Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Raji Rajagopalan Is Helping To Change Our World

Posted on

Do not take yourself too seriously. Anything you do in life is impermanent. There will likely be little trace of you or what you do 100 years from now. It’s ok to be imperfect.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raji Rajagopalan.

Raji Rajagopalan believes that your ‘differentness’ is your differentiator. She is the author of the book “Daring to be Different: Stories and Tips from a Woman Leader in Tech”, a collection of stories to help you build the most important skills to have a meaningful career. In her day job, Raji is a Partner Director of Software Engineering at Microsoft. In the last 20 years in the tech industry, her work has spanned building startup teams, turning around unsuccessful projects, driving engineering rigor, scaling online services, growing global teams, and innovating on products used by a billion+ customers. You can learn more about her on her website,

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in small, dusty town in South India. When I was five years old, I unexpectedly lost my mother. That became a pivotal event in my life that shaped my character and many things that would happen to me in my life. After I lost my mother, I was placed in relative care that took me from one town to another, from one school to another, for the rest of my childhood years.

In my book “Daring to be Different: Stories and Tips from a Woman Leader in Tech”, I have explored these events and others, and how they taught me lessons that are essential today in my professional life — qualities like resilience, the need to stand up for myself, and to be fiercely determined.

As a girl, I dreamed of becoming a doctor. I wanted to save people like my mother, solve problems for them and cure them of deadly diseases. Unfortunately, I failed getting into medical school. It was the 90s, and the field of tech was just beginning to blossom. My mentors and family advised me to try my hand at it. I became curious and decided to learn Computer Science. Since then, it has been an extraordinary journey of learning.

Today, I build tech for a global audience of over a billion people. I consider myself an ‘accidental techie’ having been thrown into tech because of my failure to get into medicine. And yet, being able to build technology gives me a superpower like none other. I can now solve problems for a billion+ people — a bigger scale arguably than what I might have been able to accomplish as a medical professional — just sitting at my desk.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

[RR] I didn’t grow up with access to a lot of books other than my textbooks. When I immigrated to North America in my early 20s, I discovered the public library system, and I was in heaven. Some books that fascinated me during that period include:

  • Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”. I am an advocate for empowering women with economic independence, and this book underlines the importance of that.
  • Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran”. It’s a spellbinding book on the power of reading. Reading helps me be a lifelong learner. It helps me take care of my mental health in tough times.
  • Nelson Mandela’s “A long walk to freedom”. It taught me so much about overcoming obstacles, determination, and leadership.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I started writing, I tried to write “impressive” prose. One of my phrases was — and I kid you not — “in my smattering ken”. I wanted to use big words that made me sound sophisticated and erudite. In my smattering ken meant “in my limited knowledge”. As a person whose first language is not English, I had lifted these words straight from my GRE preparation books. I realized very soon, as I started getting feedback on my writing, that that’s not the best way to write compelling prose.

I learned it was important to be authentic in your work. Conveying your idea clearly was more important than how you sounded and how distinctive your writing made you look.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I wrote my book “Daring to be Different” to empower early-in-career and mid-career professionals to dream big and achieve more success in their life and work. I share my lived experience as a girl growing up in India and a tech professional making my way up the corporate ladder in America. Along the way, I learned a number of career lessons that I think will be useful to inspire and help the next generation of leaders — especially the underrepresented minorities, women, immigrants, and shy introverts. I aim to show with my work and my writing that you can succeed in a career as possibly intimidating as tech even if you arrived to it late and even if you don’t like the majority in the field.

The more we make our workplaces look like the global community that they serve, the better it is for our society. The more equity we bring to the world while we build services and products that work for all.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Let’s start with my mother. My mother grew up in the 50s and 60s. She graduated high school but didn’t go to college. Women of her generation were not expected to go to college. Indian society of that time felt that the more educated a woman was, the more trouble she was. Neither she nor her sisters had a career or a job. The only role model for me with respect to holding a job was my Aunt Sundari, my aunt on my father’s side.

