Smitha Rao’s dream is to build another Infosys, because Sudha Murthy has been her muse. As a woman in STEM, Rao capitalized on her passion for technology and entrepreneurial skills to co-found Utthunga Technologies in 2007. She is an industrial automation domain expert specializing in OPC UA and d integration of devices. At Utthunga, she leads European sales and the OPC Business vertical.
With 15 years of experience in the field, Rao believes the arena has changed a lot with respect to her perspective on women in STEM fields. And her own company is setting an example by giving most leadership positions to women and providing 40% of its workspace to women.
Interacting with SME Futures, she opens up about her journey and how it has changed her.
Can you tell us about your family background and what you wanted to become growing up?
I was born into a business family in a small town – Ranebennur of Karnataka. My grandfather started a cycle store called “Jai Bharath Cycle Store” in 1940 and this business ran for over 60 years. Talking about business strategy and customer experience was therefore part of our daily lives.
My father is my role model because he always believed in taking calculated risks and defending your values. He built his own empire with business ethics, values, etc. He always told me to give 100% with good intentions and let fate decide the outcome. Apart from him, my mother supported me unconditionally throughout my studies and still today she is my backbone and she ensures that I manage my family, my work and my passion with ease.
As a child, I was a brilliant student and believed in giving 100% to everything I did. I was inspired by Sudha Murthy who is from my district called Shiggaon. She was my role model and I always wanted to be like her. She inspired me a lot as a passionate and values-driven woman. As a child I wanted to join Infosys, but now I want to build one.
Tell us about the most common barriers women face in STEM fields. Please tell us about your own experiences as a female leader.
According to a report, women make up only 28% of the workforce in STEM fields and this percentage is further decreasing as we move up the ranks. However, it has improved over the past few decades.
Mastering STEM fields requires a lot of dedication and focused effort. Even women with the required interest and skills tend to lose focus as they move up the corporate ladder. Multiple factors contribute to this tendency, such as prejudice, societal environment, family responsibilities, etc. A man compromising his career advancement for his wife’s career is an exception, while the reverse is the norm.
Taking a break from a high-paying job to get a master’s degree is still not as common for women. She would have already wasted a few years of her career dealing with children and again taking a break to hone her skills to be ready for bigger matches, which is not common. In most scenarios, this has more to do with a woman’s confidence in herself than it does with societal conditions. Women tend to give up and step back instead of taking the leap to make their mark.
Speaking of myself, in most of the conferences and events I have attended around the world, I have only been able to see a few women (the ratio is around 1:20). However, I soon realized that it didn’t matter as long as I brought value to the table.
It also helped me gain confidence. Another challenge women face is managing their careers, families, and passions. To handle these things with ease, we women need to build a supportive ecosystem around us. In pre-COVID times, I traveled 4-5 months a year (2-3 weeks at a time) and have 2 children. It was a difficult time and I am grateful to my mother, my husband and my guardian for their support.
What differences have you noticed between then and now as more women enter STEM fields?
A few decades ago, women in STEM were seen as the exception to the established norm. In an interview, Sudha Murthy mentioned that she was the only female in her engineering class. However, that has changed for good in recent decades.
Today, women are no longer confined to household chores and society has accepted that they can contribute equally to the financial aspect of their families. Nowadays, in school, they teach children to cook and manage household chores, regardless of gender.
In the workplace, as a leader, there will always be a dilemma between being appreciated and making correct but difficult decisions. And women tend to face more challenges while making the right, but difficult, decisions compared to men. We have always believed that women are tender, fragile and caring. Making a tough decision in the workplace contradicts this social bias. However, overcoming them and putting extra effort and focus into contributing to organizational growth can be a game-changer and change perceptions about women in leadership positions.
At Utthunga, most management positions are held by women and 40% of the workforce is female.
How has your entrepreneurial journey so far helped you grow as a person?
I have evolved as a person for good in this journey of entrepreneurship. You can only get people to listen to you if they believe you are working for their good. Ensuring your team grows is an important part of the entrepreneurial journey and that means always putting the interests of your team ahead of your own comfort zone, and interest is key here.
You suggested Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, Why? What are the takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs from this book?
Sheryl Sandberg’s book really helped me come to terms with the challenges women face in managing their careers and families. I remember below 3 points from his book:
Believe in yourself: Even though women are highly skilled and competent, when it comes to business negotiations and decisions, we tend to hold ourselves back and rely on others to make the decisions. I experienced this myself and realized that it was me who was holding myself back, rather than anyone else. I then changed my thought process to constantly learning new things, which allowed me to get into uncomfortable areas, and slowly coming out of them gave me strength and confidence. With that, I learned that instead of saying “I’m not ready to do this”, I will now confidently say – “It’s just a matter of time and effort, and I will do it. “.
A career path is not a ladder, but a gym in the jungle: it is often believed that a person’s career path is like a ladder (as evidenced by statements such as “Climb the ladder” ), i.e., unidirectional, upward travel. However, in reality, especially in an entrepreneurial journey, it is a zigzag path. Although most of the initiatives you take as a leader do not yield results, the fact that you always demonstrate leadership qualities, even when things are not going well, shows your resilience. And it can get better with constant learning. Being aware that failure is not the opposite of success, but part of it gives you the freedom to try new things.
Make your life partner a real partner in your professional aspirations: Managing both her career and her family can be extremely difficult for a woman. This is not possible unless we have a supporting ecosystem around us. Husbands play an important role here and making them our real partners is crucial. It requires a good understanding and focused efforts to take the relationship to the next level. Sharing your daily events and conversations about each other’s weaknesses and interests will help.
What are the plans for your business down the line?
We have big plans for Utthunga for the next three years. The past 14 years have been an exciting and challenging journey for us. We wanted to be a niche player in the field of industrial automation for our product, solution and service offerings. We wanted to increase our market presence and strengthen our engineering teams in the United States, Europe and Japan. We will grow our offering portfolio and revenue over the next three years and prepare for inorganic growth.