Female Tech Leaders: Interview with Raman Rai

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In a new series of interviews, Ten10 Client Partner Leah Yohans is speaking with female tech leaders from across the UK to ask them how their careers started, their achievements and highlights, and what advice they have for the next generation of leaders.

This first interview is with Raman Rai, a multi-award-winning Product Manager at PwC. She’s also an ambassador for Europe’s largest female and non-binary hackathon after she won the Athena Hackathon 2022 (twice!), was named one of Tech Women 100’s Influential Female Tech Leaders in the UK, is a One Young World ambassador, and a UN Women UK delegate.

We hope you enjoy listening to Raman’s story and find her advice useful in your own career journeys.

So you’re currently a product manager at PwC. You’re also (and congratulations again) the UK Tech Women 100 2022 winner. Could you tell us just a bit about your background and how that’s made an impact on you/where you are today?

For a bit of context, I am born and raised in London, specifically, in the southeast in Greenwich and I’ve come from extremely humble beginnings. I was raised in a working-class, Punjabi-Sikh household to parents who left India in their young teens without education or money and came to the UK. I then went to school in the South East and it was London’s top failing state school. It was a very intense experience where there was knife crime, gang culture, drugs, and racism. So it was quite a weird time to be raised in a family where it was quite unstable and then go to a very interesting school.

Luckily enough I did really well in my GCSEs. I got the highest grades for the school in 21 years, which is wild. And then I was fortunate enough to move to a grammar school in the local area for sixth form. But then, I did terribly in my A-levels due to extenuating circumstances. But I still flipped that around and I went off and studied Philosophy at the University of York. I spent a year there and then transfer to the University of Hong Kong where I literally lived the best year of my life. And yeah, graduated in Hong Kong, then came back to York and then headed back to London.

Wow, that’s amazing. I want to dig into your actual journey in tech – but before that, speaking to what you said about going to a really rough school and travelling and trying to try again after A-levels. How do you think that’s shaped you socially, from an introspective perspective?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I guess being raised as a working-class immigrant, I use that as my superpower. I watched my parents break through so many barriers to leaving India. I wasn’t born, but I can only assume to come to England and then, you know, have an education. No, support network, no finances. I have watched them, hustle, and I hate the term hustle, especially as a Gen-Z. I don’t advocate it. That’s something they did. And I think what that in turn did for me was embed this amazing work ethic where I stress excellence, I have grit, I have hard work and I think that has essentially put me in this kind of survival mindset, which probably isn’t a good thing, but that’s massively shaped who I am today.

So I genuinely think – and this is so narcissistic of me to say – but [I’m] generally unstoppable. Whenever I see a challenge or a barrier, I don’t think ‘oh my god, this is a problem and it’s going to stop me from getting where I want to be’ but actually I think “okay, how am I going to get around this? How am I going to make this work for me?” And I think that’s something that I’ve embedded in everything that I do and that is what got me from those not-so-great A-level grades to get into university, and then to go into Hong Kong. It was: okay, how can I turn around a not-great situation into a good one? And that’s kind of what I do with, and with everything really, I’m I try and seize every opportunity because I don’t know when it will be the last. I think generationally I always like to challenge the status quo. I want to break barriers and see how I can find a place for me to also excel.

Just speaking to your point about being narcissistic: I don’t agree at all. If anything, it’s just such a good message for people to hear of like actually hard work is the common theme in a lot of people’s success and when the world presents you with so many trials and errors, having that work ethic and being that person that’s just always going to keep trying and keep going. I know that sounds cliche but you’ve just presented how that how you’ve done that given some of your challenges growing up.

If we just kind of take a step back and look at, you know, your journey coming into tech and how that looks like, did you always want to be in the space and like, what, what were your goals then versus like the goals that you aspire to today?

