Dr Raji Ambikairajah has never allowed herself to be complacent and it’s this drive that she credits for her wide-ranging career.
Raji holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and has worked everywhere from technology startups, to finance, to the non-profit sector. She’s doubled down on her strong analytical ability and problem-solving capability to get ahead in whatever challenge she’s put her mind to.
As she shares in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a podcast series from Women’s Agenda and supported by Salesforce, it’s her ability to spot the gaps that other people miss that has helped her to reach the heights of her current career portfolio.
Over the years, Raji has been the chief executive officer of tech startup Folo, the chief operating officer of Women in Banking and Finance, and for seven years, she led the Sydney chapter of Room to Read, a global non-profit organisation focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. She also holds numerous non-executive director roles, including for the Belvoir St Theatre.
“It’s never been a straight line for me. Sometimes I’ve been very deeply immersed in one particular organisation and one sector, and then I step out into portfolio mode. And then I go back and deep dive into another sector, and then back to portfolio mode again,” she tells host Kate Mills in the podcast.
“Portfolio mode lends itself to that curiosity that I have, and despite the fact that it looks like there are lots of things going on, there is a theme to them all,” she says.
“Innovation and technology, which is my bread and butter; education, which is my passion; and arts in many ways because it’s the opposite of engineering and it pushes my brain differently.”
Often finding herself in traditionally male-dominated spheres like engineering, Raji says she flourished in her early career because of her values and knowing what her purpose was in the world.
She thinks some of her ongoing success comes down to her constant drive to take on new roles, especially if she doesn’t originally have the confidence that she can do the job. For Raji, it’s all about pushing herself to thrive.
“I never allowed myself to just be complacent. I’m a big believer of the saying: ‘the greatest growth occurs when you’re outside your comfort zone’,” she says.
“I’ve been very deliberate about unlearning habits that didn’t serve me and embedding new ones and just constantly feeding my curiosity about the world through education – like speaking to experts in fields that I knew nothing about, surrounding myself with female engineers that had trodden the path before me, getting involved with women in engineering groups to try and understand what challenges had happened before my time.”
In the podcast, Raji talks about when she was asked to take on the role of COO at Women in Banking and Finance. She admits she had zero idea about the finance world, and initially felt underqualified for the job.
“I’m good at maths but I knew nothing about finance and they are not the same thing. The language that the banking industry has, that is bread and butter to them, was completely foreign to me,” Raji says.
Her uncertainty about finance and banking didn’t stop her from taking on the job though.
Instead, Raji used her analytical mind and engineering skills to spot the things that other people in the finance sector couldn’t see, simply because they were already so embedded in it.
At Women in Banking and Finance, they had been particularly focused on improving the numbers of women in senior leadership positions. When Raji arrived, she worked out straight away that the greater problem for women was in middle management positions.
“When you got to middle management, there was almost like a mass pipeline out for women,” Raji explains.
The focus needed to be on mapping career pathways for women moving from junior to middle management, and then again from middle to senior levels. So, Raji developed a career coaching program for women at the junior to mid-level, and within 18 months, 40 per cent of the female participants who took part had secured a promotion or more senior role in their organisation.
“It really did work,” she says.
In the non-profit world, her skills in engineering and technology helped pave out her success, and she really believes that insights from data and technology can help in propelling social causes forward.
Under her leadership, the Sydney branch of non-profit Room to Read grew to be the biggest in the world in terms of its volunteer base, and moved into the top five for its fundraising capacity.
“When technology is used as a tool, then it can be really helpful. It can provide insights that you don’t have otherwise.”
Looking to the decade ahead, Raji sees the inadvertent effects of the pandemic as an opportunity to create better systems and a better world, particularly for women in the workplace.
“If we look at the great work done pre 2020 to build pathways for women to take on leadership roles. Every effort was to try and build equitable policies and frameworks for women to succeed in workplace structures that weren’t originally built with them in mind,” she shares.
“As a result of this pandemic, that workplace structure has broken down to some extent and that’s a huge opportunity.
“It’s really important as a society we rebuild that structure so it doesn’t look anything like what it did before, and it’s much more inclusive and reflective of the values of today’s and tomorrow’s society.”
The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.
The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.