News + Ideas

MGAC Inner Voices: Episode 16


MGAC Inner Voices is an interview format podcast where a diverse mix of employees are interviewed to share their perspective on challenges they have faced in the A/E/C industry as a result of their identity—including race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. By discussing the experiences of our staff, our hope is that their stories will have newfound and powerful resonance with the audience—both to comfort others in similar situations and to encourage those in positions of power to bring about positive, actionable changes to workplace environments for all A/E/C professionals, regardless of their identity.

Beth Scully (MGAC Senior Project Manager, Seattle) talks with Malathy Amirthalingam (Senior Analyst, Business Intelligence at T-Mobile) about India’s caste system, the invaluable impact of her strong family ties, and ignoring the noise to focus on what is truly important.


Beth: Hi, and welcome to "MGAC Inner Voices," a podcast where we dig into issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the architecture, engineering, construction industry, brought to you by MGAC. I'm Beth Scully residing in Seattle, Washington. I'm a senior project manager. And we do offer a disclaimer at the preface of this podcast. We are not experts in anything diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a person who identifies as a cisgender, I can speak to my lived experience and do my best to help our guests share their experiences as well. Our goal isn't to be the all-in end-all experts on diversity, rather we wanna share stories and figure out how together we can create better outcomes for all of us in the AEC industry and beyond. Today I'm talking with my good friend, Malu, as I call her. I've had the distinct pleasure of working at T-Mobile with Malu and she is brilliant. She is all things data. She is an amazing intelligent woman. And by the end of this podcast, I hope you'll get to know her, her story, and be genuinely moved by that. But Malu, could you give us a little bit of your background, where you were born, your story a little bit? Let's dive in.

Malathy: Sure, Beth. Thank you for having me in this podcast and I'm so happy to join you. My name is Malathy Amirthalingam. And I'm from Sammamish, Washington currently, but I was born in India, Tamil Nadu. All my siblings and parents are there still, but I'm the only one who moved to U.S. right now. I completed my engineering degree back in India and I got married and I moved back to U.S. Now I work as a senior analyst in the business intelligence space. To start my career I started as a tester and I took various roles in, you know, multiple companies. And I love data, so finally, I decided this is my path and I will stay in the data and in the backend part. So, I really love my job and all the colleagues I work for. And so far, I'm having a good time in the workplace. I come from a very loving family, a hardworking dad, and he wanted us to study because he didn't study, but love and affection was a top priority in my house. And he was such a, so I think that flows into us. So, we just work hard to achieve something. It doesn't come... inherited from, like, the previous generations or something like that.

Beth: Yeah.

Malathy: My dad ran a business, so we did not go into that path. My older brother took his path anyway, but all others are in different professions and they're happy what they're doing and my dad will be so happy looking at us now. We lost him, like, a few years back, but the pride we carry under his name is, I feel, like, so proud on a daily basis. So, I apply all his principles and the way he taught us on my daily work and, like, my personal life. And it really helps me to grow, to be a better person, so who I am right now. So, I'll thank my dad and mom forever in my life.

Beth: I love that so much. And I know it's even a deeper story and I just wanna stop and acknowledge the loss of your dad, but what a profound influence he was for you.

Malathy: Yes. Yes.

Beth: Beautiful. And I know that growing up in India, Malu, you experienced a caste system.

Malathy: Oh, yeah.

Beth: If we can delve into that a little better because I think it's shaped the way you view discrimination and even how you approach your work. So, if you could just enlighten our listeners a little bit on that.

Malathy: Sure, Beth. So, caste system is a big thing back in India. It's kind of, like, racism, like what we call here. But caste is like how people are treated, how they are divided, and what are the things they get is, like, widespread based on the caste. When I studied, like, we are like part of a caste system where we get some perks based on that caste. We have to fill in that form. So, now they're fighting, like, why do you have that as a column? Don't do anything based on the caste. And when I grew up I've seen people, like, not let into the houses and they should not walk through the houses. They have to just come back of the house to get something. And they don't even touch people. They have separate plates for them and all those things. Why that difference, right?

