When she was younger, Seema Lakhani didn’t have any particular passion for tech.
Sure, she competed in math competitions and liked the subject well enough, but she enjoyed creative pursuits more — like drama and English.
It was only early in her career, after completing a business degree at Western University and getting laid off from her first job amidst the 2008 financial crisis, that Lakhani’s interest was sparked.
She was working at the MaRS Discovery District, Toronto’s best known startup incubator and tech hub — a job she’d found after nine months of stressful unemployment — and was inspired by all the industries and areas that could benefit from technological innovation.
Lakhani eventually found a home for her combination of business, creative and tech smarts at Wattpad, a Toronto-based social writing and reading platform with a community of 65 million users.
Over the course of six years, she’s worked her way up from head of strategic initiatives to head of product and the company’s R&D lab. The role is a perfect match for her unique skill set — and that’s no mistake.
In this edition of The Women Behind Wireless series, Lakhani spoke to MobileSyrup about how she got her dream job by merging creativity and tech, and how you can too.
MobileSyrup: When did first become interested in tech?
Seema Lakhani: It’s an interesting path for me, because when I was younger I didn’t think I wanted to be in tech at all.
I was passionate about a lot of things when I was young. I loved math, but I also loved English and the arts and drama and social sciences. I wasn’t going down the path of computer science or technology at the time. I think I felt that it didn’t personally resonate with me as much as the other creative subjects I was focusing on. I went to math competitions and loved a lot of what I did in science and technology, but I didn’t really view it as a career for myself.
I ended up going to university for business school, because it felt like it kept things open. Business applies to every industry, so having a strong business background would be a good preparation for any number of options. But even so, even within business, I was interested in entrepreneurship, I was interested in creative, I was interested in media, but I was less so interested in technology at the time.
“In an industry that is shaping the future, it has to represent the future.”
For me, when I realized I love technology, it was early in my career when I realized that in order to do really cool things creatively or from a business perspective, technology was a huge enabler of that.
I remember I was working at an incubator at the time, Mars Discovery District. They do really great work in terms of the Toronto startup ecosystem and I found in that role, coming in with a media background, I was really interested by how technology is changing how people are entertained, or how people talk or how people express themselves creatively.
That was something that appealed to me, and that was when I started to realize that technology is part of everything. So it came later for me, and it was really about how it enabled everything that I loved.
MS: How does that play into your work at Wattpad today?
Lakhani: Product management is something that I’m super passionate about and as soon as I found it, I knew I loved it. Product management as a role merges many different things.
Creative product managers are people who understand the technology, and respect it but also love making sure they really know consumer need and that they really get the nature of why people are using the product, what problem it’s solving, how it’s impacting their life, combined with a business understanding of how can I build this in a way that’s sustainable and how do I build a real business around it.
And so, for me, managing products is a perfect role that really fulfills many aspects of who I am — the creative, the empathetic (caring about the user) as well as the technology and the business.
MS: What are some of the coolest things you get to do in your work at Wattpad?
Lakhani: One thing that’s always been great at Wattpad is the millions of people who interact with it everyday, and getting to get in front of them and speak to them and hear the impact Wattpad has on their lives. That’s one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job.
Speaking to the fourteen-year-old girl who found her passion, whether it’s for reading or writing or a particular genre of storytelling is fantastic, it allows people to find their voice and that to me is really fulfilling. The impact that working at Wattpad has on people’s lives in this emotional and deep way.
“It’s a really powerful thing to be able to bring multiple things to the table.”
That’s one aspect of what I love. Another aspect is getting to grow my team. It’s an amazing, industry-leading all-female product management team. That’s been fantastic to see them grow, and I love coaching and developing others, so that’s a great way to help people rise up and fulfill their potential.
I serve also as head of Wattpad Labs, which allows me to think about the future, think about five to ten years from now, what’s going to change. It allows me to be at the forefront of being able to look at a fascinating problem set and potential solutions and exploring that and experimenting with that. It’s also just a really fun job.
MS: What are some of the things you’re exploring at Wattpad Labs?
Lakhani: A whole bunch of stuff. One of the big ones is understanding how machine learning is going to impact how we tell and conceive stories, that’s one I’m super passionate about, I think there’s a lot of potential in helping us get even better as story tellers and providing more interesting and customized story experiences.
That’s one area, but we’re also constantly exploring a whole bunch of different areas. Some other areas would include how we think about connecting writers, how we help get that early validation and feedback, and so on.
MS: Why do you think the tech industry has a diversity issue and why is it so harmful?
Lakhani: The tech industry needs more diversity full-stop. It’s something we all need to work on, I think everyone in tech needs to be involved in making things better and bringing up the industry as a whole.
We know that diversity and inclusion improves the success of businesses and is also just the right thing. For us, I personally really care that we see a more diverse representation of people inside of tech, inside of tech leadership, and I think that impacts the products we produce — more inclusive products, products that are more considerate of world-wide challenges — that’s a critical part of having that diversity.
