Understanding the Context and Being Brave with Seema Gururaj
This week on Taste For Tenacity, we hear from the CEO and Co-founder of Square Circle, Seema Gururaj. Seema is a social entrepreneur that focuses on gender equity, urbanization, and education. She shares the value of being proactive and asking questions; being brave in new opportunities; and the differences between belonging, inclusivity, and representation.
This is Taste for Tenacity Show number 34.
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What is going on everybody? My name is Ben Trela. And this is Taste for Tenacity. This week on the show we hear from Seema Gururaj. Seema is an award winning social entrepreneur whose social impact portfolio includes significant contributions in gender equity, urbanization, and education. She is currently the CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley based Mission based startup that’s a mouthful Square Circle and it does also have a presence in India. Prior to starting Square Circles, Seema reported to the office of the CTO at a fortune 100 company and designed gender equity strategies provided thought leadership and influenced organizational change to empower women. Before that she also served at the Anita Borg Institute and was the director of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She’s been featured on TV, podcast, publications, and as a speaker, and she’s also the co author of a recently published book titled Amplify!: Expert Insights on Growing Your Presence, Influence, and Recognition as an Expert in the Tech Industry. Seema, that is a laundry list of accomplishments. Welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. Thank you.
So I found sort of in in prepping for the show that you at some point, were a big fan of reality TV. Have you gone on a reality TV binge as of late and what has been your, your latest go to show?
Okay, yes. So my favorite show of all time is Amazing Race. Okay. I have had fantasies about going on the show multiple things that I need to do first of all physical fitness, and then I think there’s a criteria that you got to be a citizen, whatever, whatever. So, but, you know, so far, I’m very happy sitting on my couch and enjoying
Taking it in second hand.
Yeah, that’s my all-time favorite.
Gotcha. Well, good. Good to know. So that travel bug might might pop up here there. We’ll see how it goes. Let’s sort of wind the clock back to around age 18ish. So you probably would have been finishing up high school or primary school? What? What were you thinking sort of what had your life looked like up until that point and what was going through your head in regards to like college versus going straight into a career?
Well, um, this is time travel for sure. Um, yeah. So at 18 I was in India, so I grew up actually partly in Kuwait. And then we moved to India when I was in when I was about seventh grade or so. So, at 18, I was at the threshold of probably figuring out what my undergraduate would be in. And then, you know, I mean, growing up in India, it’s sort of very simple. You know, socio economically, we’re sort of trained to pick fields that servers and that helpers, you know, have a comfortable life as an adult. So, having said that, our choices were predominantly either you get into engineering or doctor or become a doctor, right. And this one In the 90s. Now, of course, it’s much better, there’s a wider scope of things where people can actually have thriving careers. Given that it was almost a process of elimination. So if you’re not that great, and if you didn’t have an aptitude of becoming a doctor, you just by default become an engineer. Sort of my, my trajectory was predetermined, it was written, I knew that and my dad was an engineer. So that was sort of, I knew I was going to do that. For me, I think where the decision point was, I really wanted to be an architect. I said, I was a very visual person. So that resonated very well with me. And I had this choice when I went into undergrad to either get into architecture or computer science. And I remember my dad sitting down with me and he’s in the field. So he’s a structural engineer, and you know, he knows architect whatever, right he was in the space and he sat me down and he said, You know what, see my think, for you, given the prospects of this budding field called computer science. I think that’s what you should go for. Um, and so I listened to my dad. That’s that’s sort of that I, you know, I went into computer science undergraduate. And I’m glad I listened to him because there was one course called engineering drawing, where you sort of, you have to visualize everything in 3d and put it there. And I just clicked through. I am so glad I listened to my dad. Yeah. So on time, it was a type of choices. It was a time of possibilities for me. So yeah, look back fondly at that time.
Yeah. So you said, you know, sort of the predominant path was, in a way a path of stability It was either you’re going to be a doctor or you’re going to be An engineer either way, those are two pretty stable career paths to say the least. And you also kind of grew up in Kuwait and in India, and we’re kind of moving around. So how do you think having sort of not necessarily a turbulent but a constantly shifting, you know, childhood and upbringing impacted your decision to really double down on a very, very stable career path?
