This story is a part of our “A Day in the Life” series that highlights the career journeys of 2U employees across the world. Throughout May, we’re celebrating Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and featuring members of the Asian Pacific Islander Network (APIN), one of the company’s five Business Resource Networks.
As a first-generation Gujarati-American woman, Poonam Ribadia grew up surrounded by predominantly white, upper middle-class New Jersey neighbors. “Being Indian wasn’t exactly embraced or celebrated there,” she says.
Looking around her community, Poonam couldn’t help but feel different. “My home life was unique for the Western world,” she explains. “But it’s common for South Asian culture. I grew up living in a working class, multi-generational household with my nuclear family plus cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. There was a lot of love, but it was very hectic.”
Amid all of the chaos, however, was constant inspiration. “My parents and grandparents always valued education and would explain the potential it has to improve your life,” says Poonam.
Poonam, with her family, graduating from American University's 2U-powered MBA program
For proof of education’s transformational power, she can look to her own father, who grew up in a small Indian village with lots of siblings—but little money. Determined to change his future, Poonam’s dad completed high school, college, and medical school in India before coming to America.
“My dad is a reminder of how education can transform your life,” says Poonam. “The struggles he and my mom have endured as immigrants in the United States have always motivated me to strive for more and pursue all opportunities I have access to.”
Today, Poonam has certainly made good on that mission. After graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in Social and Education Policy, she accepted a job at 2U in 2016—then used 2U’s employee tuition benefit to earn an online MBA through American University three years later.
“I know firsthand how education can change people’s lives,” says Poonam, “because it changed my own. Earning my MBA enabled me to get a promotion to a managerial position at 2U and start a small business, Rekha’s Chai Co. I truly believe education is one of the key factors to upward social and economic mobility.”
Reflecting on the past five years, Poonam recognizes how many milestones she has already achieved at 2U: from finding fellowship within the Asian Pacific Islander Network (APIN) and helping university partners pivot online during COVID-19 to introducing 2U Co-Founder and CEO Chip Paucek to a new inclusive technology tool. Read on to hear her story, in her own words.
A special "thank you" to Poonam from former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan following an undergraduate internship
Why did you join 2U? What is it about the company that sparked your interest?
After my interview with Vice President of Course Services Mike Lederer back in 2016, I knew 2U was the perfect fit. The vision, goals, and opportunities Mike shared with me sparked so much interest and excitement. The idea of joining a brand new team and building something from the ground up was exactly what I was looking for. After the interview, I followed up with Mike and accidentally blurted out, “So, did I get it?” He responded, “Yes! Someone from our recruitment team will be in touch.” And the rest is history!
In June 2020, you took on a new role within 2U. How would you describe your responsibilities as a Curriculum Development Manager?
My role has been pretty unique, considering what was going on globally when I joined the team. I started in this role right at the beginning of the pandemic and immediately began working on 2UOS Essential, designed to help undergraduate partners pivot online during COVID-19. It was like being a super-niche trailblazer.
Aside from that exciting and innovative work, my other responsibilities include internal and external stakeholder management, internal process improvement, and interdepartmental collaboration to drive efficiencies with student outcomes in mind.
Poonam at Roots Cafe, a plant-based establishment that sells her delicious Rekha's Chai
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your job? How about the most challenging?
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is knowing that my work has a direct impact on students. The work I do helps improve student outcomes and learning experiences. I know it sounds cliché, but I truly believe 2U is changing lives.
Recently, the most challenging thing has been working remotely for 14 months while trying to deal with all the other stresses and realities of the world. I loved my routine of commuting to the Brooklyn office, physically seeing and talking to other 2Utes, and having in-person meetings. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss the challenge of finding an open conference room!
What’s your favorite part about working at 2U?
In a pre-pandemic world, I would say the snacks. Only half-kidding! Joking aside, my favorite part of working at 2U is hands-down the people. I used to spend a lot of time working, chatting, learning, networking, mingling, and snacking in The Hub, a designated hangout spot in our Brooklyn office. Everyone I’ve met at 2U has been wonderful and super-friendly. I think 2U attracts people who are passionate about what they do at work and outside of work. You can feel that energy in the connections you make with fellow 2Utes.
Poonam in a silk salwar kameez during a Brooklyn office Diwali celebration, where API 2Utes wore clothes from their culture
Why did you join APIN?
For many, many reasons. The biggest one was that I wanted to be a part of a community made up of people like me. My identity is intersectional, and it’s been hard to find a place in a corporate setting where I can be myself without having to explain or unpack my lived experiences. I wanted a community that was on the same page as me: folks who look like me, celebrate the same holidays as me, understand the complex race relations I face at and outside of work, and know my struggles and joys.
What does Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you? How do you plan on celebrating it this year?
I actually didn’t realize Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month existed until a few years ago. I’ve never “celebrated” it before, so this is my first time participating in a curated celebration to highlight API-identifying people. I’m Asian-American every single day, so it seems a little odd to me to only officially celebrate it for one month of the year.
I plan on “celebrating” by being even more vocal and unapologetic about my identity and using my platforms to share and educate. I’m going to simply exist and take up space. I appreciate there being a month that is intended to spotlight API folks in American history—but for me personally, I think the celebration, appreciation, and recognition should happen all 365 days of the year (366, if you count leap years).
Poonam (second from left) and colleagues in 2U's vegetarian and sustainability club
This year’s theme for Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month is “Advancing Leaders Through Purpose-Driven Service.” How does this theme specifically resonate in your life?
I consider myself to be a passionate, outspoken individual who is committed to advocating for historically marginalized and systematically oppressed communities and identities. This theme resonates with me deeply because it’s simply who I have always been. Being a leader and a voice at and outside of 2U takes courage and a lot of energy. However, I truly believe empowered BIPOC, with the support of allies, can shift the outdated and problematic “corporate culture” that continues to exist in our modern world.
Out of everything you’ve done at 2U so far, what are you most proud of?
There are a couple of things I’m very proud of, but one standout moment was when I emailed Chip Paucek, our Co-Founder and CEO, suggesting that 2U consider using an audio name pronunciation tool that helps promote respect, inclusion, and belonging. I’ve struggled with my name my whole life due to the ignorance of others. People constantly mispronounce it, ask me to repeat it several times, or come up with nicknames for their convenience. I have a unique name that I’m very proud of now, but it took years of unlearning to get to this place.
My email to Chip has come full circle, and my suggestion is coming to life. I think it takes a lot of guts to email the CEO with an idea—this was definitely one of my more “Be Bold and Fearless” moments at 2U.
Poonam at an NYC Holi celebration, a popular ancient Hindu event also known as the "Festival of Colors"
What advice would you give to someone just starting at 2U?
Soak it all up. Be a sponge! There’s so much to learn and so many people to meet. Reach out to coworkers and find your community. Attend events and participate in programming. Make the most of your corporate 9 to 5. There’s plenty of fun to be had, and tons of opportunities for growth—professionally and personally.
Inspired? Join us. We’re hiring.
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