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MGAC Inner Voices: Episode 23


MGAC Inner Voices Episode 23: Beth Scully + Poornima Krishnan

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) interviews MGAC team member Poornima Krishnan (Assistant Project Manager, Cleveland) to talk about the AEC job market in India versus the U.S., learning to be assertive to benefit her clients, and challenges of the immigration process.


Beth: Hi. And welcome to "MGAC Inner Voices" a podcast where we dig into the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. This is brought to you by MGAC. I'm the host of the podcast, Beth Scully. I am in Seattle, Washington. I'm a senior project manager. Before we begin our discussion, I wanna offer that we wanna say, we are not by any means experts in all things of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I can speak to my experience, and do the best I can to help our guests share their experiences as well. Our goal is not to be the end-all experts on diversity, rather, we just wanna share our stories, and figure out how together we can create better outcomes for all of us in the AEC industry. And of course, beyond.

Today, we're gonna be talking with Poornima Krishnan. And I have the pleasure of working with her. Poornima, welcome to the podcast, so thrilled that you can be with us here today. And can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Poornima: Thank you so much, Beth. And firstly, I just want to tell you that this is amazing that you're doing this podcast, and I'm extremely happy to be here. My name is Poornima Krishnan. I'm an assistant project manager with MGAC. And I'm based out of Cleveland, Ohio. And I've been working with this company for about three months now. And it's been an amazing experience so far.

Beth: Great. So, it is, of course, a pleasure to interview you here as you've joined MGAC in the Cleveland office. Poornima, for our guest, you were born and raised in...Pardon me if I mispronounce this Chennai, India, and your parents were both respected accountants. Can you give us your educational background, please?

Poornima: Yeah. So, I am an architect. And I finished my undergraduate degree in 2018, after which I had the opportunity to work in the profession for about two years with a company, and also have the opportunity to handle projects independently. And while I was doing that, I felt like, you know, while design was one aspect to the whole construction process, there were other facets like, you know, the cost aspect to it, the schedule aspect, and the technical aspects that really tie into design.

And I wanted to explore all of this in totality. And that's when I came across construction management and decided to pursue that path for myself. So, I interned with CBRE in India. And while I was doing that, I decided that I wanted to pursue my master's in construction management, and then proceeded to move to the U.S. for that. And I studied at Carnegie Mellon, and I graduated December of 2022. And this is my first gig right after grad school.

Beth: What a gig, huh?

Poornima: Yeah.

Beth: That's fabulous. So, one of the things that I found really interesting, when you and I chatted prior, India's considered a third-world country, but people's perception that they are not highly educated, and yet most are, can you expand on that for our listeners, and help them to understand the culture and the value placed on getting an education?

Poornima: Absolutely. Actually, there is, you know, a huge misconception about India in this regard, because I think about 70% of the population in India is literate and educated, and there is a lot of emphasis placed on education in India. Like, India is growing rapidly today and in all avenues. And some of the biggest executives that we have here in the U.S. from some of the most renowned tech companies are actually Indians. So, that actually in itself, I feel speaks to the fact that Indians are educated.

And personally, for me, I think my parents placed a lot of emphasis on education, I think, for them, you know, being educated, especially since they had two daughters. So, for them, it meant that we were financially secure and independent. And personally, for me, I believe that education teaches you how to view the world in your perspective, it teaches you to learn, it teaches you to observe, and it also teaches you to make decisions for yourself, and observe the world from a more balanced perspective, because it teaches you to learn, and it teaches you to absorb. I personally place a lot of importance on it, and I think my country as well does.

Beth: Yeah. So, you've already mentioned that you received your degree in India in architecture. And after your graduation, you faced challenges in getting the position that you wanted. What did that look like, and how did it shape your value as an employee?

Poornima: So, I graduated from architecture in 2018. And there were numerous others that graduated with me at that point in time, and the number of opportunities that were available to us at that point was actually quite limited. So, there were only two options, either, you know, we really hustle to find a job, or you start your own firm, or you start your own company because that was honestly the only two options that was available to us at that point in time.

