KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Charu Srinivasan - A Life Without Lines
Charu Srinivasan, Kanakavalli’s February Vignette, is Partner Director of Engineering at Microsoft where she has worked for over two decades, and she is also so much more. She is a woman from a family of strong, independent women, a beginner bonsai gardener, an amateur Carnatic singer and a lover of architecture and beauty. While holding several leadership positions in the worlds of technology and social impact, Charu seeks balance in everything she does, exploring the many facets of her personality, from the analytical to the creative. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Charu talks about her commitment to inclusivity at the workplace through mentoring, and about her own mentor—her mother, whose grace still inspires her. For Charu, the value of being a lifelong learner lies in being vulnerable about what you don’t know, while beauty, she says, is a willingness to examine one’s own imperfections. Taking a moment out of a busy schedule to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire, Charu curates a collection of kanjivarams as vibrant as she is. Excerpts from the conversation below…
A Life Without Lines
A journey in technology
I think it all began with the idea of problem solving. Ever since I was in school, I loved breaking down problems and figuring out their solutions. I had always been good at Math, and I had a natural interest in Computer Science. In my early college years, I studied theoretical Computer Science, but an internship at Microsoft in the early 90s changed my direction. And that’s how I ended up here.
In my career, I have been fortunate to witness dramatic shifts in paradigms of how humans interact with computers. Today the work I do is at the forefront of technology that the world will adopt in the next fifteen or twenty years. I get to work with incredibly smart people and it has been an amazing experience. I am a big believer in technology as a tool for empowering human lives, and for me this is what makes my work so meaningful.
In my role at Microsoft, I have always been focused on inclusion and diversity at the workplace. I believe that some of us have immense privilege at many levels—having access to education and families that support us financially and emotionally, for example. For me it has always been important to examine and interrogate this privilege, to figure out who is not at the table. This is something I deeply care about, especially with regard to women in technology. I’m interested to see how we can empower more young women to be a part of this movement, and how we can build a level playing field. I truly believe that a strong representation of women will determine the future of technology and how it will impact the human experience.
Charu at a Hackathon for young women in technology.
A quest for balance
I have always wanted to explore all the many dimensions of my personality rather than focus only on my work as an engineer. I care deeply about my family—they bring me joy and are my priority. My husband and I decided to move back to India from the US some years ago because we wanted our children to have the experience of growing up here, and because we wanted to be closer to our families.
There is also a big part of me which deeply appreciates the precision of the arts, and architecture in particular. Despite a busy work schedule, I have always taken time to appreciate beauty, and I enjoy having a home that is beautiful. I really care about what homes mean to families, and this is something I explored while creating spaces that combine aesthetic appeal, comfort, and functionality, like the open courtyard at our farmhouse, or the Swami room at home. When we returned to India in 2005, it was a sort of homecoming for us, and this was a time I really began to reflect on what it means to make a home.
Above: Charu's beautiful and thoughtfully planned home, including the Swami room which is one of her favourite spaces
The reason I have this place in my life for architecture is because to me it is a form of self-expression. It allows me to reflect about who I am as a person. I’m not a performer myself, but I find myself coming alive around good music, good architecture, and beautiful objects. Life is always hurried and hectic, and there is a lot of left-brain, logical and analytical thinking that is expected of us—especially if, like me, you work in technology! These more creative elements bring about a special sense of balance, teaching us to appreciate the other aspects of our lives.
The balance I seek is to never get lost in one dimension, but to find a natural harmony in bringing everything together. This doesn’t mean that I won’t focus on one thing more than others at certain points of time—for example, when my children Sharanya and Nithin were young, it was important for me to be a big part of their lives, present at PTA meetings and birthday parties. I also have many cherished friendships that are very special to me. I try not to make trade-offs as far as possible.
Above: Charu with her daughter Sharanya, who is now also a woman in tech like her mother
Instead of talking about what I think is a mythical work-life balance, I like to think about it as life without lines: work and personal life have intertwined and woven together and it feels like a whole.
Inspired and inspiring
The person who has inspired me most is my mother; she remains the most important role model to me. She taught me how to celebrate life and how to make the best of every opportunity. She has always faced adversity with great strength, and this inspires me constantly. My mother truly epitomises the idea of balance for me. She worked as a teacher for many years, but was always there for her daughters, and carried out all her responsibilities with such grace.
I think of my parents as a unit, and my father has been an equally important role model. Growing up in a village near Thanjavur, he used to study under a street lamp, and got his first pair of shoes only when he started college. He went on from these modest beginnings to work for the Navy, and retired at the highest post. His journey has been incredibly inspiring. My father and my mother have motivated me to work harder and be a better person, even as they have stood by me through every decision I’ve made.
