Starting her career as an accountant following a degree in accountancy, Suganthi Shivkumar was soon drawn into the world of technology. She excelled at different roles in the tech industry including managing director for ASEAN region, vice president of sales for markets as diverse as ASEAN, Australia-New Zealand and India. Currently, she is the vice president of Asia region in the multinational analytics automation firm Alteryx.
In her latest role, she is striving towards empowering individuals with the knowledge of the new language of modern-day businesses that is entirely based on data and its analysis. She is also a relentless advocate of gender neutrality in the workplace, having encountered discrimination herself. In 2020, she was included in Singapore’s Inaugural List of Top 100 Women in Technology. She talks to Women Icons Network about the virtues of data literacy and the importance of women getting their seat at the table.
Suganthi believes that there are lots of benefits of making the entire workforce proficient to ‘speak’ the language of data analytics rather than limit this knowledge in the hands of a few experts. In fact, she is proud of the fact that Alteryx is passionate about empowering citizen data scientists through data democratisation.
“We enable and empower everyone with data literacy skills so they can articulate powerful data-based stories and influence key data-driven decisions within their organizations. Data is extremely powerful if it is used early and appropriately by all users across any organization,” she shares.
Instead, a tight framework of governance, data and technology should be given to end-users to enable them to derive powerful and timely insights and drive breakthroughs, she feels. Supporting empowerment of people with data and helping to curate a data-driven culture, one that nurtures, rewards, incentivises and encourages data-driven decision making truly excites her.
Women and the Workplace
The most basic issue that women face when entering the workforce, Suganthi thinks, is inadequate support from family and personal self-limiting beliefs. As a solution, she suggests that girls and young professional women need to be brought up with the mindset that they can achieve anything they truly desire. She is happy to see campaigns such as #LikeAGirl, which she thinks sends the right message to women; it empowers girls and breaks negative stereotypes often associated with the phrase.
She uses the phrase ‘harmonising their work-life areas’ instead of work-life balance, as she believes playing the multiple roles one plays in one’s personal life need to be harmonised with the responsibilities of a high-stress job. “If you look at it from a harmonising perspective, you tend not to feel like you’ve compromised. Harmonising implies managing everything without compromises whereas balancing may imply a compromise,” she explains.
Talking from personal experience – she wears many a battle scars, she says encountering unfortunate instances of gender discrimination is common to the experience of many women in the professional sphere. She says a woman can grab each of these acts as a powerful moment of micro-coaching for all the involved parties. Both can learn the reasons behind each other’s beliefs and arrive at a common understanding.
One of the biggest challenges that women face in the professional arena, according to Suganthi, is striving to pursue opportunities at the right time and conquer them without fear or inhibition. She advises women to remind themselves that FEAR stands for ‘Face Everything And Rise’. When we feel fear or anxiety, our mindsets will either propel us forward or hold us back, she feels.
Though acknowledging that some women do face structural barriers in their chosen career path, she encourages them to “visualize what tomorrow will bring and visualize what your future wants”. She is a big believer in the power of visualization and manifestation. “Do not let self-limiting beliefs or people around you let you lose sight of your inspiring vision. Be bold and confident to amplify your own work, because victories, no matter how large or small, always call for celebration,” is her advice.
Another one of her strong beliefs is in the power of data analytics. She often encourages the women in her life to learn it in order to become citizen data scientists that deliver insights confidently and efficiently. “I truly believe that data skills give them an edge over their peers and open more roles and opportunities for them. Even in difficult work situations, their data skills would enable them to provide important data-driven insights and in turn, be involved in key decisions. This is why I’m a huge fan of our SparkED education program. It empowers students and individuals looking to change careers to acquire data and analytics skills. As an upskilling program, it is a great opportunity for women to become data literate, upskill themselves and bridge the data competency skill gap,” she says
Personal Battle Scars
When asked for more information about the battle scars she spoke about, Suganthi remembers the time when she was part of a compliance audit team in one of her previous roles. “It was an extremely daunting environment with the senior male executives who were present. At one point, the situation turned hostile. Fortunately, the company valued the safety of their employees and had a non-harassment policy in place,” she shares.
The company’s legal counsel, a respected male colleague, recorded the details of the incident from her perspective. He then wrote to the procurement head of the erring on her behalf. The headquarters respectfully sent a formal letter of apology. She brushes it off by saying that lessons can be drawn from the good, the bad and the ugly, and these experiences only make one stronger.
Staying true to her own advice, she used the incident to understand why something was communicated the way it was. Sometimes, it may just be a moment of blissful ignorance, and allowing the other party to look at the same situation from a different lens can help to build awareness, she thinks. She also got the chance to address how other female colleagues felt.
Commitment to Gender Equality
Gender diversity needs to start right from the start – from hiring policies to the way job descriptions are written, asserts Suganthi. Crafting a gender-neutral job description is an excellent place to start, she adds, instead of using jargon in the job description that may make male candidates feel more confident to apply.
Most importantly, she believes that gender diversity and inclusion are principles that need to be ingrained in the policies and practices. And that all the little things that they comprise are consciously repeated so much so that they become a part of its DNA and culture.
She is excited to see how the modern workplaces have men championing for gender equality to inspire a culture of ‘everyone-for-everyone’. “It’s heartening to hear my male colleagues engage in conversations about their wives and daughters and how they can support their professional aspirations. I’m honoured to have been approached by my male counterparts to help mentor their loved ones,” she informs. Such actions also make women like herself feel that male colleagues harbour a sense of pride in women’s achievements and breakthroughs, she feels.
The Alteryx Way
As a woman, Suganthi says she has always had to fight to get and keep her seat at the table. A robust support system in her personal life, fortunately, allowed her the privilege of not just holding on to her own seat but also representing and spearheading gender diversity programs in her previous postings.
She is glad to be in an organisation that considers talent, skill and performance as the qualifications for that precious seat. Additionally, Alteryx runs initiatives like Alter.Us (the in-house diversity, equity and inclusion council), Women of Analytics panel and a luncheon meet titled Analytics as an Equalizer that highlights the importance of involving all genders in the promotion of equality. The number of women in top positions in Alteryx is testimony to their commitment to gender equality. One of the co-founders Olivia Duane Adams, chief revenue officer Paula Hansen, senior vice president of global partners and alliances Barb Huelskamp all have an important, decision making role in the business.
The company also provides funds for any employee requiring family planning services or fertility treatments. Those on parental leave have assured job protection. In addition, childcare time offs are also offered to parents. She joined the company in the middle of the pandemic while the entire workforce had become used to remote working. At such a time, the company decided to offer all employees unlimited subscription to a meditation application, and four wellness and mental health days. She shares that she happily used this extra time off to hike to rediscover the beauty of Singapore, host close family and friends, explore different culinary experiences, practice yoga and participate in cultural activities.
The Post-Pandemic Work Culture
Talking of the pandemic, Suganthi admits that the already difficult task of harmonising our personal and professional lives became so much harder while working from home. The pandemic forced us to relook at this important aspect, she believes.
In many ways, she says, the new normal has leveled the playfield. “Working from home made male partners understand and appreciate the dual load that the womenfolk have been carrying for so long. They are now more open to share the domestic responsibilities. Additionally, elimination of the physical proximity and the democratic nature of virtual meeting rooms has given introverted colleagues, especially women more confidence to voice their opinions,” she explains.