So, even, you know, I worked with the company very briefly. And I felt like, you know, just the fact that there was just so many people around that could potentially be in that job, in that position that I was in, I was made to feel that every day because you were told that, you know, you were replaceable on the job. And that is the kind of experience that I come from. And that's not a fun position to be in at all, and it's mentally exhausting. And also, you know, the profession itself is dwelling because you worked long hours, and you're grossly underpaid. Like, you can't even make rent with the money that you're paid on a monthly basis. So, that's just how the profession is in India currently, that is actually the kind of work experience that I had in India while I was in architecture, and precisely why I also wanted to explore other avenues and other opportunities and other countries just to see how the same industry works in a different country.

Beth: Yeah. I mean, listening to your experience, where you're grinding it out, and you're under the gun all the time, under pressure, feeling very replaceable. This is juxtaposed against what many here in the States, many students who graduate, feel like they should be coming out into the market, they should be getting six figures out of college, they should be calling the shots of what they get. And there's some data points out there that do suggest this notion of entitlement that comes with that. But can you give me the thought on how your experience relates to that?

Poornima: I mean, I'm sure that some countries operate differently. But for us, I think it's just that we have the population, we have way too many people in the country, and everyone is vying for that position. Because there were only very limited opportunities, which just meant that you really hustled to find opportunities, which also means that you value every opportunity that comes your way because there's only so much that you have and you get. I feel like in some ways, it should be easier to find opportunities. But it was really not the case in this profession in India at the time, and it was a struggle, it was mentally did take a toll on pretty much everyone who came out of Architecture at that point. And I'm sure it's still the case in India.

Beth: Yeah. I mean, the pressure of that, and when you speak here, transparently, and mention that you could barely make rent, that's just an additional pressure that comes to that. So, you worked for two years after graduating? And how did your upbringing present challenges for you during that time?

Poornima: So, there is actually a duality in the way that I was brought up. Because on one hand, while my parents, you know, used to say that you only have to be humble, you've got to be very respectful of others, there was also them telling us that placing emphasis on freedom of expression and expressing ourselves clearly. So, I think that duality is with which I operate at work, because, you know, on one hand, I feel like I want to express myself, but there is something that's always, like, holding me back, and I am a little guarded as a person. Also, I'm shy, so that doesn't really help matters. I think I have faced challenges because of that. And it has taken me time to grow professionally to be able to address those as time progressed.

Beth: Right. So, you face these challenges of being raised in a spirit of humility, and grace, I'm gonna call it, so when you face challenges, and you're in the workspace, how did this enculturation of not speaking up, and not being a powerful voice have effect on you with projects?

Poornima: I'll tell you this, so, when I was working on the project independently like I mentioned, I'd worked on a couple of projects independently, I was working with a contractor who had about 40 years of experience, and he was only keen to point out to me that I was 23 and inexperienced. And at the time, I remember when we started working on that project, I would suggest a few things, and he would tell me that this is financially not feasible, or whatever may be the reason, and I used to believe him.

And as the project progressed, I realized that things weren't looking the way I wanted them to. And obviously, as an architect that started affecting me. And I remember there came a point when I just put my foot down on him once and I just said, "This is just absolutely not happening, and things have to go the way I wanted to because ultimately, you know, I am the designer." And also, I realized that your responsibility ultimately is to the project, to the client, and not to any other individual.

So, I think once, you know, I felt clear about that in my head, it became a lot easier to navigate the workplace because I understood that he was doing it because it was beneficial to him. But because I was inexperienced, and I didn't know how to navigate that situation very well, I just assumed that he was talking out of experience, and I was just inexperienced, and I didn't know a whole lot. So, I realized that you know, sometimes it's important that you are assertive because it just means that you are ultimately of service to the project, and to the client, and not to anybody else. And that is important. And once that became clear to me, you know, I realized that that's what ultimately matters to me.

Beth: Yeah. I mean, the importance, obviously, of finding your voice, so that you can leverage it for protection of your client. So, you endure these two years of working and making ends meet, what led you to think about applying for your student visa?

Poornima: While I was having these experiences, I was obviously thinking about how other countries would also operate within this industry. And I obviously knew that in terms of opportunities U.S. had a plenty, and I just wanted to explore, you know, the work culture within the industry and understand just what that world really would entail for me. So, that was one of the major reasons that I applied for my master's. And also to just learn construction, because I, again, was not formally trained in that field, so I just wanted to understand what that would really entail. So, just to get that experience and exposure is why I applied. And yeah, here I am.

