My father, Prof. M. S. Vardya, was a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Like all the other kids on the campus, I gravitated towards science, it was just the done thing. My elder brother and several cousins were from various IITs.To give JEE and do engineering seemed to be the best and most logical thing to do. So, I worked hard, got into IIT Bombay and took up Metallurgical Engineering.
I went to a girl’s school (J B Petit) till the 10th standard and then joined IIT where I was the only girl in my department, in a class of 40. It was a huge gender shock for me but things settled down after some time and I felt comfortable. Of course, being the only girl in class had its privileges! Receiving the Institute Silver Medal for standing first in my department was the high point of my academic life. Surviving in a male-dominated environment of IIT Bombay helped me when I joined the corporate world. Though I am an introvert, I never hesitate to speak up. The high point of my personal life at IIT was meeting my husband, Rizwan. He was in the Electrical Engineering department, I had heard of him but never really interacted. One Friday evening, on my way home, I met him at the Vikhroli station ticket counter. We travelled back together and that was the beginning of a long lasting friendship and our life journey together. I guess that’s what we call destiny! Ours was an inter-religious marriage, not very common in India even today. To allay the fears and hesitation of our families is a topic which needs a book by itself! But all’s well that ends well and what remains with us is the final outcome – a lifetime of close-knit relations.
From IIT, I went on to do my Masters in Material Science from Carnegie Mellon University. I returned to India after graduation, as part of my original plan, a rarity in those days. But there were no jobs in my area of specialisation - thin film semiconductors. I decided to change gears and joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Joining consulting was serendipity but I am glad I made the switch. I was a management consultant for the next 8 years and enjoyed it thoroughly. My work focussed on business process optimization and technology.
In 2003, I decided to take a personal break for a couple of years as I had small children and aging parents to take care of, which was hard to do alongside a consulting career. When I got back in 2006, I worked in the social sector, along with doing corporate training in consulting skills. In 2016, Rizwan and I set up Koita Foundation, with the objective of helping NGOs in digital transformation initiatives, using technology and data analytics to enhance their productivity, impact and scale. We have had very good success as NGOs were finding it extremely challenging to get support for technology and capacity building. Support also involved providing guidance and hand holding them through the journey. Digital transformation for NGOs has been successful for us as it aligns needs of NGOs with our skills. My decision to join the social sector reminds me on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote – “How small a thought it takes to fill someone’s life”. At around the same time, I also got involved with the Silver Jubilee Reunion (SJRU) activities of our batch, as one of the Legacy Project leaders. I took up the LP initiatives thinking that it would be a good opportunity to do something interesting, but never realised the impact it would have on me. After graduating in 1992, I had kept in touch with a handful of friends and rarely visited IITB campus. I have now reconnected with more than 200 batchmates and made so many new friends – perhaps more than I made in 4 years at IITB. I started going to campus regularly and interacting with a range of faculty, administrators and students – which has been an amazing experience where I have learned a lot and grown tremendously. I have been driving the implementation of several projects – Bandhu (enhancing the emotional well being of students), creating travel grants for UG students, setting up Cafe 92 - which is perhaps the most trending place on IITB campus now! All in all, it has been an extremely gratifying experience and has had a delightful influence on my life. Based on my experience at IITB, I started engaging actively with the CMU Alumni network after a break of over 20 years. I am the President of CMU Mumbai Alumni Network for the past 5 years.
In 2021, Rizwan and I supported IIT Bombay in establishing the Koita Center for Digital Health (KCDH), an inter-disciplinary center. It is the first of its kind in India, focused on driving academic programs, research, and industry collaborations and entrepreneurship in Digital Health – a sunrise sector. KCDH offers a minor program, dual degree and PhD programs in digital health informatics. The coursework includes computer science, statistics, mathematics, as well as public health, epidemiology and biology. We have faculty from leading hospitals across India including Tata Memorial Hospital and AIIMS Delhi.We are grateful to IITB for giving us the opportunity to collaborate closely with faculty and administration in developing the centre.
At every stage, it was about really thinking through what are my priorities; what’s going to be good, not just for me, but for the overall ecosystem (i.e. the family). Interestingly, Rizwan left his job to become an entrepreneur one month after we got married! He has been really busy since then with a lot of travel. There were many responsibilities – with aging parents and young kids. I believed there was a lot of potential in what Rizwan was trying to do, and I supported his dream. I adjusted my work where needed, and really enjoyed my time with my kids, my in-laws and parents. I look back with a lot of fulfilment and no regrets. My boys have grown up now - Samad just graduated from IIT Bombay (Computer Science) and Sahil will be joining an undergraduate program in Economics. I have now moved to near fulltime work at Koita Foundation.
Be confident of yourself, of your work, of what you’re doing. Speak up and make the choices that are okay for you. Also decide, where is it that you want to spend your time and energy? Don’t fight over small stuff. Just let it go and focus on your main goals.
Success is transient. Tomorrow people will be saying, what’s next? So I think it’s all about having fun getting there. You really have to wake up in the morning wanting to do something. And you don’t have to run after other people’s idea of the ‘plum jobs’. Define your own ‘plum job’, great stuff that the organization is just not doing. That’s where I’ve made my career. It’s also about where people have shone the spotlight in the past. The question is, can you redirect that spotlight?