Born in India and raised in Dubai, Poonam Kalinani remembers how often her parents would tell her that access to education is a privilege she shouldn’t take lightly.
“Neither of my parents graduated middle school, and they never learned English as part of their elementary schooling,” she says. “But they were determined to ensure that my brother and I received a quality education. Though they weren’t teachers themselves, my dad would still sit with me to try and help with my homework. And my mom worked hard to build herself a career—she retired as a COO for an Apple distributor in Dubai.”
With an Apple II computer before most of her friends learned how to use a typewriter, it comes as no surprise that Poonam was fascinated by STEM courses. “My mom raised me to believe that I could be anything I wanted in life,” she says, “as long as I was willing to work for it. For college, I started considering medical school or computers, but once I realized I don’t like the sight of blood, the choice became easy.”
After graduating high school, Poonam moved to the U.S. to attend Rutgers University and earn her BS in Computer Science. It was there she began noticing disparities and biases involving women in tech.
“There were probably only 10 women in my graduating class with that same degree,” Poonam recalls. “And then my first job out of college was as a Java developer. I was the only woman in that role and wasn’t respected as an engineer the same as my male counterparts. But at the time, I didn’t realize the extent of it—it never occurred to me how differently I was being treated because I’m a woman. Since then, I’ve become a lot more cognizant.”
Now vice president of boot camp technology, Poonam has navigated her way to a successful and fulfilling career in the field she’s most passionate about. W.A.N. recently connected with Poonam to discuss what brought her to 2U, how she supports and empowers other women at the company, and advice she has for other women looking to make their mark and increase representation in an otherwise male-dominated sector.
Poonam is ready to climb any mountain, metaphorical or real—here she is looking out over Everest Base Camp in Nepal. (One of her life goals is to go on a hike in every mountain range in the world.)
First off, Poonam, let’s just get this out there: You’re a rockstar. You’ve come a long way and clearly have stories to tell! Let’s start with how you trailblazed your way to 2U—what compelled you to join the company?
After spending five years connecting the dots between the problems we were solving and how we were solving them as a product management consultant for a wine and spirits company, I wanted to work at a mission-driven business where I felt I could make a positive difference in people’s lives. My education and over 20 years of experience enabled me to work in a variety of industries like consulting, finance, advertising, consumer goods, and utilities, so working in a field I had no experience in wasn’t a scary concept for me. That’s when I came across Trilogy Education (now the boot camp arm of 2U).
Being raised by parents who weren’t educated was a big influencing factor for me to join the company, because edtech opens up new doors to opportunity for many more people to acquire an education and a better quality of life. When Trilogy was acquired by 2U in 2019, my excitement grew tenfold because I knew I’d have a chance to genuinely make a difference for learners at a larger scale. My job now is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.
You’ve definitely taken your parents’ constant advice to heart! As vice president of boot camp technology, how does all that passion translate into what you do in your day-to-day role?
In my current position, I bring my experience in platform design, product strategy, technology, and agile best practices to partner with various cross-functional teams across the business and deliver on key strategic objectives for 2U’s boot camps. I’m a firm believer that technology should be an enabler to business objectives and should not replace front-end thinking. My vast experience has been focused on delivering user-centric scaled products that align with corporate objectives and key results (OKRs).
You and so many other women are operating at such great heights like this—and yet men still very much permeate the tech industry. Tell us more about your journey as a woman in tech. What challenges have you experienced and conquered along the way?
After four years as an undergraduate and 10 years of working in tech, I was so used to being the only woman in most corporate conference rooms that I got immune to it. I always spoke up, not realizing that I was being perceived and treated differently. At the time, I believed every difference between me and my male peers could be managed if I spoke up, just like the men did in every room. I’m much more aware of my interactions now, but just because I was never afraid to speak up, I know that doesn’t mean other women aren’t feeling marginalized in underrepresented teams.
The first time it really occurred to me that there was a systemic problem with gender bias was at a company where I was laid off the day before returning from eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave. And I wasn’t the only woman who was laid off—another woman who also came back from maternity leave around the same time was asked to work reduced hours. The company wasn’t doing well financially, and yet many of our male colleagues who had lower performance levels continued to work. These kinds of inconsistencies happened multiple times over the course of the next few years when my kids were little, and I constantly felt I was having to choose between my children and my career.
Poonam exploring the New Jersey seaside town of Asbury Park; she also loves to bike. (Check out her #GirlBoss shirt.)
Wow. Though women have made tremendous strides over the years, egregious gender inequities remain in all pockets of business. What’s one important lesson you’ve learned as a result of your experiences?
I won’t deny that there continues to be a lot of implicit bias for women leaders in tech. But one thing we know that works is representation! Creating women leaders in tech should be everyone’s priority, and those decisions need to be intentional. For as much as women engineers need to seek out more teams with women leaders, women tech leaders also need to set diversity goals for their own teams. If that isn’t possible on those fronts, then women need to seek out mentors and sponsors within their organization who have the same values as they do.
We couldn’t agree more: Change needs to be deliberate, methodical, and nonstop. At 2U, how are you specifically helping to inspire other women and be an agent of change?
As part of a “Women in Tech” group at 2U, I’ve had the fortune of mentoring several women colleagues. I’ve found these mentorship opportunities to be mutually beneficial, as I get to see and hear first-hand how women at 2U perceive their roles, and help influence the decisions we make as a leadership organization.
Diversity on my own team is also very important to me, not just gender but also differences in opinions, ideas, and approaches to work. When I hire people, I am often looking for complementary skills: people who think differently than me and have different perspectives than others. I strongly believe this is how we’ll continue to build high-performing teams at 2U.
Yes! In W.A.N., we talk a lot about the value of diversity of thought. We love that you’re looking for that “yin” to others’ “yang” versus recruiting more teammates just like you. As you know, March is Women’s History Month. How is this observance important to you and your hopes for the future?
Women’s History Month is a wonderful time to celebrate all of the women who came before us to create the opportunities we have today. One woman I celebrate is my mom, who passed away in 2009 only a year after she retired. She was raised in a patriarchal culture but never let me be influenced by that.
It would be such a waste if all we did was celebrate, however. We have a long way to go before women in corporate America feel equal. We can’t stop educating ourselves and everyone else on what women have already accomplished. Ada Lovelace, Grace Murray Hopper, Mary Allen Wilkes, and many more like them need to become household names to prove that there have been women in tech for a lot longer than we all realize.
For Women's History Month, Poonam celebrates the memory of her mom (pictured here at her desk; Apple computer included)
Thank you for summoning and honoring the names of those three female computing pioneers. As you said, they’re testament to how far back women in technology go. So, wrapping up and turning from the past to the future, what advice would you give other women seeking to rise through the tech ranks?
Next time you’re in a conference room where you don’t feel represented, don’t explicitly bring your gender (or race) to the table. Walk in with positive intent and confidence to speak your mind. Embrace that you bring a different perspective just by being your authentic self. Trust your intuition and don’t look for validation from anyone else. When you find your voice, people have no choice but to listen.
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