The Voice Inside

Presenting to you, people person, portfolio manager & a person propelled solely by the inner voice, Smita Scaria.

Driven, intense, and quiet by nature, growing up Smita was focused on her studies, her dance, and was lost in the world of books. From Kolkata to Kochi, the Middle East to Kerala, Bangalore to New Zealand, India to Australia, Smita moved around a lot before finally settling in life. System Analyst to Business Analyst, Business Consultant to Project Manager & now a Portfolio Manager, Smita’s experience of 20 years extends across project lifecycles from negotiations, funding, scheduling, development, resource planning, management, and project completion. And she is the best.

Smita and her inner voice hold a strong connection, ‘if I do not listen to my inner voice, I would be disappointed with myself.’ Smita will eternally listen to her inner call. She has made it through her life because of her internal sensation and judgment.  

The curly, frizzy-haired girl was constantly picked on while growing up. She has learned to love herself, her locks, and she now walks tall with grace and attitude. From figuring out what she wants in life to what she has set for the future, Smita is one woman we all need to follow.

Join us in conversation with Smita Scaria. Discover how the power of her inner voice made her the woman she is today. 

A conversation with Chippy & Smita Scaria, Portfolio Manager, Melbourne, Australia.

Chippy Hey Smita, How is life down under in the world’s lockdown capital? 
SSWe have accepted the new norm. In Victoria by now, we have spent over 200 days in lockdown. 
CKCFor a person who is always on the move, this must be challenging. Growing up, you have moved quite a lot. 
SSThat’s true, and yes. We’d moved quite a lot. My family lived the first few years of my life in Calcutta. Bengali was the first language I learnt. Initially I didn’t know my mother tongue, Malayalam. When we moved to Kerala, that’s when I learned Malayalam. After four years there, we shifted base to the UAE, and within the Emirates we moved every 2 years. Later during my senior school years I came back to Cochin, and later moved to Bangalore to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering. After I got married in 2001, I moved to New Zealand to join my husband who was working in Wellington and lived there for around 15 years. We are settled in Melbourne, Victoria currently after a couple of stints back to India in between.
CKCInteresting. From outside it definitely looks fascinating. All those travels and shifting and moving must have been exciting as well as challenging.
SSIt definitely was.
CKCSmita, what’s your story? Take me to your early life. What sort of a spirit were you? 
SSI was an introvert, focussed, driven, and a private person. Always focused on studies, my dance, and lost in the world of books.
CKCWhich books were your lifeline as a kid? 
SSI was very much into crime fiction, thrillers, and detective novels. The books I grew up with were Nancy Drew and Famous Five. Books let your mind travel to places you cannot physically. I was very, very thirsty for reading material. I would even read the food label on the back of a jar at the dinner table if there was nothing else to read. I just had to read something all the time.

At the moment I am reading ‘The Way of the Seal” by Mark Divine. Over the last year or so during lockdown, I have been able to get back to my reading habit, and I am the better for it!. It opens up your mind to new ideas, thoughts, experiences.
CKCBecause you were always on the move, did you miss out on having friends? 
SSYes, in ways. I mean I was never the kind of a person who needed a big group of friends. Always one or two friends, and we were very close. But it was not easy to keep in touch with folks with multiple moves including international moves. Things are so much easier with social media now!