Oh, that’s a great question. I think that while the moving helped shape my personality, I don’t think that necessarily influenced my career choice. Because like I said, at that point in time, I saw myself in India, I didn’t see myself in the US as yet. I had that ambition somewhere, but it wasn’t that strong. So I had to do what I needed to do in order to sort of survive and thrive in India. And that seemed the right choice to move and What the sort of perspective growing up in different perspectives gave me was this ability to sort of adapt and blend myself in any surroundings. So even now, you put me, throw me in any part of the world, and I can probably survive and not just survive, perhaps thrive even. I think that’s what that gave me more than a career direction.
And exposed you to a couple different cultures very early on so you could understand how to recognize the differences. Got it? Okay, so you you choose to go this computer science and computer engineering path. Which subset of engineering worked out in your favor, thankfully, not architecture or anything like that? Because that didn’t fit for you. What did you? What was sort of going through your head? throughout college? What was your college experience like? Were you still committed to that engineering path? Or did you think you wanted to go somewhere else?
You know, I think I didn’t know any better. So in India, you don’t get exposed to working in an organization to probably the last year of your curriculum. So you’re really, it’s literally I think I would compare it to high school here. And I’m a day scholar, meaning that literally, I would just go to college in the morning, do the coursework, come back home. Repeat and rinse for four years, so that’s really how the education system worked in India. So it was only I think, towards the end when we had to do an internship that I actually went into an organization and figured out okay, I’ve been learning all these things isn’t really bad. It doesn’t even matter. And you know, it was a mixed experience to say that, because, yes, there’s the coding piece that matter, right? But we were never taught how to sort of, you know, collaborate effectively, you were sort of like left in the weeds to figure it out and guidance and you know, and the different areas that you could go into if you did a you know, computer science or computer engineering wasn’t that clear. So I think we graduated knowing that we would just get a job somewhere. And, you know, just figure it out. As we then as we went through, but there was no like, I know exactly, this is what I want to do. Once I got into a company, it was more like, Oh, I want to get into the Googles or the Facebooks, they didn’t exist at that time, but but you know what I mean, I want to get into that company. What I do there I honestly really don’t care. Okay, that’s a checkbox I got the salary, I got the, you know, I got what I wanted, which was, which was a stability. Yeah, I you know, it was hard to be ambitious for a particular role at that point. Besides being ambitious to get into a particular company. You know what I mean?
We’re like that for us there.
Yeah. So it was more focused on finding the big name companies and finding your way into them, rather than knowing what exactly you wanted to do, because like you said, you didn’t really get to see that until you were a senior in college. How do you think that would have been different? Had you had an internship before that final year or had some more experience before you ultimately finished your degree and jumped out into the real world?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I wonder, um, I think that exposure would have certainly given us ideas about where I thought my strengths might line, my interests might. But I think, you know, when you start your career, you’re often you know, you don’t have that choice. You have to do what the company wants you to do. And traditionally, there’s a two, three year period where you sort of, you’re tested out, right. And then you probably have the ability to figure out and to go after the role that you want. So I think, you know, it would have certainly helped I feel in terms of exposure, but I don’t know what I could have done because of that, because it’s a very regimented two, three year, almost like a training that they do for people entering, you know, the workforce.
Okay, so so you’re now in that first internship. What were you doing at that new company? What was that experience, like compared to all of the schooling at all, sort of the more regimented training that you had done up to that point?
Wow. Yeah, so actually had the opportunity to work at at the government laboratory that made aeronautics for the, they were working the first supercomputer. They have the only supercomputer in India. And that was the project that I was working on. I think it was so exciting. But I can tell you when when we first learned that was a project, which we got placed in. It was super exciting. And I remember, I remember going in with that excitement, but then nobody sort of like sat and taught us anything. You know what I mean? About okay, this is it. This is the things that immediately we will put in front of a terminal and we were, you know, the code base showed up and we were like, okay, now go start coding. And I think we spent about two weeks figuring out what exactly are we calling. What is this thing? Yeah, we didn’t. And then we started wising up and started, you know, being proactive and going and asking people questions, which was something I think even culturally that that sort of, not natural, that doesn’t come naturally to us. Good it out. And at the end of it, we demonstrated that to our college and they were pretty thrilled with what we had done. And, you know, it wasn’t it was an atypical experience because this was not a corporate organization. This was a government lab. So the way they operate and the way they they function is quite different from corporate organizations. But they were doing the cutting edge stuff in terms of research. So it was more like a research lab experience.
