Rani Borkar and Noelle Walsh-Elwell

Featured Employees: Rani Borkar and Noelle Walsh-Elwell

By Women@Microsoft ERG

Noelle Walsh-Elwell's photo

A love of math and science was the catalyst that pushed MCIO’s newest Corporate Vice Presidents forward on their paths of learning, discovery, and onto careers in technology.

Noelle Walsh-Elwell, Corporate Vice President of Global Data Center Operations, grew up in Ireland, one of five children in her immediate family. She attended an all-girls school, where she discovered an affinity for math, physics, and chemistry. But when she wanted to take advanced math and science courses in high school, she and a couple of her classmates from the all-girls school had to cross the street to attend classes at the all-boys school, since the all-girls school didn’t offer the advanced courses.

With few girls in the classroom, “I learned what it was like to be a minority at an early age,” Noelle said. It was a social situation that would repeat itself many times as Noelle went to college and then launched her professional career.

Rani Borkar, Corporate Vice President of Cloud Supply Chain and Provisioning, grew up in India, and her affinity for math started early in her schooling. But that interest went to a new level when an eighth-grade teacher captured Rani’s imagination. “The way she taught, and the way she made math sound so interesting, almost like a puzzle, I got so hooked,” Rani said.

That obsession with math lead Rani to work on math problems late into the night in her bedroom. Rani’s father would inquire about why she was up so late doing homework. “Why are you so late on your homework?” Rani’s father would scold. Rani would have to explain that her homework was done hours earlier, she was just doing more math problems because it was fun.

Early in their lives, Noelle and Rani benefited from support of their parents and those around them.

Noelle’s father was a teacher, and he was a big supporter of Noelle’s desire to pursue her math and science interests. “What really helped was that my interest in math and science was on my own initiative. It was what I wanted to do,” Noelle said.

For Rani, her encouragement to pursue her interests came from her parents as well as the community around her. “Very early in life, my parents sowed the seeds of how important mentors are,” she said. Rani’s mother worked in a hospital, which opened Rani to interactions with doctors and other medical personnel. “Growing up, I had that kind of support system. My parents helped me to a certain point. After that, this community that my parents had built around them could help me with questions I might have about math or science.”

Noelle’s interest in math and science propelled her to obtain a university degree in Chemical Engineering and her first job with Brown & Root – an oil and gas exploration company – designing oil rigs, where the group of 30 new hires included three women, including Noelle. But after working in the design office for Brown & Root, she found herself wanting more.

“I did design work for a while. I spent some time offshore, I spent some time working in a refinery on the Shetland Islands. My work in the design office heightened my curiosity about operations and I learned that I wanted to run production facilities. I felt that in my case I couldn’t design major equipment based on my college theoretics alone if I had never run what I was designing.” she said.

Noelle’s desire to run things led her to explore operations careers in the chemical industry. With little chemical industry in Ireland, Noelle’s exploration led her from London to Dow Chemicals’ operations in the Netherlands. What Noelle thought would be a three to five-year stint turned into a 29-year career with Dow that took Noelle and her family around the world and finally to Dow’s world headquarters in Michigan. She ran various global business operations, business divisions, cross-company supply chain, as well as customer service and loved it all.

Rani’s interest in math and science were also her launching into higher education, where she obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Physics in her native India. But her path to those science degrees included a bit of a hiccup. Rani’s initial interest was to pursue a career in medicine.

“Because my mother worked in a hospital, I always thought I would be a doctor. I never thought I would be an engineer,” she said. Rani applied to medical school, but she was not accepted. Rani was devastated by the denial, but it proved to be an important life lesson. “I learned that you cannot give up. Just because I did not get into medical school – and I was devastated – my Mom and Dad reminded me, ‘This is not the end of the world. There are lots of good things you can do.’”

Rani’s interest in math and physics presented her a dilemma as she started her college work: which subject to choose? Her family and mentors urged Rani to choose the subject for which she had the most passion. But that advice did not help her much, because she had passion for both. “I loved both. I loved physics and I loved math,” she said. But with the help of her mentors, she realized that if she pursued higher education in physics, she could have her cake and eat it too.

“We came to the conclusion, if I study physics, I will still be doing a lot of math. I can’t do physics without knowing a lot of advanced math. But if I’m studying math, I am definitely not learning statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetic theory, and so forth,” she said.

After completing her Master’s degree, Rani was admitted to a PhD program in laser physics, but she decided to put the PhD work on hold and work in a planetarium, where she was introduced to astrophysics. Feeling a need to learn more about astrophysics, Rani applied for a graduate program in the US, and she was accepted. But after a few months, she realized that she was not doing anything new. So, Rani changed course and started a graduate program in electrical engineering. That journey taught Rani a few lessons that continue to inform her life.

“You should never call anything ‘just enough.’ You should push yourself to your potential. Always be inquisitive, curious. And follow your passion. At some point, you have to be true to yourself,” Rani said. “The most draining thing is not being true to yourself. I can’t imagine coming to work and not being excited about what I am going to do.”

Rani joined Intel after completing her Master’s in Electrical Engineering, where she would spend 27 years growing from an individual contributor to a Corporate Vice President role in Intel’s Product Development Group. At Intel she led microprocessor development for all server and client products.

Noelle’s career with Dow presented her with early opportunities to lead, including being the first woman production leader. Noelle had just returned from maternity leave when a production lead role came available. After weighing whether this was the right opportunity, Noelle applied, to the surprise of Dow management. But she interviewed for the role and got the job, which surprised even Noelle. “Oh no, what have I done?” Noelle asked herself. “Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for, because you might get it. But that’s where I learned to be a leader.”

