A Quest to Show Up Authentically at Work Abroad

Rikhi is an aerospace systems safety engineer working on air-taxis in San Francisco, California. Compelled by the Malaysian Airlines disappearance in 2014, she has been in the pursuit of learning how to make 'flying things' safer.

By Rikhi Roy | 5 Dec 2022

It was just six-minutes of (perhaps uncomfortable) breathing and silence for my co-workers, but for me it was the manifestation of a longer-term goal lived out on a much shorter timeline. Two weeks prior, I had just joined a start-up in San Francisco building air-taxis in my dream role as an aerospace systems safety engineer. This was what I’d been eager to step into since the age of fifteen, but at twenty-three my perspective on the vision had expanded. I was now also eager to bring mindfulness into work and become a younger voice on corporate wellness for young and seasoned professionals alike. Beyond my job title, I wanted to be the one who was teaching, leading and guiding my peers through wellness experiences. I wanted to share the benefits that I had experienced from practices that have been thoroughly researched and well-documented in literature for decades. For these particular six minutes, my audience was a team of international engineers working on cutting edge autonomous technology for a breakthrough in aviation, and as I flowed through my guided meditation for the team, I couldn’t help but think of how far I’d come (literally and figuratively from Singapore).

Showing up as myself for those six minutes and beyond, boldly putting my intentions out there and asking for the opportunities I really wanted was not a linear path. For firsts, I had to acknowledge all the facets of me that were waiting to be given the proper attention and care after six years of aerospace engineering bachelors and masters degrees. I also had to lean into the discomfort of knowing that for someone else to see me for who I am, I had to know who I am first. Finally, I had to find a place of work where showing up as myself, in all of my intersectionality, would not be penalized. The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

This has been of utmost importance to understand as a foreign national and gender-minority abroad in the aerospace industry. This is also to say, I had to find a place where I could be psychologically safe. Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. While important to me, this was challenging and time consuming to accomplish as a foreign national with limited opportunities in aerospace abroad due to defense and military restrictions at larger aerospace multinational corporations. I would have been grateful for any opportunity that came my way. But going the extra mile to ensure belonging meant scheduling a lot of informational interviews across organizational teams asking questions about belonging, team structures, support, and the ability to contribute and grow in a multitude of ways beyond my job title. My questions for these interviews were informed by readings from Brené Brown, Adam Grant and Ruchika Tulshyan.

At the book signing for space author

Through these conversations and by using a ‘values’ table I learned about from an Ellevest training, I was able to narrow down places of work. The values table entailed getting honest about the ‘why’ behind what you do, defining the core beliefs and highest priorities at your deepest levels, and the principles that bring meaning and purpose to your life. Comparing the notes from the informational interviews with my personal values table helped bring forth a more nuanced comparison between organizations I could offer my skills to.  It also helped me understand the places of work that would encourage and embrace my brand of authenticity, challenge the norms in engineering, and stray away from wearing burnout like a badge of success. This alignment helped me connect with a leader and manager who saw me in all the facets I described and helped make that six-minute meditation happen – someone who allowed me to be a leader from wherever I was starting out, with whatever I knew best, and with an equitable voice on the team and at large. I took on this responsibility, freedom, and respect with gratitude.

From my perch at the corner of the conference table, I straightened my back a little more and sunk in more comfortably into my chair. To me, my posture signaled a physical reminder of self-compassion. It said: “Hey! You did it! Way to go! There is so much more to do. But for now, give yourself the credit you deserve. Anticipate making mistakes and forgiving yourself. You have arrived here, and I cannot wait to see where you take this.

To summarize – my quest to show up authentically at work abroad has entailed:

About Rikhi

Rikhi is an aerospace systems safety engineer working on air-taxis in San Francisco, California. Compelled by the Malaysian Airlines disappearance in 2014, she has been in the pursuit of learning how to make ‘flying things’ safer. She is the host and founder of ‘The Leadership, Equity, and Wellness Pod’ podcast, and founder of Singapore’s first ‘women leaders in aerospace’ conference. She has hosted journaling workshops for STEM students in Scotland, Lebanon, Morocco, Mexico, and the United States at Georgia Tech, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the Brooke Owens Fellowship. She continues to advocate for the next generation of STEM leaders by sharing her personal development and leadership learnings on social media @rikhiroy on Instagram and @rikhi_roy on TikTok.

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