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2024 Virtual Return to Work Conference, May 14-16

EP 222: How to Navigate Intentional and Unintentional Career Breaks, with Sirisha Kuchimanchi

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Episode Description

Sirisha Kuchimanchi is a Global Engineering & Manufacturing Executive with Texas Instruments, as well as a podcast host. Sirisha took two career breaks in less than eight years, during which time she raised her family and earned her doctorate in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. Sirisha hosts the podcast "Women, Career and Life" and works in the tech industry, where she leads teams, drives change, and supports customers. In this episode, we talk about what she learned during her career breaks and how she relaunched at her pre-career break employer.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch. And your host. Today, we welcome Sirisha Kuchimanchi. Sirisha took two career breaks in less than eight years. During which time she raised her family and earned her doctorate in engineering from Carnegie Mellon university, Sirisha host the podcast, Women Career and Life, and works in the tech industry where she leads teams, drives change and supports customers.

In this episode, we'll talk about what she learned during her career breaks and how she relaunched at her pre career break employer Sirisha relaunch.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Carol, thank you. I'm really excited to be here today.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you so much for spending the time and sharing your wisdom and your story with us. To start, can you give us a little bit of background about what you did prior to your two career breaks?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Sure. So I actually am originally from India and I came to graduate school to the states to study. So I started working in the early two thousands and my career break happened really quickly. I barely worked a year when my first career break happened and I called this an unintentional career break.

I got laid off.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. So you got laid off and then let's talk about that first career break, and then we'll go to the second career break. And then what happened after that? Did you decide to immediately to start looking for the next job or did other things intervene and then you took a, it turned into more of a voluntary career breaker or what happened?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So I started to look for jobs immediately because the complication is, when you're on an immigrant visa, it tends to complicate issues as well. So I started to look for roles. I think first it's the emotional part of getting laid off, right? It's your first job. You're not yet found your feet.

You're not yet built the confidence. And just getting laid off is very discouraging, very hard to go through. And I'd moved to a new city. So yes, I had my spouse, but I didn't have any other support network at that time. Just a couple of colleagues I had met at work. So I started to look for jobs.

I probably interviewed once or twice, but interestingly, the way I went back was the client that I was working for called back and asked if I wanted to come and contract for them. So that's how I actually ended up transitioning back to work.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow, so they just called you out of the blue and asked you to start contracting. That's terrific and a really great way to come back.

And also it's really a Testament to the quality of work that you must've been doing for them in the first place that they asked you to do that.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: I hope that's exactly what it was, but yeah, definitely it made the transition smoother, but it took a good six months or eight months for that trigger to happen.

So it's still through that six months, you're going through trying to find a job, do all of those things and yeah going back to the client, I think both career brakes have taught me as we talk through this, that how you do your job, how you perform, how you make those connections intentionally or unintentionally.

Because you don't realize what you're doing in the background really is what helps make that change and that transitioning to finding a job, at least for me, that's been my story.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. I really appreciate you talking honestly, about the emotional toll that a layoff and then a prolonged job search following that can bring, because it's really hard and it's hard for relaunchers who are on career brake and are taking are taking a long time to find the right role. Can you, what happened after that you went, you started as a contractor then did you end up going back to work there? And then there was another career break or what happened with the second career break?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So I, in a few months, they had openings and other organizations in that same company.

So I was able to transition into a full-time role. And I worked there for a few years. And at that point, maybe after about five years, I was going back to graduate school. So it was a very complicated situation. I had a two year old at home. I was pregnant, working full time and taking classes. So there was like four burners burning at the same time.

The story that comes to mind every time I think about that time in my life is the restaurant. There was a restaurant we went every Wednesday that opened at five. We were there at the doors and we ordered the same things so I would make my 5:30 class on time. That's exactly what we did. And it just obviously got completely crazy.

And the plan was always in the back that I might stay home when I had kids at least take a break. So that was the decision. But even that decision is hard to do, even when you're trying to make the decision. Of course, there's the financial aspects, then there's the career aspects and you're trying to weigh everything because you don't know what that story is going to look after you take the break and come back.