Well, yeah. And so you’re, you’re thrown now into a lab environment, you’re given essentially a terminal and some just code right infront of you. And so it took you you said a couple of weeks to sort of figure out okay, we need to be more proactive. What really struck in your mind that that said, okay, they’re not going to tell us so now we need to go ask you know, because it’s like you said not something you had typically done. How did that feel? Just from, you know, the personal side trying to ask, what do we do?
Yeah, I mean, you know, desperation. In three months, you’re supposed to show something and demo something for your college. And two weeks, three weeks have passed and this attitude that we had of expecting people to come and you know, like call, you know, like high school teachers, everything. It was not working. We were seeing that it was not working. And we were being very job because, oh, this person was on a break. Let’s not trouble them. They look very, you know, busy. let’s not let’s not, you know, you know, trouble them. Yeah. I think at the end of it, it’s the deadline of submitting something was eventually the driver. It’s like, you know, we are here to work. I think that was one important switch, right? And also, you know, what’s the worst they can say they can say, you know, well, I don’t know or you go talk to that person. And that’s a risk we should take. And we should at the end of it sure college that we did, we made the best of the situation. So I think that was that was what drove us to change strategies and say this is not working. And yes, we can choose to waste the whole three months just sitting there staring and writing comments. And pretending. I think at the end of the day, you know, there was a drive to actually learn something and ensure something at the end of the competitive spirit, like our team has to beat the others who are doing all these amazing stuff at all these companies. Let’s show them what we got sitting in a research lab. Right. So I think that was.
Yeah, totally different perspective from what they were experiencing. So now you’re back at school finishing up your final year of university, what was your game plan for afterward? I know you said at the start of school you weren’t really interested, you know, in in moving to the United States, maybe that was an ambition for later on. Did that start to sort of fester at this point? Or what came next after your after graduation?
Yeah, absolutely. It was very clear for me that I wanted to come here, come to the United States and do my masters. So the last year was all about preparing for that, you know, writing the necessary exams and things like that, in preparation for that. So yeah, I think by then, I sort of realized that, you know, I really, I really want to learn computer science. You know, I really well I felt like I had a lot of theoretical knowledge about what computer science was. And you know, the way the Indian education system works is very different. It’s a lot of there was not much of application of what you learn. So I had a lot of theoretical knowledge, but I just didn’t feel like I knew computer science. So there was a part of me that was hungry to understand, okay, why am I learning Bubble sort? Why am I learning all these algorithms? Like it’s not making any sense. I just learned and I reproduce it, and then I get my scores, and I move on to the next you know, year or whatever, right? So I think that became a burning hunger for me. And that’s when I decided I really want to study abroad and pursue this path and figure out more about computer science.
Okay, so now you’re getting ready to come to the States and do your masters. And and really, it seems like what drew you to doing a master’s degree was just getting the actual application and having a deeper understanding of what you have you know learned in theory. What, how different was your masters from your bachelor’s degree and from all of the schooling you had experienced up until then.
Oh my god, it was like 180. I finally learn computer science I think when I did my masters so I gave them and I came to Syracuse. So I went from this tropical climate to the snowy place and New York. Yeah. experience itself but yeah, from from an intellectual perspective. I think that was the first time I understood what computer science meant. I understood what it was to think independently to explore and research areas of interest that within computer science. So I think I just tried like, I mean, I just enjoyed my two years in grad school from high from an intellectual perspective and the kind of people that you need. It just added to the experience, I think.
So both different environment, you know, coming like you said to cold, snowy New York, it’s a bit different than than a tropical climate. And so now you’re wrapping up your masters. What did you want to do next? Did you want to go immediately to work for a company? Are you leaning more toward going a startup route? What was that next phase in your journey?
So I think that’s when my Indian gene kicked in. I think I went back to the stability and I wanted, I wanted a job. I think coming coming from India, I had taken a loan, a bank loan in order to fund my education. So if was important for me not to burden my parents with that financial, you know, debt. So for me, it was very clear, I had to get a job I had to pay off my debt. And that’s true. You know, everybody thinks, you know, moving your study here you carry a lot of financial debt, but we do too. We have to pay off loans and, and in our currency, so sometimes it’s much more than what it what it is here. So yeah, it was very clear, I needed to get a good paying job and start working. And I was excited to do that, because I think I was done with the theoretical thing I wanted to go and do it an organization and start to actually do stuff.
