Anuja Sonalker, 41
CEO, STEER Tech
Location: Columbia, Md.
Education: B.E., engineering, University of Mumbai; M.S., computer engineering, North Carolina State University; Ph.D., network security, University of Maryland
What drew you to the auto industry? The opportunity came knocking when the chief scientist at Battelle came to me and said, “I have an opportunity, and we have this new frontier. We are going to break ground in a couple of different areas.” I looked at it, and really thought, “This is an unexplored area.” So, the infinite potential from a cybersecurity practitioner’s point of view.
First automotive job: Lead scientist and program manager at Battelle in 2012.
Big break: It was Battelle. That’s where I kind of transformed from a scientist working on technology and solving problems to actually thinking about real-world, market-driven problems.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Expectations management. When you’re running a company, you have to balance many, many different perspectives. A lot rests on your shoulders. And there are no right decisions in business. Only decisions.
You’ve been in the industry eight years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? Two things. The coming of Tesla as a software-driven, technology-driven car that really made this industry up its tech game. The second thing is cybersecurity going from denial in the early days of, “No, we don’t have a cybersecurity problem” to “Yes, there’s this problem.” Everybody has it, and we have to collectively solve this.
Describe your leadership style. I encourage people a lot. I like to give people opportunities. If I see the promise and potential in somebody but I don’t necessarily see the good, rigorous training that is needed, I will take the chance on them and I’ll spend some of my time spinning them up.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I am a very calculated risk taker, versus a 25-year-old who gets out of college and — boom — starts his first startup. I’m not that kind of entrepreneur. If I look back on my career, could I have done what I’m doing today 10, 15 years ago? Possibly. But would I have been as effective and as mindful as I am today about all the things I do? Definitely not. So I would not change anything about my career.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? Make things more flexible for women, especially those who possibly have taken a break because they want to raise children while they’re little and then come back. Open up avenues for them if they require retraining. Look at the auto industry, especially now, as so much has changed in the last five years. If somebody took a break and came back, they are going to feel out of place. Help them bridge that gap.
Tell us about your family. My husband and I, we’ve been married 18 years now and have these two little boys, a 9-year-old and 5-year-old. They’re full of energy. My father was an electrical engineer. My dad and I used to make science experiments at home, taking household utensils and glasses and cups. My mother would be very upset about us taking all these things in the kitchen. But when she would see what we were building, then she’d be, like, “OK, fine.”
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? I do believe in work-life balance, but I don’t believe in work-life balance all the time. The reality of life is sometimes one of those fields will have heightened activity, and the other will need to take a back seat. If you are doing justice toward those areas, you’re kind of building up backup and support and reserves, so when one of them requires more attention you are able to scale back on the other.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? Something that my children like to do. These days, my kids are into cycling. Apart from that, I like to listen to music a lot.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? I haven’t read a book in the past year unless it’s a standards manual! But two books that have really had an impact on me, one was Lean In. The other was Gay Hendricks’ The Big Leap. Those two really made me think about where my life is going and what I want to do.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? I would actually spend that extra hour on myself, as selfish as that sounds. I think I would use it to recharge myself.
— Pete Bigelow