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How this first-gen immigrant became a tech executive by finally accepting her differences

June 3, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

The biggest career wins often come with risk. On our series, The Big Bet, Chief speaks with some of the most powerful members in our network about that single moment when they bet on themselves — and won.

When reflecting on her career, Chief Member Suman Rao says her journey has been “very checkered yet connected.”

“Checkered because I didn’t really plan every move. There was no sequence of like, ‘I’m going to do this’ and ‘I’m going to do that,’” she says. “The common thread was that I always was trying to go deeper and deeper into how technology could enable businesses.”

Growing up in India, Rao says her father’s career as a scientist and professor played a huge role in her decision to work in the science and tech space. After earning an undergraduate degree in engineering from Osmania University in India, Rao came to the United States and earned a Masters in Science degree from North Carolina State University.

“The general theme of my journey is the usual struggle of a first-generation immigrant,” she says. “I came as a student with two bags and had to establish myself and learn the ropes.”

For this installment of The Big Bet, Rao, who serves as Vice President, Business Technology Group at HelloFresh, shares how ditching a career plan and accepting her differences have been the key to her success. And how now, as an executive in tech, she’s working to ensure that other women of color not only break in but advance.

On Her Journey to HelloFresh
“I grew up in India and hail from a highly academic family. Education was a top priority for us. After graduating from North Carolina State University with a Master of Science degree, my first job was with an engineering consulting firm working on scientific models monitoring air quality. After working for two years and gaining exposure to how businesses are run, my interest in technology applications began to shift. I enrolled in evening classes to study different domains of a business, including sales, procurement, finance, and manufacturing. Arming myself with this knowledge and using my engineering background, I made my first foray into enterprise software implementation with a job at a major chemical company (National Starch & Chemical) that was investing heavily to transform their technology landscape.

“Before I started at HelloFresh [three years ago], I was at Rent the Runway as the Senior Director of Financial systems and I spent years in consulting. My consulting years, (about a decade), are when I experienced most of my growth – both in technical expertise and leadership. I consulted for a variety of industries that included insurance, retail, and a large media firm to help them drive technology transformations. These initiatives involved disparate business problems, legacy systems that had to be replaced with newer technology and working with globally dispersed teams. My current role is a culmination of creating a vision based on all my prior experiences and delivering on that vision.”

On Ditching a Career Plan
“I never really chased a role, but always looked for opportunities to demonstrate value… You know how some people have a steady track record at one company for 15 years and work their way up, that was never really a thought-out process for me. My singular focus was just how can I keep getting better and better at what I’m doing.”

On Her Big Bet
“I don’t think I can say that there was just one moment that I bet on myself. If I look back at my career, I attribute my success to the fact that I never shied away from taking challenging roles and stepping out of my comfort zone. I always believed in my ability to take risks and learn.”

On Embracing Challenges
“Every role and every shift I made was a step out of my comfort zone. I looked upon every opportunity as a chance to learn and grow. If I had to pick one, the consulting role was the most challenging in terms of balancing multiple programs, global team management, and scaling new technologies. It prepared me to carve out my own path to become an influential leader. With every challenge, I built my confidence and widened my perspective. It prepared me to take on more creative jobs in the future. This was a turning point in my career when I decided to define my role rather than just inherit one.”

On Her Leadership Journey as a Woman of Color
“In my early career days, I had to navigate cultural transformations — trying to be perfect all the time, and trying to ‘fit in.’ As I progressed, I realized it is my uniqueness that brings true value to my work. I now strive to be an example for other women of color and encourage them to be themselves and let them know that feeling vulnerable is OK. There will be times when you are hard on yourself and unsure about certain decisions. It is important to find a community of friends and supporters who you can trust for guidance.”

On Increasing the Pipeline of Women in Tech
“Everyone needs a champion who gives them the strength to work towards their goals and never give up. To do my part and support other women, I have been volunteering with WEST and Everwise for over six years to mentor women in technology. Through my volunteering work I hope to keep more women in the workforce and help them build their brand. I always tell my mentees never to put limits on what they can or cannot do.

“I’m very passionate about encouraging not just women of color, but women in general. I know that through their journey with domestic duties and children, it’s very easy to fall out of the workforce.”

On Advice to Her Younger Self
“I would tell my younger self that leadership is not just about knowing everything. Rather, it is a mindset. It is the ability to synthesize all the available information and make the right decisions. It is also about inspiring and mentoring others to pursue their goals. No title is unachievable if you set your mind on it.”

On Her Hope for Women in Leadership Over the Next 10 Years
“With all the focus on diversity, empathy, and social change, I do believe that there will be a growing presence of women in leadership roles and they will redefine leadership itself. I give credit to organizations like HelloFresh and Chief for providing the right environment for women to be authentic leaders. Women have realized that they can be who they are and still make an impact. Conforming to traditional definitions of leadership is no longer a requirement and I truly believe this will open many doors for women leaders.”

*Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

By Courtney Connley


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