Also, providing opportunities within the tech industry. In an industry that is shaping the future, it has to represent the future.
MS: What do you think can be done?
Lakhani: Across tech broadly, I would love to see more women investing in startups, more women founders and CEOs.
I would love to see more people of colour represented. There’s quite a few groups that I think should have better representation, but there’s a lot that can be done.
Within the company, wherever people have positions of power and influence, I think that it’s important people play a role in making things better within their own community. So that’s making sure they’re building inclusive cultures inside their own companies, making sure that they’re providing a clear career path for everybody, making sure that there are strong manager-employee relationships and creating a space for people.
Psychological safety is a really important part of inclusivity and making sure that you’re creating a strong environment. I think there’s a lot we could do around the hiring process to make it more inclusive as well. There’s a lot of things the tech industry does that may not always be the best in terms of how we think about hiring.
Acknowledging that there are differences between people and the different situations people might come from and setting up the hiring process in a way that’s aware of that is important. I think about this quite a bit. It’s a big, complex subject, so there’s a lot of stuff.
MS: What is some early advice that really resonated with you?
Lakhani: There have been quite a few moments. I think that thing that really resonates with me and had an impact on me, is I actually had a career coach seven or eight years ago and one of the first exercises we did was around identifying value.
We did this exercise were we identified five core values that are really fundamental for me. Knowing that, and just being really crisp and clear on knowing what that meant for me, it made such a difference on all the career choices I made thereafter and even life choices I made thereafter.
“These were tough times, it was I-don’t-know-how-I’m-going-to-make-rent-next-month times.”
Because they spoke to what mattered to me the most, as opposed to what matters to people generally, or what society says matters, and I was able to make decisions in my career and in every new company I joined thereafter, and make sure that that company fit with my values, that the people I worked with were reflecting those values back to me.
That was a fundamentally important thing for me and everyone’s different in that respect, so it’s not [necessarily true] that one person’s advice will resonate with everybody, but for me it was knowing what was fundamentally core to who I was, and what I cared about and making sure that whatever I did in life, I was meeting those values, and that anytime I was feeling a dissonance in my life or struggling it was probably because there was some element that wasn’t corresponding with those values.
MS: What was one of the lowest points in your career and how did you manage to get through it?
Lakhani: Back in 2008, I was working in management consulting at the time and it was my first job out of school, and it was a very high profile, great job, and it was the financial crisis and a whole section of the company was let go, including myself.
It was right at the beginning of the crisis, so I didn’t even know at the time how bad it was going to get. I was out of work for about nine months during that time and it was a really tough time for me personally, being fairly young at the time and grappling with career and life and what I wanted, what I thought I was going to have.
But it was a great time for self-reflection, looking back. There were times when I had opportunities in front of me and I turned them down, but it was a struggle and it was important for me because it helped me realize what was important to me, what I cared about. What I wanted to do.
Also, ever since, it’s given me the strength to realize that anywhere I’m going to be in life, career or otherwise, is a choice, and I should want to be there, and if it doesn’t work out, I will always be okay. I have that confidence within myself that I can make it through.
These were tough times, it was I-don’t-know-how-I’m-going-to-make-rent-next-month times but I look back and going through that experience at that age built a ton of inner-strength and confidence and inner knowledge of myself and what was important to me.
MS: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Lakhani: I wear a lot of hats at Wattpad.
I work on diversity and inclusion, it’s something I’m very passionate about. I work on the lab, I’m heading up the product team, and there’s always a few other things as well.
I think a challenging part of my job is that there are so many things. The breadth of stuff that I’m looking at on any given day is quite excessive and it’s hard, it’s a lot and I give a lot of myself into it, but I get a lot out of it, so something that I’m constantly working on is my own work-life balance.
I love taking on lots of things but I have to manage how much do I do that’s reasonable for myself. That’s a thing a lot of people in general grapple with, in particular women. Something that I’m constantly working on is ensuring that I’m taking on the things that are going to be most meaningful to me and that are going to be the most successful for Wattpad.
MS: What advice would you give to young women entering this field?
Lakhani: I go back to some of the things I was talking about around combining passions. There are a lot of young women out there who are passionate about technology, which is awesome. But for those that are passionate about other things, I think so much of what you do adds up if you combine all of your passions and not feel like you have to abandon one to pursue another.
That has been, for me, a really great lesson. You can do work that is creative and technical — you can find ways to do that. I think that’s very possible and very real and I’m fortunate to be living that for myself. Technology is a great platform for pursuing something that pulls all those pieces together.
I believe you can be incredibly successful if you take all those talents and combine them and build upon your confidence within them. It’s a really powerful thing to be able to bring multiple things to the table.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Image courtesy of Wattpad.
The Women Behind Wireless is a series of profiles by MobileSyrup that aims to shine a spotlight on veteran women in the wireless industry, and what they’ve contributed to the field. For additional reading, check out our previous interviews with Qualcomm’s Vanitha Kumar, Google’s Melissa Dominguez and Huawei’s Peiying Zhu.