Sangeetha Rai. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Mutual.
20 years ago, Sangeetha Rai came to the U.S. as an immigrant from India. “I had no background in technology, no contacts, a strong accent, and I was in a male-dominated field,” Sangeetha recalls. At the time, she remembers being filled with self-doubt while working at a startup in New York.
One day, she came to the realization that who you are — and who you have the potential to be — is truly unpredictable. “What is constant is change and how you adapt to it,” notes Sangeetha. “Once I realized that, I started challenging the thoughts that were limiting me by focusing on what I could control.” Sangeetha took charge of her future and focused on increasing her skills, professionally and personally.
Using this mentality, Sangeetha has fearlessly carved out a career that’s fulfilling and impactful. “Sometimes doors have opened for me, but there have been plenty of times where I’ve seen an opportunity, and I have been unapologetically ambitious and opened the doors myself,” Sangeetha tells us. “As my career has grown, I’ve even found that sometimes opening doors for others has led to doors opening for me.”
Today as the Vice President, Technology Customer Success, New York Site Leader, and the Executive Sponsor for Women in Tech at Northwestern Mutual, Sangeetha is paying her success forward by supporting other women. She shares how Northwestern Mutual uplifts women, including through the upcoming Northwestern Mutual Women in Tech conference. Read on for some career inspiration!
I'm focused on making an impact — not just for today, but for future generations to come. Each of my roles requires me to be able to listen and to respond to the needs of others. I recognize there is a common dedication to service interwoven throughout. Whether that is service to our clients, our financial advisors, our employees or our tech community.
Research shows that women comprise only 26% of the tech workforce. The percentage is even lower for Women of Color and women at the leadership level. Candidly, it’s not enough. We need more women in tech, especially Women of Color, which is why I’m intentional about taking three specific actions:
I give back abundantly and whole-heartedly. Being a leader or influencer in tech means that it is my responsibility to influence women and allies, implement initiatives that enact change, and champion the women around me. My situation is like the popular Spider-Man proverb — with great power comes great responsibility.
For me, this includes leveraging my success to elevate others through personal mentoring and partnering to foster an inclusive environment at Northwestern Mutual. I actually spoke on this recently with other Northwestern Mutual women tech leaders in a LinkedIn piece.
I embrace authenticity and display it myself — even when it's scary. When we are authentic, we make it safe for others to be themselves at work. I remind myself that no matter the circumstances, it’s important for leaders to wear what they want, love who they love, and become who they want to be because there's a whole generation of people who are watching them pave the way.
I try to be approachable. I find that some leaders can be accessible, but not approachable. There's a big difference when you humanize yourself. When you share your stories, you build a connection with people.
Sangeetha and other Northwestern Mutual women tech leaders. From left to right: Dawn Behrens, Sangeetha Rai, Laura Deaner and Nichole Lecher. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Mutual.
When I first started my career, I didn't see a lot of women like me in tech. So, I empowered myself to be the leader that I wished to see. I knew that if there weren't enough seats at the table, then the right thing to do was to get more chairs and build a bigger table. Over the years, I've met some amazing women leaders who saw potential in me even when I didn't — and that's super important.
However, I'll say that my daughter, who is 18 now, has been the biggest influence for me. She's not only helped me become more inclusive, she also helped me realize that the work I do is not just about me. My work is also for aiding future generations as well.
We work every day to build this great culture at Northwestern Mutual where women and allies are supportive of each other at all levels and work to uplift each other.
Right now one of my priorities is the annual Northwestern Mutual Women in Tech conference. While the conference is aimed at elevating women in technology, it’s truly an inclusive conference for all. This will be our third year holding the virtual conference and we are looking forward to hosting over 5,000 attendees who will enjoy more than 90 speakers from 40 different companies.
We also offer a dedicated Women in Tech group, which began as a grassroots group created by six very passionate women, and has now grown to over 1,000 women and allies supporting, championing, and uplifting women. We also have our Women in Tech group mentoring program (aka our WIT Squad), which is open to women internally and externally. And, every April, we have all of our tech leaders and allies come together for a speed coaching event with women. The event is open internally and externally, and we have coached at least 500 people in our two years.
In 2019, we launched the Women's Initiative, which has one clear objective: to make Northwestern Mutual the best place for women to join, stay, and grow as professionals and as clients. We have dedicated funding and resources to enable success for this effort.
The Women’s Initiative is integrated with enterprise learning and professional development that’s directed to our women employee base. We promote and create exposure opportunities for our women so that they can showcase their knowledge and skills within their teams, in front of leadership, and even externally as representatives of Northwestern Mutual. An extension of this is providing leadership coaching for more of our women to realize their true potential.
For corporate employees, we also have dedicated women and allies groups, including our Women’s Employee Resource Group (ERG), and VIBE (Visible Intentional Black Excellence). Through dedicated programming, these groups focus on empowering women and fostering a safe space for women to be their authentic selves.
Sangeetha and colleagues at Northwestern Mutual. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Mutual.
I think you need to be very strategic and intentional about who is part of your ecosystem. When I think about the pivotal people throughout my career, it’s not just mentors or sponsors, but rather my entire ecosystem of people, including leaders, peers, allies, mentors, coaches, personal Advisory Circle, social network, and most importantly those who have been what I like to call my “Uncensored Champions”
These are individuals who are there to not just tell you what you want to hear but what you need to hear so that you can grow in your self-awareness and willingness to embrace new challenges. We need someone you trust who has your best interest at heart. Someone who can show you what's holding you back and bring attention to the direction that you need to take.
We all want to be able to do our best work — to feel seen, heard, supported, and recognized. At Northwestern Mutual, we continue to not only advocate for that, but to create a culture and the opportunities women need to feel truly engaged and shine. For example, we now have 200 Black and Latina women participating in a year-long program that enables them to be in small group roundtables with senior leaders for the purpose of dialogue, exchange, and visibility.
Opportunity, support, and our culture make this an amazing place for women to choose to grow their careers. Further, the growth of our company and its vision for relieving Americans from financial anxiety creates a very exciting and meaningful directive.
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