Learning to manage through challenges and crises is a theme for both Rani and Noelle. Also consistent for these leaders is how stressful situations were opportunities for learning and growth. “If you haven’t had a failure, you haven’t pushed the envelope far enough,” Rani said. “But you learn from failures, and you don’t let failure stop you. But if you failed at something and in turn learned a lesson from it – then can you really call it a failure?”

For Noelle, managing through problems and calamities is a chance to learn about and prove oneself. “Crises can be tough, but you can learn from them,” Noelle said, recounting a predicament faced by one of her teams at Dow. “We solved it and pulled together. There was no giving up. Sometimes you think a crisis is the end of you when it is really the making of you.”

There were a few challenges for Noelle of being a woman in a leadership role, including male managers questioning why Noelle, as a woman, would focus on her career rather than family. Later in Noelle’s career, she was asked to set up a woman’s network. At first, Noelle was taken aback by the request. “Hell no, why would I set up a woman’s network?” she asked. “I’ve gotten where I am despite being a woman, they don’t notice! Why would I bring attention to that?”

But after giving the request some thought, she and a couple of other women arranged some initial meetings, and it was an eye-opening experience. Women came to the meetings and opened up about how they were treated and things that were said to them in the workplace. The group decided they were going to put a stake in the ground, and the women’s network was going to be a force for making changes at Dow.

“That was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me.” Noelle said. “It was backward of me to initially say ‘hell, no.’ I came to terms with the fact that I am a woman and a leader, and I have a certain responsibility that comes with that.”

That experience gave Noelle an appreciation for the challenges of building a diverse and inclusive workforce. Noelle also realized that diversity takes many forms. In addition to being a woman, she was working in a foreign country and had different educational background. “I realized that my colleagues didn’t understand me. I wasn’t Dutch, I was a woman, and I attended different colleges,” she said. “I realized that they had to get to know me, and I had to get used to introducing myself.”

While Noelle and Rani’s professional careers are both rooted in their love of math and science, their professional paths to Microsoft were decidedly different.

After a long tenure at Intel, a move to Microsoft was a natural step. “Having worked on microprocessors at Intel for more than two and a half decades, I feel like I have worked at Microsoft, indirectly, forever,” Rani said.

A 1:1 meeting with Satya Nadella in 2015 allowed Rani to see herself as part of the Microsoft family. “I was impressed by his humility, his down to earth approach and his authenticity,” she said.

For Noelle, the thought of working at Microsoft had never been in the cards for her. “Microsoft sort of screwed up my life plan,” she said. After a long career in the chemical industry, Noelle had planned to return to Europe and be closer to her daughter, who is attending college in Europe, when an invitation to interview at Microsoft presented itself.

Noelle was also impressed by Microsoft’s CEO and the culture of the company. “What impressed me was the holistic Microsoft culture values as well as the growth of the company. I am impressed by Satya’s style, and I think he will be the CEO for quite a while. The common thread of high values I witnessed throughout the interview process also impressed me.”

Being part of a growing, evolving company attracted Rani to Microsoft.

“Looking at the C+E group from outside, I used to say that Microsoft is on a tear. The cloud growth has been phenomenal, and the team has done an outstanding job rising to the challenge. We are a solid cloud provider at this point, and now we must push our focus on scaling – which means we need to now work on execution to be repeatable and predictable,” Rani said. “We are going thru the growing pains of scaling at this point. In addition to meeting our commitments and deliverables, we need to put energy into structured processes and discipline and streamline our processes.”

“I am excited to participate in the growth of Microsoft and make a difference, that really attracted me,” Noelle said. “We seem to be growing faster every day. But I’ve been impressed with the people and the culture. Even in a capacity crunch there is no finger pointing, it’s about ‘how can we get through this together.’ Coming from another industry, I just see opportunities to scale.”

Microsoft’s emphasis on recruiting diverse talent and building an inclusive culture was also a draw for both leaders.

“I am a big believer of leveraging everyone’s strengths, and I always bring diversity of thinking to the table,” Rani said. “Diversity of thinking means that we are bringing people with different ideas, different world views, different experiences, different backgrounds, different cultures to the table. This adds richness to our approach and decision making.”

For Noelle, Microsoft’s emphasis on diversity meshes with her life experiences, which started in her school days. “I’ve lived in many different places, and often I was the diverse one, wherever I’ve been,” she said. “But I’ve really thrived on that diversity. I am a believer in diversity of thought and ways of doing things. I like a healthy debate and discussion, with a little humor in it,” which Noelle refers to as a “family discussion.”

But after the debate and “family discussion,” Noelle likes to get to an agreement with loyalty decisions that come out of the debate. “When we agree, we agree and march on.”

An important part of making diverse discussions work for Noelle is holding true to oneself. “I think you have to be authentic, you’ve got to be self-aware, know yourself,” she said. “If you’re going to open to true diversity of thought and opinions, you can’t have second agendas, you can’t hold back. It tests you as a leader to be authentic and hold to your values despite the differences in your organization.”

Rani sees the challenges of managing a diverse organization as similar to raising a family.

“What are the challenges of raising one’s children? My own children have different approaches, different ways of dealing with challenges, different ways of solving problems, and I celebrate both of them individually,” Rani said. “So, managing a diverse organization is no different. It brings richness to the group, as long as you as a leader are open minded. Knowing that each one of us has a world view and each world view is going to be different than mine. That acknowledgement is critical in one’s understanding and management of diverse teams.”

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