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(Courtesy D. Sangeeta)
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Movers & Shakers: D. Sangeeta fights for systemic change for women in STEM+

Welcome to Movers & Shakers; a series where we look deep into PNW life for people who are making moves, doing big things, and who are just - in general - being rad. Seattle is full of multi-talented and multi-faceted people, many at the intersection of technology and the arts. How do they find the time? What's their secret? Well friends, we're here to find out. Meet Movers & Shakers; aka Seattle Refined attempting to capture the not-so-secret lives of impressive locals. Have a recommendation for us? Email hello@seattlerefined.com.

At 29, D. Sangeeta was at the end of her rope, ready to quit a STEM career she loved because she felt unable to navigate all the roadblocks thrown in her way — "as a woman, as an immigrant, as a person of color," she said. "Luckily, a mentor reached out, guided me, and I stayed in my career for another two decades, achieving 26 patents and leading global teams of 5,000+ with budgets of more than $200 million."

Last year, Sangeeta decided to leave her role as Amazon's Vice President of Connections and to launch her own company - Gotara, a global career growth platform for women in STEM+.

"Helping women stay and thrive in their STEM+ careers and helping companies retain and grow their STEM talent is my biggest passion," she said.

Although more women are studying STEM-related fields, Sangeeta says that 40% of them quit within 5 to 7 years — compared to attrition of men, which is only single digits.

"It's a huge loss to these individual women, their companies and society," she said.

She had mentored women in STEM for years, but only had time to help a few at a time.

"To make a true systemic change I knew I had to build a scalable platform where any woman in the world had access to career and life advice," said Sangeeta. "We call it nano-learning because it's just-in-time insights a woman needs to make actionable and informed decisions about her career."

To magnify their impact with members, Gotara works with employers to offer in-depth nano-learning training programs for their STEM talent.

"We want to help them retain and grow these women," she said. "It will lead to a more diverse, inclusive team, and it also saves companies up to $300,000 in attrition costs every time they lose one woman in STEM."

Sangeeta grew up in a home where she and her siblings were encouraged to be curious, get an education and dream big. They lived on the Indian Institute of Technology campus in Kanpur, where their father was a chemistry professor. Their mother didn't have an education, but both parents were adamant she and her sister have the same opportunities as their brothers. That meant attending university.

Sangeeta was the first in the family to set her sights outside of India, and her dad has been her biggest champion every step of the way.

"No matter what stage of my career, or the many turns I've taken, he's always been my biggest supporter," she said. "He loves his granddaughter, but he fully expected me to go back to work after my daughter was born. Recently, when many family and friends raised their eyebrows when I told them about my dream to launch Gotara, I had his unwavering support. His accolades, in a quiet but impactful way, keep me going."

Another mentor she reaches out to for guidance? Her first sponsor at work, Dan Heintzelman, Retired Vice Chair of GE.

"He challenges me - sometimes even provokes me!" she said. "But his intent is always pure, and his passion for seeing me succeed humbles and inspires me to push on."

Sangeeta knows what it's like to be one of the few (if not the only) senior women in the room.

"In many ways, growing up (and sometimes fighting) with my two brothers - prepared me for dealing with the challenges of being one of the few women studying sciences at the undergraduate and graduate levels," she said. "Leaders tell you when you're starting out to try to get yourself noticed. Well, when I walked into a room - the only woman and often the only person of color - I got noticed! Everyone knew who I was, and I made sure to make a lasting impression."

That's not to say Sangeeta was indifferent to the biases and hurdles she encountered. At the age of 32, she took the risk to openly challenge a key business decision she knew wasn't technically sound.

"I thought I was doing the right thing for the company - and our customers," she explained, "but no one backed me up. I thought I would be fired, and for the first time, I thought about quitting and leaving STEM."

She wishes she'd had a platform like Gotara at that time. The company is working to change the game in countless ways; they recently completed a survey of members to assess why STEM women quit or stagnate. Contrary to popular belief, it's not primarily about compensation, benefits or struggling to balance work and family life. The most significant factor is a toxic workplace.

For individual members on the platform - of which there are now more than 1,800 from 80+ countries - Gotara offers nano-learning advice on how to strategically address a situation where they feel undervalued or bullied. Their most requested advice is "change of role." Although the platform only opened in February, the early feedback is promising and encouraging.

Sangeeta believes the world needs diverse STEM talent to address real, timely issues, like the dominance of AI, which is predicted to replace up to 80% of the decisions made by humans today. Yet 78% of the global AI workforce is male.

"Our mission at Gotara is to close that gender gap," Sangeeta said. "We have the 'STEMina' to drive diversity in every thought and equity in every action. It’s a proven fact that diversity brings more innovation and financial success to an organization, so why wouldn’t we do it?”

Sangeeta admits that the start-up life isn't for the faint of heart. Building an enterprise platform that scales to millions doesn't happen without a few hiccups.

"You have to believe in your mission, and that belief feeds your inspiration and pushes you forward when you hit bumps or hurdles," she says. Being a scientist helps, too, since she's used to experimenting.

"What inspires me is the dedicated determination of my team to dive in and innovate," she said. "When members and employers share the difference we're already making with them, that's a huge boost of inspiration. When my daughter and husband tell me they're proud of me, well, that's the ultimate boost I need to keep going."

When asked what she does when not working, Sangeeta joked, "Day off!? Do you remember in 'Downton Abbey' when Lady Grantham asks, 'What is a weekend?'" Yet she concedes that she does take time to be with her husband and go for a walk or ride bikes. "And I bring my competitive nature to the links," she said. "Even there, I'm driven (and informed) by data!"

She views golf as a metaphor for life, and loves two related quotes. The first is from Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam: "If you want to play, you have to play with boys. If you want to stick around, you have to beat them."

The other comes from American golfer Stacy Lewis, because it reminds Sangeeta of the power Gotara has to make a huge difference in some woman's life. "We all have the power to influence somebody in five minutes, you can change someone's life," said Lewis. "If you embrace it, it can be a powerful thing."

They're embracing that power at Gotara, Sangeeta promises. "We're ready to stay and play in the STEM game."

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