Navigating tech, diversity, and leadership: Purnima Padmanabhan, VMware

Purnima Padmanabhan, Senior Vice President and General Manager, VMware spoke to Dataquest at VMware Explore 2023 Singapore

Supriya Rai
New Update
Purnima Padmanabhan, Senior Vice President and General Manager, VMware

Navigating the dynamic intersection of technology, diversity, and leadership is a multifaceted journey in today's evolving landscape. In the ever-advancing realm of technology, where innovation shapes the way we live and work, effective leadership plays a pivotal role. The ability to harness technological advancements while promoting diversity within the workforce is a formidable challenge. True leadership lies in not only embracing technological change but also in fostering a culture of inclusion where individuals from diverse backgrounds can thrive. Success in this journey necessitates a commitment to bridging gaps and championing opportunities for underrepresented voices. Purnima Padmanabhan, Senior Vice President and General Manager, VMware spoke to Dataquest at VMware Explore 2023 Singapore, and highlighted how the synergy between tech, diversity, and leadership is not just a strategic advantage but a catalyst for innovation, creativity, and sustainable growth. It's a path where both individuals and organizations can unlock their fullest potential.


DQ: What got you started in tech and How has your journey been in the tech industry?

Purnima Padmanabhan: It's intriguing that you bring up this question because I was recently discussing this with my 16-year-old daughter, who is currently in the midst of her college applications and essay writing process. She shares my passion for technology, which seems to run in the family. My own mother was a technophile; she earned a degree in mathematics, and I believe that her influence played a significant role in sparking my initial interest in the field. However, it's worth noting that merely graduating in a particular subject doesn't always lead to a lifelong commitment. In my case, after entering the technology industry, I discovered a genuine passion for my work. I believe that's the key factor. Regardless of the field, as long as you find genuine enjoyment in what you do, you're likely to stick with it.


DQ: Diversity and inclusion are important topics in the tech industry. Could you discuss your approach to fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace culture within your organization?

Purnima Padmanabhan: This is a topic I'm frequently asked about, and I also give talks on countering bias in the technology sector. It's important to note that bias isn't limited to gender bias; it can encompass racial bias, educational background bias, and more. Bias takes on different forms. What I've come to realize is that dealing with bias is not only about you but also about how you interpret others' opinions and their impact on you.

When discussing countering bias with many people, I emphasize the importance of not assuming intent. When someone says something, you can assume a negative intent, which can be detrimental, or you can assume a positive intent, or even no intent at all. Letting bias roll off your back, like water off a duck's feathers, is crucial because it preserves your confidence and focus, enabling you to progress more effectively.


Now, moving on to the topic of diversity and inclusion, these are incredibly important in today's context. To foster a diverse and inclusive workplace culture within your organization, my approach is founded on several key principles.

Firstly, I firmly believe in diversity, and for me, diversity extends beyond race and gender. It encompasses diversity of thought, educational backgrounds, and experiences, in addition to race and gender. When building a team, it's not just about hiring diverse talent; it's also about creating an inclusive environment that encourages participation.

I've established three main tenets for my organization:


Debate, Decide, and Commit: Encouraging healthy debate and allowing people to express counter opinions is vital. However, after a decision is made, it's essential that everyone commits to it and moves forward. This approach ensures that all voices are heard without fear of repercussions.

Win and Lose as a Team: Teamwork is a fundamental part of my organizational culture. We succeed or fail as a team, which fosters a sense of inclusivity.

Customer-Centric Focus: We emphasize a customer-centric approach. This unites the team around a common goal, ensuring that the customer's needs are at the forefront.


I don't promote diversity and inclusion as a mere checkbox on a list or as an act of charity. I do it because I believe it improves business outcomes. It's a selfish endeavor in that sense, but it benefits everyone. If more individuals adopt this perspective, we can create a truly inclusive and diverse environment, not out of obligation but because it makes us better, more successful, and more innovative. Diversity and inclusion should be a fundamental part of our organizational DNA, not just a token gesture.

DQ: What initiatives or programs that VMware has to encourage more women to pursue careers in tech and leadership?

Purnima Padmanabhan: VMware actually boasts one of the most positive corporate cultures I've ever experienced. I've worked for various companies, but my seven years at VMware are the longest I've spent at any organization, primarily because I genuinely love the culture here. VMware invests a lot in creating an environment where everyone can participate and feel included.


However, there's a fundamental challenge that our industry faces, and it's a tough one to crack. We can hire women early in their careers, and we can also have women in senior roles, but the real difficulty lies in that middle stage. This is the stage where women are in their child-bearing years, raising school-age children, and it's where we often see a loss of talent. While we can hope for broader societal changes, we also need to act in parallel.

Implementing programs that offer flexibility, such as options for flexible work, becomes crucial during this middle stage. Furthermore, raising awareness within the community about shared responsibilities is equally important. VMware has some good programs in place, but it's not a complete solution.

I encourage all women to consider how they navigate through this critical middle stage of their careers. Think not just about your career but also about shared responsibilities, just as you wouldn't build a product entirely on your own. At home, think about essential tasks that you must handle personally and those that you can potentially outsource. These considerations can help women better navigate through this challenging phase. Once you move beyond the middle stage, it becomes easier as children grow older.


DQ: Women in leadership often serve as role models. Is there a particular role model or mentor who has influenced your leadership style and career choices?

Purnima Padmanabhan: Certainly, my source of inspiration has always been my mother. She graduated in an era when women typically stayed at home, but she pursued a degree in mathematics. She ingeniously found a way to teach advanced math from home, even coaching IIT students. What's remarkable is that she has continued to maintain her passion for learning, and I can have discussions with her about various technologies, and she grasps them quickly. However, it's not just her technical aptitude that's inspiring; it's also her ambition. Her drive for success has now become a driving force for me, and I've passed that ambition on to my daughter. It's safe to say that a passion for technology runs in our family.

DQ: What advice do you have for young women who aspire to pursue careers in technology and eventually reach leadership positions?

Purnima Padmanabhan: I believe that regardless of the career path you choose, whether it's in technology or any other field, it's crucial to have a genuine passion for it. While it's not always easy to know your passion right from the start, it's important to find enjoyment in your career as you pursue it. If you're merely working for the sake of a job, it can be challenging to make significant progress. Personally, I've been fortunate to genuinely enjoy every job I've had. I take pleasure in the work I do, from building products to engaging with customers and making a positive impact in communities. This is the first principle: find joy in your work.

The second principle relates to career advancement and reaching leadership positions. It's essential not only to be aware of the opportunities available but also to take proactive ownership of your professional growth. Don't wait for someone to hand you the next role; instead, assume leadership and expand your responsibilities beyond your current role. By consistently operating beyond your defined responsibilities, you position yourself as the natural choice for the next opportunity that arises. Your willingness to take initiative becomes well-known, making your progression within the organization smoother and more attainable.