The Secret to a Successful STEM Career

by Punam Nagpal · Technical Leader, Engineering · U.S.

My ambition is to inspire other women to maintain work-life balance and encourage girls and young women to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) studies and careers.

Earlier in my 15-year career at Cisco, a young intern opened up to me about her insecurities. She was a Ph.D. student from Mexico who was plagued with low self-confidence due to her lack of fluency in English.

Her words took me back to a time when I was new to America, working as a customer support engineer. When my phone would ring, my heart would pound with anxiety. Would I understand the customer’s question? Would I be able to support them? Would they understand my accent? So many fears and doubts. I didn’t even want to pick the phone up.

I shared my story with the intern and told her how I overcame these fears by learning to accept myself for who I am, accent or not. In time, my confidence grew and wonderful things started to happen. I reminded the intern that she spoke Spanish and English—twice as many languages as most of her peers. I urged her to believe in herself—to learn to be her own best friend. It seemed to lift her spirits.

Many of us are troubled by self-doubts of one kind or another, at one time or another. It’s part of being human. For my part, I’ve come a long way from that fearful person I used to be. Today, as a member of the Customer Assurance team, I lead quality efforts to improve our customers’ experiences with Cisco’s products. But my passion extends beyond product quality—to the quality of people’s relationships and life.

An exciting day with some colleagues’ daughters at Cisco’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) event.

I am frequently asked to be a guest speaker at international women’s conferences where I discuss the importance of work-life balance, and I feel very fortunate to have Cisco’s support in these efforts. My message is very simple: Believe in yourself and empower yourself.

My heart breaks when I see women leaving the technology sector for reasons out of their control, like the organization’s culture and working conditions. Women are already underrepresented in the tech world, where they make up about 30 percent of the workforce—compared to 59 percent of the U.S. labor force and almost 51 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many incidents have occurred in my career when I could have left this field too, but I learned the art of empowering myself. It took a combination of outer and inner work to stay the course. I have worked hard to get ahead in my career whilst balancing family life, but I also did inner work, filtering out the negative voices, building good relationships with co-workers and not hesitating to ask for help. No one can be expected to know all the answers; it’s OK to ask for help. I’m surrounded by positive role models at Cisco, I’ve found co-workers are happy to help and my management team are also extremely supportive.

I have worked hard to get ahead in my career whilst balancing family life.

To empower myself, I use a combination of daily practices such as meditation, affirmations and giving back to others. I derive great pleasure from helping others empower themselves. My motto is, to make any external change, I have to change myself first. I believe self-transformation will bring world transformation. Our quality of life starts with each of us!

Follow me on Twitter where I hope to continue to inspire self-transformation.

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