When we studied history, unity and diversity is one of the top things and treat people equal and everything we study and it's in books. When you go into reality, it's like, why are they doing this? They do all the work, but why are they not allowed into the temple? And that question was, like, triggering in the back of my mind, why they're not doing this and why they're seeing the people different based on the colors and things like... Even there we have that. I don't say like, oh, it's a perfect place to live in and there's no issues. No, there are issues. There are, like, people go through worst things. They don't even get the basic things that they need to have in their life. And some of the jobs only those group of people needs to do and, like, they can do improvements, but they have never done it. Now the youngsters are fighting and, you know, they're saying, like, "Hey, technology has grown and everything has changed. Why these jobs needs to be done manual and why they need to suffer?" So, they are finding some solutions to it. But the caste system is not ending anytime soon, so they still fight. They kill. Which I'm not, like, a big fan of, Beth. Looking at those things and after moving here, like, here it's like a complete different picture, right?

Beth: Yeah.

Malathy: Here. So when I saw that, like, why? It's just like a skin color, right? It doesn't do anything beyond that. It's like, the blood is like all red for everyone. It doesn't make any difference. And why do you see people? You segment people. Oh, those people they're, like, scary or, like, they do these kind of things or, like, they're not fit for it. And it doesn't matter. Every individual is born with a talent. You cannot judge by the look or, like, you cannot say, "Oh, you'll not be able to do that." You never know. I learned that's not the correct way to treat people. And, you know, every time some incident happen, I just pray and I cry seeing the incidents, but I always feel like something will happen, but people are always going backwards.

Beth: Yeah.

Malathy: Only the hot topic for a week, and then it's gone.

Beth: Dissipates.

Malathy: It's just like we talk, like, you know, this can be done, that can be done. And then after one year everybody say, like, "Okay. This has happened in a year back. That's it." And, like, the affected people are affected and that mark or scar is never fading anytime. In a talk show I saw that host was just talking like a similar incident. And she was in full tears. That happened like two years back. Right? Even thinking, right, it hurts them because it's their... It's a right to be there and it's something they go through.

Beth: Yeah. It's unjust. It's why we're having these conversations, right, because to your point, it's just a color of skin. I know that that caste system sort of set the groundwork for how you viewed the world and yet you were probably through the encouragement of your dad and the recognition of your brilliance, you chose and went into engineering. And you and I have spoken about this. You weren't just the only woman where as stateside is still very much a male-dominated field of work. And you came to the States and you were married.

Malathy: Yes.

Beth: And did you speak English?

Malathy: Nope.

Beth: Not a word. And yet... Let's chat about that.

Malathy: The funny part is, like, I studied in a matriculation school back in India. There it's like we studied and I can understand. I can speak very little. It's like we don't converse, like, fully in English, but I can at least, like, communicate with people. I feel proud when my mom or dad, like, go somewhere and they hear me speak English, "Oh, my kid is talking English." So, when I got married and I came here, it was, like, completely different for me. In a real-time world, you need to converse with people in the language. I was literally scared, but my husband encouraged me a lot. Credit goes to him. So, he'll ask me to call and, you know, anytime, like, I need to get an appointment or, like, anywhere I go, he'll ask them, "You talk." I'll start with my name. You know how my name is very long, like, my last name, especially. So, they asked me to spell it and I'll start with A for apple, and blah, blah, blah. And then, like, that's how I started communicating, but there will be mistakes, you know? Like, I feel like shy, like, I don't call. That's how I slowly came out of that shell of talking. The way I talk now, it's completely different from the way then. Unless you speak and practice, you'll not get pro in it, right?

Beth: Right.