Beth: And here you are. So, you come to the U.S., for our listeners, by yourself, no friends, no family, and it has to be said, the courage to do this must be acknowledged. And where do you think that came from, comes from?

Poornima: Okay. So, actually, I mean, there are so many Indians who do this on a yearly basis. And honestly, for me, fortunately, I do, actually, my sister lives in California. So, in the very beginning, at least she was there to help me out in the very beginning. But I remember once she left, the first few weeks were quite daunting, because I didn't know anyone. And I was very hesitant to step out on my own because everything was new, I didn't know anyone in the city that I was in, and it is quite daunting, very honestly.

But at the end of it, I just remembered that I was here for a reason, and that was to get the education. And I felt like I'd wanted it so much that at that point, I couldn't let the fear get to me. And even if it did, I just used to keep telling myself that, you know, it's all gonna be an amazing experience. And very honestly, as challenging as that experience was, it was the most gratifying experience as well, because I got to meet some amazing people, and I got to learn a lot. So, I'm truly honestly, I would not change a thing about what happened the last two years because I've met some amazing people through this process.

Beth: Yeah. But, you know, I just also just want to acknowledge culture shock, and you worked through everything, the food was different, the culture is different. And just your perspective is probably very enlightening for a lot of our listeners. So, we fast forward, Poornima, and you have completed your master's program at Carnegie, and you receive your degree in architecture, engineering, and construction management. This then leads you to enter the U.S. workforce. Tell us about your experience looking for a position.

Poornima: Yes. This was the most painful, like, experience, I think, for most internationals because firstly, there are opportunities within you is only so much. And then on top of that there are constraints that come in with regards to visa because a lot of companies are hesitant when it comes to internationals because they will require sponsorship, and not a lot of companies are really open to sponsoring international students. So, that gets slightly tricky. And also on top of that, we have only a three-year post-work visa, post-study visa, which means that there is a possibility of your visa not getting picked up in the lottery, which is another added complexity to this.

So, I actually, you know, when I was applying for jobs, there were many times, you know, I would apply for positions, and I would receive a rejection a minute or two after I've sent in my application purely because I would have selected the option that said I would require visa sponsorship, and that just meant that the company they sent you an automated rejection, or there were times when I would prepare for an interview, sit down for an interview, and while in this question of visa sponsorship comes up, they will say, "Oh, we don't sponsor visas." And that's it, like, that would be the end of the interview. And all the preparation would be for nothing in the end. So, it is an extremely daunting, extremely frustrating process. But yeah, I mean, it's ultimately, unfortunately, what we signed up for when you move here.

Beth: Yeah. And I wanna just take a little pause in opportunity, because many of our listeners don't understand you came on a student visa, and then when you enter the workforce, then you come to a whole different level. And you mentioned it, the lottery system, and, you know, the whole you have to have this sponsorship from a company. But can you expand on that, so our listeners understand the rigor behind it, and also the additional pressure, you face?

Poornima: Yeah. So, it basically means that you have a three-year post-study visa, which means that you have three attempts at the lottery. And it's, unfortunately, a randomized system that actually tells you if you can stay in the country or not. So, it's not even based on skill or any other aspect, it's purely luck at this point. And yeah, that's unfortunately, what we go through. And that period, when, you know, like, the lottery period, which is typically around March, it is quite stressful, because you're not sure what's gonna happen, and you might not get picked. And that just means that you would have to pack up your bags and leave the country. So, you've spent a lot of effort meeting people, making connections, and really setting up your life here. And it means that you would actually have to pack up and leave at any point of time. And just the fact that it's randomized, that is what makes it all the more worse.

Beth: Again, you know, the courage, the absolute courage, and the persistence, and the perseverance amid all of this, because to be frank, you're still there, you're still in this lottery system. And you know, and live with this constant pressure, "I may have to pack my bags."

Poornima:Just to add, these specific years, there were I think about 700,000 applicants, and only about 85,000 get picked, which is 11% probability of one actually getting picked in the lottery, which, I mean, it's so random. It's so unfortunate.

Beth: I had a prior interview where I learned that you're Indian, in particular, it can take you up to 20 years...

