Padma Warrior, Cisco’s CTO, is breaking ground—both as a high-ranking female in the hidebound world of tech and as a leader who succeeds on her own terms.
Padmasree Warrior charms in 140 characters or less.
An avid and early user of Twitter, she has more than 1.4 million followers—and counting. There, on the popular mobile platform, Warrior chats about the movies she’s seen (a thumb’s up for Lincoln, Les Misérables, and Django Unchained), posts pictures of cookies she’s baked, publishes her haiku (a recent one: “Walking home pensive; Flowers burst from the pavement; And cue me. Exhale.”), and shares news and observations about the technology industry as Cisco Systems’ chief technology and strategy officer for Cisco Systems.
In person, Warrior is just as warm and inviting, despite recently returning from a trip to Barcelona. In her cozy office at Cisco headquarters, she gamely chats about motherhood, her penchant for shoes, and her passion for painting and photography. Ask her about the future of technology, and Warrior, once crowned the “Geek Queen” by a technology trade publication, can also talk about mobile trends, cloud computing, and Cisco’s aim to be at the center of it all.
Warrior holds a rare spot in Silicon Valley. The 52-year-old executive belongs to a small club of women in the C-suite of Fortune 500 technology companies, which also includes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, and HP CEO Meg Whitman. Warrior is also part of the equally tiny circle of female senior technology executives: only about 5 percent of technology companies have a female CTO, according to the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
Although the technology industry is widely considered a meritocracy—where a college dropout has just as much of a chance as an MBA graduate to start a social network drawing more than a billion users—it is still a white boy’s club. Women make up more than half of the professional workforce in the United States, but they only hold about 25 percent of computer-related jobs, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. For women of color, the numbers drop off steeply: 3 percent are African American, 4 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Latina.
Championing women in technology has therefore been one of Warrior’s missions. She cheers on the successes of her fellow female tech leaders in her tweets. She mentors up-and-coming female entrepreneurs. She drew a standing ovation when she spoke a few years ago at the Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Awards. About once a year, she gathers a group of women in the technology industry to her home for a private, no-holds-barred, off-the-record soiree. (Raved one attendee, “They’re so much fun, but I probably shouldn’t talk about it.”)
“She’s a clear role model,” says Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, which aims to recruit more women to technical fields. “Having women in senior engineering executive roles is still pretty uncommon. It has stayed flat for quite some time.”
For much of her career, Warrior has been one of a few women, and many times the only woman, in the room. When she began studying at age 16 at the Indian Institute of Technology—known as the MIT of India— she was one of five women in a class of about 250 students.
“The five of us were really close, and we really helped one another out,” she says. “That made a really big impression on me, so I feel, to this day, that the community of women needs to support one another and help one another.”
She also learned to take advantage of her uniqueness. Not only is she female and Indian, but she also possesses an unusual last name. So people tended to remember her—and her contributions.
“I tell women, ‘Use that as an advantage,’” she says. “Whatever is different about you, your diversity is a strength.”
Her accolades are many. She was named one of the most powerful women last year by Forbes, has been inducted into the Women in Information Technology International Hall of Fame, and was short-listed as a candidate for President Obama’s first White House chief technology officer. She is considered one of the potential successors to Cisco CEO John Chambers, who has said he plans to retire in a few years.
And her pals? They include actor and technology investor Ashton Kutcher.
Warrior grew up in a small town in southern India, and as a child dreamed of becoming an astronomer. Her focus shifted in college, where she earned a degree in chemical engineering. She then received a graduate fellowship to Cornell University. She purchased a one-way ticket to New York and arrived in the United States with $100 in her pocket.
While pursuing a doctorate at Cornell, she applied by chance for a position at Motorola. Soon after that, she started her career there, beginning as an engineer at a semiconductor factory. For more than 20 years, she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the company’s chief technology officer, managing 26,000 engineers, and seeing the rise of the Motorola Razr.
It wasn’t easy. She has faced people who assumed she was a man and then changed their demeanor once they realized they were dealing with a female CTO of a multibillion dollar company. Others have underestimated her abilities. “To this day, we all have to prove ourselves,” she says.
But her accomplishments have spoken loudly. “She lets her record stand for itself,” says Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president of knowledge, who met her several years ago through the Anita Borg Institute and arranged for her to speak at Google.
“She was quite visionary in her time about how the mobile phone could be the center of your life, before you could barely make a cell-phone call,” he says.