Malathy: So, it was, like, a tough journey for me. I would say that was a big struggle I had. Then I started working. I started my career as a checkout person. So, that gave me, like, a different angle of, "Oh, this is how we communicate. You say, like, hi. You like, say, thank you." And then I studied testing certification or a testing course in U-Dub. So, I met a lot of people and in different diversity into that course and different aged people were there. That gave me, like, a lot of hope, like, oh, they understand how we talk. But that's where I was when I moved here in '99 after 21 days of marriage.

Beth: Oh, my goodness.

Malathy: Like, in 21 days I was here. So much change for me. The weather-wise.

Beth: Everything, right?

Malathy: Everything. And you are sitting inside the apartment. In India, it's completely different for us. All the doors are open. Anyone can come anytime. You cannot be in a quiet zone for, like, five minutes at the time I grew up. Till 10:30 at night it'll be, like, loud. You can imagine when I move there, no sound.

Beth: Oh, yeah.

Malathy: I survived all these and I got adjusted. And I'm here for almost, like, what, 24 years now? Half of my life.

Beth: And your English is better than most people's.

Malathy: Thank you.

Beth: You're so articulate and brilliant. As a woman, you maintain your intelligence. And when I watch you in meeting and when I watch you start to dive into data, you're doing things so swiftly no one can keep up with you.

Malathy: Oh, thank you.

Beth: And it just makes so much sense to you. But I wanna talk about that caste system and how it's helped you view and face discrimination here.

Malathy: When I go to temple, you know, some person was like, "Oh, don't touch. Stay away." They use their hands and I was like, "What's wrong? I took a bath. I came to the shrine, like, to pray." And the priest was... He knows us very well and he offers us, like, "Okay, do this, do that." And this person did that and he immediately reacted, "Malathy, come next to me and stand here. She stays with me." And that person got, like, shocked and, like, "What's happening?" So, that time he delivered saying, "Hey, everybody is equal in the temple. Nobody is getting discriminated here." He said, like, "You can leave. You are welcome to leave any time. This person belongs here."

Beth: Beautiful ally moment.

Malathy: Oh, yeah. That day struck me, like, oh, wow. Before God people treat you like this? Whether it's Christianity or, like, Muslim or Jainism, anything, God is one. It's like a supreme power. You can worship in any form. It doesn't matter. At the end of the day you are connected to him. Do good. Don't hurt anyone. You are a best person in the world. I have only two things I'll follow. I will pray. But unless I am very kind to myself first and kind to others, nothing else matters. At the end of the day it doesn't matter. Whatever you do, puja or, like, whatever you offer or whatever you do, you need to be kind, like, you need to be available to help others when they're needed. And then don't hurt anyone even physically or, like, by words. You will have the happiness automatically. That's what I feel.

Beth: Well, you're beautiful at radiating that happiness.

Malathy: God has given me this life. He might have taken it anytime. I'm on the earth for a reason. My parents have given birth to me for some reason. I always tell my mom, "If I'm here there is a reason. So, don't worry. I'm happy. I'm alive." Right? After this COVID thing, people being alive is a big thing because I lost a lot of loved ones during that time. Those are the two principles I follow every time. So, that keeps me happy. And like anything, like, a dispute with anybody, I don't want to talk back with someone else, hey, this happened or anything. Just like straight. Even at work, I like to be very transparent in what I'm doing. I'm still learning. I'm not a pro or anything. I always call it out, like, "If you know, if you feel like you want some small things you want to call it out, please do. I'll keep the ground open." That will help you to grow. Otherwise, if you're not listening to others, what will happen? If you keep on talking and if you're not listening, I think that's not, like, a growing thing. Never argue with people. That molded me into a different person being here alone. This 24 years has been, like, a different stage in my life.

Beth: I think the thing that I'm so impressed with about you is that even in the face of discrimination, even in the face of people being combative with you, you come with just this beautiful energy that isn't defensive. It's as you're saying, it's wide open. Tell me about it. And I've watched you disarm people who are getting very worked up about data, "This data is not correct. Where did we get this data? Why are we using this data?" You bring just this energy of just peace and calm and it shuts the room down.