Yeah, you want to see an immediate impact compared to just learning as much as you can.
Yeah, so stopping wasn’t even a thought it was, again, back to let me go to a good company, you know, where I can get a good salary.
Okay. So now you’re looking in you’re finding that company, what sort of role did you take on at the beginning? And how did you progress throughout that first step in your career path?
Yeah, great question. So I joined IBM. And I moved to the Bay Area, because, of course, I need my son. So I joined IBM, and I think, so my initial role was in quality assurance, quality testing. And I think that was a fantastic way to start, you know, right away, they, you know, it’s like giving you the product and asking you to break it. There’s no better way to start learning than to do that, right. Yeah. And so I did that for a while, and then I got bored because it’s like, why do users make such dumb mistakes that I’m sitting and spending hours of my life testing like, maybe there’s an easier way for users not even to make those mistakes. And that’s where my brain started going. And so I prototype a UI in something which said, hey, look, if you give this to the users, we can reduce our testing to like about 50% or 60% things that we are doing, right? Of course, the prototype was horrible. I mean, it didn’t look pretty was just torn together whatever but, you know, I mean, to their credit, they didn’t dismiss me, they heard me out. And eventually, few years later, that actually made it into the product. But that was that was a pivot was a lot of showing initiative. And after that, that whole episode, I got to lead three products right after that. So I just went from from that to saying, you know, you’re going to need the UI on these two products. So it was fantastic. And that’s also an interesting thing, that happened because I finally figured out my, my path within computer science science was to vision how I wanted to do architecture and that was
That did not work out.
But I said, you know, finally within computer science when I started doing UIUX, the user experience stuff. That was it. That was my way of, you know, doing the my visual, whatever within the field that I was. I was in. So you know, I had a good corporate career, you know, patterns, publications, recognize their executives, as someone to watch out for, you know, all the traditional things that a corporate career sort of demands of you was moving up the ladder, everything was going well. So I was at IBM for about seven years. And then, personally, there was a situation in my family. That’s life, right life happens. And because of that, I chose to take a leave of absence. And eventually I resigned. Okay. So I think that was a pretty pivotal moment for me in my, in my life in my career journey. So yeah, I think my corporate career sort of was, that was sort of the end of my traditional corporate career and the beginning of my journey as a social entrepreneur.
Okay. And now, you expressed a little bit earlier, that you had this, this real desire to take initiative. And we’re seeing that throughout that prototype you built where even if it wasn’t a pretty prototype, it was at least functional and it showed how you can improve the process. But that wasn’t something you had to build, right? You were getting paid to do something totally different. And you did this on your own. Where do you think that initiative comes from?
It’s, well, you making me reflect a little bit. I think I’ve had this fearlessness DNA sort of in the little bit because I’ve had this pioneering spirit given that I’m the I was the only girl in my family to come abroad and do you know a grad school. So I have, I don’t necessarily look always for someone, you know, to do a to role model. I don’t mind being that person who puts myself out there and making the mistakes or facing the consequences of that. So I’ve always had that, that sort of trait in me, and for the most part, it’s worked out. I like I have more models, but I don’t necessarily expect to do exactly what they did. It’s no, that’s I think ridiculous because they’re a different person, I’m a different person. What motivates them very different from what motivates me. There are certain things I can admire in every one I meet. But eventually, I don’t really need to see that perfect vision of someone who I want to be exactly like, and that’s freed me up to be who I am, you know, and do things in a way that makes sense to me.
Yeah, take take pieces of your different role models that fit the best for you, and kind of glue them together to model who you want to become based on who you are.
Yeah. Appreciate that.
Yeah, happy to. So now you left that that job at IBM and took that leave of absence ultimately resigned. And you said this was the start of your social entrepreneurship journey. What? What was it like shifting from such a corporate structured environment to a startup? Or entrepreneurship in general?
