personal connection with this program. I am one such woman myself who has returned to work after a break, and how I wish we had Recharge back then! Recharge as a program has been crafted very thoughtfully and seamlessly to make sure that the women employees are supported through appropriate upskilling & training programs, technical guidance, as well as on soft skills through mentorship. It is a great avenue for women as it minimises the surprises and provides an adequate support system. The benefit is not just one way. As a woman leader, it is fulfilling to be able to add value to and enable these women to have decided to make the bold decision to step out first and then step back into their careers, thanks to Recharge.

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

Firstly, always remember that we are our own best advocates. If we do not speak for ourselves, we do not provide enough material for others to speak for us. I understand the mindset that one’s work will speak for themselves, and I have often carried that mindset as well. But it is important to put one’s own name tag on their work, and make sure that it gets to the right audience, figuratively speaking. For leaders, it is about recognising excellence in your team and further encouraging others to do the same. When leaders go above and beyond to celebrate employees for being change agents, or living our values and leadership principles, or demonstrating certain levels of skills proficiency, it enables talented employees to thrive and encourages a supportive team environment. 

Secondly, be aware of your own biases and stereotypes, so you at least acknowledge an external stereotype or bias for what it really is – correct diagnosis is mandatory for appropriate treatment. If the conversation is about a particular skill, then it is only about the skill, and not about the gender, background, ethnicity, or anything else. It is important to clear one’s own mind here in order for women to be able to foster a positive change around them or at the least, seek help.

Thirdly, it is okay to ask for help and know that if you reach out, you will be heard. There are more leaders out there than one can imagine who are willing to help. One just has to put their foot forward, and they will get the help they are looking for. I am here today because I got this mentorship and guidance early on in my career and I still do. It is real, and it has magic to it!

Jayesh Shinde
Jayesh Shinde

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