I am very different now. I would probably be perceived by some people as an extrovert now and tend to be able to connect and relate to a lot of people.
CKCAfter your 10th grade did you decide what you wanted to do in life? Or as it happens in Asian culture, did your parents decide your path ahead for you? 
SSNo, not really. Up until the 10th grade, I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help people, I had all those lofty ideas. You know how it is if you are good at studies in India you are expected to go down the path of either medicine or engineering. So my heart at that time was set on becoming a doctor. Those days we didn’t have Google or any sources for information, so you talk to your grown up cousins for information. I had a couple of cousins who were doctors, specialised in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Both of them had advised me at some point that if I went down the medicine route, I would not have much of a family life.
CKCIs that the reason you chose Engineering? 
SSAs a kid, I remember telling my mother, ‘I don’t want to get married but I want to have kids.’ I have always wanted to have children. Always. So somewhere in my head, the fact that family life will be difficult to accomplish stuck, and so I put the idea of medicine aside and went on to do engineering. I did B.E. Telecommunication from Bangalore. 
CKCHow did life progress after studies? 
SSIn terms of my career, similar to my life journey, a lot of my moves/choices at the start, were based on what I didn’t want to do. If you think about it, I was already in Engineering, which I wasn’t enjoying. I was thinking, what am I going to do? I want to work and I do want to have a career but what am I going to do? I didn’t really know but I knew what I didn’t want to do.  
CKCHow do you know what you want to do?
SSIf it’s not something I feel passionate about, if I don’t have the spark inside and if I am doing it for the sake of doing it, then I lose interest very quickly. I should feel I am making a difference. For example, most of my batch mates went down to programming and got into coding. Coding was interesting but did I want to do it as a full time job,’no’ was my answer. I did know by then I wanted a job that let me work with people primarily.
CKCSo how did you choose your pathway? 
SSAt that point of my life, I was not sure what I wanted to do. A job opening as a System Analyst came through. In this role, I was the person in between, connecting the developers and the users. It was an HRMIS system we were developing. That worked out to be the first job. It felt good. I believed my technology skills were utilised, and I was also working with people. So that sort of piqued my interest.
CKCWell, you figured out what you are interested in.
SSSort of, and by then, I got married to George, who was living in New Zealand at that time. Soon after marriage in 2001, I moved with my husband to New Zealand. 
ChippyIn New Zealand, were you able to adapt quickly? What were your challenges? Culture shock, finding a job !!!
SSYou know how it is in India, moving base between states is almost like moving between countries, a completely different culture, and language. In New Zealand, adapting was smooth, language was not a barrier  but I was wondering what I was going to do. 
Difficulty finding a job was the usual.  I was new to the country and I did not have New Zealand experience. It took me a year to find a job there. 

I did stick to my guns and waited for the role that called out to me.  There were people who would tell me ‘why are you being so fussy and why don’t you pick up something and gain experience.’ But I stuck to what I wanted to get into. 
CKCSo how did you start over your career in New Zealand? 
SSI had figured out by then that the role of Business Analyst seemed to be closest to what I wanted to do and what I would like to continue to do. One thing I have done when I look for jobs, I do not look at just the job title or position that it comes with. I look at the responsibilities that come with the job description and when I sift through them, do those responsibilities look interesting to me and is there a spark within me when I read them. 
CKCHow did you land your first job? 
SSThe Business Analyst role I applied for was looking for someone with NZ experience. I lacked NZ experience but I was able to articulate my thoughts and what I would bring to the role. One thing that worked in my favour, I think, were my communication skills. I consistently got through to people and they were able to relate to me. That was a distinct advantage. 
My first job was as a Senior Business Analyst in a department within the New Zealand government. That was the first opening in my career there. 
CKCGovernment job means you are set for life.
SSTrue yet after about three years, I decided I wanted more, further exposure across the industry. I had worked in the government sector and had wanted to gain more industry experience, across disciplines. I had just been promoted to a Lead Role within the group and also had a young baby by then. This was, therefore, quite a risk I was taking but was determined to get going.
CKCWow…you are a brave soul. How was your professional journey from there on?
SSI found a contract position as Senior Business Analyst, within the  IT Service Delivery department with one of the banks in New Zealand. My contract work was an infrastructure role completely new to me but it would give me an entry into the banking industry. From there I moved into the space of online banking and then to working with cards – chip profiles and NFC technologies.

That’s when NFC Technology for payments was just starting to hit the NZ market. I had the pleasure of designing the chip profiles for contactless payments for the Bank and then was part of the team that were piloting NFC technology on phones so they could be used as payment instruments. Exciting times!