Yeah, I think I don’t want to undermine the sort of the mindspace I was in them because it was very hard, you know, dealing with the family situation. But intellectually, I felt like I was not thriving intellectually. I felt like I was missing out. And so partly fueled by that. And what I started off doing was just started, you know, we co founded a community of Women Engineers here in the Bay Area. And it was very organic. You know, this was a 90s. I mean, sorry, this was early 2005, 2006 meetup was a new platform. And I didn’t what else first meeting or whatever, you know, get together, we have to bribe women with wine and chocolate. Please come, you know, we having this cohort of technical women, we just want to talk we just want to enjoy. We just want to, you know, build a sense of community. Yeah. And we had real estate agents and insurance agent.
Wine and chocolate cake speaks speaks to everybody.
But, you know, at the end of three years, they were 900 of us. And it started, you know, very specifically focusing on Asian women because we, we knew there was a lot of us here, and there’s also a cultural aspect about us showing up more visibly right. So I think we started off with that intent. But at the end of it, what we found Ben, which was fascinating was a meetup had everyone; women from all ethnicities and men, because the important thing there was technology. And what I realized my aha moment there was, technology wasn’t meant to be a unifier. So who is this who’s creating all these divides between, you’re good, you’re better than me. You can do this. You can code whatever is revealing moment to me. And that was fascinating. And when I was doing that, I was also invited to be part of a think tank that focused on urbanization issues in India. All of a sudden there Seema, sitting in a room with the ex Foreign Secretary of India and the Minister of Information and Communication and my steering committee members who are you know, rock stars in the area, and then see my garage in the same room. And I’m sitting there going, something’s wrong.
Am I’m in the right room.
Very clearly, I came back home that evening and I was cooking dinner for my family. And I’m like, How on earth did this happen? And I realized, you know, a couple of big aha moments for me there was, you know, I was boxing myself as a software engineer or a title that somebody else had given me. Right. So I was seeing myself as Seema the engineer was sitting in a room with those ministers. Yeah. He had no clue what I studied. They had no idea, you know, all the soul was brought what I brought to the table, and they appreciated that. So that was like a big, you know, like, you know, big moment for me because I started to see myself as more than a title. I started to see myself as this person who is strategic was creative, who can get things done. And that was, I think, a pivotal moment for me owning the fact that I was actually a social entrepreneur. You know, and not being so diminished about it. Um, so that was wonderful. And, you know, we got a lot accomplished there was they also taught me how to create an environment of no bias really. Because they didn’t ask me, Oh, do you have an MBA from Stanford and only then you’re qualified to sit in this room and talk? No, it wasn’t like that. They created an environment of openness where they didn’t really have to listen to Seema, the software engineer really right. But it was beautiful and what we got what we accomplished out of that was tremendous. So that was an interesting thing and then, um, I was invited by this foundation in India to do something for foot for the kids there for the youth. Basically, they were ninth grade. And these kids Ben are not like you and I. So they come from an underprivileged socio economically poor background. The kids whose parents, you know, are like vegetable vendors or the rickshaw drivers. So they come from very poor backgrounds. And they go to these schools which are funded by the government, but they’re not really funded. They basically have a roof over their head. Wow. So, so this foundation approached me and they were like, you know, Hey, can you do something for these kids? And I was like, what is you know, I know these group of kids from Stanford, they’ve developed a leadership program, and I’ll connect them to you and you know, they’ll come they will teach there are gonna be magic. Those Stanford kids were excited that everything was coming together and I was sitting back like preening and mind so far and saying, Look, what, what, what magic I create, connected these people and everyone’s going to benefit from it. Um, so yeah, so two weeks before they were actually going to fly to Bangalore, this program was in Bangalore. Um, I get a phone call and you know, the kids, basically they tell me, Hey, you know, we can’t do it because there’s a lot of coursework. Exams are coming up and we just can’t do it. Wow. So yeah, so I hacked up, I’m sitting on my sofa and I’m like, Whoa, okay, a whole bunch of emotions. Mostly anger. I think that was anger about half an hour. Like couldn’t they tell me don’t they know what’s riding on this? Blah, blah, blah, blah. Yeah. So then it was like, okay, there are two weeks. What do I do? You know, there are probably 100 or 200 or 500 reasons why Seema shouldn’t be doing curriculum development, right? Yeah, there’s one good reason to at least try. And those are the 90 or 70 kids are waiting there for something to happen in their life. So I did it. I sat. I wrote the curriculum, design the curriculum figured out how that should be taught. And long story short, that was shown on Indian television as a model for others to follow.
