Disha Patel on uncovering your inner confidence
“Are you growing? Are you becoming a better thinker?” Disha asked intently after swapping pleasantries. As a young woman just barely scratching the surface of my career, I’m not shy to admit that I have a lot to learn — from becoming a more effective product manager to being a better advocate for myself. One quality that I’ve been trying to work on is the ability to voice my opinions eloquently and exude the confidence that most product managers seem to have down pat. Disha Patel embodies those qualities — a badass straight shooter that is not afraid to lean in, but also a kind and curious spirit that lives to better herself and those around her.
I first met Disha when I was just starting out as a product manager and she was giving a presentation on a problem-solving framework. Whenever Disha and I talked, our conversations were introspective and ended with her dropping nuggets of wisdom. This time was no different.
With 8 years of work experience under Disha’s belt, she has seen a lot. From beginning her career at a male-dominated electrical engineering company in the Midwest, to a world-renowned consulting company in the land down under, to now tackling some of the biggest fintech companies in Silicon Valley, Disha has taken the learnings from each of these times in her life to broaden and deepen her ability to think critically and contribute to her work meaningfully. However, she attributes the foundation of her personality to her humble beginnings in India and her parents. “I didn’t actually get very good grades in school because I didn’t try very hard, but I never undermined my capabilities.” Disha recognized from a very early age that there was more to life than test scores, so she focused her energy on constantly challenging herself to learn new things.
When speaking about the influence Disha’s parents had on her, she recalls how her parents never pressured her to get good grades in school, but they always pushed her to be independent in her decision making even from an early age. “If I wanted to strive to be better at something, my parents never pushed me. They gave me a lot of freedom, but they trusted my judgment.” This internal drive paired with the support from her parents equipped her with the courage to take risks and to fight for a better future for herself. In her mind, the concept of a “better future” was in the United States, where she believed that “with a combination of hard work and talent, the systems and people will support you to where you want to go.” Eventually, she found herself packing her bags and flying solo to the US. This marks the beginning of many experiences that have further molded her into who she is today.
Disha’s career has been a story about building courage and sharpening her judgment; the raw boldness that she possessed was being refined into tools that she could use to propel herself forward. “A formative experience for me was at Cummins. I never felt like I was taken less seriously because I was a woman. I was actually pretty direct for a young person amidst all the white male engineers, and they were still very supportive and encouraging.” Disha recalled as she looked back on the beginning of her career as an electrical engineer at Cummins and how that empowered her to be authentic and confident in her wit. As Disha progressed in her career, she learned to be critical about when to speak up but more importantly, how to do so effectively. “I guess with all the experience over the years, I’ve learned to find a balance. Now, I just ask questions because speaking up is about getting the right answers for the organization and the customers,” Disha explains as she ponders on how her perspective on speaking up has changed over the course of her career, “I think of it as less of speaking up and more about learning more … I do what’s needed and I’m not shy about it.”
As I reflected on my own experiences, I noticed the jarring differences between our upbringing and outlook on life. Growing up, I cared deeply about how others perceived me, which translated to timidity in my own opinions. To me, speaking up just meant shining an unsolicited spotlight on yourself and your beliefs, which subjected you to more scrutiny and judgment. Disha’s perspective was refreshing because I hadn’t realized that the motive of speaking up could be more than just making your voice heard; it can be used to further your understanding of the matter at hand for yourself or just to enrich the discussion through a different set of eyes. “It’s a muscle, it gets better with practice,” Disha advised as I confided in her about my insecurities. “That’s where self-confidence comes from, by the way. The fact that you had an idea and you put it out in the world; whether or not it will be well-received, it doesn’t matter. But the act of having an idea and putting it out there takes courage.” In hearing that, I take comfort knowing that even though being confident doesn’t come naturally for me, it’s something I can learn and grow into.
When I was planning out this article, I thought I was going to write a piece (or guide, if you will) about how to find your voice and confidence in the workplace. But through my conversation with Disha, I learned something deeper. Confidence comes from first believing in your own skill sets and knowing that you have something unique to offer. By building that solid foundation, your voice will come as second nature not just in the workplace, but in other aspects of your life as well — it all just takes faith and a little practice.