I got my first computer when I was six years old and loved it. I’ve been on social media since the age of 11 which I know is illegal. That I have loved how much technology has shaped the way that I’ve been raised and the information and content that I’ve had access to. But I never actually thought ‘yeah, I want to work in tech’. I actually wanted to be Prime Minister, funnily enough, or I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, which is quite funny. So yes, my tech journey has been unconventional but I knew I wanted to create a big impact, I wanted to reshape society, and I want to be Prime Minister but when I went off to university and studied philosophy, I wanted to take the law route but I couldn’t get onto that like a vocation scheme because it was super difficult and I was studying philosophy. So one summer I decided to just do something experimental and I went on a marketing and advertising program. I just thought, okay I’m in my second year, why don’t I do something in the creative space for a bit? Just so I’m not balling out different options.

And to be honest, that one program I did in the summer of 2018 has massively impacted my career. It opened doors for me to join a creative program at Google in Silicon Valley. I also went to Cannes Lions, which is this huge insane, boujee, creative event that happens in Cannes every year, you get ad agencies celebrities and media companies coming to sell themselves. So yeah very strange was in the creative space for a bit and then I jumped into consulting and the reason I jumped into consulting is that I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I didn’t know how to get there. and I figured okay consulting is essentially a big place where you can explore different opportunities and you get to work across so many sectors. So many clients, so many projects and I just thought, Okay, why don’t I join consulting where it’s basically a theme park in the corporate world? I worked in the public sector space because I still want to be prime minister but I worked solely on technology projects because I still love being around technology and so yeah my journey at PWC was through consulting and then I kind of got involved in different elements where I worked with social enterprises but I think gradually in my kind of first two years at PwC, I realized I really like tech and that’s when I transitioned into product management and I think that’s a move that a lot of people do when they come from an unconventional route, they stay in like a big organization. You can kind of make that transition.

And to speak to where you wanted to be versus where you are now – there seems to be a common theme with wanting to be PM and a human rights lawyer and your drive to make change, I think is the theme there. I think you can see that in the work you’re doing now. So in your current product role at PwC, you’re developing PwC’s digital flash flagship product, Perform Plus. You can tell it’s to help build world-class huddles to improve team productivity and you know, using human-centred design. So with that, how do you make yourself stand out in your field?

Great question, and super tough. Tech is a really hard space so the way that I’ve tried to stand out is from a few different things.
I think one is tapping into your strengths. You need to identify what you’re good at and what comes easy to you and then drive everything you do day to day on those strengths. I can give a few examples of what mine are. One strength I have is critical thinking and that’s come from my philosophy degree but I’m a deep thinker and I ask lots of questions. So whenever I’m networking (which is so important to do in your career, wherever you are in your journey) I ask super intellectual questions because I’m curious and I think asking those questions helped me with my job as a product manager. Because as a product manager, you’re trying to solve a problem and you can only solve problems if you ask the right questions. So that helps: being curious.

I think the second one is I love public speaking. This is why I’m on this podcast! I love talking, I love telling stories and because I know I’m good at speaking, I will use that to my benefit – if I’m networking, if I’m an interview, if I’m speaking to different people, I will utilise that skill and I will feel confident because I enjoy doing it and I know I’m good. But then also I come across confident. So I think it’s important to recognise where your strengths lie.

I think the third one, which I got from the marketing and advertising program, is creativity. I love being bold, I love trying to think differently, innovatively, and creatively, and I’ve been able to do that, just from different experiences that I’ve had. What I would say is to start small. Don’t think ‘I need to go away and create a product’. It can be small things. For me, it’s how I have a conversation with someone. With creativity in the corporate world, what I tend to do is have an opening call with someone. You’re trying to get to know somebody try and think about creative ways that you can have that conversation. At PwC, we run tons of energisers and tons of icebreakers. But rather than doing the standard ‘what’re your two truths and a lie?’ I will come up with something a little bit different. So it’s just honing in on what your strengths are and seeing how you can bring it to your day-to-day.