So a foundation supremely happy with me. They’re like, Whoa, success metrics, check, check, check, check, check. And then yeah, and then I very casually on a phone call. He said, Hey, you don’t see my actually the kids are getting disciplined. I got this call from the foundation. And you know, we were doing our regular checks was celebrating because the success metrics was off the charts. They couldn’t even believe what just happened. Yeah. And they casually they dropped it in that, you know, the kids were actually being disciplined. And in this in India, disciplining has a very physical component to it. And, and that just broke my heart because while we had focused all our efforts on really helping the kids thrive. And what had happened as a result of that was they started becoming curious. And curiosity manifested itself as asking questions to the teachers. The teachers saw that as them being rebellious. They’re not used to the, you know, 70 kids or whatever, asking them questions. They were seeing it as defined authority. And that word prompted that disciplining measure. And for me, that was a great lesson, which I carry, even in my gender equity work today is that the context is very, very important. It’s not just about the kids are, you know, in my case, when I do gender equity work the women, it’s also about the context of understanding the context in which you’re placing them and in which you’re offering own solutions. So that was a very hard way to learn that lesson. But of course, after that, we work with the teachers as well, and we corrected it, but it was a huge nodding.
Yeah, definitely a an unintended consequence, in a way.
So then your your work with this foundation sort of wraps up. What was that next step in your journey as we sort of work toward where we’re at today?
Yeah, that was an interesting experience, because at that time, I actually applied back into the corporate world doing what I used to do UI UX. And I also applied to the Anita Borg Institute, to you know, potentially run the Grace Hopper celebration. And I got both jobs. So I was. So of course what does Seema going to do, she took the path less traveled. So I accepted the job at Anita Borg, and I remember the conversation with my mom and my mom going ballistic. She’s like, what, why you have an engineering degree and you’re leaving a salary of xx x dollars to go nonprofit, are you sure? And I was like, yeah, you know, I think I’m shocked because I want to do what do something that creates an impact in this world. And this job was going to do that. Yeah. Now, good news is if it doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, I know that I have the ability to go back doing what I used to do in the corporate world. So you know what, when I let me go for it. Yeah. And so that go for it lasted about five years. Wow. And so yeah, I did that for about five years. And during my tenure, we got the distinction of being the largest conference for women technologists in the world. I approached it from a very design thinking mindset, because that was my training. I sort of had adopted that. First of all, I think, subconsciously, and then consciously when I figured out that’s what I was doing. But yeah, I think I was very proud of the fact that I’m the first when I joined this, and I went into a party, and everyone was like, oh, what are you doing Seema? And I said, only, you know, I’m going to run this conference called whatever. They were like, what, why? What’s wrong with you?
And then by the end of five years, the husbands were coming to me and saying You know, oh, you know, we went to the Grace Hopper conference to recruit women, for our organizations. And I was like, Huh, I think I did my job.
And it’s interesting Seema, because you’ve sort of become this community builder, whether it’s that first, that first meetup without you know meetups existing really that first meetup that you created that absolutely exploded, then sitting on in this Think Tank where you were essentially brought in among some high players, because you are a high player, and now building this just massive, massive conference. You’re consistently just building communities and bringing people in and now after the experience you had with the foundation, you’re doing so well, understanding that broader context that you’re operating it.
Yeah, I think that’s a great way to sort of highlight something that totally motivates me, I think bringing people together comes very naturally to me it comes. I just believe that, you know, together we can create something bigger. And the impact that we can have is just much more than trying to everyone doing their own thing in a silo and feeling so, you know, protective and possessive about their idea. And the other thing I’ve just seen magic happen when, when you haven’t transparency and openness to learning, and building something together with like minded people.
Definitely one plus one equals three. So, so you spent, you know, five years with with the Grace Hopper Institute, or working on the Grace Hopper event, excuse me. And so, what are you working on now? Because that’s not you know, that was five that was a few years ago. What are you working on now? What’s been your your most recent project.
