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In Conversation – Achiever

Why sky is the limit when we dare to take our chances

Arati Deo, Managing Director – Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Accenture Technology in India

It was the summer of 1989. Final year results were out, and the College of Engineering, Pune, was buzzing with young, aspiring graduates, ready to take on the world. I was one of them. The excitement of graduating was palpable. I was embarking on a new chapter that would determine the course of my life. I was also on the cusp of making an important decision—to take up the best campus offer, like everyone else, or to swim against the current and advance my education abroad.

Fortunately, I was raised by parents who empowered my voice and supported my goals. This upbringing, combined with my penchant for new experiences, motivated me to pursue my ambitions.

So, two significant decisions were made in this glorious 1989 summer. First, I will pursue my fellowship in the US. Second, I’ll continue to take risks, break stereotypes and never look back.

Risk-takers are winners all along

During my Ph.D. at the Rice University, Houston, US, my dissertation focused on robotic manipulators (arms) and how to control them. Here, I had the opportunity to study neural networks, a new emerging topic then. Just before I graduated, I came across a startup, HNC Software, that used neural networks for fraud detection. Looking back, it was a relatively risky decision to join a company that was not much talked about and step into the nascent neural network field. Today, deep learning methods—which leverage more sophisticated forms of neural networks—have become so central and sought after that my experience in this area has definitely given me a competitive edge. I implicitly trusted my gut, took a risk and it paid off.

Career breaks are not career enders

2004 proved to be a very exciting year. I was leading a team of scientists developing predictive software solutions for credit card and healthcare applications at Fair Isaac and Company (FICO). Things were great professionally, but my husband and I wanted to move back to Bengaluru to be closer to our loved ones. At this point, the company was ready to offer me a new role to set up its operations in Bengaluru—a breakthrough career opportunity. But I passed up the offer and took a year’s break. It was important to settle my two small girls in the new city and give them all the time and attention they needed.

So much has been written about the predicament of women who take career breaks and find comebacks challenging. I feel a good career break takes planning and a good comeback takes courage. When I decided to re-enter, a former colleague referred me at Amazon and I grabbed a great part-time role for three years as my daughters adjusted to a life in India. Three years later, given my performance and experience, I was offered a full-time leadership role, which I took up this time. From there, I went on to play several diverse and challenging roles in my 12-year stint with the company.

And now, here I am innovating with artificial intelligence and machine learning at a much larger scale with Accenture—reimagining the future for our clients and driving social change in the world.

Mentoring matters to elevate, empower and rise

Career journeys are never a smooth ride but the bumps along the way present great learning opportunities. At one point in my career, I found myself very inwardly focused in managing day-to-day activities, while I saw other colleagues were more connected with the external world. When I discussed this problem with my mentor, she challenged me to stay more up-to-date and build a network. This prompted me to prioritize what’s happening within my team or organization and look for events and opportunities externally. Mentoring helped me realize what I needed to focus on and muster up the confidence to go after it. Today, I take pride in serving as a member of the Grace Hopper Celebration India committee and chairing their sessions since the past two years.

In hindsight, going to the US for higher education, joining a startup, exploring an unchartered territory and taking a career break were some of the biggest risks I took in my journey. Today, when I look at the way my career has shaped, how my daughter is following her dreams to become a doctor and the innovations we are developing at Accenture, I feel every risk I took made me more confident and created a room for me to accomplish my personal aspirations.

The biggest risk today? Women not taking enough career risks. So, it’s time to take your chances, push the envelope and go after your dreams. Eventually you’ll realize that it wasn’t that risky after all.