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Neerja's Mantra; Go Hi-Tech

posted Oct 23, 2010, 1:30 AM by Diana Rohini LaVigne   [ updated Oct 23, 2010, 1:40 AM ]

Being inducted into the prestigious WITI Hall of  Fame, leading a hi-tech camp for girls, and being part of India’s notable Doon School  education, Neerja Raman is actively inspiring the next generation. Diana Rohini LaVigne learns about the woman behind this successful echnologist. 

Neerja Raman is a talented woman with a flourishing career spanning more than two decades, a devoted family behind her, who has made many significant community contributions, but she’d be the first to admit that she’s earned everything she has today. Born in Mussouri, Uttaranchal, Raman, nee Gupta, was raised in a mid-sized family that was radically open-minded. She recalls her father encouraging her mother to pursue a career of her own. At a time when a wife’s role was to stay home, cook, clean and raise the children, her mother became a university professor with an advanced degree. Raman was exposed to a variety of things that other girls weren’t at an early age. Her athletic father, who taught at the world-renowned Doon School in New Delhi, had the opportunity to enroll his daughter in the all-boys school as part of his condition of employment with the institution. Instead of shying away from his daughter being surrounded by boys from elite upbringings, he enrolled her and even pushed her to participate in sports.

Raman’s parents put emphasis on their children to participate in activities outside the school as well. They even suggested that the young 16-year-old stay in a dorm during her college days at Delhi University, rather than stay with relatives, in stark contrast to most other students who are required to fulfill family obligations by living with nearby relatives.

P R O G R E S S I V E T H I N K I N G

Her progressive-thinking parents helped mold the young Raman into the success seeker she is today. Although she hadn’t traveled much until after her college years, she bravely headed for America’s promised land to collect on her full scholarship at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. Yet, according to Raman’s personal experiences, the American dream was far different in planning and thought than in reality.

After the plane wheels touched U.S. soil, her life would be changed forever. Being a minimalist, she didn’t have a lot of luggage and so her worries about getting to the university from the airport were virtually non-existent. She jumped onto a Long Island Railway train, which broke down on the way. After the repairs to the train were made, she was on her way again to New York’s most famous gateway, Pennsylvania Station. She carried her luggage, mostly filled with books, from the train when a seemingly charitable man offered to help her to the curb. She thanked him profusely for his generosity until he asked for $10 for his services. She didn’t have it and gave him the last of what she did have. In spite of these initial hiccups on her journey to America, Raman’s luck was about to change.

Her next experience would transform her life forever. A computer science major from South India, Vasan Raman, came to pick her up. He was the only one with a car, and he would eventually win  Raman’s heart and become her husband. Her memories of coming to America for the first time still hold a special place in her heart, she says. She’s even kept the first blanket she purchased from Macy’s when she first settled down in the U.S.

During her SUNY-Stony Brook years, Raman took up quantum chemistry and computer programming. She had the unusual opportunity to do original research, and worked on an MRI instrument, which became quite an intensive project. Her professor, Paul Lauderdale, eventually won a Nobel Prize for the MRI technology she helped fix. She laughs that she sometimes fantasizes it was she who got him started. When Raman was recruited to work on the MRI, Lauderdale didn’t have a budget, so she took the job despite not getting any money for her efforts. She supplemented her income that summer by teaching in the chemistry laboratories and being a resident advisor.

