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IWD 2024: From Chennai to California: What I've learned from a lifetime in STEM
Fri, 8th Mar 2024

I see memes about "I am N years old and haven't used Trigonometry yet," but did you know you implicitly apply trigonometry when you try to decorate your living room?

You probably think, "Why do I need to find X?" But if you can apply logic and create equations to find X, imagine how powerful your mind would be if it could apply logic elsewhere when you are stuck.

Little did I know many years ago, when I cribbed about Z and Fourier transforms with calculus being impractical, I would be drafting an article today letting AI check for grammatical mistakes and alternative usages, whose engines are built and powered by the aforementioned concepts!

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are an inevitable part of our lives- and most of the use cases are not too obvious. That shows how important these life skills are and why having them makes you feel empowered.
"A girl should be two things: Who and What she wants,” said Coco Chanel.

Here I am, Gayathri Natarajan, a Program Manager with Synopsys Inc., a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a sister, a niece, and a work in progress. 

Having a background in electrical and electronics engineering, I started my career as a backend physical design engineer and slowly transitioned into a program manager. When people ask me how I was able to get here, I look back and thank all the wonderful women mentors who came along, giving me the right amount of guidance, advice, and inspiration at the right time. So, I take this opportunity to share my thoughts on why we need more women in STEM while talking about my journey into it with the staunch support of all the women in my life.
I was born in a middle-class family in Chennai, South India, and took the conventional route everyone I knew took. My cousins, neighbouring kids and I went to the same school (from elementary to high school), took the same elective courses, played the same sports, etc. But what made me stand out were my extra-curricular activities like singing, elocution, essay writing, and even a little bit of theatre. Thanks to my parents and grandma for emphasizing that those skills were important, too, when the conventional route usually ignored them. 
The journey from Chennai to California happened all thanks to my paternal Grandmother, my "Paati," Late. Mrs. Alamelu Ramaseshan. My Paati hailed from a small village in Tamil Nadu and was only educated up to sixth grade, after which she was married off to my grandfather. In those days, women were supposed to only take care of the family and were married off to do the household and kitchen work while growing the family. My Paati had four kids and ended up being a widowed single mother in her early thirties after my grandpa passed away due to a sudden illness. She was left jobless in her in-law’s house to take care of her kids and her husband's family as she was the "daughter-in-law".
With my grandfather's insurance money, pension benefits, and no active job, she educated all her kids, got them married, and settled. When she used to narrate these stories, she would say she was proud of her math skills as she ran the family on a tight budget and took care of the family finances with a mere sixth-grade education. She insisted I worked hard on math as it was not just a subject, but it would serve as a life skill.
When I graduated with my STEM degree, I wanted to learn more, which made me look for opportunities to do a Grad course abroad. My entire family was against my decision to study abroad, "How can a single girl from our family, by herself, go to an unknown foreign land?" was their argument. Some even suggested I find a man who worked abroad and then apply as a dependent spouse to graduate courses!
My grandmother was the only person to support my decision and influenced my parents to send me to higher education. She said she never got a chance to study more or do what she wanted at that age, but she wanted to break that chain with me. 

That was the first time I felt how good it was to see women supporting women! I knew I had to take advantage of this opportunity and do what it took to achieve my dream; seeing Paati's hopes and dreams for me made me work and study hard. When I landed my first job opportunity as an engineer with Intel, my entire family celebrated it as a personal win. 
But I quickly realized my work did not stop there; I was lucky to be in a privileged family with a matriarch who realized the value of education and independence for a woman. But I also saw many of my friends who were denied similar opportunities. I had a woman support me, and now, it is my turn to support other women who need guidance, suggestions, tips, and motivation to achieve their dreams. I discovered the power of women's networking forums online and in person. 
When I was an engineer at Xilinx (now AMD), I founded their first Women's networking group. I helped host a series of events where women get inspired by executive women who broke the glass ceiling themselves. Lots of inspiring stories were shared. We organized events for little girls in the local schools, which would get them excited about STEM. Then, when I moved to Qualcomm, I joined their Women Employee Network board. As a team of technical women, we facilitated a host of technical and non-technical networking opportunities. 

As a woman in STEM, I understood there were multiple ways to empower future women and get them onboard. Such networking groups and mentorship programs helped women navigate their careers, combat imposter syndrome, and gain more confidence.
"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” said Jackie Robinson. I decided to start living that meaningful life. I will continue to emphasize the significance of STEM and the need for more women in STEM, which can motivate little girls to take up STEM and thus become empowered and independent achievers! 

It's been a week since I moved to Synopsys, and I have already started looking for an employee resource group to continue my mission. If you have come this far in this article, why don’t you spend the next few minutes finding networks or volunteer opportunities to support a cause like this?