At Urvashi Tyagi’s first job after college, there were no other women in the company. None. ADP’s Chief Technology Officer knows first-hand how challenging the path can be for a woman in STEM.
Urvashi Tyagi grew up in India. She and her three sisters are all engineers; her oldest sister paved the way. When her sister told the family she wanted to become an engineer, Urvashi’s parents, aunts and uncles were worried no one would want to marry a woman engineer. And besides, it wasn’t even a good career choice with barely any job opportunities for female engineers. After an extended family meeting resulted in an unfavorable outcome, her parents had a change of heart and let Urvashi’s oldest sister join the engineering program. When it was Urvashi’s turn, no one questioned the decision. (And she and her sisters are all happily married and enjoying their professions.)
The Only Woman
While both technology and culture had changed a lot, there were still many challenges for women engineers. When Urvashi was a college undergrad, she was one of only four women in a class of 90 engineering students.
As she was graduating, most companies were not interested in recruiting women. So, she didn’t get a job from campus interviews. But Urvashi noticed an ad in the newspaper at a company that developed machine tools and wanted to hire college grads with design and computer numerical control programming experience. She was invited to interview and was delighted to get the job.
Show up, keep learning, and often it works out better than you could have imagined.
– Urvashi Tyagi, Chief Technology Officer at ADP
When she showed up on her first day, there were no other women in the company. There had never been a women’s bathroom. “Someone printed out a sign that said, ‘Women Only’ and taped it to one of the bathrooms for me,” She says. Grateful, Urvashi overlooked the fact her bathroom was in a different building than where she worked. “I had to figure out how to co-exist on the shop floor and focus on the work. Most of the time it was good. I learned a lot about solving complex engineering problems.”
Later, she found out the hiring manager never had the permission to hire her. He sent the offer letter because she was one of the top two candidates selected based on test scores and interviews. His boss was not entirely pleased. “I got the job because of one individual who did not see things in a stereotypical way and was focused on finding the right person for the role.”
While working full time, Urvashi went back to school to earn her MBA. From there, she decided to teach operations management and information systems. As an academic associate for a couple years at the premier Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, she had the opportunity to work and connect with top professors all over the world. But she realized she enjoyed solving problems more than being in a classroom. One of her colleagues encouraged her to apply to a master’s of science program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, MA. Urvashi wasn’t sure she wanted more school or how she was going to pay for it, but she looked up the program. The customizable curriculum and the focus on applied learning swayed her. She learned that the deadline to apply had already passed, but after speaking with a professor at the school, she submitted her application and was admitted.
Her family didn’t want her so far away. Once again, her older sister supported her and encouraged her family to let her go. Urvashi’s sister was also moving to the United States with her husband and promised to keep an eye on Urvashi. Her parents scraped together the money to purchase their first-ever airplane ticket and a couple months of living expenses. She arrived in Massachusetts with two bags, one full of snacks.
Learning and Solving Problems
Since graduating from WPI in 2001, Urvashi has worked for many of the big names in technology, including IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon. She’s led global engineering teams doing product strategy, architecture, and development. When you download an audiobook or send an Outlook email, know that Urvashi was involved with the engineering and teams that made that possible.
Lockdown birthday celebration at home (left to right): daughter Riya, husband Shishir, Urvashi and son Tanish.
Today, she is ADP’s Chief Technology Officer, taking on that role in 2019. “I had no idea that I would be a CTO three years ago,” she says. “I didn’t plan it. I try to live in the moment and put all my energy into what I am doing and the problems I am working to solve. That drives the next things that happen.”
Urvashi’s approach is to make sure she is always learning and delivering in her role. “While the foundations of engineering and technology may not change that often, the applications are evolving constantly,” she says. “The only way to keep up is to be a lifelong student.”
It’s also essential to understand your own value to the organization. “Always know how the work you do will impact the company’s bottom line and how your work is adding value and taking the company forward.”
This can be challenging for women of color who often experience more scrutiny of their work, more criticism, and less credit for their accomplishments. “The one area where I have experienced unconscious bias is with criticism,” Urvashi says. “I have to listen carefully and know when the feedback is genuine and when it is more about the person giving the feedback. When I understand that, I can embrace the situation and not take it personally.”
