I started as a software engineer, but realized I want to be on the business side.



Early Life

I grew up in a small town called Bhilai. My dad worked as an engineer in the steel plant and in our colony almost everyone’s father was an engineer. My dad’s two brothers were engineers. So was my cousin, she was in fact the first female engineer hired by Bhilai steel plant. A very inspiring person for me as well. Dad was quite busy and stressed at work so it was my mom who taught us maths and physics at home. She was a math teacher at English Middle School in Sector 10. I always excelled in Math and Physics and also saw my brother studying for the JEE so I was inspired by him to try for it myself. During our time, there was only 1 entrance exam as opposed to now where there is a screening exam as well as the actual one. Also, they would only take about top 1000 students into any of the IITs. So I knew it would be hard but I studied diligently and made the cut. My older brother went to IIT Kanpur but I chose to join IIT Bombay. It was for a very practical reason - there was a direct train from Bombay to Bhilai. Another reason was my parents thought there is a high probability that I might meet a Maharashtrian guy. Well, I did meet someone in IIT Bombay and we did get married but he is not a Maharashtrian.

Life at IIT Bombay

On reaching campus I found out that I was the first girl after 10 years in Mechanical Engineering. That did not deter me and I really enjoyed my courses. The guys at that time used to be very shy. If one guy had the courage to talk to us, then the other guys would tease him. So it was a very lonely experience. Going to class and getting help in understanding the material was a challenge. But other aspects more than made up for it. In the hostel we had a lot of fun. There were few women in undergrad (only 4 in a class of about 200). But there were a lot of women in the masters program. We had Mood Indigo, inter-hostel competitions and cultural programs. All extremely fond memories for me. I used to sing and also participate in sports. In fact, I represented IIT Bombay in badminton. One professor in IIT who really inspired me was Professor Sukhatme. The passion with which he taught was incredible. I understood everything. And that’s how I decided to go into heat transfer and fluid mechanics. After my Master’s from Iowa State University. I did a PhD in computational fluid dynamics and heat transfer from UC Berkeley.

Professional Journey

It was at UC Berkeley that I met my husband Arun Majumdar. Actually, we were both classmates in Mechanical Engineering in IIT but I barely knew him then. At Berkeley, we were both graduate students, we started dating and eventually got married. Initially, I really wanted to be a professor of engineering. But at that time, universities had a rule that they would not hire husband and wife in the same department. So I decided to work in industry as a mechanical engineer. I worked at an environmental consulting company while my husband was a professor at UC Santa Barbara. Then my husband got an opportunity to move to Berkeley and that’s how I ended up in software in the financial field. My employer didn’t care that I knew nothing about finance. They were just happy that I knew Fortran. But over time I realised that what I really wanted was to be on the business side rather than just code based on specs. So I decided to get yet another degree - a Master’s in Financial Engineering from UC Berkeley - and started working in an insurance company related to mortgages. After that, I switched to banking and worked at Union Bank, Wells Fargo and Bank of the West until Visa approached me to head their brand new department for model risk management.

Model Risk Management

So what is model risk management. Well, let’s say you want to apply for a credit card. So what the bank does is look at your social security numbers and run a model behind the scenes based on certain information you provide. The model calculates a score and recommends whether to give you a credit card or not. And if yes, what kind of limit. After the financial crisis of 2008, regulators came down hard on the banks saying that banks were using models but nobody was looking at what the models were doing, how exactly the calculations are being carried out and if they were accurate. They recommended setting up an independent group within the bank to do a thorough review and manage the lifecycle of the model from initiation until retirement. This is called ‘model risk management’. So what my department does is scrutinise every single model that is being used at Visa. It has to be validated by our group. Funnily enough, the most challenging thing about this role is not technical or mathematical but just to get a buy-in from the folks in the company who build these models.

Challenges as a Woman

Just like in IIT, I am always in minority at work since the representation of women in not only engineering but also in finance is quite low. I did not have many female role models and so I always consulted my husband for any career related matters. He is very successful himself but has been a pillar for me. He is a great mentor.

Work-Life Balance

I have two daughters and it was a bit of a challenge bringing them up because I was working full time throughout their childhood. Luckily, I had a lot of support from my parents, as well as my mother-in-law. I would say six to eight months in a year, we had either my mother-in-law or my parents staying with us. However I decided to take it a little bit easy with jobs that had a good work-life balance when they were young. I wanted to attend every single game they had, every swim meet, drive them around, piano recitals and everything. I also wanted to make sure that my career did not take a backseat, especially after they were on their own. So I attended a lot of evening classes just to keep up my skills. I took courses in C, C ++, Java, a lot of programming related classes, because the only exposure I had in college was Fortran. My philosophy in life is to go with the flow and to make the most of everything I have. I have no regrets. Incidentally, both my daughters also became engineers. My older daughter, Shalini went to Caltech, worked at Microsoft for five years and right now she’s finishing her MBA from Wharton. My younger daughter, Anjali got her engineering degree from Stanford and she’s working at Rivian, an electric pickup truck company.

Advice to Young Women

All women should be financially independent. And a STEM degree is a fantastic way as that is almost a guarantee that they’ll never be unemployed. There will be challenges along the way. But if you’re really focused and really passionate about what you’re doing, you can cope up.