Payments technology turned out to be a really exciting space and I absolutely loved it! One of those avenues where one can instantly see how technology impacts the day to day lives of the ordinary person.

By this time, I had been in the business analysis space for 10 years and had two young boys. 
CKCYou have definitely found your way. Experienced Business Analyst and an expert in what you are doing.
SSTrue. At this point and I do actually remember, it was 2012 when that voice inside me started telling me that there was more to do and I needed to do more. I wanted to be able to drive the end outcomes.  

When my inner voice got quite loud, I reached out to people within the bank, including my manager, and started having conversations about what other roles I could do. 

Project Management was something I had looked at in the past but had put it off because there seemed to be a lot of reporting involved and I was not quite sure I had wanted to do that.
CKCYou are in a very comfortable position now. Making a change, this is a big risk. 
SSIt is always scary when you are doing well in a particular role, you are in a comfort zone and the fact that people trust you. You build all this up, and your inner voice tells you to throw all that away and move on to a completely different thing. It sure was a scary move. 

But I had to listen to myself. I did tap into the network I had at work, and was offered a Project Manager role for a major transformation program at the Bank. I took up the role with gusto. Some folks saw the role at a promotion, I saw it as a side step. You know how it is when you switch, you often have to start at the bottom in terms of creating trust with your stakeholders and then go from there. Interesting times but I learnt a lot, worked quite hard and had a very supportive network at the Bank.  
CKCWhat would that mean if you don’t listen to your voice? 
SSIf I didn’t listen to my voice, I would end up disappointed with myself, knowing that I am not doing justice to myself. I had to listen to my inner voice. I always do.
CKCSo you were challenging yourself. Every step, every time your inner voice converse, you are setting a new bar for yourself, a challenge to yourself for more. 
SSI do and it also has its challenges. By 2015, my health took a turn for the worse and I decided to take a break for a year. During this time, we decided to relocate to India. I went back and resigned and we moved to India as a family. 
ChippyRelocating to India after almost 15 years in New Zealand, that must have been a big decision. Have you ever had the idea to settle back in India for good?
SSWe actually did. The idea was that we would settle back in Cochin after many years abroad. The plan was that my boys could join the school in India and George and I would find new jobs as well. Closer to family and home, that was the idea. But when we started our life there, none of us settled well, the boys didn’t enjoy school either. 

It was tough on all of us for a while and all of a sudden George found a job, but it was in Melbourne, which was further away from what we intended. If it was Dubai or Singapore, it would have been easier but moving alone to Melbourne meant keeping the family apart, so we made the decision to relocate as a family to Melbourne. That was not a career decision but for our family to stay together.
CKCDid you settle well in Melbourne ?
SSActually, we did. I like Melbourne a lot more than Wellington, in many ways. New Zealand is a beautiful country, the people are beautiful, honest, trustworthy.  Australians tend to be straight up with everything. This works for me. I am pretty straight up. I am a lot more comfortable if I can be direct and honest.

