Since she started working in the U.S. seven years ago, Nethra Murali has helped to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for thousands of her colleagues in the technology and aviation industries. Having grown up in the Tampines heartlands, as well as in five different countries, she credits how her multi-cultural background – as well as Singapore’s National Pledge and sambal stingray – have influenced her passion for building inclusive employee communities.
12 Oct 2021 / By Grace Ng
It was a blustery afternoon in the fall of 2019. At her office in Bellevue, Greater Seattle, Nethra Murali sat down to lim kopi – or rather, Starbucks hot chocolate – with a senior colleague, SAP Concur’s Global Vice President of Employee Experience.
Their conversation touched on one of the key topics in the global workplace today – promoting greater DEI, which research has proven to enhance corporate financial performance.
Nethra, who had joined SAP Concur’s Pricing & Product Marketing division in early 2019, learned that the company had several well-established employee network groups (ENGs) – voluntary groups run by and for employees, which promote an inclusive workplace, development opportunities, and community outreach. SAP’s ENGs included those for Women, Latinos, and Blacks, which were formed over a decade ago.
As Nethra recalls, “I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to further enhance SAP’s strong culture of diversity and inclusion by launching a new group for Pan-Asians, and the company was very supportive.”
Lifting up communities
During her previous four-year stint working at Boeing, Nethra had been one of the leaders in the company’s largest employee resource groups, which focused on people under the age of 30. She benefitted from – and contributed to – the group’s powerful impact on driving change and culture for its roughly 7,000 active members.
That convinced her that an ENG at work for all employees of Asian heritage would be equally transformational. So, she parlayed her energies into this second – unpaid – job.
“One thing led to another, and in May 2020, the Pan-Asians@SAP ENG – which I co-founded with three other colleagues – was launched in conjunction with Asian-American Heritage Month.”
A diverse background
Nethra felt motivated to lift up the Pan-Asian community in the technology industry. She had observed that while the Asian talent makes up a significant part of the workforce, it is still reportedly under-represented at higher levels of leadership
She was also influenced by her personal experiences growing up in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Hungary, and India, where her father’s finance and accounting career moves brought him, along with the whole family. “I always been part of an ever-changing environment where I had to be agile and nimble to thrive”.
This early multi-cultural exposure, as well her “foundational education in inclusiveness in Singapore”, shaped her appreciation of how DEI can forge stronger communities for the greater good.
Nethra cites the values in the Singapore National Pledge – “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness” as a strong influence on her views about inclusion. “These values are amplified to the next stage of DEI whenever we live, work or travel internationally.”
Gaining support and momentum
With her diverse background, which was further boosted by her academic and work experience in England before she moved to the US in fall of 2014, a passion for DEI came naturally for Nethra.
Her efforts to do so at SAP could not have been more timely.
“The launch of the Pan-Asians@SAP set the stage and primed it for the pandemic period between the fall 2020 and spring 2021, when hate crimes against people of Pan-Asian heritage snowballed,” she recounted. “We have helped educate employees about challenges they may face. In addition to practical advice, people have found solace and support in being part of a community that cares.”
In just over a year, the group reached close to 1,400 members. Its professional development and community engagement activities have been well-received, particularly a talk on “The Art of Managing Up” which attracted more than 700 attendees.
This is Home, Truly
Co-founding this ENG is just one more diversity milestone on Nethra’s global life journey.
She has travelled to over 40 countries on every continent apart from Antarctica – which she hopes to visit after the pandemic.
But Singapore is still the place she calls “home”.
Nethra spent the longest period of her growing-up years – 10 years – living in the Lion City, and her parents still live in Serangoon Gardens today.
While she has lived overseas for 12 years now, her favorite song, “Home” by Kit Chan, never fails to tug at her heart strings.
Nethra’s travels around the world: in Columbia, Banff, Venice, and Seoul
A taste everyone can enjoy
Nethra speaks fondly about home not just from her heart, but from her tastebuds.
Her deep love for sambal stingray, for example, comes from her cherished memories of eating at Lau Pa Sat during her teens.
Why this particular dish, out of all the culinary miracles Singapore offers?
It was exactly this question that Nethra and her Dunman Secondary School friends faced whenever they went to Lau Pa Sat. There were just too many sumptuous choices. But Sambal stingray was the one single dish they could all agree on.
“It’s succulent, juicy, and grilled to smoky perfection. It is also a dish that all my friends – Chinese, Malay, mixed-ethnic races, and me – loved. We could all consume and share it without any food or religious or cultural restrictions.”
To Nethra, those sambal stingray meals became a symbol of inclusiveness and solidarity: “Speaking the same language and bonding together at the same table was important for us. It was about finding common ground and a common thread to connect diverse people.”
Multiplier effects of fostering diversity
It is this unique taste of inclusiveness that comes to mind for Nethra as she works to promote DEI.
Since the launch of Pan-Asians@SAP ENG, she has been an informal advisor and amplified her experience and tips about fostering inclusion with newly formed groups like Millennials, Autism Inclusion, and Generations.
“A few of my connections working in other organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, have reached out to me to understand how they can be better DEI champions or create more inclusion through ENGs,” she adds.
Nethra’s personal experiences have made her a proponent of developing conscious inter-cultural competence – or cultural quotient (CQ). For instance, she had lived in Hungary, she became used to fielding curious questions about her ethnicity from people in more homogenous – mainly white – communities.
Even as a young girl, she recognized that these questions did not arise from racism, but simply a “lack of education and awareness” about different cultures. “I wondered what could be done…to bring some light to their perception and exposure to new thoughts.”
Such experiences sowed the seeds for her interest today in helping people become more aware of their unconscious biases and how these are manifested in the workplace.
“It is a fact that people are different, and their biases are different, but addressing them in a clear and open manner is the common ground that everyone needs to feel welcomed and heard,” she says.
“By preventing unconscious bias from impacting daily business decisions, we can create a work atmosphere that is open to accepting new diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
Nethra hopes to impact even more communities – particularly in Singapore and Asia, as she envisions herself moving closer to home within the next seven years.
“One of my favorite leadership quotes is: Take the lead, but don’t forget to lift others up as you are rising,” she shares. “I hope to do just that – to give back and make a change to the place where I am from.”
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Nethra Murali is a Manager at Global Strategic Pricing & Commercialization at SAP focusing on Concur product suite. She is also the Co-founder and Global Co-President of the Pan-Asians@SAP Employee Network Group.
Her diverse background includes spending her youth in Singapore and five other countries, receiving her bachelor’s degree in accounting, master’s degree in management and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in England, as well as nearly a decade of work experience in the UK and the US.
She was recently featured on a Forbes blog with a few other DEI leaders here.
Connect with Nethra here.
Enling Grace Ng-Hsu is a freelance business writer currently with The Nutgraf, a Singapore-based content and communications agency. An international relations and business graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton School, she formerly worked as a Straits Times correspondent covering finance in Singapore and the Chinese economy while based in Beijing. The co-author of Young China Hand, she lived and worked for almost 12 years in China, before moving to the US with her family in 2020.