Choosing My Path
Making difficult choices in a traditional setting
By Leena Elias, Head of Product Operations and Norton Family
I am very much a product of an immigrant family. I was born in New Jersey a year after my parents moved from Mumbai to the U.S. My parents come from extremely modest backgrounds and large families, where education was valued above everything else. Like many couples in India, my parents had an arranged marriage, meeting maybe twice before they wed. My mom insisted that she would finish medical school before marrying, and that's exactly what she did. My parents were both busy doctors, and due to a significant shortage of physicians in the U.S. in the 1970s, they packed up their lives and moved from India for new and better opportunities.
My parents wanted my siblings and I to cherish our cultural heritage and work hard at school. They drilled into us that education formed the foundation of success. My mother emphasized the importance of achieving one's goals and being self-sufficient. These lessons became a bit of a mixed blessing when I chose my own path, as I knew that I did not want to go to medical school, and that would disappoint them.
I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of eight women in a Mechanical Engineering class of 80 students. Upon graduation and moving to New York for graduate school, I remember very clearly thinking that I could do anything if I could survive four academically intense years at CMU, where I also met my future husband.
I wanted my boys to see me happy
A year into my Ph.D. program, I realized that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go into academia as a profession, the path that all my colleagues chose after graduate school. I decided to take a break from the Ph.D. program and joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as a technology consultant. It was a fantastic learning opportunity to work on several client engagements and different technologies over several years. I left a few years later with a few colleagues to start a gift services company. I learned so much during this period: the rigor of working with customers, the value of defining and implementing processes, and the importance of being scrappy and resourceful when building a product.
After seven years of marriage, we moved to Mumbai for my husband’s work. Suddenly, I was a stay-at-home mom. It was unsettling at first, but I embraced the full-time job of parenthood and had invaluable time with my three boys when they were young. I volunteered at their school and did some work with other non-profits. After seven years of staying home, I realized that I needed and wanted more. I worked so hard throughout my career, and I needed to keep my mind and energy flowing for my mental health and sense of fulfillment. I realized it was essential for me that my kids see me, as their mother and as a woman, working outside the home. More than anything, I wanted them to see me happy.
We returned to the U.S. with a seven-year gap on my resume. Despite my education, passion, and work ethic, I spent almost two years looking for a job. I was given a chance at Moovweb. I proved myself and progressed as a people leader, and I stayed for more than two years. Later, I was excited to join NortonLifeLock in September 2020 to lead the Product Operations team in a role that draws upon many of my past professional experiences.
It’s okay not to know it all
As part of my journey, I realized that many people think leaders need to know it all, which is an expectation of myself as a leader. While I am experienced and respected as a leader, my own learning journey continues.
Sometimes, when discussing deliverables with my leader, I'll tell him that I felt I could have done better or something I didn't like about my work. And his response is always along the lines of—"You know, a guy would never say that to me.” You're being too hard on yourself. I take these lessons to heart, and I impart them to my network of women colleagues. I think, especially for women, it is hard not to be hard on ourselves. We are swift to focus on what we don't know instead of what we do know. When I feel like I am competing against a whole group of other individuals who don't have that same problem, I remind myself that there's no need to feel like I know everything or that I've got it all. It's an impossible goal. Rather than beating myself up about what I didn't know, I ask, and continue to ask, a lot of questions—common-sense questions. You'll soon find that many people want those same answers but were afraid to ask.
No one knows everything, and that's okay. We can continue to develop in our field and draw on our experiences and judgement to make decisions. You may not always have the 'right' answer, but you are learning something new with each business decision or project.
We set the example for the next generation
My sons are my driver; I want them to know that women are their equals, starting with what they see at home. I want them to know that I have a place in the world that exists outside of my role as their mom. It's been amazing to see how their relationship with their dad has become even closer because he is able to spend more time at home. At home and at work, we as a family have found a balance that works for us.