The weather here compared to New Zealand has worked out to be better for me and the boys. They are happy, healthy and doing well here. They enjoy their school, they were able to make friends and quickly adapted to school and friends here. At the end of the day, it worked out to be a good decision. 
CKCAnd what about you? 
SSIn Melbourne, after settling in I started looking for roles and my first opportunity came up pretty quickly via LinkedIn. A couple of chats and interviews with the then CIO at this global fin tech. I was quite excited to be working for this organization as it would give me exposure into the products and services industry, something I had not done before. I was excited to be part of a great team here.
CKCWas there room for growth?
SSThere always is, if one is keen on growth. I joined as a Project Manager in 2016 taking on the client delivery face for a key project. Since then I’ve progressed to Program and Portfolio Management roles. I am currently looking after a few clients for Australia and New Zealand on one of our flagship platforms. 
CKCDo you have any future aspirations, you are a Portfolio Manager, what is ahead for you, any aspirations, next five years ? Or it all depends on your inner callings again….
SSI think so. As I said earlier, I have never really aimed for a particular title. At this stage, I am not thinking of what title I want to have in five years, etc. Only that every day is an opportunity to be better than yesterday.
CKCIt’s not the title.
SSYes. I got into my current role quite recently. This could keep me very busy and for quite a while. If something completely different comes along, I am open to it. We will see where we go. 
CKCYou are a strong woman and you are very articulate and clear on what you want. You do come out strong, you do know what you are talking about. Did you have to deal with sexism at work? 
SSSexism is very much there. Anyone who claims it is not there, either is very lucky or is not being honest with themselves. For example, just a couple of years back, it was one of those days where I was working late, and this colleague from work came over and said, ‘you are still here, still working, so who is taking care of the kids and who is cooking’. I am sure he would never ask a man that. Never. 
CKCNo man would ever be asked that. Is it a challenge as a woman? Is the tech world a hard place for women ?
SSLet me be honest, it can be. To thrive you have to be very confident, of who you are. I am not a tech geek, I am not a developer, I am not a specialist techie. I am a generalist, which makes it even more difficult. End of the day, it’s about being really clear and confident and being able to voice your opinions. And to be honest, I was not always this strong. 
CKCI look at you and I see a confident woman. It’s hard to believe otherwise.
SSIt has been a journey from my introverted self to a person who cares deeply about what she does on a daily basis. And that passion and commitment overrides any nervousness or apprehensions. The other day one of my seniors referred to me as a gun! 

If I go into a meeting, for example, I am just simply clear on where I need that meeting to go, what are the objectives, what I want to achieve, and what we need to achieve. I have no problem listening to anybody’s feedback. But I will not let someone bully me or corner me. I make sure everybody’s viewpoint is heard, and we get the objective done. It’s never about one person and should never be.
CKCHow did you overcome your apprehensions and gain confidence? 
SSMy internal GPS has always been strong, even as a child. That plus life and it’s twists and turns and curveballs. Every twist, turn, curveball, failure, loss, everything is an opportunity to learn. And I have had several opportunities.

One of the most pivotal experiences was when I was selected for a Women’s Leadership Training program in New Zealand, which ran for several months. Being in that network and meeting women from a wide spectrum gave me a very unique perspective. We often think because we are from a different culture, we have unique problems. Actually, no. The problems are pretty similar, the intensity might vary a bit. Coming together with other driven women in a safe, focussed, environment was empowering and life changing. Suddenly my mind had been opened to all these different perspectives, different ways of how to frame situations and come to peace with them and/or claim victory over them.

The experience also showed me how different we all were. For example, one of the guest speakers at the program was a C.F.O. at that point. She was telling us how at the age of eleven, she decided she wanted to be a C.F.O. She knew she was a numbers person, even at that tender age she had set her sight on the role. She said she knew where she wanted to go and she worked for it. Understanding and respecting differences is critical for success.
As a woman, you always have to find people – men/women, within your immediate network who you respect and are potential role models. Having a support network and one that could provide a mentoring aspect is essential.

Over the years, I’d realised that every time I took a risk and put myself out there, I got stronger and more confident. The more confident I got, the more I understood myself, and now I know a lot more about what I want. Now, it’s a bit simpler that way. It’s still scary but simpler. 
ChippyI am sorry, I have to say this. I love your curls.
SSHahahaha… took me so long to accept my hair in all its glory and strength. I have been called “Kapiri”. As you know it used to be a term that people used as an offensive and derogatory term.
CKCDid you lose confidence because people made fun of your hair? 
SSOh yeah! Absolutely. Probably from 9th grade to 12 th grade I had zero confidence. My hair, my weight. I used to dance Bharatanatyam upto the 10th grade and I stopped just before 10th grade, as studies were the only priority in our lives that time, and then I piled on weight. My weight, my hair, not being your regular kind of girl who talks to everybody, people always picked on me.   
CKCMust have been difficult teenage years. How did you cope with all this?
SSTo be honest Chippy, I have gone through so many phases, if I think back probably until age 15, I was pretty self centered. I was never arrogant, just lost in my own world. Moving back to Cochin during 11th and 12th grade, that really shook my confidence. The weight and the hair and people. It was a trying time. But the connections and friendships from that phase are still strong after 25 years. 