So that was a hard decision as well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And you're in a doctorate program, right? Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, which I have to believe was incredibly demanding. And how did you find the time to be able to study and really concentrate on the work that you were doing. Did you have to go to a library or some other location outside of where your family was or how did that actually work day to day?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So two things I lived in a different state, so first of all, it was a long distance program at that point because I, taken a break from it before. So I did a lot of studying at night. In the beginning, maybe for the first few months I had, parents and in-laws help with the kids. But even then there was a huge chunk of the caregiving that I did myself, but in the evenings and late night, I tend to be a night owl when I did my bulk of my work, stayed up and, did whatever calculations, whatever data analysis, writing up.

I think that's the hardest part is just writing the thesis itself and trying to summarize it together and traveling back and forth. A few times, I had to go down to Pittsburgh and just managing all of those pieces, but it was a goal I'd set for myself. And that was a deadline, which I think also helped motivate.

And I was able to get a few extensions because of the changing family situation. It helped me stay on track and complete that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I remember when Vivian and I were doing the research for our book back on the career track, which came out a long time ago in 2007. So it was, this research was in probably 2005 and we were talking to the Dean of a school at the time that had one of the early online abroad, online course offering. And they had a lot of statistics on who was taking the course at what time of day. And I guess between midnight and four in the morning were a lot of stay at home moms probably stay at home dads too, not as many of the time, but that of course that's when it's really quiet and (inaudibel). So if you are a night owl and you can stay up then that tends to be prime time. Now, understanding that this might be way, way too technical for me and for many people in our audience, I'm just curious, what was the thesis topic?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So it was what we call high temperature, permanent magnets. So it's at that point, the application was to use it in aircraft and stuff.

Bearings, you would use these magnets, so it wouldn't have friction and wear and tear on those parts so they could fly faster, farther around.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So it was very specifically on these magnets and their properties.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: To make them so that they usable today because a lot of times product tends to be at low temperature and you can't use them in production.

So that was the research that was based around.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Very interesting. Thank you for talking about that. Alright so let's skip now you have your PhD and what happened after that? What's going through your head. And what is your timeline and did your career goals switch because you have this degree, maybe bring us into your world at that time.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yeah, actually I haven't thought about it in a few years. There were a couple of intersecting points, so I knew I wanted to go back to work. I think it fits about two years when I started to look for opportunities. So as I had my doctorate, it open up the academia and the industry route that I was looking at.

And just from looking at both options for me at that point. And probably even at this point in time, academia was not the course I wanted to pursue. I liked certain aspects of it, and there were certain aspects I wasn't ready to do yet. So I've wanted to go back to the industry because had done that.

I liked that fast pace, seeing the product come to fruition and just working through that system. I still remember this is you have to remember 2008, 2009. You go back to, I went to a job fair and there were, I think 10 jobs and maybe a thousand people. And then I came home and realized, okay, I am not going to do this.

It's going to be a very long stretch because taking a break, wasn't a norm for us to fall. It wasn't, as, at least in my experience, it wasn't as common and you probably have much more experience in that. I think now it's become a bit more normalized.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, not at all then. Yeah. I'm I'm just supporting what you're saying is it was not at all common then.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yeah. So just coming back and realizing that is just going to be a beating to go through this process. So I decided to just step back and take it easy and think about it in a few months when things got better. And the other thing is for me, I think the break and as we talk about the break, that the really fantastic part of it, as I got to spend time on personal relationships, like building a community of friends and others and the support network that I still continue to have the same people today, which really helped because we were at that point, a group of stay at home moms who just happened to meet up in different ways. It could be anybody, right? Whichever your tribe is, whatever situation you may be going through.

And I think it's just good to have. Every one of us has transitioned back to work at different times. Some 10 years later, different roles just gone through the whole process and each one's stories. unique. But it's there someone when you're trying to figure out it could be simple, how do you manage this?

So how do you manage that? It's just having that personal space and time also was a really fantastic thing.

Carol Fishman Cohen: We talk about the power of a, we call it a relaunch circle or a relaunch buddy. And the idea that like you're talking about, you have the support, you're surrounded by people who are going through what you're going through and really get it.

And you have sounding boards. You have people you can practice things with. And just generally celebrate the wins, but it also commiserate at the low points and keep each other accountable and moving forward. So there's something to report whenever you get together. So that must've been really powerful.

And I love the idea that everyone returned at different times, but everyone's situation is unique, as you said. So everyone's returning in the role and at the time that is right for their particular situation. But that's fabulous that there was a group there. One question I realized I didn't ask you earlier.

