Our digital HQ is powered by thousands of women. Their ideas, energy and enthusiasm have created a better product, a more pleasant workplace and a more equitable experience for millions of users. So today, on International Women’s Day, we’d like to recognise a few of the women leaders driving innovation in engineering, marketing and research at Slack and Salesforce.
This is the first in a series of three blog posts highlighting trailblazing women, who will share tactical advice, personal stories and perspectives on how they’ve manifested their career trajectories in the tech world. In these three profiles, learn how Rukmini Reddy, Slack’s SVP of Software Engineering, Emma Chalwin, Salesforce’s EVP of Global Field Marketing and Sheela Subramanian, Slack’s VP of Future Forum, navigate finding fulfilment in work, balancing their family and their jobs, self-advocating in a male-dominated industry and more.
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
How overcoming fear has been the foundation for engineering leader Rukmini Reddy’s career
Rukmini Reddy’s life changed the moment she decided to get on an aeroplane. As a girl raised by a middle-class family in India, she discovered her love for computer programming while trying to get out of needlepoint class, and studying computer science became her calling. But when she had the opportunity to get her master’s degree in Arkansas, she hit a juncture that scared her: whether or not to board a plane that would take her to a country where she had no family or friends.
It was her grandmother who encouraged her to take a leap of faith, saying that Reddy would always wonder what her life would be like if she didn’t make the trip. Fast-forward to today, and Reddy is an award-winning engineering leader with more than a decade of executive experience.
‘The mantra that has kept me going my entire career is that fear and courage go together,’ she says. ‘While I was very afraid to leave everybody and everything behind, I’m so glad I got on that plane.’
Who were the women you looked up to as you developed your career? Would you say that your grandma was one?
A hundred per cent. This is her in 1930 in India. She’s wearing trousers – and holding a racquet and riding a bicycle. There was nothing normal about her in India at the time; this was unheard of.
When she was almost 108, I took my children to see her. She passed a month or two later. I had shipped a few dollars from my first US pay cheque to her because that was the first real money I earned. And I found one in her belongings. So, for almost a good 15 years, she had saved that dollar bill. It meant so much to her.
Are there any strategies that you would share with your earlier self about how to balance your personal and professional life?
Looking back now, I actually have a burnout meter. I burn out approximately every 90 days because of the amount of energy it takes to be me. So I proactively schedule a holiday or a break for myself every 90 days, and I have for years. It’s really important for you to understand patterns. When you’re burning out and very tired, you’re not making the best decisions, so don’t wait for that to happen. Proactively schedule time for yourself and self-care.
The second thing is don’t dilute your potency. I say ‘no’ a lot. Asking for help and saying ‘no’ to many things – I wish I did this earlier.
‘When you’re burning out and very tired, you’re not making the best decisions, so don’t wait for that to happen. Proactively schedule time for yourself and self-care.’
When do you know that it’s time to sort of manifest your own career or pivot?
I use a stretch-versus-crush ratio to assess if it is time for me to pivot, change or grow in my career. For example, there was a time in my life – as a new mom – when I felt like now is not the time to stretch, and that was OK. When I feel like I am starting to crush my job all the time, it can mean I am not growing as much as I would like or learning new things, and then I assess if I need a pivot or change. Right now, I love where I am – growing and learning every day.
How being true to her values makes Emma Chalwin a better marketing executive
Emma Chalwin likes a good challenge. ‘I can’t actually remember what being bored is like, but I don’t think I’d like it,’ she says, half joking. Over the past 26 years, Chalwin built her career by leaning into her curiosity and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, which drove her to grow as a leader in a fast-paced industry.
She considers the 600 people that she leads to be family, but no matter how busy she gets, she won’t put her husband, two boys and two dogs in the metaphorical back seat. ‘I’m either working as a soccer mom or as a mentor to many across the globe, but what I’ll never sacrifice is how I show up for my family or for my team,’ she says. Having dinner with her family is non-negotiable. However, Chalwin will trade a salon blow-dry for a baseball cap during a video interview, acknowledging that perfectionism is impossible.
To be the best version of herself at home and work, everything boils down to effectively managing her time. Even if it means waking up at 03:00, she’ll take the earliest flight home to spend more time with her family. ‘Luckily, I’ve got an amazing husband who I couldn’t juggle my life without, but I’m very structured in that I never want to be half in and half out.’
And she’s the real deal. Graunya Holsen, Chalwin’s senior executive assistant, says she’s a witness of how her boss keeps her schedule. ‘She is always there for her family and shows up for her job and team one hundred per cent,’ Holsen wrote, unsolicited, in a chat message during Chalwin’s interview. ‘I truly respect how she confidently follows her values and keeps boundaries.’
We’re often told that you are your own best advocate. What are tactical ways that you advocate for yourself at work?
You are in control of your own career journey. I think that the biggest mistake people often make is they’re waiting for the next big thing to simply fall into their lap. You need to be the one driving to the destination you want to get to. You can ask people to help you get there by giving you directions, but really you’re at the steering wheel and you need to be in control of that destiny. It’s our responsibility to advocate for ourselves and be purposeful about sharing aspirations with those around us.