I think I changed when I left home for the first time and went to Bangalore for my under-graduation. My friends back in Cochin used to tell me, ‘you are so much easier to talk to now’. I must have opened up then.
CKCHard times but you made it through. Wow!
SSChippy, there have been so many things happening throughout life that, I felt every time I took a step further, I kept going down. I had battled with depression for years and I was on medication. One day, I got up, and I decided, ‘I have to change or else I am going to completely lose myself’. I stopped taking the medication, and from there on I have been building myself back up again, brick by brick. Building myself up. When that happens naturally, you become a lot stronger because of whatever you have done.  
CKCIs there anything Smita Scaria is scared of? 
SSFor sure. Just that I go ahead and do it anyway. One of my biggest dreams while growing up was riding a motorbike. Even though I told you I was a bookworm, the other side of me was into speed. I’d always wanted to ride a motorbike. In India, we had those kick start bikes, I was never tall enough or strong enough to do that. So, when I turned 43, I decided to go get a learners licence for motorbike and I got a Harley. People called me crazy, some said I was having a mid-life crisis. Whatever!

It’s a good question you asked. I wrote down in my book a couple of months back ,’I have finally conquered fear’. In fact, in terms of personal growth I believe that if you ask yourself,  what do you fear the most, and if you did not fear it, then what would you be doing? The answer can give you a lot of insight into what you actually want to do. If you ask that question to yourself and you are  honest with the answer, you could find out a lot about yourself. 
CKCNow I am thinking,’Am I honest with myself?’
SSChippy, we owe it to ourselves to be honest. Who else is going to do that? Nobody else. So, we owe it to ourselves to be absolutely honest to ourselves. Growth comes from being honest and asking those questions, what do I fear, if I don’t fear what I would be doing. 

Also we need to put an end to making excuses. Stop making excuses by saying I am doing this for a certain person, for kids etc. At work sometimes I feel some women, even though they have so much potential, and have the right attitude, are so much confused between being a mother and working full time, being a mother and not able to spend time with their children vs doing what it takes to make it.  Some women get so confused, conflicted and that’s holding them back. You have to make a call and then stick with it. Sure, you also need to have open conversations, arrangements and agreements with your spouse and children. Growth is a journey everyone goes on together.
CKCHow did motherhood change you?
SSLife changing and in many, many ways. As I said before, I always wanted to have children. With my first one, however, I suffered from postnatal depression and motherhood was anything but the wonderful, blissful experience books describe. Of course all of that made me feel terribly guilty as well. We were in Wellington that time, it gets very quiet and you get awfully isolated as well. By the time, my baby was six months old, I somehow wanted to get back to work. I was dying to get back to work. 

At six months my boy started crèche, and I returned to work. Of course, it was difficult at first, you take your little one to daycare and you feel guilty. One of my colleagues once told me, ‘if you are a working mom, get used to the fact that you are always going to feel guilty.’ 
We have to make a call. You are always going to feel guilty, because you are not there for their morning teas, afternoon teas and day care parties. You will miss out on those bits, as you don’t have time. Don’t worry about it too much. Don’t let that bother you, just accept it. 
CKCIn 2015, you decided to take a break from work for health reasons. Do you recommend taking a break when your body says rest?
SSYes. For me, balance is not something I am good with. To be very honest, when I pick up a project, I get very, very focused and I lose track of things. Sometimes I do drive myself into a place where health fails because I put it through too much. I am not good at that balancing act yet. If I get into something, I have to see it through. I do recommend a pause when your body says so – you’ve got to learn to listen to your body.
CKCWhat wisdom do you have to share with people who are currently lost or trying to figure it out?
SSYou have heard about people talking about finding your purpose. For me, from my personal experience, choosing your purpose is more apt (inspired by “The Way of the Seal”). Finding your purpose could take you your entire lifetime. 