Sirisha is when you had the first career break and then you came back in that contract role, maybe six plus months later. Did you have to do any technical catch-up even though it wasn't that long. I'm guessing the second career break, that was not an issue because you were in the middle of a technical update through the PhD program.

But can you just talk about technical updating in general? And if that was an issue for you?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: I had to keep a little bit, because I had, like I said, I'd worked for not a very long stretch, so just learning more about the industry and everything. And when I went back to that role it was very similar, like carrier adjacent to what I'd already been doing.

It just became more direct with the small group of individuals. So they, had some training and things, but it gave the opportunity to explore different aspects because I used to be a client before, but now I was in the company setting up that piece of hardware. So it gave me both sides perspective because now I knew the hardware much more intimately, but I could see what they were trying to do with it and bridging those pieces together.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So let me change gears here. You run a podcast, you are in engaged with people who have taken career breaks in a returning in different ways. Can you comment on for relaunchers who are interested in furthering their education, whether it's going for a whole new degree, like you did, which is pretty unusual, or maybe enrolling in a certificate program, or even a single course on any specific advice about furthering your education.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So what I've heard from my story and talking to different people is that my perspective is I think it's good to have some idea of what you want to do. You have to know, because there's so much, it's an information overload right now, right? So you have to navigate and figure out way of spaces.

And maybe you have to take a few steps before that itself. I like the idea of information interviews. You don't have to give it a label. It's just talking to people, right? It could be talking to you. It could be talking to anybody. You're just finding out about the different things. I did a degree, but I've had people who've done certifications.

It could be Salesforce, it could be there's tons of these online schools. Now that you can decide where you want to go. And especially if you had a really long career break, that might be a great way to start investing because those certifications are valid a lot of companies look at them and it definitely gives you a leg up.

Whether you're trying to returnship program, you're trying to come in through someone and refreshing your LinkedIn profile with that will really get you noticed when they're looking for that information basically.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Good point. So you're updating your skills, but, and you're forcing yourself to be specific.

And then you're also signaling to an employer about your interests and how serious you are. So lots of great opportunities that come with an educational program. Can you talk a little bit about some of the details in that actual return to work after the PhD program. You ended up going back to your original employer.

And so were there people who remembered you from years before, did you get in touch with people after being out of touch with them for years? What were some of the specifics in terms of who you contacted, did you call them, did you email, what did you say to them? Were you worried that they wouldn't remember you or just not be happy that you had been out of touch for so long?

Tell us a little bit about that process.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yeah. And Carol, when we spoke before you talked about the frozen in time, and I think that captures it perfectly because. When I reached I'd initially reached out to some friends who were helping me look for opportunities, but interestingly, the final role that I went to and that I interviewed for, they didn't come from my friend.

It came from an old colleague that I worked with, but I didn't really think I got to know them really well because you're in a team and there are a lot of members in that team. So just getting to know them itself. But that's what I find interesting. You never know who your advocates are and who remembers you and what I guess, impressions and maybe the, now the new word is branding.

Whatever you're doing, you don't know what those breadcrumbs you're leaving along. That is a reflection that people will come back and remember. So I got contacted asking me if I wanted to interview. It was just like going back as a new employee, the whole wedding process, everything was the same, but I did know the team because that was the team I worked for.

And the funny thing is when I went back to work and I was in the cube next to my original one. And if you open the draws in the old cubits, still had my notebooks in there. So yes, because one of the guys who was living there, he opened the drawer day and said, Hey, are these yours, they have your name on it.

I said, oh yes, those are mine. I did leave them there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's unbelievable. So is the reason that this old colleague who you're saying you did not really know that well knew, how did that person know that you were looking were you posting on LinkedIn, where you talking to people and like talking to even the people you didn't know that well and how did you do that? What did you say when you reached out to them?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yeah. This is my best guess. So I did talk to a lot of friends that I had made a lot of colleagues that I, some of the colleagues I knew who was looking for an opportunities, not just in the company, but everywhere else.

Because when you're coming back to work you don't quite know where your fit is, where the opportunities are, especially when it's been a few years. How do you wrap your hand around? What is that? Are they ready to take you in? There's a lot of questions in mind. So I know that there was a conversation at work from my understanding and, generally saying, Hey, who's there, and then when they were talking about who had that experience, I suppose that's how it came up. And so my friend reached out to me asking me, because he knew, I was looking saying, are you looking for the, for a job? And then that's how I got invited. And to the whole point I knew most of the group. And I came back.

