Single Mom in Tech: 4 Things That Helped My Career

I was on top of the world.

Priya Rajendran (r) with S’moresUp co-founder Sen Reeves Xavier.

Priya Rajendran (r) with S’moresUp co-founder Sen Reeves Xavier.

I was doing so well in my career. I had worked at PayPal building a reputation as a product lead for six years, and then joining Target in 2016 where I was asked to lead the product and design for Goldfish, Target’s flagship innovation project to build the “Store of the Future,” set to launch in March 2017.

I had been the company’s first hire as they looked to create an influencer-based shopping app that would truly revolutionize the way people shop by re-creating the shopping experience for shoppers.

It was thrilling. My team and I built the product from scratch: from picking a name for the company to strategy, validation, building a team, finalizing technologies, design, user testing, go to market strategy, how to test product-market fit, and how to manage customer service.

I learned to build products with a lean yet high performing team. We quickly reached 24 people and half reported directly to me. To this day I believe this experience taught me how to overcome challenges while building something from the ground up.

Then, suddenly in 2017, two things happened that would turn my world upside down and set the scene for the next stage in my life: The product was shut down in the midst of a challenging year for Target, leaving them wanting to focus on their core business. The entire team was let go as the project was cancelled one month before the planned launch, in February 2017

And I started going through a divorce. With a sixth grader newly learning the ropes at school, I now had to come to terms with being a single mom with a career stall.

There’s been a lot written about rising in the ranks as a woman in tech, or becoming a leader in your workplace; women entrepreneurs seeking and finding funding, creating tech products to solve problems for moms – a completely overlooked group in Silicon Valley only ten years ago.

Yet what’s missing from some of these conversations is how to truly “make it” while you’re going through a family or personal crisis (which is basically going through life.)

This crisis could be a split, or a devastating illness or death in the family, or going through a tough fertility procedure, or having to care for a parent.  There are so many challenges a family can go through.

How does a parent or family deal with these while managing your career trajectory and putting food on the table while making sure their kids are growing up healthy mentally and physically, and are also happy? How do you make sure nothing stops your momentum?

I am happy to report that I made it through and all is excellent. I took a short break for six months after Target.

During this break in 2017, I collaborated with a close friend of mine (a tech veteran from PayPal and Intuit) Sen Reeves Xavier and founded the parenting solution S’moresUp. It’s like a virtual assistant for parents meets Nextdoor. I wanted to find a technology solution to help other parents – particularly those going through a family challenge – while keeping their sanity.

Given my single status and the need to go back to work, I decided to try something completely new in terms of domain, product, and experience: cars! I joined Ford Motor Company as a Director of Product Innovation and User Experience of Ford Smart Mobility to revolutionize the way people interact within their vehicle.

I have never been happier. I adore what I am working on, I found ways to continue to work on my startup, I have a great relationship with my ex-partner, our co-parenting situation is stellar, and my daughter is thriving at school – mostly thanks to the app I developed.

So how did I go through the ups and downs of being a working mom while still managing my career? Here’s how, and how you can too:

Become An Expert At Your Thing: What’s your “thing” or your domain expertise? Mine’s product management. Looking at my Linkedin, it may look like I have planned every step in my career – but that could not be further from the truth. I’ve focused on excelling in whatever I was doing at the moment, and actively looked for ways to learn everything I could about this domain. New opportunities found their way to me instead of me pushing to find new projects. So don’t push to find the next step in your career – leave a little room for some pull.

A Comfort Zone Is Your Enemy: It is so easy to get comfortable with a job that you are good at and just ‘cruise’ through the years. When you’ve become a domain expert in something that makes you successful at your job, you’ll probably continue doing it for many years. But there is a boundary you must never cross: it’s when you become complacent, comfortable, and things become too easy. This is where your career stalls and your growth gets stumped.

Over the last 10 years, I have learned how to take on risks, raise my hand, and welcome and actively chase new challenges. The fear of the unknown will always follow you. But if you approach it with research, data and objectivity you’ll have clarity and a fearlessness that will make it easy for you to jump into the great unknown that is your future. I enjoy bringing some order to chaos and leading the teams through ambiguity without feeling lost. Risk is the seed that will create beautiful new flowers and a new future. Take risks aggressively – and take them strategically.

When One Door Closes, A New Project Hits You in the Face: Building project Goldfish from scratch taught me how to overcome acute challenges while building something from the ground up. This gave me a great foundation for when I began developing S’moresUp. I am incredibly proud of what my co-founder and I have accomplished with S’moresUp in a very short span of time.

We narrowed down the idea, did market research, found a team to develop the product, worked with them to get the product off the ground, released the product to a closed beta and got 15,000 users and 7,000 families on-boarded in less than six months. We are relentlessly iterating on the product based on our user feedback and reshaping the day-to-day life management for parents. I couldn’t have done this without the skills I learned during project that was dissolved. So when one door closes, take some time to regroup and breathe and look for the new opportunities that will likely be presented to you by the universe.

You Will Never Be 100 Percent Ready For A New Career Move: You will never be completely ready for a bigger risk or a bigger challenge or a bigger role. When an opportunity presents itself, go for it and don’t worry about whether you have done that kind of work before or not. As long as you have the curiosity and a learning mindset, you will be able to take on any challenge.

I learned this first hand at one of my first jobs as a computer engineer after college, British Telecom, from 1998 to 1999. I was a good engineer, but found out by accident that I was a great program manager. I wasn’t sure if I was ready. After a mentor and former boss nudged me in the right direction, I took the plunge and never looked back. The biggest opportunity came to me when with Paypal’s Technology Leadership Program – a two-year rotation program for a selected few. I was so apprehensive to apply as it involved a overseas assignment for six months. With support from family and a determination to learn something new, I applied. I got in and the next two years taught me everything I needed to be a good leader and a great product manager. To this day that is one of the best decisions of my life.

So if you ever find yourself having to manage your career while going through some difficult life transitions – there’s certain things you can do to keep your head above water, and keep your career thriving. I share them with you because I’ve been there, and I’ve come out the other side.

About the Author

Priya Rajendran is a developer and Silicon Valley tech mom who’s created S’moresUp, an innovative solution to the problems of managing family’s day to day life. privately. She’s a technology veteran who lead the team that built Paypal's Wallet and also covers tech topics for parents over at Bay Area Tech Mom.