Yeah, so this is when I was doing the conference, I think that was when a lot of these organizations started releasing the diversity stats. And it was mind boggling, right? Like, in all these companies that only 5% of them that were women, and for me visually, I was going, wait a minute, I see physically 10,000 women or 8000 women, what do you mean, you can’t find talented women to recruit, you’ve disconnected my brain. So that became my next challenge was to actually go into an organization and figure out what’s going on gender equity. So I did that briefly, to you know, work in a corporate organization. But then I realized that for me, the best way to create impact and given the problem that I wanted to solve very specifically within in this area, it would serve me well to start my own company and do it that way. So that’s sort of why I started Square Circle. In the early avatar of my company, I focused very specifically on the problem of visibility for women. And we were working diligently towards that, you know, about a year or two into it. Ben, I sort of realized that from a business model perspective, it was not quite working out. So earlier this year, in fact, was when I made the decision, difficult decision to pivot, and I call it difficult because, you know, you’re at that point, when you’re pivoting, you’re like, Okay, do you shut it down? you pivot? Do you continue to be optimistic, you’d be realistic, there’s so many things that goes into thinking about if you want to prove it or not. Yeah, but I’m happy to say you know, in the current of dark square circle, what we’ve done is we’ve focused on focusing on this idea of belonging, redesigning belonging within an organization. So very simply put, you know what diversity means representation. Inclusion means Yeah, you’re in the room. But belonging really means are you accepted? Are you valued? And can you thrive in that organization? Wow, what it feels like a very abstract expression of what what organizations want to accomplish. What we’ve done is we’ve made that very real, very practical, very data oriented. And in fact, we have been working on finding provisional patents on our work. So we made it real. We know that we can bring about that change in any organization, in any sector.
Awesome. And so now as we start to to pivot to the second half of the show, speaking of pivots naturally, I kind of want to zero in for this first question on two things that you mentioned before we hopped on this call and if you could give us so the the traditional question is, what are some of the key takeaways from your career or projects. But here I want to kind of focus in, can you give us your quick sort of distill down versions of how you can build a business in both a global environment and a local environment? And then how do you fund a mission based company in particular?
Yeah, good question. Um, so when I started, of course, I started first in the US or my market research, everything was based on what worked here. And then, you know, it was a it was a brief vacation that I went to in India. I mean, my family’s still there. So we went there. And when I was telling them what I was working on, the interest that I got was unprecedented. I was like, Wow, really? Okay. So I had to take that feeling, or that interest from obviously a biased set of people who know you right? and translate that to what that market needed. And it’s very different. I had to be very aware of how come culturally, you know, different things like, who would pay for the services by here, a lot of us as individuals are empowered, and we take ownership of our career, that it’s still a little dependent on the organization to help them develop as leaders. So, all these little nuances that led us to almost create a parallel sort of offering of square circle in India, and, and doing even doing business there. It’s, you know, I mean, I think a little bit of that is they’re here to like, who do you talk to? How do you talk to what do you pitch? All that is a little, it’s there too, but I think they’re a lot of the decision making is very community oriented. And so you know, you can step back and think that once you’ve convinced one person, it’s a done deal. Multiple people that you need to talk to, and it works a lot on relationship. Very easy to give opportunities to people they know than you know. Here it’s a little bit more I found open in terms of if you’re a new company, like a startup wanting to pitch something that he’s open to hearing you out. Yeah. Very relationship driven.
Got it. Okay. So now hopping on to question number two, what is the one piece of advice that you would give your 20 year old self?
I don’t know. So part of me is like, everything that 20 year old self did lead to the Seema that I am now. I wouldn’t really change anything. It’s like, you know, you know, that movie where you play, right? If you go down this path, this is who you become. If you go down that path, I might have become a completely different Seema . Yeah. So I don’t really regret anything that happened. But if I would push to sort of tell that someone something I think I would ask could to not feel to be a little bit more brave in in going after choices or opportunities that will not really you know, the millah and what I mean by that is that was not really offered in the confines of the College of the university or something and just be more brave in finding those opportunities outside and not relying so much on the system and what that gave gave you as a formula for for you to follow.
Bravery and finding your own path. Awesome. Now, third, Seema what is one book or resource that has helped you along in your journey?
Good question, I think two. The book that’s helped me is this book called Quiet by Susan Cain. I don’t know if you’ve read that.