Cisco CEO John Chambers spent a year wooing her to join the San Jose, California–based company. Warrior was reluctant at first. Her family was comfortable in Chicago. Her son was about to start high school, and her husband, who is also in technology, was the CEO of a company there. Warrior, who trained as a classical dancer until she was 15, served on the boards of the Joffrey Ballet as well as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
But she saw a compelling opportunity. She jumped to Cisco in 2007 and, for a while, commuted between Chicago and Silicon Valley.
Now she and her husband have a home in Palo Alto, California. Her 19-year-old son is studying creative writing, with a minor in computer science, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Last summer, in addition to her role as Cisco’s CTO, she was named the company’s chief strategy officer. Although she says she’s enjoying her time at Cisco, she has more ambitious goals for the future. “I aim to be the CEO of a company,” she says. “I feel I have the ability and passion to lead a company.”
Much attention has been given to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and how she returned to work shortly after giving birth to her first child late last year. Warrior knows firsthand what that’s like. One week after she had her baby, she returned to the office full-time, managing Motorola’s semiconductor factory in Arizona.
Warrior bristles at the discourse of women trying to “have it all” and “balancing work and life.”
“I don’t think of it as balance; I don’t like that word,” she says. “Somehow when you say you’re balancing family and work, you imply they’re always in conflict. It mentally forces you to choose between one or the other. It’s not a choice. It’s a blending of how you do both.”
She prefers the word integration and finding time to focus on herself, her family, her work, and the many activities that energize her.
For her, that means turning off technology. She spends about 20 minutes each evening meditating. On weekends, she tries to set aside time to paint. (She’s currently creating a series of paintings of dancers, which she has shared on her Tumblr page.) One day, she would like to compile her photography, painting, and haiku into a book.
It’s the little things that have drawn the admiration of her supporters. She’s the kind of friend who will like a picture of a dog on a social network and nominate her mentee for recognition. “What’s most interesting to me about her is the way she carries herself,” says Pooja Sankar, CEO of Piazza, an online collaboration tool for college students and professors, and one of the female entrepreneurs whom Warrior mentors. “There’s a lack of pretense to her that I really admire.”
In the boy’s world of technology, she’s not afraid both to be a geek and to show off a pair of fashionable heels. “She is very feminine and she embraces that,” says Melody McCloskey, another female entrepreneur whom Warrior mentors and the founder of StyleSeat, a place for consumers to book beauty appointments. “That’s important for me as a woman to know you can be both and be proud of both.”
One of the lessons Warrior imparts as our conversation comes to a close is that women have to accept their decisions as the best that they made at the time.
“I learned the hard way from my own experience with my son,” she says. “I don’t regret going back to work right away. What I do regret is that, at the time, whatever decision I made, I was feeling guilty about that decision.”
She continues, “If I was at work, I was feeling guilty that I wasn’t at home with my baby. And if I brought my work home and tried to work from home, I would feel guilty that I wasn’t at the gym working out and that I wasn’t in better shape.”
Eventually she learned to stop second-guessing herself and worrying about how others might judge her.
“So I tell people, whatever decision you make, that is the decision you’re making,” she says. “It may not be the perfect decision, but it is the right decision for you. So stop feeling guilty about that decision because, in the end, it all works out.” DW
Ellen Lee is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Photography by Paul Sakuma
CONNECT TO PADMA WARRIOR
On Twitter: @Padmasree
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• Focus on integrating the four things that matter in your life: yourself, your work, your family, and the activities that energize you. Although one or two things may take priority, over time you need to squeeze in the others. “If you starve one or the other continuously over a long period of time, then that creates resentment and causes a lot of stress.”
• Make the decision that’s right for you. “It may not be the perfect decision, but it is the right decision for you, so stop feeling guilty.”
• Every transition brings an opportunity to grow. “Look at a transition to add new skills to existing skills you already have.”
• Take advantage of your diversity. People will remember you, so make sure you have something useful to say and that you deliver results. “Whatever is different about you, your diversity is a strength.”
• Make the opportunity work for you. “It is up to us to break out of that mold and re-create the opportunity and the person we want to become. We work hard to make things fit.”
WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY
• Women make up 25 percent of computer, math, and science occupations.
• Women of color hold a small percentage of computer and IT positions: 3 percent are African American women, 4 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Latina.
• Women in science, technology, engineering, and math jobs earn 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs.
• Women hold 8 percent of engineering management positions.
• Women hold 3 to 5 percent of senior management roles in technology.
• Women make up 13 percent of the boards of directors at high-tech Fortune 500 companies, compared with nearly 15 percent among all Fortune 500 companies.
Source: Anita Borg Institute, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Center for Women and Information Technology