Urvashi’s best advice is to live in the moment. “Things don’t have to be planned or the way you think they should be. Show up, keep learning, and often it works out better than you could have imagined.”
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This inspirational woman in STEM lives by a four-word personal mantra: girls can do anything.
Kanyatta Walker’s unapologetically fearless outlook began when she was only three years old. A boy cast as Santa in her preschool Christmas play did not enjoy being on stage and kept missing lines. Kanyatta offered to step in, but the teachers said she couldn’t because Santa was a boy. When it turned out none of the boys knew the lines and Kanyatta did, the first female Santa debuted in the play. The crowd loved it.
In high school, Kanyatta was interested in occupational therapy and planned to major in it in college. Then she did some aptitude tests with a good friend who wanted to join the marines. The recruiter told her she was excellent at math and could pretty much do anything she wanted – except be an engineer.
Kanyatta graduated from college with a degree in software engineering technology and has never looked back.
“I always loved math,” Kanyatta said. “My aunt was a math teacher and the way she explained it just made sense to me. I love that there is always a precise answer. But there is also always more than one way to get to that answer and lots of trouble shooting.”
She was recruited by Accenture, a multinational consulting firm, where she worked in a variety of roles from sales to program manager and development manager. By 25, she was leading a team with a significant budget. “I learned by trial and error. There was so much I did not know and I made a lot of mistakes. But I also knew that teams are a mirror of their leaders. I worked at a grocery store when I was 16. When it got busy, the managers would leave their office and come help wherever needed. After the store was bought by a chain, the new managers didn’t come out of their office to help. I learned how important it is for leaders to understand what people need and show up for their team.”
As her career progressed, Kanyatta realized that there are multiple roles for leaders too. “It’s like a baseball team,” she said. “There are coaches and general managers. Coaches assemble the teams and knows who to play to bring out their best. The general manager deals with the overall strategy and choosing the right coaching staff to create the win.
“To be an effective leader, you don’t personally have to play every position. When I see something I want to do, I work to understand the underlying skills. I see how to unravel things and figure out what I know, what I need to know, and how to learn the skills I need. With core skills and ability, you can do anything.”
The desire to understand executive strategy led Kanyatta to an MBA program at Emory University while she was still working full time leading product managers, business analysts and program managers for a large telecom company. She discovered the perfect combination of math and business in her finance courses. “I can look at a company’s finances and tell you what their strategy is,” she said.
Coming to ADP
After finishing her MBA, a friend helped recruit Kanyatta to ADP in Atlanta. She was excited at the opportunity to combine her business skills with her software engineering experience. She started out as Vice President of Operations working in National Accounts on outsourcing operations. Today, Kanyatta is Vice President of Global Product and Technology – Client Product Support, where she leads teams providing product and technical support for ADP’s business units and clients.
“I love the ability to transform here. As the company is transforming, so are the opportunities for people within the company and our clients to grow. I love helping people connect the dots and see where we are going from process to technology to culture, Kanyatta said.
“I also appreciate seeing women executives at ADP and how women help each other here. I met ADP business unit presidents Debbie Dyson and Maria Black within my first six months, and they always find time and make themselves available to help others.”
Helping others succeed
Kanyatta is also committed to helping others grow and achieve their dreams. She is involved in Women in Technology International and Emory’s Executive Women of Goizueta —while also mentoring and coaching rising leaders in her role at ADP. She loves helping women figure out what they want and how to get there.
“Connecting with others can be scary, but it’s important so you can understand the playing field,” Kanyatta said. “You have to lift your head up to see and for people to see you. There’s no way for people to know how amazing you are if your head is down all the time.
“There are not many women of color in tech, so I always try to say yes when people ask me to speak. It’s important to build bridges and for younger women to see people who look like them doing the things they want to do.”
Kanyatta is quick to say that she does not do it all alone. Her husband is very supportive and encourages her to connect with others and volunteer. Together, they manage a busy family schedule with their 12 year old daughter who is playing softball on a traveling team. “I love being a softball mom and spending time with my family,” she said.
Kanyatta, Kya and Kevin Walker enjoying time as a softball family.
Kanyatta’s advice to others