ACM-W NA Profiles: Akila Prayaga
Akila Prayaga is an Account Manager at Microsoft, working in Customer Success in the Microsoft PromoteIQ team. She graduated Cornell in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Economics and management. She worked as a technology consultant at Ernst & Young primarily working on Digital & Data Analytics consulting.
Outside of work, she’s on the NYC Leadership team for Out in Tech, a nonprofit that organizes events and programming for LGBTQ+ technology professionals, and is involved with Out for Undergrad and Open Finance. She started a website, NewNorms.org, to post professional opportunities for diverse students who are interested in careers in finance.
What got you interested in tech?
I took my first Computer Science class in high school and got into web development and started making websites. I was lucky enough to be awarded the 2014 NCWIT Affiliate Award for the DC Metro Region because of my work on an online company I started in high school, YCareer. At the same time, I also started getting involved with local STEM events and festivals like the USA Science & Engineering event, local hackathons, etc.
After high school, I studied Applied Economics at Cornell and took coursework in business and analytics and pursued internships in both fields at companies like AT&T, Intelsat, and JP Morgan.
I really try to encourage young students to look out for similar developmental opportunities and to try to learn about a bunch of different career fields so you can have a better idea of what you want to pursue as a career when you’re older.
There are a ton of programs aimed towards students to learn about different career paths. Youth enrichment programs I always recommend for any students are Girls Who Code, Critical Language Scholarship/NSLIY (if you’re interested in policy/international relations), Smithsonian internships if you’re located in the DC area, MLT, Forte, and Out for Undergrad.
How do you think tech plays a role in building (or breaking down) community bonds?
Community building is incredibly necessary in technology–especially for individuals that have minority backgrounds. Having a solid community keeps people motivated to stay in tech and not feel so alone. When you feel like you belong, you tend to want to learn and do more within that community.
Having a strong community also helps broaden a person’s professional and personal network. Technology has made it easier to meet people from around the world to find out about events and information online.
I go to a lot of tech events and it’s how I learn about new technologies and innovative companies in the field. It’s a great way to meet people! I find that there are so many events, learnings, and demos in the tech industry because people love to share new information.
In 2018, you were named a GLAAD Rising Star. Has being a queer woman affected how you see your career?
Being a queer woman of color in a very heterosexual, white, and male dominated industry can be isolating.
My biggest frustration is that it can be hard to develop strong relationships with peers because you come from a very different background from them. Sometimes I feel like I have to act a certain way or hide parts of my identity so I mesh in more within a traditional corporate setting.
There’s also a certain anxiety I used to have with being out in the workplace. While being queer feels so normal to me, it’s also an incredibly personal part of my identity.
However, I’ve learned that it’s more important to live my true authentic self than to try to hide who I am. I’m a strong, outspoken advocate for advancing women and minorities in the workplace.
My intersecting minority identities have made me empathetic for other people that come from underrepresented backgrounds who want to enter into the tech industry because I understand the initial feeling of “Do I even belong here?” Whenever I see new people on my team/company, I always try to do whatever I can to make them feel welcome. I think it’s so key to have diverse representation in the workplace because it creates a norm of inclusivity.
I’m excited to see that nowadays, a lot of people come into the tech industry from such diverse backgrounds. I want to continue to see that trend rise because I think it’s important that there are no significant barriers to entry for this field.
What’s the best way to find support as a LGBTQ+ STEM professional?
Join professional LGBTQ+ organizations!
I’ve found an incredible network through some of the professional orgs and conferences I’m a part of. It’s led to me developing strong personal friendships as well.
Some of my favorite orgs are Out in Tech, Open Finance, Out for Undergrad, and Lesbians Who Tech. These organizations provide incredible networking, professional development, and career opportunities as well.
What does a day in the life of a consultant look like?
As cliche as it sounds, there’s never a typical day in consulting.
In the projects I’ve worked on, my typical day consists of running different analyses, working directly with the client on the engagement I’m staffed on, or supporting other team members when a technical issue comes up.
There’s also a lot of traveling (Pre-corona it was Monday through Thursday outside the home office) and deck building. You’ll be a PowerPoint whiz and build up some great travel perks.
What advice would you give someone who was considering going into consulting about figuring out if it’s a good fit?
Consulting can be a great career for some, and not a fun experience for others.
The best thing about consulting (which is also the worst) is that you never know what project you’ll really get initially when you first start out. That can be exciting for people who get bored easily. It’s a very fast-paced environment that can be high-stress.
Consulting is a great option if you want to try a bunch of different career options within a single job to find what you really love. One month you could have a Media & Entertainment client working on a new digital product solution, another month you could be working on a complex data analytics engagement for an Asset Management client.
If you’re looking for a challenging, career building experience then I highly recommend consulting.
What’s your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love the idea of building something that other people can use and feeling like I’m making a tangible impact on other people and my community.
Whether it’s YCareer or NewNorms.org, I wanted to build a product that other people could find genuine use for. The websites/orgs I started stemmed because I was facing an issue and found a solution that worked for me and thought the solution could be applicable for other people too.
I love the independence, control, and creativity of entrepreneurship.