Mala Jairam is an investor, advisor, entrepreneur, technologist, business leader, board member and mentor. She was a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff (DMTS) at AT&T-Bell Labs and a leader of several startups and ventures in Silicon Valley and a Board Chair. Mala is a co-author on two patents and mentors female start-up CEOs and underprivileged students pursuing careers in STEM. She holds an MS in Computer Science from the Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from UMass Amherst.
How did you get your start in your career?
I started my career at AT&T-Bell Labs, the premier research and scientific development company. I was a Systems Engineer with a Computer Science degree and an MBA. Bell Labs had a culture of brilliant minds working together to achieve brilliant innovations, and I absorbed all I could. I also led a team focused on international negotiations and was beginning to feel self-actualized in my career. I then progressed to being recognized as a DMTS, a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff (awarded to only the top 5% of engineering staff at that time) for innovation, business impact and driving specific international standards. This gave me great self-confidence, and I felt appreciated and affirmed to be in the company of great innovators. There were not many female engineers in the Labs 35 years ago and for me to reach this stature was very important. There was a focus on inclusion even then as the importance of diversity and inclusiveness to innovation was recognized. It was a great environment and I felt I had arrived and was able to thrive.
Later, I moved into AT&T (then owner of Bell Labs) focused on product marketing and monetization of products from R&D, which honed the business lens of my technical contribution and served to strengthen my confidence even further. I was nominated to the Leadership Development Program with AT&T, which gave me different perspectives of the business from product management and operations to strategy, culminating in leading the Asia Pac Strategy in China. This felt like icing on the cake.
What did you learn from such a great first half of your career?
I think we can sometimes overlook the importance of those early years in a career and how helpful it is to give new hires and grads important projects, visibility, and real leadership stretch. Mostly they will rise to it and surprise you and even go beyond. This is especially true for women. That early supported guidance and stretch is critical. It can set the foundation for confidence and risk-taking and have great impact later on.
What changes or pivots have you made on your career journey?
Success is very individual. Shortly after moving to Shanghai for the Asia-Pac role, my husband got an offer that required us to move back to the U.S. We moved to Southern California and that left me with no job to come back to in the US. This was a career jolt and it was a rude shock. I had to readjust and then reinvent myself to find the next path. At the same time, the reality of needing to balance work and family came into play in even greater light. My family all needed more support to adjust to our repatriation and my father whose health was declining came to live with us.
I had to ask myself: what do I do now? I took a project consulting role but that was not fulfilling. Then, I embarked on what I’d call “The Mala Journey:” how can I take the 20+ years of corporate experience, knowledge and success and pivot? I co-founded and led an early stage company with a nascent idea in a very entrepreneurial environment. This was a very new experience and I drew on all the tools in my toolset and needed to build many new ones, too.
Another job change for my husband moved us to Northern California. This time I focused on leveraging my skills to give back to the community while I figured out my next step. I was able to make an impact with a nonprofit in an area that mattered to me, and I also joined another non-profit Board and have served as their Board Chair. Simultaneously, I served as an advisor for early stage technology companies and continue to mentor and advise early stage start-ups and invest in them.
What did you rely upon or take advantage of that served you well?
Networking. Leveraging my network and expanding it in my new environment was huge. The ability to pivot and re-invent. Being opportunistic and seeking out opportunities that didn’t yet exist. My drive and my self-belief; I had a foundation of self-confidence and I kept building on it.
What’s a tough career lesson you learned and how did it serve you?
My dad and family needed my help at a critical time, and I look back and think perhaps the timing of our repatriation back to the U.S. was in some way a gift. It was an opportunity for me to be “CEO of my family.” My first focus had been my career, and this was a defining moment for me to gain more balance of life across many priorities. Though it was forced upon me, I am so glad in hindsight. It grounded me and I learned that career can have a broader meaning.
What one (or two) bits of advice would you give someone regarding work or career?
I would say to stay authentic and humble. Confidence doesn’t mean being brash or aggressive. Know that you can do more than you think you can and push yourself. You have to win your stripes and it takes hard work – there are no shortcuts. Leverage mentors. I did not have a true mentor and I wish that I had. Also, mentor others regularly – you‘ll get more than you even give. I continue to mentor start-up CEOs and college grads interested in STEM careers. I find that very rewarding.
You may be data driven and analytical, but balance that with EQ. Be passionate about giving back. I learned a ton from being on a nonprofit board. It can also be a great place to learn about boards before moving to a for-profit board and is very personally fulfilling in an area you care about and you can have a great impact.