Malathy: Nothing is perfect. You always try to be perfect, but there is always something like lagging. In a room we have 10 or 20 people. Not everyone has a good morning. They are not in the same mood as you. It's a mix of everything. We'll take data as an example. They say, like, "Your data is wrong." I will say, "Okay. Let me look into it." I would not say, like, "My data is perfect. How can you say that?" That will never work in the workplace. I'll say, like, "Hey, you know what? Maybe something is wrong. Let me check the source and let me check the query," so that they'll feel, "Oh, okay. Something is missing." And I'm happy when people find issues and tell me, it really helps me to drive in that direction. And that will put down that fire at that time and they'll feel, like, a little better. If I'm also screaming, that will not end up in a good place or we'll never find a solution.

In workplace-wise I've seen some people will be very sad, some people will be very stressed. I'll at least check on them saying, like, "Hey, are you doing okay? Do you want a coffee? Do you want a hug?" because you never know what they're going through. Some days are very hard. Even for me, after losing my dad coming to work was, like, a big challenge. I was lost completely. So, I have to cope up. I have to live for my kids, you know, my family. I have to support my mom and my brothers because with my dad, they're completely lost more than me. I try a lot of principle at a lot of places. I know I have so much stress. My kids said, "You should never talk," or, like, "No, don't communicate. When you're angry, don't type and send message. You never know what you're typing. You might look very bad even though you are saying the right thing." At workplace, I don't feel any jealousy. I'll say, like, "It's my work. I'm doing my work." If that gives me growth and next level, I'm happy to take it. If I'm suffering, I think of people who are suffering more than me. No complaints, right? You have hands to eat. You have food on the table.
Beth: Your great humility is coming through loud and clear, Malu.

Malathy: All my credit goes to my dad and mom and my siblings. I don't know what I would do without them. We had so much connection. I always say, like, "I want to be born again in the same family, like, you know, with you guys."

Beth: What a tribute.

Malathy: Yeah. These qualities in me is just, like, from my parents. My father worked for a salary starting at 250, I think. And he didn't have any fancy car. He just had a bicycle. Raised all of us. Everybody had a good education, food, dress. Now we have cars and I drive around like my dad did.

Beth: Can you equate that for listeners? What is 200 rupees?

Malathy: In the current rate $1 is ₹70. It's less than five dollars you can say.

Beth: Right. A month?

Malathy: A month.

Beth: And yet you have this beautiful spirit, this beautiful family, and this beautiful way to walk in the world. So, in our industry, as a woman, as a woman of color, and great intelligence, what advice would you give to people that have come up against this discrimination in their workplace and maybe they didn't have a wonderful family like you and they can't credit that? Somebody that is really facing discrimination and cannot seem to get ahead and feels that kind of anger, what advice would you give to them?

Malathy: One thing I always feel you cannot change others. You cannot change the way others think. I have seen people who never waves at me or even after saying, hi, they never reply, but I still say, like, "Hey, how's your day going?" From my point of view, don't worry about that. You are awesome, unique in your own way. You don't want to worry, like, what others think about you. You do what you are born to do or being there to do at your work. Your work speaks. Whatever you accomplish speaks. It doesn't matter. You prove yourself by doing things that they cannot imagine. I don't need to prove myself. I apply this everywhere. I don't want to prove, "Oh, I'm a good person in the family," or, "I'm the best person you can be." No. I never do that. If you know me and you know me as a person and you like me, I'm fine. I'll die for you. But at the same time if you treat me bad or treat anyone around me bad, that's totally a different thing.

Beth: You don't have that sense of competition because you don't have insecurity.

