Growing up, Navrina Singh’s father told her that if she wanted to climb a mountain, she can’t just stand there thinking about it. She has to start at the bottom and just do it.
This can-do attitude enabled Singh to grow quickly at Qualcomm Inc. (NASDAQ: QCOM), where she began as a hardware engineer in the corporate research and development department in 2004, soon after completing her master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Wisconsin.
In 2011, she was asked to take charge of Qualcomm ImpaQt, the company-wide program that encourages employees to come forward with innovative ideas for technology. She is also director of product management for Qualcomm Labs, the company’s incubator that has launched new businesses like Qualcomm Life (which provides wireless health care solutions) and explores new market segments.
An avid supporter of startup ventures, Singh represents Qualcomm on the committee of high-tech incubator EvoNexus, which is a part of CommNexus, the industry’s trade association.
As a child, she would take apart jewelry pieces and household items that her fashion designer mom brought home, and try to make something different out of it. She said her childhood home in India still has proof of her tinkering spirit. While she was always drawn to science, it was the potential that hardware engineering held to transform the world that fascinated her.
“The visualization aspect was super exciting. The first time I got my LED light to work was fantastic,” Singh said.
Singh chose Wisconsin over the University of Berkeley because the former offered her a full scholarship, and decided to interview with Qualcomm after hearing one of its engineers speak on campus. Early in her career, she sat in on meetings and mostly observed before speaking up and taking an active role.
One thing that struck her was how few women there were on any team back then: about two to every 20 men, somewhat similar to the situation at grad school, where she saw far fewer women engineers than in India.
In 2005, a vice president who was retiring asked for someone to take over a mailing list she used to manage for women engineers. When Singh heard about it, she was “stoked, and asked to take ownership of it. I knew it was a small thing, but I knew I could do something big with it.”
It eventually became a key turning point that led to her ascent within the company, as top brass took note of her efforts.
Initially, a friend helped her figure out how to organize it better --- the group had had no structure or purpose until then -- and that was how Qualcomm Women in Science and Engineering (QWISE) was born, with a simple goal: to energize women engineers and focus on personal and professional development.
It was also timely. Back when Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs was still CEO, a shareholder stood up and asked why there were no women in executive management roles, after which Jacobs became very interested in encouraging more women.
Starting with just 15 members, the group has since grown to 1,000 across five continents. It has an active board -- seats on the board are coveted positions -- that focuses on recruiting more women and encouraging growth through a four-month long mentorship program.
The program sets measurable goals that can be accomplished within that time frame, and Singh said it has seen amazing success since.
“Men and women operate very differently; the difference is primarily in communication style,” she said. “We’re now seeing more women take on leadership roles. There are also more women participating in ImpaQt, submitting more ideas. We’re now seeing more women raise their hand.”
Her work with the group gave her access to the executive team and in 2011, Executive Vice President Peggy Johnson, who heads Qualcomm Labs, called her to a meeting with the CTO and CEO. The summons made her nervous, but it turned out to be good news: They felt she’d be the best candidate to lead ImpaQt and transform it into a more compelling program.
Singh applies her passion to all her ventures, she doesn’t see any of it as work. “I feel you are wasting an opportunity if you are not doing everything you can to make a difference.”
She met her husband, Michael Kongelf, at Qualcomm and credits him for supporting her ambitions. He is a research and development engineer and a director who works as an individual contributor, unlike her, and jokes that she will one day be his boss.
Asked about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s premise in her controversial book, “Lean In,” which says women hesitate to take risks and put themselves out there more, Singh said she thinks it’s a combination of gender bias and hesitation.
“I do see a lot of women not raising their hand for lots of opportunities, but I raise my hand for everything, so I’m not the best to talk about those that don’t,” she said. “Many women hang back because they think they need to be perfect at it, they need to have it all figured out or they won’t jump into a new opportunity. They do so much analysis in their heads, that they just don’t get out of their heads.”
“If men fail, they take it as a learning opportunity, but women don't think that way; they take it personally.”
At a recent meeting with students at Harvard, Singh talked to them about how men don’t hesitate to share ideas, whether it’s new or already been done, but women hold back because they fear coming across as not being smart.
“I used to be that way early in my career, but when I learned speaking up is not so scary, it became easier.”
-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.