I think those are just really key three things. Even just being a deep thinker. Like what we were saying when we were on the phone the other day, just how easy it is to just get really deep in the different conversations that we were having. But that is such an important skill within tech as well: being curious. Our clients always tell us ‘we want curious people, we need curious people, we need people who want to ask questions’ and it’s just it’s a really, really kind of I guess important skill to have. So that’s cool. And I think again, storytelling is such an important trait because, in tech, you need to be good at storytelling. You need to be good with stakeholder management. You need to be good at communication and explaining. It’s a complex product. Sometimes actually can’t be explained very well in layman’s terms.

Do you have advice for the next generation of technologists and professionals coming into the space on what makes a strong candidate CV without looking at their tech skills? What makes them good and what makes them stand out? I think with you that passion is really, really important and it has set you apart, but if there’s anything else you can speak to that as well.

I think the one thing I would say is ‘be interesting’. What I mean by that is, it’s great that I’m now a UN delegate. I’m now part of running our world, but all of this was because of very small decisions I have made over the years that have led me to where I am today and this is what will help you differentiate yourselves. I think if anyone, you know who’s listening is a Gen-Z, I think this is a great opportunity for us because we’re essentially the first generation where technology comes second nature to us. We understand social media, we understand trends, and we understand marketing. So there is so much value that we can bring without us, actually even knowing. Some of the ways that I’ve done this, in terms of CVs is: think about how you can go above and beyond in what you’re doing. Day-to-days may be outside of your studies, maybe outside of your part-time job, that reflects who you are as a person, so maybe your values, your interest, but it’s tapping into your curiosity.

I can give you an example. When I was at university, I care about social enterprises, and I think that kind of comes through with my background and the way that I was raised. But I wanted to help ex-offenders in the homeless integrate into society. I just felt that they are a community of people that kind of get overlooked, and I wanted to help them. So a friend and I founded a social enterprise. It flopped, but we took a problem that we found interesting, we attempted to work with ex-offenders in the homeless, which ended up being difficult, but we learned a lot from that experience and that is still something I talk about today, even though it was years ago when I was at university and it failed. But it’s really about thinking about where can you find interesting problems or where is your curiosity leading you.

Recently, I wanted to accelerate more in my tech career but wasn’t sure how so one weekend I was like, ‘rather than you know, going out with my friends, rather than raving, why don’t I spend a weekend going to a hackathon? I don’t know what a hackathon is. I want to understand how you build products. I really want to meet more people, but I know nothing, but I’m just gonna show up and I’m just gonna give it a go’. I probably won’t know anything, but that’s how I’m gonna choose to spend my weekend. My team won at the hackathon and then we went again and won again – the point here is it’s there’s no ‘secret recipe’. I would just say to sit with yourself and just ask yourself ‘what am I interested in? What am I curious about?’ I think curiosity will take you so far and then see what you can find. Is it a random hackathon? Is it a random problem that you want to solve?

See where those opportunities take you. And those were the kinds of experiences I had on my resume or when I, you know, interviewed for One Young World or interviewed for the UN, those were the stories I spoke about and that is what made me come across interesting and different. And I would definitely say don’t put so much pressure on yourself because I still do this. I did a lot in my journey, but I put so much pressure on myself to come across cool and interesting and different. When actually, just follow your heart, follow what the voice says in your head and yeah, try to see how I can find different ways and yet to look into your interest looking to curiosity and yeah, thinking about more about what you enjoy.

Oh, I love that so much and again I think just hearing that whole curiosity piece, come up. It is an important one to have. And to want to take ownership of is just being curious. And then as you mentioned – showing up – I think we take for granted just like I think when we see people in spaces and people who are doing well in their fields, you forget that person just probably showed up and they were at a point where they had no idea what they were doing but you know, you build from somewhere and I think showing up as the very beginning. So that’s interesting to hear and thank you so much.

No worries. Whatever anyone asks me like ‘Oh my God, how are you killing it?’ I just say: “Show up. Turn up.”

Read more amazing career stories

Thanks for listening to our interview. To read more stories, this time from our very own Ten10 Academy, see our Career Transformation section of our Insights page.