Clarity and commitment in choosing your purpose and to keep working at it, and being open to finding something else on the way and being brave enough to be honest to tell yourself, ‘hey I found this other thing which I think will work much better for me.’ Doesn’t matter who else you are honest with, you have to be very honest with yourself. That’s my personal experience. Everything comes from being honest with yourself. And I always, always follow my internal GPS.
CKCSounds interesting. Please can you share in detail. 
SSA few techniques that I picked up at the Women’s Training I completed in New Zealand and via books I have read. I use these principles on a daily basis.

Transitioning for maximum efficiency & Power.
As women, we are very uncomfortable with the word power. You typically think it’s a man’s space. Power comes from being present in full, you are present in full – mind, heart and spirit. When all of you is present, in a consolidated form, that is power. You can tap into what you have, and not worry about other people’s opinions. You are simply there to do what you need to do, that’s power. Next is transitioning, every time before you take the next step, reflect on where you were, make peace with it before you move into the new, so you actually feel you are ready for the new.  Otherwise it keeps holding you back. I use this technique even in between meetings. I take a couple of deep breaths to kind of center myself again, before going to the next one, otherwise you carry the energy from the previous meeting to the next one and to the next and on and on. So, that’s transitioning. 

Choose a purpose
Work on it and keep refining it, get really into it and be good at it. Be open.

Make a stand.
What do you stand for? For example, I am in a leadership position. My personal stand is that I will achieve my objectives in the most inclusive and kind manner that I can. It’s about what’s your bottom line. If it all crashes down, what will you not negotiate? Being very clear about the bottom line. 

I am okay with not being liked.
Worrying about being liked can take a lot of energy. Lot of women asked me how do you do that? I am nearly 46 and it has taken me time to get here. I was not naturally born like that. Coming from an Indian background, it is ingrained into you, especially women,  to worry about how others see you. And at some point you have to get over that and say, “I’m going to be okay even if I am not liked.” It is important that this is not coming from a place of arrogance. Just that there are things to be done and things to be achieved and just got to focus on the same.
Turning up everyday as me and my fully authentic self.
All those other steps help me do that. I am okay with not being liked, I am aware what my bottom line is and what I will not negotiate on, I have a purpose or I have chosen one, and I am being there, being present. Which means I can turn up as I am and I am not pretending to be someone else. I am me, just me. 

These are the five principles I use, my internal GPS.
CKCMuch to think about and work towards. One final question. What will you tell your 18 year self?
SSThat’s something I do quite a lot. When I meditate, I make it a point to go back to my  childhood and tell myself, ‘you will be okay. You will make it, you will be fine.’ I say to my younger self, ‘just enjoy where you are at, and you will be okay.’ Now if I look back, and if I had the time to reset, I would try and enjoy my eighteen year old phase a lot more rather than think about ‘what’s next, what’s next!’ 

All throughout, each of my life’s phases, childhood, finishing school, college, getting married and then moving continents, each of those phases when I look back, there was so much anxiety around what was next! So now if I could reset the clock, I would say to my younger self, ‘just chill where you are at and enjoy it and the next bit will come. You are going to be fine’. I would tell myself that.
CKCWow…that’s a very positive note to end our conversation. It’s late over there, I have taken a lot of time from you and am glad you did this with me.
SSI do hope this helps someone out there. If we are able to just talk about things and share experiences, it could help someone out there feel not alone.
CKCI know for sure your journey will inspire and be that hope for that one person who is searching for support, help and guidance.
SSLet’s hope for that. Fantastic. It was lovely talking to you, feeling very refreshed.
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