Women’s History Month 2021 – a self-reflection

image courtesy: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Carnegie Mellon University’s social media team gave me two prompts to answer during the Women’s History Month. The short tweet: Who influenced Shantha Mohan? Here is my long answer.

Q. What motivated you to go into Integrated Innovation as well as teaching?

I joined the Integrate Innovation Institute’s (III) iLab at Carnegie Mellon University as an Executive in Residence, focusing on mentoring and guiding students in their projects and practicums.  This was after I retired from 35+ years of career as a software engineering and product leader at two companies and cofounding Retail Solutions Inc., a leader in retail analytics. I graduated in 1985 from the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA, now Tepper Business School) with a Ph.D. in Operations Management. This education provided a solid platform for me in my career advancement and when I retired, I wanted to do activities in giving back to CMU, in addition to the donations I have been making over the years. I heard about Prof. Stuart Evans at III and met him.  He and I felt I could bring my expertise in the industry to bear on the projects the students do in his classes on innovation and entrepreneurship. Stuart is one of the most innovative, collaborative, and flexible individuals, and we have been working together since 2017.

Q. Throughout your lifetime, were there any particular women (a family member, mentor, professor, researcher, historical, etc.) who were influential in guiding you down your current career path?

I believe that a lot of what we do in life, including our careers is based on who we were as youngsters and what we learned over the years. If I were to pick a woman as being influential in what I have done with my life, it has to be my older sister. She was only two years older than me, but she was my mentor. She excelled in everything she did—studies, music, painting, crafts, and tailoring to name a few.

When I think about her as a mentor, I recall a year in my life as a pre-university student in 1965. I knew I wanted to be an engineer but had no idea what that meant until I started college at the pre-university level. This may sound strange today, but I had no engineer in the family to guide me.  I found the math and physics classes hard because I didn’t have the necessary foundation.  My high school didn’t have an algebra track, and I was in for a shock. Every day I would come home from college, attempt some math homework, and cry that I can’t do it.  During high school, studies were very easy for me. I never really had to work hard to get the highest score. Now I had this new experience – not being able to master something easily.

My sister would sit with me, coax me to go over the lesson, understand the examples, and attempt the homework again. She was there, coaching me to study, studying with me side-by-side, collaborating in moving me forward, and cheering me when I successfully completed my homework.  In my career, any time I come across something I felt was challenging, this period in my life is something I think about and it gives me the strength to march forward.

During my career, I did not have any women to guide me. I was a pioneering woman leader of that time. Instead, I considered the leadership attributes of many of my colleagues, and company leaders, and tried to learn from them. Something that influenced me in my career is my thesis advisor Prof. Gerald Thompson’s philosophy that he practiced – “finding the best way to do things”.

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