I think it's muscle memory. You make the transition much easier when you come back to work. Being in the same group, you could go to a completely new industry or a completely new company. And I think so a lot of the skills that you've taken, it really does help.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So how long have you been back since your second relaunch?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: About 11 years now.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So you're okay. So your second relaunch happened 11 years ago. Can you talk to us a little bit about your evolution and looking back now, you're looking back on a relaunch that happened 11 years ago, and we don't always get to talk with people who are that far out from their relaunch.

Do you even think of yourself as a relauncher or anymore? Do you find that you're still connected to that part of your identity? And have you hired any relaunchers in the meantime or encouraged that they be hired? I'm just curious what are your thoughts now that you're this far out on anything related to the relaunch?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: It is very much a part of my core identity because I guess it defined me even the first one happened and it's a story more and more now that I talk about when I meet people. Not just because of the podcast, but so much when I have say a career discussion at work or a panel discussion or something, I do bring it up because I find that most people are surprised by it because it's not the norm to have a relauncher.

Now there is a a tag for it, but they're not, they see me in my current role. And most of them didn't know me before I took a break because I'm in a different role. And it lends itself to an interesting conversation because it might have been a thought that some of them might have had, or some of them might want to do in the future.

And I just want to talk about it so that if they ever feel like they want to talk to someone who's gone through that experience, that they could reach out. And I've had colleagues who have come back and yes, I have enabled some of them are had conversations with some of my friends and stuff who have gone back to those roles.

And sometimes depending I've had some who have had over a decade break, which is very long in a tech sector. So in some cases they might have had to take a step back, what, going back to this whole discussion they performed so well that six months, a year later, they've gone back to their original roles.

So it just didn't take them that long. But. It's like every hiring process, right? The market demand is as part of the conversation is just your skillset. There has to be an opportunity and you have to be the right place at the right time. That opportunity might be different from what you envisioned. Are you willing to take the risk to take that opportunity and then let it go where it does.

And for me the break, really, I think it changed my mindset. That's what I find. When I look back is it made me be more. It let me take more risks. I was willing to go after things that I might have had stayed when I think back if I had continued and stayed in the course, I don't know if I would be doing the same things as I'm doing.

Carol Fishman Cohen: As you're talking, it's just underscoring to me, something that we thought about really when we wrote back on the career track, but now we're actually starting to see it, like with people like you who have been back long enough most people you're working with don't even know that you took the career break in the first place.

So when they find out you're really busting stereotypes, because they're surprised, it's oh wow. And I'm sure in their head, they're thinking, wow, she's such a high performer. And she took that career break. And really it's really powerful. It causes a shift among, especially managers who might be skeptical about the population even today when we have so many leading companies running return to work programs, and it's so much more in the mainstream conversation. And now, where we are in, COVID having forced career breaks during that time. And it's even more at the forefront, but the idea that people throughout your company, see you and see you in the role that you're in right now.

And then understand that you took a career break earlier is it's so helpful for all the other relaunchers that are coming after you. It was one of the things that when we wrote back on the career track, we were trying to envision that in when inside organizations there would be a critical mass of relaunchers like, would there be some sort of a shift because there would be much more of a recognition of the caliber of the pool would relaunchers tend to hire more relaunchers is it going to feed on itself? So it's fascinating for me to hear your perspective this far in, and the kinds of relationships and impact you've had with other relaunchers along the way since.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yeah. And I think people come back just like me. I'm sure their perspectives and their motivations are different. They've gone through maybe priorities have changed or you just looking at it through a different lens. When you're talking about now, right? COVID changed people's thought process in some ways for a lot of folks.

So it just gives you a different perspective on how you want to approach the challenge in front of you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And also the comment about looking at risk differently. I remember I was a very different employee at age 42 when I returned then I was 29 30 when I was leaving or about to leave.

And I think that's one of the great advantages of relaunchers as we've had that life experience, we've had that opportunity to reflect. And we do take a different perspective when it comes to assessing risk and our relationship with risk. So that was a really interesting point. Sirisha we're winding up now and we're getting to the final question.

The one that we ask all of our podcast, guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience? Even if it's something that we've already talked about today.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So for me, the breaks were actually some of the best things I did, whether it was intentional or unintentional. I think to me, when I look back, it was the best thing.