Poornima: Correct.

Beth: be able to get that Green Card. So, little bit to deal with additionally, there. It's important for our listeners to know that as well. Again, you and I had this prior conversation, and you know, there'll be a really easy fix, right, a bypass to the whole of it. And I wonder, has it ever been suggested to you, "Hey, just get married?"

Poornima: Yeah.

Beth: And what are your thoughts about that?

Poornima: It was in jest. But obviously, you know, when you're going through this process, it's not funny, because you're going through so much as it is, it takes a mental toll on you. And yeah, with even in jest, when people suggest such things, it's honestly not all that funny. And, I mean, no one's gonna get to make life decisions based off of immigration policies. And I would honestly rather pack my bags and move back to India than engage in anything because of course, firstly, it's not legal to do that. So, I would not wanna engage with something like that. Yeah. But yeah, it's been suggested a few times. And yeah, it's quite ridiculous.

Beth: Quite ridiculous and quite offensive. Because, you know, if we had some data points, I would suggest that that is not as often a suggestion to men. "Oh, hey, just get married, and you can bypass the whole of it." So, as you've been in the States, as a strong Indian woman in a male-dominated industry, have you faced discrimination? And if not that, microaggressions, and can you talk about that?

Poornima: Again, like I said, my experience at work has been very limited, so, not too much, but I do sometimes, you know, sense discomfort when someone is speaking with me. And I don't sense the same when they're speaking to a male counterpart. So, I have experienced that a few times. But outside of work a few times, yes. I mean, I remember, recently, I was taking a cab here and someone was like, "Oh, I didn't know you could speak English." Or, you know, yeah, something as fundamental as that is questioned.

Or I remember when I moved to the U.S., right at the beginning, I think I was with my sister, and we were at a store and, like, this woman walked up to me and she was like, "Where can I find something," because she thought I was working at the store. And I was like, "No, I honestly don't know." And also, I was very new to the country, so I didn't quite know how to respond. So, that has happened a few times. And yeah, obviously, it's not something I really know how to deal with, even now very well.

Beth: Yeah. I mean, these micro-aggressions have impact over time. And, you know, there's just one after another after another, and you may not even be able to identify that they're happening when you're in the midst of them. But I wonder how you are now processing that whole, "Oh, you know what, that's true. I did get asked, "Oh, I'm surprised you can speak English?" Or, "Oh, you mean, you don't work here?" And how do you deal with that? And more importantly, how can people be your ally?

Poornima: Personally, what I view this as, and obviously, you know, you feel bad about it at that point in time. But my thought is, I view this very objectively, it's honestly speaks a lot of the person who suggests these things because it just means that their awareness of the world is limited. And it doesn't speak a whole lot about me, because I would never do that to someone, I just view it as maybe their awareness or their lack of understanding of the world is what it really reflects on and nothing about who I am as a person. And honestly, I just wish people were a lot more empathetic. That's honestly, what I ultimately, you know, expect because everyone is fighting their own battles, everyone's here for a reason. And if you were just a little kinder, and understanding of why people are here, you probably wouldn't raise these remarks or make these comments.

Beth: Yeah. And you and I prior, you know, you'd spoken and said that you've had tremendous support from your fellow colleagues here, now that you've joined. But what can we offer our listeners as a means of encouragement to support colleagues who are going through a journey just like you are?

Poornima: Again, like I said, I think just be empathetic and be understanding because everyone is actually...we're all smiling, and we're all happy at work, but, I mean, everyone is going through something or the other on a daily basis, and it's just important to just be a little kinder, and be a little bit more understanding of that. And I think you can show these in just small things, right? I mean, if you're planning something, just inquiring, you know, like, if you're available, or what kind of food do you like to eat? And, like, just the basic things. I think if one really makes the effort to try and do that, I think, honestly, it shows that you're inclusive, and I think that's extremely important. But I think it all comes from the most basic little things.

Beth: Yeah, yeah. A personal mantra of my own is, you know, "In a world where you can be anything, be kind." Right? Just, kindness covers a multitude of things. And so, as we turn to the advantages of diversity, what would you think or offer are the advantages to having a diverse company?

