Portraits of Strength – Archana Thiagarajan

The first time I met Archana was about 9–10 years ago at a friend’s house and I was mesmerized by her singing. Over the years I got to know her personally and professionally. An architecture major who is now the Director of Experience Design at Adobe, she is a great friend and a mentor to have.

I have always been greatly impressed by her multi-faceted personality ~ a trained Carnatic (Indian classical Music) singer, trained in Russian Ballet and a high-level executive in the valley, but at the same time a very kind-hearted and approachable person.

When I came up with this idea of writing about women who inspire me with their display of strength, Archana was one of the first ones that I thought about and I was really honored when she agreed to have a conversation with me and answer my questions. It was an amazing conversation and I hope I can do justice to it in my writing.

Tell me a little about yourself – your background, childhood, education, hobbies etc..

I was born in Hyderabad and grew up in Chennai. My first 18 years were spent in Chennai. I went to the same school — Arya Samaj School for 12 years, so it was a very interesting education, where I feel like the seeds of understanding spirituality were sown. I believe the essence of religion is often lost, the closest metaphor that I have come across is that of a banana ~ people often slip on the peel of the banana and the core is what is important, which is spirituality. And this is the understanding that I have received from my education.

I grew up in a joint family where my paternal grandfather lived with us and he was a huge influence in the way I grew up. His ability to be calm, composed and steadfast, and his principles have had a huge bearing on how I see and perceive life to this day. 

As a child, I have always had an interest in singing and my mother is my music teacher. Music was a significant part of my life growing up and I learned Russian ballet from an early age.

How Did that happen – Russian Ballet in Chennai??

It was very interesting. My mom says that I was always dancing and wanted to channel my energy and so she let me choose. She took me to Bharatanatyam class as well as Russian Ballet class and I chose Russian Ballet. Now I realize that it was very progressive for that day and age in Chennai and I ended up learning for about 7–8 years. I was in fact getting ready to go to Russia on a scholarship but due to the political climate with Russia during that time, it didn’t go through. But I am very glad to have had the experience of learning Russian Ballet. I owe a lot of my body’s mobility to my dance training. I have also learned Veena ( an Indian stringed instrument).

My educational inclinations have always been a combination of Math and arts and this lead me to do my bachelor’s in Architecture in Baroda. Living away from my parents was incredibly hard for me and add to it the factors of moving to a place(West India) that spoke a completely different language and a lot of cultural differences. I am so grateful for it because of how it molded me and made the other steps that came later in life that much more manageable.

After my 5 years of Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, I then headed to Texas A&M for my Master’s Degree in Applied Design — a confluence of three majors — Architecture, Computer Science and Visualization Sciences. The career track that I am currently in was in its nascent stage at that time. Because of the intersectionality of my degree, I had the freedom to choose courses like psychology, journalism, statistics, and user design, etc aside from the core curriculum which helped me learn things that I use even today. Half-way through the program, I got into an internship with Eastman Kodak, which was a company that was way ahead of its time in user design — and I attribute a lot of my learning to user experience and design to this internship.

Who/What is your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from the values that have been built up over the years. What I mean to say is there isn’t a singular person, because it puts too much burden on one person to be perfect in my opinion. My inspiration comes from the value systems that I imbibed from my grandfather, watching the principles that my mother and father lived. My mom had a bachelor’s degree in political science when she got married and could have had a career as a professional Carnatic singer, but she chose to be a home-maker. After she had me and my brother, she decided to go back to school to get her second bachelor’s degree in Music. She has been an All India Radio A grade artist and our house was always filled with relatives visiting Chennai and I never once heard her complain of busyness or lack of time or energy. I have watched her resilience, determination to see the best in people and her eternal optimism is a massive inspiration.

My father lead his company by the principles he lived by; he would always have his employees back no matter what. It is something that I learnt from my father, to adhere to your principles no matter how hard it can sometimes get.

I have been fortunate enough to have really great friends who are inspirational to me and I grew from all my associations.

What is your vision for your life? What Drives you?

I guess what guides me is “Am I doing everything to make today better than yesterday?”. Adding meaningful value or creating progress with every interaction whether it is for one person or 10 (the number is inconsequential here) including myself. As far as career aspiration goes, I want to bring a cultural shift in people’s thinking about a product (profit or non-profit) — to do it in a way that is in the best possible interest of the person who is using it, where real value drives adoption, trust and loyalty.

What is your definition of strength?

I would say the ability to be yourself 100% of the time is a huge source of strength. To be anything/anybody else takes too much out of you, drains you. Being genuine, authentic and willing to be vulnerable is where I draw my strength from. I have learnt, very early in life, that letting people know what I cannot do and where I have been impacted is important. I think we give too much importance to the fact that we need to appear strong and to not let people know about our weaknesses, and that I believe is letting yourself down and that is a great disservice to oneself.

What/Who is the source of your strength?

Sense of gratitude towards my family (parents, brother, husband) who have given me every opportunity to be myself and the environment that they created for me to gain the confidence that I have, that is my source of strength.

What are your thoughts about work-life balance/integration?

The word balance is tricky. It is about being conscious about what ball can be dropped and being ok about it. You make certain priorities and that brings you the steadiness that you need to be able to get through the day. The notion of work-life balance is the ability to let go and it’s a constant practice. If the house is a mess some days, that is ok and if people around me don’t get that, I am totally fine with it! I truly believe that you can only do one thing at a time and that the concept of multi-tasking doesn’t really work.

What are your dreams for the future?

Personally for me, more time spent in a state of calm is the dream for the future. I love what I do at work, and love the opportunity that I have of being a wife, a mom, daughter and sister. What I dream of being is in a steady state of calmness and acceptance.

I truly believe that humans are incredibly capable beings but we are less useful when we are in a place of turmoil. Being in a place of calm and being at a place of focus is what makes us incredibly capable. I think focusing more on creating that mind-space so that a lot more good can happen is my constant endeavor.

Favorite Book – Harry Potter

Favorite Song – Changes based on the season. “Bheega Bheega sa, Dhuan Dhuan Sa” by Shankar Tucker

Favorite Artist – Mandolin Srinivas; Tinariwen (Band)

Favorite Quote – “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore

Favorite Movie – Whale Rider

Greatest Fear – Aging, more than Death. Fear of being a burden for anyone.

Courageous Thing – I was 21 when my grandfather passed away. He was a huge part of my life growing up and I had to be there for my dad as he made a huge decision about grandfather being on life support system.

Philosophy of Life – “Living life with a sense of gratitude.”