by Shahed Saleh, FIRST Team 4903 and Girls in STEM Student Advisory Council Member
As a senior student in my last year of high school, society tasks me with the daunting decision of determining what it is I wish to do, but more importantly, what impact I want to make with my career. My seventeen years of life have not allowed me to explore every potential path I could take, thus I look towards the role models around me—individuals who have touched the lives of those around them with a genuine love for what they do and a commitment to giving back.
One such paragon in her career is Sangeetha Vigneswaran, a utilities engineering project manager at Aecon Group Inc. She is a prime example of a role model; she is a leader, a mother, a FIRST mentor, and an inspiration to those who have gotten to know her. I had the wonderful privilege of interviewing Ms. Vigneswaran and learning more about her contributions to Aecon and the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) community.
Q1. As an inspirational figure in STEM, what would you say are the key factors to your success?
A1: I kept trying even if it was challenging or if I failed at something. I never lose focus of the goal and where I wanted to be in the end. Keep in mind that your favourite subjects don’t have to be math or science to enter a STEM career!
Q2. What challenges have you faced on your journey to create a career in STEM?
A2. I didn’t have the same opportunities growing up as most of the other kids in my class. My parents are first-generation immigrants who fled from a war-torn country with one suitcase when I was only two years old. When we arrived in Canada, I was treated differently in school as I dressed a certain way and didn’t know English. Even though this happened at a young age, it made a mark in my memory.
I always felt aware that I was part of a minority ethnic group—even in the workplace—as most of the senior level staff are white males. I feel that in my line of work, there is gender discrimination in terms of salary gaps and opportunities. There’s a statistic that men earn an approximately 24.1% higher base pay than women. There are times in meetings where I get talked over or interrupted—which is something that traditionally affects women more than men. I learned to act in the moment when this happens and interrupt the interrupter. You need to stay strong and speak loud and clear!
Another struggle I’ve been dealing with is always being self-critical and not recognizing my own accomplishments. At times, I felt like I’m not good enough and fear being known as an imposter. The psychological phrase for this feeling is called “imposter syndrome”, which I didn’t know it until I recently attended Lean in Canada – Women in Male-Dominated Industries. I have a mild case of imposter syndrome and it’s a real struggle for me to overcome. I’m still working on it by reminding myself of all my strengths and successes.
Now, as a working mom of two, it’s been a real struggle trying to manage a career and family life. Going on maternity leave does hit the pause button on your career as a woman, and I was terrified of losing the career that I worked so hard for, however, I’m very driven to continue my career. I learned that it takes a lot more effort, discipline, and organization to have a work-life balance with a successful career. I can honestly say that having my kids was the best thing that ever happened to me, but to continue having a successful career, I had to let go of the guilt of not always being there for my kids.
Q3. How did you get involved in FIRST?
A3. Eric McDonald, who is the Senior Vice President of Aecon Utilities, asked me if I was interested in joining FIRST Robotics Canada’s GIRLS in STEM Executive Advisory Council to represent Aecon as he supports my philanthropic vision. Also, being an FLL (FIRST LEGO League) judge gave me the opportunity to positively make an impact on the student presenters with my feedback. I had fun interacting with kids and I learned a lot through their presentations. It was truly an energizing and rewarding experience!
Q4. You received a very special award this year! Please tell us about that.
A4. I was pleasantly surprised when I received the JD Hole Humanitarian Award from Aecon. I’ve been striving to make my community a better place to live and work since I started working at Aecon. With the ongoing support from my Senior Management team, I was able to coordinate and plan many fundraising and volunteer opportunities that have positively enhanced the work environment for my team. I am thankful to work at a company that supports both my work and philanthropic vision.
Q5. What kind of positive changes is Aecon making for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives?
A5. Aecon is working towards hiring a more diverse talent pool which includes more women and people of colour. I’m part of the Aecon Women Inclusion Network (AWIN) which inspires all women to reach their full career potential. With the words “inclusion” and “network” firmly based in its foundation, AWIN aims to build meaningful connections through a broad range of participation.
For more information on Aecon’s outreach efforts and EDI initiatives, visit http://www.aecon.com/.
After getting to know Ms. Vigneswaran, I realized that her journey—though filled with great achievements and supportive people—had its challenges. However, a solid block of matter cannot be, lest it can cast a shadow. If we take that solid block to be success, there must exist a shadow of challenge to verify its existence. A role model must power through the adversities in his or her unique journey to prove their worth to themselves and inspire others.
Individuals like Ms. Vigneswaran transcend social constructs and perceived limits of gender, ethnicity or background; they demonstrate that being successful is a mosaic of one’s character, determination and confidence. These leaders are always among us—at school, in industry, in the community, and every place inbetween. Such individuals in the FIRST community and beyond are called champions.