I think a mentor is someone who sees something inside you that you may not be able to see in yourself. My parents did exactly this for my sister and I—they encouraged self-belief, and allowed us to grow to our full potential. That’s what mentorship does.
Along with some of my colleagues, I helped co-found the up WISE Mentoring Programme, a mentoring programme for women in tech targeting students from tier 2 and 3 colleges. The goal is to inspire young women through a nine-month long programme that gives them an experience of working in technology. This programme is very close to my heart, and has been my way of examining my privilege and sharing it with others.
Above: Charu at the Microsoft WISE mentoring programme graduation ceremony.
Women of substance
I’m very close to my mother, sister, daughter and niece. When I think about the women in my life, the thread that ties us all together is a strong sense of who we are as individuals. Of course, wherever we go, there’s also tons of laughter! What really strikes me is that we all have a very strong perception of the world, and we all want to leave a mark in our own unique ways.
My mother Indu is someone who, as I’ve said, always faced adversity with grace. My sister Madhu is an amazing psychiatrist who is thoughtful and caring. My daughter Sharanya is brilliant and accomplished but has her head firmly on her shoulders. She is also a woman in tech, like me, but she pushes herself to discover her creative side through pottery. My niece Diya is independent and articulate for her age, passionate about science, debating and robotics. We all have very different personalities, but what brings us together is being authentic. None of us is trying to become someone we’re not. We’re all very grounded in that sense.
My parents come from humble beginnings, and no matter where all of us might be or what we might accomplish, we have remained very connected with our roots. One of the most important things my parents taught us all was to be absolutely authentic and true to ourselves, and to strive to be good, inside and out.
Above (clockwise from left): Charu with her mother who is her role model; All the wonderful women in Charu's life - her niece, mother, daughter and sister, all dressed in Kanakavalli; Charu with her parents who are her inspiration; Charu's daughter and niece.
I love to learn and I’m learning constantly. For me it is important to be vulnerable about what I don’t know. I do yoga every day, and each day I appreciate a new pose that I might learn, or the new depth with which I approach an old pose. I have also been learning Carnatic music—I must say I’m not very good at it but I enjoy the experience. I’m also a beginner bonsai gardener and love to immerse myself in nurturing and grooming young trees.
There is something very meaningful in being honest with yourself about what you don’t know, about accepting the help of a teacher to learn something new. All of this allows me to be more vulnerable, keeping me young at heart.
Above: As a beginner bonsai gardener, Charu loves to nurture young trees. Featured above, from left to right, are a bougainvillea, a jade plant and another bougainvillea.
On beauty and tradition
Beauty to me is who you are as a person. Beauty is how you treat people around you—it is about being thoughtful, helpful and kind as a human being. I believe that all of us have imperfections, and beauty is a willingness to examine those imperfections.
To me, tradition represents your lineage—where you are from and what you stand for. In that context, it is very important to me. But it is equally important that I reinterpret tradition in a contemporary setting. I think it can be a problem if tradition becomes too rigid, and comes to mean that you are less open to new views.
The diversity in my life means that I meet people from very different cultural contexts, racial, cultural and religious identities, sexual orientations and gender identities, to name a few. This ability to accept and celebrate diversity helps me re-examine my traditions in a modern context. I would describe myself as someone who can adapt. I’m very comfortable wearing a classic nine-yard madisari, but I’m equally comfortable at a corporate party with people from around the world.
On the sari
To me the sari is a beautiful form of self-expression. I enjoy wearing saris because I feel very beautiful in them. Pattu saris remind me of my paati who would wear the most beautiful 9-yard kanjivarams. I vividly remember helping her dry them out in the sun when I was a young girl. The kanjivaram represents tradition to me, but I love the amazing diversity of saris in India.
I’ve known Kanakavalli for a few years now, and I love how they blend the ancient tradition with a more modern aesthetic, perfectly melded in beautiful silk saris.
This sari I’m wearing is a a celebration of my mother and her grace. We celebrated my parents’ Sathabhishekam a few months ago, and I wanted my mother to have a Kanakavalli sari. I wanted to celebrate this beautiful person with a beautiful sari. My daughter wanted to buy a kanjivaram too, and all the women in the family ended up wearing Kanakavalli. This vivid kanjivaram is the one I chose for this very special family occasion.
(Charu is wearing an orange kanjivaram shot with pink featuring gold dotted checks on the body and elephants on the border. The pallu has a seeprekku pattern flanked by geometric, floral and elephant motifs, all in rich gold zari.)
- Charu Srinivasan,, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.
View Charu's accompanying guest curation here.