Malathy: No. So, I think that kind of mentality will keep us moving and growing. If you are, like, worrying about all these things, I know discrimination is a big thing and the pain it causes I can totally understand. But I know, like, everybody doesn't have a family to support or a sibling to support or, like, it's not always 100% effective or applicable to everyone. Everyone is different. But you come out of the struggle by studying and make that as a priority. Any work you do, do it with full passion. And if you don't like it, do a work that you like. You do what you do. Automatically everything changes. If you keep on worrying and complaining, I think that will hurt you only, not others. You think, like, people discriminating and, like, talking will sit and cry for anything? No. You are the one who is really hurt and you're going through that thing. I know it's not a joke. I feel for them. But I still feel like why. Everything is changing. You have the whole world in your hand, like, in a phone, you can do everything, but still you're like this. I never understand that part. What is the point talking about we going to Mars and other things like that? Who cares?

Beth: Who cares?

Malathy: You're not valuing the humanity in front of you. If you don't respect others, like, what's the point in having all these fancy things and doing fancy things? It doesn't matter. My daughter said when she was four, I think, "Love yourself before loving others." That struck me, like, "Oh, wow." I don't know what made her to say that, but that made an impact in my brother's life and my life a lot because he lost his wife at the time. Because if you don't love yourself, you'll always have a complaint about yourself.

Beth: It becomes your focus. There's always something thirsty about you and in you.

Malathy: Just be proud of, like, whatever things you do.

Beth: Right.

Malathy: People will ask like, "Oh, why you keep a bindi?" or, like, "Why you wear this?" Because it's my culture. If people are asking, "Oh, this is the thing that you tie during marriage," or, you know, I can explain. I get excited about that because that values more to me than to others. Small, small things we can at least express to others. Be proud of yourself, proud of your culture, proud of your traditions, where you come from. You don't need to be shy to tell that. I grew up in India. My kids were born here and they're growing up here. Totally different. When I'm telling my kids, every tradition we do for them. When they go back to India, they have struggled speaking my language. So, in my house we speak only our, like, native language. So, they're very comfortable when they go back or communicate with my parents or, like, anybody back there. Now, I'm so happy. And they love speaking it. And my older one said, like, "I'll make sure my kid will learn that language." That fulfills me. Okay. Keep up with whatever you're doing. You don't want to change. That's the one thing I teach my kids too. Don't change for anyone. If you feel shy, if you don't want to take it, that's fine, but don't think, like, oh, somebody will tell something, so I'm not taking my food. Right?
Beth: The confidence. The confidence to be proud of your culture, to be proud of your family, to be proud of who you are. And I think sometimes when we talk about discrimination, it becomes this, "What do I do? How do I make impact?" And it's just in those moments...

Malathy: Yeah. Yep.

Beth: ...where, you know, maybe someone is sitting next to you in a meeting and they say, "Oh, wait, no. Malu, can you belong?" Or whomever. Right? It's those small moments that impact the person that's receiving that and impact the person who just thought, "Oh, this'll be fun." Right? Or funny, or whatever.

Malathy: Yeah. And then to add to that point, back in my village, like, people are not allowed inside the temple, one group of people. They do all the hard work for you, but you don't allow them inside the temple? So, they'll stand outside the temple and worship. My dad literally fought for them and he asked them, like, "Let them come inside, otherwise, no work will be done for you in future."

Beth: There it is.

Malathy: That's how he did. Now they go into the temple, they worship. How I felt that work he has done for the people and the things he has done for the people helps out even if he doesn't have money, that kind of a person he is. So, after he passed away, we had food served for everybody in the village. And one person started crying before eating in tears, he said, like, "There is no other person like your dad." That moment, Beth, I felt like I'm so happy. I'm so happy to be your daughter. That one drop on the banana leaf made me, like, think, like, how much my dad is worth to those people. That completed. I don't care, like, what he did. He stayed in the hearts of people. The same thing I want to achieve. I want to help. I want to be there. Like, whatever I can. Small things. I can buy food. I can drop off clothes. Many people are doing. I'm not saying. But I want to follow my footsteps of my father and I want to be like that. Even here, I try, like I see a homeless person my heart breaks. The last week also I saw a person in the sun and he was, like, in the 80s maybe. It really, like, break my heart. Somewhere we can do to make a change, we should be the change. Unless I... I never talk unless I do, right?

Beth: Right.