I have not.
So it talks a lot about introverts and and how they’re being in society and workplace and so on. And the reason why that resonated with me is I’m not, I’m not that much of an introvert, but I think being an immigrant, the muscles that I’ve had is always adapting, right? I don’t know if you’ve had friends with Indian names, and we even change our names so that Americans can pronounce our names, right. Yeah. We learn about your culture so that we integrate really well. So we belong we try as much as possible to be like you. Yeah. And, and so I found myself going down that path of adapting, adapting, adapting to the point where I was like, okay, who is the real Seema what, what’s going on here? And when is it ideal? Like when do I stop feeling like I’m enough? And so that led me to sort of, you know, all these things. reading this book. And what this gave me was the ability to own my path. No and, and, and sometimes my path is, is that of a quiet strength, I don’t have to be loud in order to get my point across, I can be me. And this gave me the confidence to sort of own that quietness me and own that person that I am in a way that makes sense and feels authentic to me.
On a business perspective. I think I’ve had was design thinking mindset, which has become, you know, sort of right hand thing for me. Yeah. And I commend people sort of look through that because, you know, as an entrepreneur, you’re often thrown a lot of things like, Hey Seema do you know this company exists that does the exact same thing, or have you met that person, they’re doing this, they’re doing that, and it’s very easy as an entrepreneur, especially to you know, it’s a lonely journey. We all know that. But when you’re in that mindspace it’s very easy to get carried away. And it’s very easy to say, Oh my god, you’re doing exactly the same thing, whatever. But what I found is with this design thinking mindset and having a solid business plan is that I thrive when somebody says, Hey, you have a competitor. I’m like, wow, tell me more. Yeah, my brain it does two things. It either I very quickly figured out my differentiator so it reinforces what I’m doing. Or it helps me become more creative and see that Oh, okay. If they’re doing that, what can I do? Knowing that they do that? What can I do better? Yeah. Or how can I be, how can I creatively figure this out? So I enjoy that and I think it’s that mindset that helped me last and help me be resilient in you know, when I come across all these things that are thrown at me,
Definitely. Now last but not least Seema? Where can people learn more about you?
Yeah, absolutely. So you can find me on LinkedIn of course, feel free to connect with me there. Or you can see you can learn more about the work I do and all of us working towards this movement of redesigning belonging in the workplace at www.squarecircleglobal.com.
Awesome. Seema Gururaj an award winning social entrepreneur, a former fortune 100 company member, consultant. She’s also co-author of recently published Amplify!: Expert Insights on Growing Your Presence, Influence, and Recognition as an Expert in the Tech Industry. Seema, thanks for coming on the show.
Thank you, Ben.
And that does it for our show with Seema Gururaj. Now, a couple different things that we heard throughout Seema’s story stuck out to me and one of the most important ones is this idea of taking initiative. Now Seema express this in a few different ways. First was creating that first sort of rough user interface and this prototype so that she could go to her company and say, Hey, the work that I’m doing, we don’t need to do, we can actually just change this, and you’ll need half of my time that you currently do. And that initiative has popped up multiple times throughout her story. And we even heard it throughout different episodes of the show the fact that you have to really seize and take things that extra step in order to have the most impact and move in the direction that you want to go with your career. It’s also important to note that Seema didn’t just say, hey, there’s this problem, someone fix it, she took the extra step. And she again, took that initiative to come up with a solution. And that sort of fast tracked her career development and ultimately led her to more positions that better fit her interests. This concept of understanding the context was also really valuable to hear. Because in Seema’s experience, she tried to create this curriculum that made students curious. But she didn’t have as much insight into the contacts that those students were operating in, and what those teachers were used to. So the teachers didn’t know how to handle their students curiosity, and instead thought it was acting out or thought it was rebellious behavior. And so that big lesson stuck with Seema. And she continues to leverage that in her work today. You can’t just walk into a room and assume that how you do things is always going to work. You have to understand the overarching context that you’re working within both culturally, you know, solely in those circumstances, you have to understand the operating the environment you’re operating in, in order to have the best impact. Phrasing wasn’t great there, but you get what I’m saying. All right. That does it for this week’s show from Taste for Tenacity show number 34. This is Ben Trela. Thanks for listening.