Q&A with Radhika Shankar: Women's History Month 2022

Synopsys Editorial Staff

Mar 29, 2022 / 8 min read

If life is about choices, then technology, art, and family are seemingly three disparate life-path decisions. But not for Radhika Shankar, group director of Applications Engineering with the Synopsys Customer Success Group. As a technologist, Radhika graduated with a master’s degree in electrical engineering and today manages a team of 40 applications engineers, helping customers solve technical challenges using Synopsys tools. In 2019, she was recognized with the YWCA Tribute to Women Award, honoring her significant contributions as a woman leader in technology. As an artist, she dances and teaches professionally and is the founder and artistic director of the PadmaRatna Dance Company. In 2003, she was awarded the Bharata Nritya Seva Mani title for her contributions to classical Indian dance by Nrithyodaya, a premier dance institution in Chennai, India. Radhika has also taken the family path. She is the mother to three young women who are accomplished in their own right: a corporate lawyer, an investor relations professional, and a college student studying cognitive and data science and dance.

While Radhika appears to have had it all, it was not necessarily all at once. Neither was her journey straight: there have been tradeoffs, steps back, and resets along the way. And, while her achievements are rooted in a high degree of work ethic, focus, and talent, she is also grateful for her strong support network that helped make it possible.

On her journey, Radhika has kept each of her three abiding passions—essential aspects of her identity—firmly in her grasp. And over time, she has learned to weave them together, laying each in their turn, like the strands of a braid—stronger together. As a part of Women’s History Month and our Q&A series for International Women’s Day, we recently sat down with Radhika to discuss inclusion and diversity, and her work on the exciting new Synopsys Returnship program.

Here is what Radhika had to say about work, art, life, and having it all.

Q&A with Radhika Shankar

Q. How did you decide to become an engineer?

A. Growing up, I had a great passion for math and science, but I also had a passion for dance. I did well in dance competitions. I performed in my school, and I represented the government of India traveling all the way to Greece to perform. By the time I reached 12th grade, I told my dad how much I enjoyed dance, and he let me know that in our household academics was number one. He knew that I enjoyed dancing and performing, and he and my mother supported it, but my father also told me it could not be a full-time thing.

My dance teacher, who had made a career as a full-time dancer, acknowledged my passion for dance, but she also pointed out my love of mathematics. Her sincere advice was to continue to dance, but to pursue technology as a career, especially with my strong grades and my desire to be an engineer.

I had a conservative upbringing, and my father would not let me go away from home to study. There was only one college in my city to study engineering. My dad said that if I got into that school, I could pursue engineering; otherwise, there were a lot of schools in my town where I could major in math, physics, or chemistry. So, I applied to College of Engineering Guindy, Anna University in applied engineering science, and very luckily, I got into the program. I was happy about that. While I love math, physics, and chemistry, I did not want to major in them. I wanted to be an engineer.

Q. What was it like to build a career in tech and raise a family at the same time?

A. I was registered and excited about my electrical engineering master’s program at San Jose State University when I learned I was going to be a mother for the first time. I had a newborn by the time I started the program. Thankfully, my family came to help. My parents lived with us for the first year of the program, and my in-laws lived with us for the second.

After graduation, I accepted a position as a design engineer at Intel but shortly after, I had to relocate to the East coast for personal reasons. When I told the program director this, she said I could take a leave, but by the time this leave was over, I was pregnant with my second daughter. The program director was very accommodating and said I could remain on my leave of absence, but I decided that for my circumstances it was best to leave Intel and focus on my family.

I had worked very hard to become an engineer and leaving wasn’t an easy decision. When I got pregnant with my second baby early in my career at Intel, I had my toddler at home, too. I also had to consider the barrier of being a remote worker on the East coast, which wasn’t so common back then. Remote work a generation ago was isolating and difficult. All of these factors came together to help me with my decision to postpone my career.

I returned to the workforce after a three-year break, which was not easy because technology moves so fast and three years away from it is like an eternity. Eventually, I was hired and then promoted to lead a team of people. And as I was ramping into this new role, guess what? Child number three came along. In addition, Avanti, the company I worked for at the time, was acquired by Synopsys. New management role. New baby. Acquisition. This was a lot of change in close order. With my third child, I didn’t leave the workforce, but I decided to take a step back into an individual contributor role as an applications engineer to help manage my responsibilities.

This decision was right for me at the time. But then, one day… my girls grew up. When demands on the home front eased because the children were in high school, it was time for me to jump back into the leadership track. At first, I became a technical lead and my advancement after that was straightforward: manager, senior manager, director, group director.