Poornima: Well, I believe that it brings different skills, different experiences, different perspectives. And I feel like that only makes the company better because it comes up with, like, more innovative ideas, better solutions. And even you know, if it's an inclusive company, for instance, like, an employee would probably not want to leave the company, because you are making the effort to feel every single individual within their organization feel included, which is, in fact, you know, which just means that you're retaining talent as much, which is great. I think that is the advantage of having a more diverse organization.

Beth: Yeah. And how do we bring more women, and specifically more minority women into the AEC industry?

Poornima: You know, very honestly, so, like I mentioned, when I was studying over 50% of my cohort was actually women. And I think that in itself is an indication of how things are changing in a more positive direction today. But having said that, I think just the fact that there are so many women already taking charge and leading within the industry is itself an inspiration. Because when you see one of you doing that, it just means that there is hope for you as well, and you can also eventually get there and support more women.

And I think just having, like, networking opportunities for women and podcasts like this, for instance, are also helpful because you actually listen to a person's experience, you see that hardship that they face, but you also understand that ultimately, you know, they have succeeded through all of this. I think it just makes women I think more confident to make the decision to come into the industries. I think we are headed in the right direction, but, I mean, there's still a lot more work to be done.

Beth: Always work to be done, right? Always work to be done. But why? I think people, you know, they say, "Okay, we wanna make a certain data point, we want a percentage." But underneath that percentage, why is it important that we get more diverse women into the industry?

Poornima: I think having that inclusive environment only means that there are different voices that are being heard, and there are different perspectives that are being respected. And that is only going to make an industry better because if it is dominated by a segment of society, there's just so much that we're not really looking at, and just having that inclusive, diverse environment where everyone is given the opportunity to contribute, to speak, and to really grow, I think it's extremely important for both personal growth of the individual as for the industry itself.

Beth: Yeah. And so, if you were making a plan, and you, Poornima, had the opportunity to provide opportunities, how would you do that?

Poornima: That's a great question. I think what I would first do is evaluate people based off of whether they will be competent in the job, whether they would be hard-working, whether they would be passionate, all of that would matter to me way more than what their background is, what their gender is, or any of the other stereotypes attached to a person, I think that honestly wouldn't matter. Ultimately, it's whether you're good enough for the job, whether you would be a good team player, whether you will contribute well, all of that is ultimately what really matters. And that's, honestly, if I were to ever put together a team, I would make a conscious effort to find individuals that would do the job well over, you know, trying to just find people within the region, I would never do that.

Beth: Yeah, you're reminding me of something you and I spoke about. And I loved it. I loved your comment to me so much, I actually wrote it down. And I have it, and it is that it does not matter where you come from, or your background, only your competence.

Poornima: I'm a complete believer of that.

Beth: Yeah, I mean, you're a manifestation of that. Right? A total manifestation. So, as we're closing off our podcast, I wonder, do you have any parting thoughts or things that you'd like for our listeners to think about, to explore, to be curious about, all about DE&I?

Poornima: Sure. I would just like to say that, you know, irrespective, I think one should really, you know, you're passionate about construction, or any industry for that matter, I don't think the fact that you're a woman or your fact that you're a minority woman, or whatever it may be, should ever hold you back from wanting to pursue your dreams. And I think one should go after what, you know, ultimately, they want to do irrespective of anything that comes their way, because you have to... I think, ultimately, you know, any profession, there are challenges to it, and this is just another added challenge. But I think you just view it as that and just really move forward. I think that is ultimately what I would want to say. And I just really hope that more women come into the industry because I think they're phenomenal, and I think they multitask really well. And I think construction as an industry needs that a lot. So, if more women were in it, I feel like it will only get better.

Beth: You are a complete delight. I have myself personally been so encouraged to watch your strength and your persistence as you've pursued all of your dreams, and the way that you approach it, I hope that it touches our listeners as much as it's touched me. And I'm so grateful that you came on to our podcast, and that you have shared.

Poornima: I'm so happy that you're doing this. And I just hope more women are encouraged to come into the field, and I think more minority women for that matter. I just hope that things only get better from here on.

Beth: Thank you for being such a great role model, and providing that for women to be encouraged and aspire.

Poornima: Thank you for having me. Thank you so much.

Beth: Pleasure. 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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