Malathy: To see a change, you be a change. You need to bring that in your life or a culture to deliver it. You know what I'm saying?

Beth: Yeah. I'm always so happy to chat with you and learn more and go deeper with each conversation. But I'm more moved at the depth of you served up in such simplicity. Right? Because it is about our hearts at the end of the day. Right? It's, do we remain... What's our legacy? It's I think what we're saying.

Malathy: Yes.

Beth: You can have a very lofty career, but what's your legacy? Do you remain in the hearts of people as that person who they were a joy to work with and they were an ally to me?

Malathy: Yes. Well, people will think, like, money can do anything, but literally I'll say, like, just money cannot do anything. Kindness make a lot of difference. I'm not saying, like, money is not worth it or anything, but unless you connect and do things, it doesn't matter. So, even if you're giving, like a dollar, give it with a full heart. Our tradition is, like, serving food is, like, a big thing. You have to offer it with love. Those things I think it makes a lot of impact how we interact and how you see things is, like, very important. I know we cannot go fix each and everything out in the world. At least do what you can. And don't hurt yourself for anything because seeing things make you angry at that moment you feel like to do something. Don't do that. That is just going to impact you, not others.

Beth: It's not self-love.

Malathy: So, just, like, think how I can change this, right? Violence is not an answer for everything. Think of things that we can do. This generation is completely different and kids are so aware of things because of this phone and technology they know what's happening. They have a voice to tell everything. At least something should be heard. I don't know where it goes, but still. That will be my advice to the people who are hurt by the discrimination and other things. You need to come out of it, you know, in the workplace. But to some extent, if it is not acceptable, just talk it out. Don't keep it to yourself. Tell someone. You have every right to do that. I see even small kids saying, like, not touching you because you are in this color and then not talking to you. They just want to ignore you even. You are like the person who they need to communicate and talk.

Beth: Yeah.

Malathy: That's not the way you need to raise a kid because he's going to face a world in a different way. You should not plant anything in their heart from the kid. That's how they grow. And they're confined within that bubble. They never go out of the bubble to learn anything. But when he tries to explode at that time, it'll be really hard for him also. You should have that wide vision of seeing, like, this is happening. Even my kids have said, because we are from a different place, this will happen. They will not like you. They'll ignore you. There are, like, 800 people. You cannot go change everyone. You have kids who are understanding. Right? Just stick with them. Don't react. Reaction will never do anything.

Beth: Have that confidence to just be who you are and take that moment, take that breath, and look for allies, right?

Malathy: Yes.

Beth: Look for friends, look for allies.

Malathy: Yes. I give a lot of credits for my husband. He and myself, the understanding give and take, being there for me. I give lot of credit for him. He doesn't talk like me. He's a very quiet person.

Beth: That's okay. It's the yin and yang. Right? It's a nice complement to one another.

Malathy: So, when he talks loud, it's like...

Beth: Oh-oh. I will give my attention to this now.

Malathy: But it was a good 24 years, ups and downs, a lot of losses. And we are here, but I missed a lot of fun back there. My brother's marriage. But at the same time, it molded me as a good person, so I'm happy. Everything is, like, different in every place. When I go to India, it's a complete different thing. As long as, like, we are just, like, taking what is given and going on.

Beth: I appreciate you so much, Malu. And I appreciate the spirit that you've brought to this podcast and the energy. It has been my utter pleasure to be with you. And I have to say, even more than that, I'm privileged to work with you and call you my friend.

Malathy: Oh, thank you, Beth. I'm so happy to be part of this podcast and I'm always happy to talk to you any time. It was so much fun. Glad I could share my thoughts and, you know...

Beth: Yeah. Thank you for the courage to do that and to, you know, maybe inspire a lot of people as they listen.

Malathy: Glad I could. Thank you.

Beth: Thank you. That concludes this podcast of "MGAC Inner Voices." Thank you so much for joining us. And please, check back next month for another episode of Inner Voices. Until then, take care.

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