And my advice, one thing I did, especially deciding to go back to school, because that itself is still a decision to be made right, because there's so many moving parts. And even deciding to take the career break, because when you're choosing to step away from something you've been doing, and you're not sure what the future looks like, it's a hard decision to make.

And what I've done in all of these cases is taken pen to paper and write a pros and cons column. And I think it just helps put those thoughts, and it could be you do it on a phone, you record it on a voice, whatever the technology might be today. But the reason it helps is because first of all, that a lot of thoughts swirling in your head. And whichever one pops up is not going to be able to be the one that drives the decision.

But at that point, that was the right decision. So if ever in the future, if you doubt yourself and you want to say, "Oh, why did I do that? I should have done differently." There was a reason you did it. It's there clearly written down that was the right thing to do. So my suggestion for people is yes, of course you network, you build all of those things, but when you're making a decision, whatever it is, you want to take a class, you want to do something else, when it's those critical points, just put your thoughts down in whatever medium is right for you. It just might help clarify so that even if there was self doubt in the future, hindsight is 2020, it's going to either make you think everything was perfect or everything was in question. So no matter which it is, it was the right one to do then. And just move on from there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's excellent advice, when we're talking to people who are anticipating a future career break. One of the things that we say they can do that will be of great value to them later on if they do take a career break is to document what they're doing right now in the moment.

So they don't have to recreate the past. Any other thoughts there about, for people taking a future career break?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So I had this mini tape recorder and I would record my answers to my questions. Now that you asked me I'm going back and thinking, I think I have it at home still. If there were no smartphones then.

So I actually had this mini tape recorder because they talk about the star technique you're trying to figure out how to interview, you've stepped away from the workforce and you have to remember your stories. So you go back to your resume and think, what is the story behind these things, because you don't always refresh it.

So I started to record them. Later and in the future, even, when I would go back after I was back at work and I had to reflect, I would go back and refer to that audio tape, or now it might be in a word doc and listen to what those stories are. Also helped me play back how I sounded, just, how does your conversation with when you're out for so long, or even when you're doing it for new, it just practice helps. So just listening to yourself.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That is so important. I hope everyone is listening closely to practice talking about yourself, to practice anecdotes that you have about your prior work experience. And there is no substitute for saying it out loud.

The idea that you were saying you were recording, which of course you can do on your phone now. Or you can even set up a zoom call for yourself and so you can see yourself to or even simply speaking out loud to a wall or a mirror or talk with another person. That's another advantage of being with a group of people going through the same time.

You can practice out loud with each other, but the practicing out loud is really what makes a difference. So I'm glad that you highlighted that. Sirisha you have a blog, a podcast. Can you tell our audience how people can find out more about the work that you're doing?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yeah. So Carol, I had so much fun interviewing you and your episode is out there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: It's fun for me too .

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: So I'm really excited. So the podcast is called The Women Carreer in Life, women spelled with an E and you can find. You can look up women career in and all the links are there. So you can, there's a podcast with the name, and my name with all of the podcast platforms, Apple, Google, and Spotify.

That's Twitter, Instagram, all associated with essentially the same. So if you go to the website, You should be able to find all the resources and all the information. And I love hearing from listeners and people who are listening to it. We've had a whole season on essntially returning to work after a break, and we will transition into different topics.

So look forward to hearing more.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh that's great. What are some of the topics you're anticipating for next year?

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: The next season, actually I am going to be interviewing Laura Vandercamp to talk about timeout.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh great. We interviewed her. She 's fabulous

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Yes, exactly. And the next season is actually about mentorships, sponsorship, building a personal board of advisors.

How do you have those conversations at work potentially, maybe about, promotion or whatever else. So getting some experts to talk about those conversations. And then also the other topic that just talking to peers and friends as a little bit steered a little differently is talking about financial knowledge, financial literacy targeted specifically towards women, because I think the conversations lend themselves a little different than how we manage our finances, our mindset, our risks.

So that's going to be a season about that or that I'm working on.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Very important topic. Great to hear that you're going to be exploring that . Sirisha thank you so much for joining us today.

Sirisha Kuchimanchi: Thank you. This was so much fun. It got me to relive my own experiences. I heard your story, and I'm glad that you have a podcast that supports a community where people can hear a reflection of their story, of what can happen and how they can transition back.

So that's really exciting.

Thank you. And thanks for your generosity in sharing. And thanks for listening to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events ,to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources go to And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, instagram and other social media.

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