Akash’s Winding Path
Akash Tharani, 35, residing in Brooklyn, NY moved from being a classroom teacher to working in DEI strategy in the corporate sector. He received a BA in Mathematics and an MA in Teaching and now serves as the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Strategy Program Manager at Google.
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
I serve as an internal consultant to our executive recruitment teams on how to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion principles into their strategy and actions. Much of this involves learning from key internal and external stakeholders about successes and best practices, and then finding ways to create scalable solutions across the organization.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
In elementary school, I used to make campaign posters to be President of the United States when I turned 35 (which would be this year!).
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
As the son of immigrants and a first-generation college student myself, lessons and conversation around career were more implicit as my parents were themselves navigating a new country. I think broadly though, career and work were an aspect of who my parents were, versus a central piece of their identity. While I don’t know if I internalized that earlier on in my career, it is definitely something I reflect on a lot now as I focus on prioritizing how my work integrates into the rest of my life.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
I started my career as a high school math teacher in the south side of Chicago through Teach for America. I was able to work with some of the most brilliant and joyful 9th and 10th graders, and had an incredible experience. It was also, however, one of the hardest experiences of my life, partly because of the impossible set of responsibilities we put on teachers, but also because of the first-hand exposure to all the systemic and institutional barriers that some people in our country (especially Black and Brown folks) have to face in order to survive, let alone thrive. My teaching experience still serves as a north star when I think about the type of work I want to do and the world I want to create.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
I actually ended up in DEI work largely due to a leader who was interviewing me for another role. I was interviewing for a Director of Talent role at a national non-profit, and less than 10 minutes into the meeting, the interviewer paused and hesitated before asking me a question that was on her mind. She asked, “All your answers speak to equity. Why haven’t you considered that as a career?” The question took me by surprise, especially given how quickly she was able to read through my responses, and identify my real passions. We ended up having a great conversation about identity and allyship that was transformative for me. Following that interview, I pivoted my job search to explicit DEI roles.
Why did you pivot?
In one of my previous roles, I served as a Career Program Manager at a non-profit, advising college students on their career journey (despite having a lot of uncertainty about my own). One piece of advice I would give to students I worked with who were undecided about their major or career path was to take stock of what you do in your free time: What articles are you reading? What podcasts are you listening to? What are you sharing and liking on social media? What electives do you choose to take? As I reflected on this for myself, I realized my interest in education and youth development really stemmed from a passion for race, culture, and identity. As DEI started to emerge as its own career field and industry, I was able to lean into this and find the right role and manager for me.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
A large part of my current role involves influencing decision makers to enact change. As a teacher, one of the most important things I learned was that no matter how great I thought a lesson was, if students weren’t grasping the content, it was ineffective. This taught me to master perspective-taking and think about the audience when designing a presentation or sharing information. Being able to adapt and meet the needs of a leader has become a major asset in my ability to influence and enact change.
Working at an organization of this size and scale is new for me. While previously, I might have been able to play a heavier role in personally driving and supporting change across an organization, here it is critical for me to slow down and think deeply about the change management process given the amount of people involved. The slower pace and intentionality required to effectively bring teams along has been an area of learning and growth for me.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
Self-doubt. Leaving the education and non-profit sector to transition to big tech came with a lot of feelings of imposter syndrome. Will I understand the business speak? Can I communicate in the way they are used to? Will I be seen as credible with my non-traditional background and experiences? All of these were worries I had coming into my new role, but also ones that likely stopped me from exploring similar opportunities in the past.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
- Career is a journey. I’ve never been someone who was great at long-term planning and goal setting. I have two (expensive) degrees that don’t necessarily align with my current career. I have worked in a school, at a non-profit, in government, and now Big Tech. Despite all of this, I have enjoyed every role I have had, and don’t regret any of it. Viewing my career as less of a destination and more of a process has helped me to add ease into my own life, stay present, and enjoy the experiences.
- Relationships matter. I saw a meme the other day that asked, “Do you ever miss your coworkers from your past jobs?” It made me smile because it definitely rang true for me. Investing in personal relationships instead of just having transactional, professional relationships has been a critical part of my own fulfillment and success. There are amazing people around us at work who we can learn from and be inspired by. Some of my former colleagues have become life-long friends, while others have been references and referrals for future roles. What is true is that the experience has always been more enjoyable when I have been able to bring my whole self into work, feel connected, and be understood as a person (versus an employee) first.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
Change is hard and can be intimidating. It doesn’t have to be a full pivot right away. Start small. Are there courses or workshops you can take? Are there people in your network that you can set up informational interviews with? Is there a podcast or book that may be influential to read? If thinking of it as a major, lofty goal feels overwhelming, chunk it into smaller steps that can help to build your own sense of achievement and confidence in getting there. You got this!
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
I think reframing my experiences was really critical in feeling the confidence to apply to an organization like Google. While initially I felt like my experiences in the education sector wouldn’t be seen as valuable or be as respected as someone coming from tech,, I realized that because the education sector had been centering communities of color, and thinking about how to close racial disparities and address inequities for a long time, the experiences I have had in this sector have provided me with countless insights on what works and doesn’t work when it comes to advancing equity.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
I moved into my first DEI leadership role in March 2020, the same week the pandemic shut down NYC, the city I just moved to for this role. Months later, we had another racial reckoning after new incidents of police violence in our country. Both of these had huge implications on DEI work and what community members needed from leaders. As someone newer to the field, but now in a position of leadership, it was hard not to feel this pressure and take every misstep to heart. When doing work that is personal, those lines between personal and professional can get blurry and bleed into each other. What it required me to do was push past my perfectionism, and recognize the need to set boundaries for my own mental health. I could not be the leader I needed to be if I was not taking care of myself first. Through amazing mentorship from my manager, supportive family and friends, therapy, and deep self-reflection, I was able to shift my own practices and mindsets in a way that made the work more sustainable for the long-term.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I am really happy where I am now, and feel like I found work that both fulfills and challenges me at this moment. When ready, I’d be interested in exploring opportunities to lead teams and help to develop future leaders given some of my prior experiences and passions from the education sector. Young people are the future and I’d love to find ways to continue to learn from and support them.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.