“Woman of Color to Watch:” Sheela Subramanian (CSRE ’03) has crafted a professional and personal life intent on racial justice practice
BY PERLITA R. DICOCHEA
As one of our newest members of the CCSRE Advisory Board, Sheela Subramanian’s career and life journey has included positions in the public sector addressing race and political representation and, upon earning her MBA from Harvard, roles addressing internet connectivity in emerging markets in various parts of the world, which led to wider recognition in 2014 by Advertising Age as a “Woman to Watch.” Graduating from Stanford in 2003 with majors in CSRE and Political Science, Subramanian’s initial motivation to engage in racial justice as a practice for change has led to her recent career move focusing on leadership and inclusivity in the workplace as Senior Director of the Future Forum by Slack.
Speaking on the ways her CSRE major has shaped her career journey, Subramanian stated, “There were two aha moments for me. The first was the importance of storytelling as a way to connect with people. This lesson, plus my love for data, influenced my decision to specialize in marketing early in my career. And the second was that [the CSRE major] sparked my curiosity about the topic of access. In particular, I was interested in access to technology and how providing access to technology and the internet could help drive change for rural communities, in emerging markets, and most recently: for women and people of color. So I spent a number of years at Google and my focus later on in my time there was to drive new business in new markets like Brazil, India, South Africa as well as multicultural marketing focused on better understanding what the needs and wants of different groups were. My experience at Google inspired me to go back and get my MBA.”
Instead of taking on a traditional job in banking or consulting for her internship during her time at Harvard, Subramanian took a position in Johannesburg, South Africa working for the first broadband internet company in the region. “I spent time focused on connectivity in East and Southern Africa and working with the Rwandan government to better understand how connectivity could better help with education in the region.”
For the next five years, Subramanian worked at a start-up focused on driving connectivity in emerging markets. “Then I was pregnant with my first daughter, traveling every week to places like Jakarta and Sao Paulo, so I realized I needed some sort of lifestyle change,” Subramanian explained.
Having grown up in what she describes as a traditional, conservative Indian family in San Ramon, which was not a very racially diverse city during her youth, Subramanian stated, “I came to Stanford after struggling with belonging my entire life. I really wanted to understand the construct of race and gender dynamics in modern society, and I found that CSRE provided the best curriculum and the best well-rounded approach to better understanding issues of belonging, equity and identity. A CSRE curriculum, paired with political science frameworks, helped me bridge my interests around how to solve for challenges of inequity and structural bias.” She furthered, “[The CSRE major] instilled not just a sense of curiosity and a critical eye but also a commitment to speak up and do more.”
Several impactful undergraduate courses have guided Subramanian both professionally and personally, including a course on public service by CCSRE Faculty Affiliate Robert Reich. “[This class] is one that I think about today, still. He often asked us the question, ‘Is the reason people do public service out of altruism or is it self-serving?’ And [Professor Reich] would say that whenever you decide to make a statement or you decide to make a policy, think about why you’re doing it. Is it altruism or is it to make yourself feel better? That question has stuck in my mind as a leader in organizations now. Am I taking a band-aid approach because it will make me feel better? Or am I actually enacting structural change that will last once I leave?”
Subramanian’s academic and post-graduate career decisions committed to racial justice have been met with challenges both within and beyond the workplace. “I interned at the House of Commons in the UK and House of Representatives during my time at Stanford, committed to studying the role of race in political representation. I was met with a lot of blank looks — from staffers and politicians — during those experiences.” In addition, the decision to major in CSRE and Political Science involved, for Subramanian, taking a route alternative to the preferences of her parents. “I received a lot of pushback. I come from a very traditional, conservative upbringing. My father is an electrical engineer. My mother is a chemist. And [I decided on] a liberal arts major…they asked, ‘What are you going to do with your life? How are you going to find a profession?’ I think my parents came to America thinking ‘We need to figure out how to keep a job and keep food on the table for our families.’”
Twenty years later, Subramanian shared, “I still debate with my dad about work being a source of fulfillment and being excited about going to work everyday. For [my dad] the view is ‘Work is work. You need to do it to support your family. Trying to find something that gets you excited every day — good luck with that.’”
To be sure, this story of making alternative academic and career moves than family members and peers might prefer is a familiar one to many CSRE majors. Subramanian reflected on another pressing challenge: the retention of historically discriminated groups, especially retention on the executive level, that she observes in the professional world.
“It’s been a challenge throughout my career. When I graduated from Stanford, I thought I could shape my own experience of belonging for myself and others. Seventeen years out, I’m even more committed to exploring and shaping a workplace culture of belonging. But, it’s important to acknowledge that when you don’t see a lot of people who look like you or have the same or similar background to you, it’s really tough to feel like there is solidarity and there is a community you are a part of in your day-to-day work. The workplace can be very lonely for women of color,” Subramanian furthered.
Instead of conceding to the challenges, Subramanian continues to find ways to make change. Indeed, she joined Slack because she believed the company was more committed to inclusivity than others. She was impressed with the CEO’s public statements on MLK Day 2016, when he directly addressed structural racism, which was rare for leaders at the time. After four years in a variety of senior leadership roles, Subramanian made an internal shift to lead Slack’s Future Forum in order to assess ways workplaces can provide better environments conducive to race, gender, and family-life diversity.
“Now is the time for business leaders to rethink about how work is done and how they can think about inclusivity in a different way than they previously have when we were all going into the office.”
COVID-19 has made plain certain struggles that women and BIPOC communities have been facing all along. “I would never say COVID-19 leveled the playing field, but it is making leaders open their eyes to the challenges of working mothers in the U.S., the role of the office as a place for assimilation, the realities of code switching, and the importance of both social and Internet connection.
“A lot of these conversations people are experiencing for the first time [as a result of COVID-19] — there is a light bulb moment that is happening that is helping to drive the dialogue. That’s the reason why I decided to make the shift to work at the research side of Slack.”
Demonstrating an unrelenting commitment to addressing inequities, Subramanian underscored the importance of mentorship and coaching for others, “People often talk about “playing the game” when it comes to work. What if we redefined what “the game” looks like? There is an opportunity to start redefining [one’s] career based on intrinsic motivators, rather than extrinsic ones — it’s about being happy with the life that you have and having the power to define how you want it to look. I want to guide other people to learn that. I think oftentimes one can chase something that will never happen or external markers of success, rather than examining what drives fulfillment.”
CCSRE looks forward to Sheela Subramanian’s leadership on the Advisory Board as the Center prepares for its celebratory 25th Anniversary year. Indeed, Subramanian will continue to be one of our Women of Color to watch.