A S.T.E.M. Woman from India

A S.T.E.M. Woman from India

By Saroj Pathak, originally from India, now lives in California.

My 50 years of professional life have been a series of challenges, failures, triumphs, and also a few shattered glass ceilings. I would like to share my experiences and describe some of the twists and turns, and the choices I made.

I grew up in Indore, Central India. We were six siblings growing up in a middle-class family. In the 1960s, my high school, St. Raphael H.S., did not offer math major to girls! I was exceptional in Math and wanted to pursue my passion. My father talked to Mrs. Jagdale, who was the head of a small public school nearby. Mrs. Jagdale, an early Women’s Rights pioneer, said, “If our girls want to take math, we have to start math classes.”

Now retired, Saroj Pathak Recently Visited the Historic Site of Mandu, near the city of Indore, Madhya Pradesh (Autumn 2023)

So my sister and I moved to Mrs. Jagdale’s school. In the nurturing environment of this small school, I ranked third in the state’s high school board examinations, an exceptional achievement!

From 1965 to 1969, I attended S.G.S.I.T.S., the only engineering college in Indore (M.P.). There were only five female students in the entire college. We had to fight for a small private bathroom and a tiny women’s room. I excelled in my chosen field of Electronics and Electrical Engineering and held the first rank in all branches of engineering throughout the four years. I was like a sponge; I absorbed everything offered. There was so much to learn from all my professors.

As graduation approached, I started looking for options for further studies. My parents were liberal but still would not send their daughter away for higher education out of state. And, I didn’t have the audacity to argue.

Dr. Dasgupta, the head of the college, recognizing my potential, and created an opportunity for me to pursue higher education in collaboration with the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T.) at Bombay (now, Mumbai), while working as a lecturer at G.S.I.T.S. in the Electronics Department. While satisfying my drive to excel, this enabled me to live at home. I taught for three years while completing my Master’s degree in Engineering in Control Systems from I.I.T. Although this experience was challenging, I wanted more.

I reached for a moonshot and applied for and was awarded a Rotary International Scholarship to study abroad. It was an easy decision to select University of California at Berkeley for further studies. I dared to dive head-on into the unknown, knowing only one person in America; a graduate student who had graduated from S.G.S.I.T.S. a few years ahead.

It was shocking for me to realize that I was the ONLY female student in the graduate school of electrical engineering, even at this prestigious university. The students and the professors were friendly and treated me with the utmost respect and kindness.

After graduating from U. C. Berkeley with a Master’s in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I worked as a semiconductor design and development engineer at American Microsystems in the Silicon Valley of California. When I came in for the job interview, the manager and engineers were shocked to see a female candidate. Women engineers were rare.

The Silicon Valley was full of type-A men, hungry for fame and wealth. It was a norm to “pull all-nighters.” All the engineers were transplants from somewhere else, and without family obligations; we worked hard and played harder. We created a family regardless of skin color or gender. We were on an endorphin high from the success of our innovations.

From 1975 to 1983, I worked with a small group of engineers at Intel Corporation; that’s where we invented and produced the first ‘non-volatile’ memory chips. These were the first chips that retained data (information) after unplugging the power supply. This was revolutionary! We published international papers, had numerous patents, and enjoyed the glory of success. I was a manager by this time and always felt respected and valued. My opinions counted, and I had the center seat at the table.

In 1983, I was offered a job at a Startup company to set up a non-volatile product line. My initial response was NO. I had an eight-month-old son and a three-year-old daughter. I was unwilling to work long hours. Since the company’s CEO wouldn’t take NO for an answer, we negotiated. I agreed to join the company, understanding that I could go home at 5 p.m. every day. The company provided flexibility, and I used my professional judgment to balance work and family needs.

Two years later, the room was packed with engineers from around the world when I presented a research paper on the First High-Speed Non-Volatile Memory at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). My children sat in the front row. By then, I was confident and assertive enough to invite my children without asking.

When a Vice President position opened up, I did not consider it because I knew it meant working very long hours, and I did not want to sacrifice time with my children. Later, when the children were older and busy with school activities, I accepted a position as Director of a multinational research and development group in a different company. Most often, I was the only woman in the room where the decisions were made. Yet I also attended most of the swim meets, music lessons, cross-country running events and other activities with my children.

After 45 years in business, I decided to follow my lifelong goal of helping the younger generation in STEM field. I am passionate about the accessibility of primary science education to all children. To that end, I have started a non-profit that teaches science fundamentals to children of all socioeconomic statuses. I mentor through Stanford Mentorship Connections and other non-profit organizations. I am also the president of a local Kiwanis club whose mission is the education and well-being of children.

Advice to My Younger Self:

* Enjoy the ride. The trailblazing path is littered with obstacles, but there is no greater joy than facing challenges and finding solutions.

* Discover your core values and be true to them. Define your goals on your terms. Do not let others decide who you should become. Sort through the clutter of cultural baggage and embrace that which gives you joy.

* Be like a river flowing constantly towards the ocean, soft and flexible, but always focused on the destination. Change directions, detour if necessary, or carve a new valley, but keep flowing towards your goal.

* Be confident. You are stronger than you feel, smarter than you think, and braver than you know. Use any fear as motivation to be successful. That fear will then turn into confidence.”

* Educate yourself and acquire indispensable skills.

* Take chances. Inventions are just a step away from failure. Become comfortable with failure and learn from it.

* Dare to shatter glass ceilings, even if that means cuts and bruises. The pain of cuts and bruises is the price you pay to help your daughters and granddaughters.

* Most importantly, find a mentor. Find several mentors. Surround yourself with your cheerleaders. Find inspiration from the life stories of the pioneers who paved the path before you. From mythological women to recent ones, our (Indian) history is full of women who advanced humanity through their ingenuity, courage, and persistence.

* Be a mentor. You are standing on the shoulders of giants. Later, you can offer your shoulders to those following you.

* Be ready to choose. Most successful people have made difficult choices to get there.

* Find a supportive spouse. Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In” and ex-CTO of Facebook, said, “The single most crucial decision you will make in your life is whom you marry, for this will determine the rest of your life.” She was talking to graduates of Harvard Law School.

* “Start the conversation before committing to marriage, not after.” Did you know that the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited her husband for her success?

In Conclusion, as a young adult in STEM fields, I would like you to be brave, explore, and take chances. Show up daily, sit at the table, and speak up in a firm, clear and compassionate voice. Act like the fate of humanity depends on you because it does.

—Saroj Pathak, originally from India, lives in California. She shared this advice with engineering students at her Alma mater in Indore, India, in November 2023.

Photo: Saroj in Indore, Nov. 2023.

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