U N W A V E R I N G D R I V E

Raman’s strong sense of self and unwavering drive helped her in juggling her various responsibilities. Her philosophy in life is to do things that create energy. You can grow in certain ways but learn more from the interactions. Working on the MRI, she learned lessons she would carry throughout her life, she explains to Indian Life & Style. As she began spending more and more time at school with her first friend in America, Vasan, they took a vacation to Yellowstone National Park and around the state of California. They soon knew they wanted to get married. The Ramans were married in New Jersey at a judge’s office with no witnesses and no ring. The judge used his office to conduct the ceremony and called a friend to be the witness, as required by law. In the evening, they went to Atlantic City for their honeymoon. They went on to marry in two more ceremonies to further proclaim their love and commitment towards one another. When gazing at photos of her younger days with her husband and three children, Kavita, Priya and Arjun, Raman says, almost apologetically, that she looked so much younger just years back. She explains she was plagued by illness after illness for some time, which aged her dramatically. However, she still appears years younger than her biological age, and her worries would be lost on anyone looking into her exceptionally youthful eyes. To add to her life’s story, within one year, her father died of a  heart attack, her brother was killed in a train crash, and her older sister passed on due to a heart condition–all while she was far away in the United States. Having learned lessons about the toughest side of life, it took a toll on her but she is a survivor. After earning her master’s degree from SUNY-Stony Brook (after a master’s from Delhi University as well), Raman began working with Hewlett Packard in San Jose, Calif., on their Real Time technology where she worked for more than two decades. She is also a graduate of the Kellogg Executive Program at  Northwestern University. Her HP life has been well documented over the years. In addition to being director of strategic planning for imaging and printing at HP Labs, Raman spearheaded the HP Arts and Science program, which aims to promote cultural understanding by digitization, preservation and sharing of paintings and other art objects. “HP is a global company that ties together diversity, business, and innovation,” she  says proudly. “Specifically, HP provides a positive working environment for women. These core values are what drew me to  HP and what kept me there.” As a young woman, Raman realized that with science and computers she could create the most opportunities for herself. She  explains this to all her young audiences and though she talks about the amount of work it takes, she acknowledges how it changed the course of her life too.


I N S P I R I N G Y O U T H

Raman tells kids the hard truth that they must get good grades, that life isn’t always fair, they should learn from these lessons of life, and that everything is based on economics  so they must learn how to make this work to their advantage. She also preaches that desires are very difficult to squash, so don’t try. She really wants to reach today’s youth because they are our future leaders, she says. “Education is just another word for understanding,” she emphasizes. Being a serious career woman, many might question her loyalty towards her career over her family. But she has successfully managed to juggle and balance being both a great mother and working without feeling guilty about her work and home  “You do what you think will keep you whole as a person and this is the best way,” Raman explains. She admits to being a very logic-based thinker. She also feels people think about their personal lives as long-term and their business life as short-term. If business is always viewed as short-term, it becomes difficult to achieve major initiatives and goals, she cautions. Her desire to make a difference led Raman to become actively involved with and make valuable contributions to several non-profit organizations. She was a board member of Indian Business and  Professional Women and helped to build an awards program to mark the achievements of women. “There are a lot of unsung heroes in the world,” she comments. She is also on the advisory board of Maitri, a women’s self help organization in Silicon Valley. Raman is now trying to use IBPW as a springboard to start a broader group. She wants to return to the roots and address issues like layoffs, career changes, homemaker challenges, and health.  Her most recent success was receiving a  fellowship from Stanford University to do research in China with a technology application that has a large social impact. To Raman, this is an exciting prospect and a testament to her life’s work. She wants to build sustainable projects. And although some of the return on investment of these projects isn’t always measurable or direct, she explains the need to measure success and return on the social aspects of a project, too. She looks at developing literacy tests for rural women, for example, so they have proof for the banks and prospective employers so they can start businesses. Raman isn’t just a dreamer; she puts her  brain power towards finding a real solution. Raman has also worked with the Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif., for the HP Tech Camp for Girls. One girl told Raman she came to the youth camp thinking she would become a beautician one day. By the time she left, she said she was thinking about becoming a researcher, proving how the tech camp opened up more options for this young girl and showed her how many opportunities there are for girls today. Raman often gives inspirational talks to kids, but admits she receives just as much as she gives. She is not only energized by the youth but inspired by them as well. Aside from inspiring kids, adults are also charmed by her innovation, her passion for life, and brilliant mind. Being inducted into the prestigious Women in Technology International Hall of Fame this past  December was a moving experience for Raman. After the  awards ceremony, attended proudly by her mother, Raman was shocked at being asked by guests to pose for a photo as though she were a celebrity, and humbled by the endless number of congratulations from people she didn’t know. Raman recently compiled some of her managerial secrets in  a book entitled, “The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide.” She wrote the book to try to bring ethics back into management and to provide readers methods to access the power within each of us. 

At home, her successful family looks at her with admiration  and respect: her husband, a serial entrepreneur; her first-born, Kavita, who lives in New York city with a promising career in  investment and finance strategy working for a leading fortune 500 company; her other daughter, Priya, a professional consultant  in Dallas, Texas; and her youngest, Arjun, who is studying cybernetics and works with cyborgs. It is clear that Neerja Raman has made an impact in many people’s lives and that her legacy will be carried on proudly by her children.

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