Spend some time understanding and thinking about your superpowers. What value do you bring to the table? I talk a lot about defining your soul versus your salary. Soul is where you focus on the things that inspire and motivate you, when you show up as your best self. Salary is not how much you earn, but the things you have to do to get the job done, but don’t energise you or give you joy.
Start mapping out what’s your soul, your salary, your superpowers, and you really start building up a picture, a destination, that you want to get to. It all fits together, and then you can start thinking about how every decision you make gets you closer to that final destination.
Across my career journey, being true to my core values and what I stand for as a leader, and treating people as I wish to be treated, are really the foundations of my success.
Who are the women that you’ve looked up to as you’ve developed your career that helped support and empower you along the way?
I value female leaders who showed strength, authenticity, blazed their own trails and were not afraid to give fearless feedback and be agents of change. I’ve been super lucky throughout my career to forge trusted relationships with women leaders across the globe. They’ve really been my truth-tellers and have given me courageous feedback when it wasn’t always what I wanted to hear.
I’m surrounded by so many amazing women role models at Salesforce, and I’m really lucky to get their advice for free on a day-to-day basis. And they want other women to be successful. We all need to pay it forward and help to grow the female leaders of tomorrow. It’s important for us to be that female leader that others see, that one day they would like to be.
What strategies and tactics have benefited you over the course of your career?
I learned very early on in my career to focus on where I could add and bring the most value. And I quickly realised the importance of building a strong personal brand. Across my career journey, being true to my core values and what I stand for as a leader, showing strength in vulnerability and treating people as I wish to be treated are really the foundations of my success.
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How following her interests led Future Forum’s Sheela Subramanian to work flexibly
Sheela Subramanian will be the first to admit that she hasn’t had a linear career path. She got to where she is by pursuing opportunities she found interesting and helping to provide access for others.
Wanting to be a human rights lawyer after graduating from college, Subramanian dipped her toe in the non-profit space, where she lived in eastern India with no electricity or running water, before joining Google in 2004. With the focus of supplying access to information to more people, she helped the company to expand its global footprint for five years, went to business school and then joined a start-up as an executive business leader. She spent the next five years travelling the globe, helping some of the biggest companies in the world to figure out how to provide access to the Internet to emerging markets, before having an ‘aha!’ moment.
‘I was seven months pregnant on a plane to Indonesia, and I thought, “I can’t do this any more,”’ she says. She wanted to work for a company that supported working parents, within its own culture and through the product, so that she could do the things that sparked joy for her outside of work.
‘I realized that Slack gave me the work-life fluidity that other products did not,’ she says. That prompted her to email someone about working for the company in 2016, and the rest is history. What has stayed the same over the course of her non-linear journey is the theme: ‘Finding things that interest me with people who I love working with and trying to solve fundamentally hard problems, both internally and externally.’
What are some tactical ways to advocate for yourself at work, especially when it comes to promotions and review cycles?
It’s really important to document your own growth. When you work on a project and when you produce results, write it down and ensure that it’s documented somewhere. So when it comes to review time and self-reflection, you’re not trying to remember what you did in the previous six months. And make sure that you bring up that document on a monthly basis so that leaders are aware of the impact you make before moving on to the next thing.
The second thing is to build a network of co-conspirators. If you’re elevating others, others will elevate you. The third thing is do not be apologetic for advocating for yourself. Do not add caveats. Say, ‘I’ve produced these results, as we’ve talked about, and this is what my expectations are in terms of what my career will look like.’ Be very resolute and focused as well as clear in what you’re expecting, and ensure that you have the right people advocating for that with you.
‘It’s on leaders to foster an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes and learn from them.’
What might be some things people can do outside of work or at work to build more trust in themselves and their strengths?
I tell people to always try something that they’re not naturally good at. For example, I am not a coordinated athlete, and during the pandemic I started taking tennis lessons. Twice a week at 06:00. I had someone yelling at me, telling me to hit the ball. And I had friends say, ‘That’s crazy. Why are you doing that? You’re not naturally good at it.’ But it really pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to adopt a growth mindset. And it made me realise that I could get better, and it gave me confidence that I could apply elsewhere in my professional life.
As a leader, give people on your team stretch opportunities. And if they feel they can’t do it, give them the resources, the budget, the extra time to do it well – because that’s your job as a leader, to make sure that people on your team grow. Many people don’t want to make a mistake. They want to get it right the first time. And it’s on leaders to foster an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s OK to continue to provide the support needed to get there.
Since you use Slack as your digital HQ, we have to ask: how has Slack connected you to your people, tools, customers and partners?
Slack as a product has been an amazing way to work for me because it has helped me to adopt flexible work hours. My team has core work hours where we come together for three or four hours every day and we collaborate on critical topics. And outside of those hours, people are empowered to go for a run, volunteer, visit a friend, visit their parents. There’s more to life beyond that nine-to-five. I have a deep appreciation for the company, as well as for the product, for helping me to work in a flexible manner that works for me as an individual and encourage others on my team to do the same.
Learn more: Subramanian co-authored the book How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives, which comes out on 17th May.