How Raji Ambikairajah's Career Path Helps Her Create Social Impact

Raji Ambikairajah

The electrical engineer has had some wildly divergent roles but each of them has helped her fulfil her goal of creating social impact.

Listen before you speak

Non-executive director, UNSW Foundation | 2019-present
Non-executive director, UNSW Council | 2020-present

“I have a strong sense of my values. The boards and the executive management teams that really understand, live and breathe the organisation’s values are the ones that weather whatever storm comes their way compared to the ones who might have been enchanted by trends or what competitors are doing. There are some board roles I’ve said no to and there are other board roles where I know I’ve been asked because I’m a diversity card. I like to do my due diligence on every board role. I try to speak to others who are already on the board, as well as to outgoing board members. I look at minutes of previous meetings because I think the minutes of a meeting reveal a lot. I look at the last two board packs. I spend quite a bit of time trying to understand if this board or organisation operates within my own values and then I look at what I can bring and how I can add value. Then, in the first couple of meetings, I listen more than anything else. I want to understand the dynamic before I contribute. If you are saying something because you feel like you have to say something, it’s not coming from a place of authenticity. I like to sit back and listen and absorb all the information.”

Diversity is key

Non-executive director, State Library of NSW Foundation | 2019-present
Non-executive director, Belvoir | 2019-present

“It’s so easy as an engineer to just stay in your lane but I think there’s a really important place in the world for the arts and I want to be able to bring a different skill set. The way that engineers are taught to problem-solve is different to how others are taught. Which is why I always say, ‘Have diversity of skills and diversity of thought in the room when you’re solving a problem.’ Nine times out of 10 I’ve been the only engineer in the room. In my first board roles [10 years ago] there were times when I was also the only woman in the room. It’s almost a 50-50 split on all of the boards I sit on now so there’s definitely been improvement but there’s more to do. Diversity and the intersectionality of diversity cuts many different ways and we really need to push it at board level.”

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Stay close to your frontline

CEO, Folo | 2018-2019

“It was really important to me to cultivate a space where the frontline shared the raw truth with me and didn’t just tell me what they thought I’d want to hear. I sat with them every week. I took the time and genuinely and repeatedly earned their trust and respect. I advocated for them so they knew my intentions were underpinned by integrity. Their experience was critical to understanding what worked well in the organisation but also where red flags might exist in strategy or decision-making systems. As everyone says, it’s lonely at the top – when you know things or when challenges come up and you can’t share them with everyone. Staying close to the frontline was my way of learning and closing the gap that sits in the hierarchy between a leader and everyone at any level or layer of the organisation.”

Don’t give in to fear

COO, Women in Banking and Finance | 2015-2018

“My long-term mentor is non-executive director Christine Holman. She’s always said to me, ‘Courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the triumph over fear.’ This was the first role I had where I couldn’t lean on my technical or even technological know-how because I didn’t have a background in banking. As an engineer, I was good at maths but I knew nothing about finance so this was about me leading in an industry where I wasn’t the domain expert. But I surrounded myself with experts and I trusted that my engineering mindset would enable me to look around the corners and see things that others in the sector might not be able to see. I probably over-prepared for meetings but once I understood a concept, I knew how to interrogate it differently. Having that realisation reaffirmed that I was doing okay.”

Make philanthropy accessible

Sydney chapter leader, Room to Read | 2011-2017

“To me, Room to Read is the gold standard of how to create lasting, positive social change. I learned how important it was to establish fundamental pillars – in the case of Room to Read they were literacy and girls’ education – and to never waiver from them. Tim Koogle, who was the founding CEO of Yahoo and the chair of Room to Read’s board, said to me, ‘Make philanthropy a verb, not a noun.’ That really evolved my ethos around philanthropy and led me to explore the democratisation of it – to make it accessible and to turn everyday habits and practices into acts of philanthropy, whether speaking to high-net-worth donors or someone who can only donate two dollars. It’s giving your time, your treasure or your talent – whatever that looks like for you.”

Use technology for good

PhD in electrical engineering, UNSW Sydney | 2010-2013

“I wanted to spend time reflecting, thinking and forming unique insights into a topic. My PhD gave me a deep understanding of technology and, in particular, that technology is nothing more than the collective soul of those who build it. It doesn’t matter how good the technology is, we must never underestimate the importance of the human element. It really consolidated for me that I wanted to use technology as a vessel for social change. I had switched fields – still in electrical engineering but with a different angle around energy, power and smart grids. Sydney was going through a range of blackouts – almost weekly – due to the fact that electricity systems had been embedded decades before. Not enough effort was put in to thinking through the technology of that. So I was like, ‘Okay, how do I solve this?’”

Create positive impact

Project manager, Personal Audio | 2007-2010

“This was my first role. It was a tech startup that had spun out of The University of Sydney. I wanted to have impact and I wanted my career to be centred on social good. So my north star has always been to create a global, positive and memorable impact. I enjoyed being part of a start-up but I felt a bit empty. As much as I was fulfilled by the technical side, something didn’t fit. I realised I wanted to be a creator and a builder rather than someone who just consumed the outputs of someone else’s creation. This role definitely set the tone for me wanting to spend my career exploring that interlock between technology and empathy. I’m glad I had that realisation early and that I listened to the disgruntled-ness that sat inside me. I eventually came to it as, ‘Don’t accept what is. Create what could be.’”

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Image credit: Nic Walker

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