Q. What helps ease the transition back into the workforce after a break?

A. The most important thing is to have confidence that you can make it professionally. If you have that, the kids, the daycare, those things can be managed. Get a nanny if you can. Get somebody to pick them up. Figure out something. Do what you must to get it managed. Self-doubt is natural after a break, but whatever you do, don’t give into it. If you do, you’ll never come back into the workforce.

Another important part of the mix in transitioning back for me was the strong support from my husband and from my family. We did not have rigid roles around cooking or other household chores. If the kids were hungry, the person who made our dinner was the first to walk through the door in the evening. As a family, you are a team. And as a team, you may have roles with responsibilities—you take care of this, I’ll care of that—all that’s fine, but be flexible and work together.

Q. What is the Synopsys Returnship?

A. At Synopsys, I’m the executive council representative for Inclusion and Diversity for the Synopsys Customer Success Group. In this role, I work on returnships and internships to bring in more diverse talent. The Synopsys Returnship brings people back into the workforce who have been out of it for a minimum of two years. Because I had been through re-entry after a break, I knew I could help others. When Alessandra Costa, senior vice president of Customer Success, who leads the effort, told me about the program, it prompted me to create my first-ever posting on LinkedIn. The post got a lot of views and engagement. I had CEOs comment on it and even five husbands who separately sent me their wives’ resumes with notes. For example, one husband said that their wife lacked the confidence to send me her resume directly, but that he knew she could do it, and he was going to back her up. This overwhelming response showed me that my post had hit a chord, that returnships are a valuable resource to access great untapped talent out there. In the last month, we have extended offers within my team to people who will be re-launching their careers at Synopsys. I’m thrilled to welcome them.

Q. What does breaking bias look like from your perspective?

A. Twenty years ago I had an excellent manager, who was very kind and watched out for me. One time, a very exciting project came along, and he told me that I was the perfect fit for it, but he wasn’t going to assign it to me because I had just had my third child. He felt it would be too much for me to take it on. That was considered good management back then. Today, things are different. If this same thing happened today, good management would be to break that bias that he held by asking me. Instead of assuming what I could or could not handle, let me decide whether the project is too much for me.

I’m glad awareness is growing, including my own. What I assumed was okay back then is not okay anymore. Still, we can do more. Breaking bias is not just owned by the leaders, the women, and other select segments of society, but everyone. And we need more diverse voices involved in the conversation in order to break bias. That’s how we can create a better world for our future generations.

Q: Can you tell me about a formative role model?

A. When I worked at Intel, I looked up to Andy Grove, the CEO, a great deal. I met him in the parking lot once. And I didn’t know he was Andy Grove. Intel at the time had a policy where you had to be at work by 8 am. If you were tardy three times, it was an issue. It was quite strict.

I had a big morning already before work. It was raining. I had just dropped my daughter off at daycare, and I was going to be late. I was running through the Intel parking lot and past a man who says to me, “Oh, somebody’s late.” My response as I scurried past? “Yes, yes. I don’t know why they have this silly policy anyway.” Then I realized I was speaking to Andy Grove.

Thankfully, he was laughing. He said, you know, I see you’re running, but if you had done something 15 minutes earlier and were prepared, you wouldn’t be running around. I still greatly admire Andy Grove. I’ve read all his books, and I’ve learned so much from his wisdom and working at Intel.

Everybody wants a mentor, someone who has gone before and who can show the way. I wanted a mentor who was a technologist and an artist at once. It was challenging to find one mentor who could guide me in engineering and arts. I decided that it’s okay to be the path maker, to lead the way and show that it is doable.

Today I’m a technologist, artist, and a mother. My dance has morphed into something bigger—I use it as my opportunity to give back to the community, and I have taught my girls to use their dance this way, too. I do a lot of philanthropy work through art. I’ve done performances for fundraising. For example, when there was a terrible tsunami that hit Bali and the neighboring countries on the Indian Ocean, I did a fundraiser with my dance team. Then, when we were coming back from COVID, I choreographed and performed a dance piece called waves of Joy as Life Reopens. I always look for opportunities to contribute to just and needy social causes from my income as a dance teacher. It is important to me to give back and to train the youngsters to lead for the next generation.

If you would like to hear more of Radhika’s wisdom, please join us March 30 at SNUG Silicon Valley, where she will be speaking in our Spotlight Panels session, The New Dynamism: Women in Engineering and the Vast Opportunity Ahead. A virtual experience, this year’s SNUG conference is open to registered Synopsys users.

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