Aunt Sundari worked in New Delhi, the capital of India, where she commuted to her job every day in packed public buses. On my summer vacations when I observed her, she always came home from work exhausted. I asked her one day why she did it — why did she work when it was patently so difficult? She had to come home and still take care of her family — cook and clean for them.

But she still did it because, in her words, “if she wanted a tube of red lipstick, she didn’t have to stand in front of anyone to ask for it.” She wanted the financial means to do something as simple as that for herself. That was an important lesson that taught me the value of a career. In a world where a career was considered optional for a woman, it taught me that I needed to equip myself to stand on my own two legs.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I have mentored a lot of people in the tech industry over the years. These conversations I have with my mentees have always been very rich — they have taught me as much as I presumably have taught my mentees. They revealed to me that many people struggle with common challenges: feeling like an impostor, feeling fearful of public speaking, dealing with difficult colleagues and so on. So, I started writing my perspectives on these in my blog. My blog posts resonated with my readers. I got a lot of requests to write more, perhaps write a book. That is how my book was born.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One example is of woman who stopped me at an elevator. She told me that she was giving a big presentation at her new job and was very nervous about it. She had chanced upon my writing recently and read what I wrote about battling with my own fear of public speaking. My story and my concrete pointers helped her deal with her own fears. This, I believe, is the power of sharing our stories openly and authentically. They help others not feel quite so alone. They help others learn from our experience.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

For a world where equal opportunities exist and can be equally leveraged by everyone….

  1. Let’s inspire girls and marginalized communities to dream big. Let’s equip them so they can financially thrive in the future.
  2. Let’s empower minorites with skills, mindsets, and tools to overcome the obstacles in their way.
  3. Let’s create workplaces and a society where every person no matter their gender/race/sexual orientation/cognitive style/background can feel like they belong and can succeed.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the art of painting a vision of a world that is worthy of achieving, of inspiring people to imagine that world, of being in the trenches as everyone strives to build that world, and of creating the clear steps needed to make that vision possible.

Let’s take the case of World War 2. As Britain had lost all hope of winning, Churchill painted a vision of victory while also inspiring his people with stirring words of hardship that he was willing to endure along with them. Along with his army leaders, he created a plan for winning and led his troops to execute on that plan while keeping the morale at home high. Churchill has plenty of other flaws in his leadership, but in this case, he showed he can paint a vision, lay out the steps, be with his people, and deliver success.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Here are my five things, all of which I illustrate with stories in my book “Daring to be Different”.

  1. Mastery of your craft is a process. It might take time for you to be great at what you do. Until then, have a growth mindset, persevere, and be ok with looking bad until you can BE good.
  2. People are not constantly judging you. In fact, they are so caught up in their own lives that they seldom think of you.
  3. Failures are fuel for success. It is ok — and even essential — to stick your neck out and fail at times. That’s how you learn and grow. Besides, see #1. Most actions in life are not catastrophic.
  4. Trust that you’ll figure things out. To do big scary things in life and work, it is vital to know that you’ll figure things out even if you didn’t know them well to begin with.
  5. Do not take yourself too seriously. Anything you do in life is impermanent. There will likely be little trace of you or what you do 100 years from now. It’s ok to be imperfect.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“[I want to be remembered as] someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court and Appellate Advocacy: Mastering Oral Argument

I love how RBG talks about doing her work with whatever talent she has to the best of her ability. That is what I aim to do as well, with my work, with my volunteering, with the book I have written, with my mentoring, and with my speaking. If I can help mend some tears in society through that I’ll consider my life well-lived.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Jane Goodall. Just like RBG, she is a role model. I admire how she started from humble beginnings with limited formal training in her field, and yet used perseverance, patience, and scientific thinking to bring us closer to the animals that are our cousins in the tree of life. Her research has uncovered so much that humanity didn’t know about before. I would love to learn from her philosophy on quiet leadership and believing in oneself so intensely.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Go to to follow my blog and to get a copy of my recent book “Daring to be Different: Stories and Tips from a Woman Leader in Tech”

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Raji Rajagopalan Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.