“When you’re really being challenged, what can you bring to bear?”
That’s a question Dr. Nammy Vedire, director of platform and operations at Atlanta-based VC group Engage, says she asks herself regularly. Vedire says that the arts played just as important a formative role in her life as her studies in technology, and, when you look at her story, it’s pretty easy to see how her background informs her constant curiosity.
Born and raised in India with two doctors as parents, Vedire speaks of her upbringing with a bit of humor as she recognizes the unique cultural pressures of her childhood.
“I don’t know if you know much about Indian culture, but you are either an engineer, or you’re a doctor, or you’re a failure,” Vedire said. “When I was coming up, like, lawyer was not even one of those options,” she laughed.
Her decision to choose engineering as a career path came after seeing her mother studying for a medical school exam by candlelight due to frequent power outages in her hometown in India. “I don’t know how human brains work, but somehow small childhood-me had this impression, like ‘Man, I don’t wanna be someone who has a kid, studying by candlelight … I don’t wanna work that hard.’”
That realization didn’t change the amount of work Vedire would end up devoting to her career, or the expectations placed on her. She received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, but she remembers just about how hard it was to get in. “Take all the Indian kids my age who are going to be graduating. Half that, because they’re going to be doctors,” she laughed. “All of those other people are taking the entrance exam to this school.”
Even preparing to apply to school was a challenge, Vedire says, recalling a chain of educational training systems that began in eighth grade. They included coaching classes that ran from 5am to 8am, just to get into the right prep academy that would hopefully get her into the prestigious IIT school system. It worked, but Vedire was also exposed early to creativity that guided her career in ways rigorous engineering studies couldn’t match.
Vedire’s Christian Missionary school emphasized extracurricular activities, such as choir and dancing, and she spent eight years enrolled in a community center with weekend arts classes, which she says changed her life.
The classes included children of all ages, which allowed students to learn from each other regardless of experience level and skill. It was encouraging to see other kids, and herself, graduate from crayons to watercolor, painting, etching, 3-D canvases and beyond.
“It’s solidly embedded in my brain, to the point that now, to me, leisure means painting,” Vedire says.
Vedire says there’s a direct link between her career in entrepreneurship innovation today and the balanced arts education she received in her youth. When she applied for graduate school during her junior year at IIT, she realized that she wanted the option to do more than engineering with her life. She attended Yale, even as others advised her that Stanford had the better engineering program, partly because of their renowned school of art.
Though she was in Yale’s Ph.D program for electrical engineering, her determination to feed her creative interests and support from her academic advisor led her to take introductory courses in graphic design and typography. She then applied to the Yale School of Art’s three-year master’s program but was denied (there were only eight slots available), so she found a job doing graphic design work for the Yale School of Management’s communications department and built her portfolio.
She then found a marketing internship opportunity with the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, and knew she’d found the space in which she wanted to be, around people who wanted to solve problems in impactful and meaningful ways.
“That’s the part I was missing from my research. Entrepreneurship has a more immediate impact. People want to know how to solve problems so there are either monetary benefits or impacts on people’s lives — social impacts — today or tomorrow.”
She says her engineering background was still crucial to her career, in that it showed her how to crunch massive amounts of data and attack open-ended problems. “It felt like a confluence in my brain of bringing all those things together and be more of my full self, as opposed to silos. I felt like all of it came to bear to make me a better teammate.”
Vedire believes the ability to communicate ideas in clear, concise ways is more important than ever, particularly in today’s world of visual media. She says design skills offer an unfair advantage when it comes to getting an audience to understand your objectives, even in the example of a simple bar graph. It’s a question of taking something very technical, which could help people, and sharing it in a way that’s accessible as a story.
“The best engineers already know that, and that’s what they hone. It’s a destination — come get on my bus.”
She also had the experience of running Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint@GT accelerator program at the school’s Center for Deliberate Innovation, where she learned and helped others learn how there is a human aspect to almost everything, and being too close to something can hinder the ability to deliver successful outcomes.
“Despite all of these different lenses, each of us is hard-wired to have certain cognitive biases, and are drawn to illusions and errors you can’t do anything about. How do you take all these naturally flawed human beings and still do something productive? How do you build culture and environments in which each of us has enough interest in each other to surface some of those things which, if unnoticed, can leave us headed down a path of failure.”
In her current role at Engage Ventures, she runs the development of the programming and content delivered to the companies in Engage’s portfolio. Even today, she helps friends with presentations and projects, and comes up with design schemas to help them communicate. She is fascinated by the effective use of typography, from the political campaign posters of President Obama and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to the fact that Helvetica font is pretty much everywhere. She finds inspiration in diversity of thought, and likes to be around others who challenge and check cognitive errors that all people commonly make; it is her belief that the more people of diverse backgrounds come together to solve problems, the better the world will be.
And although Vedire jokes that some friends have made fun of her scholarly English (even calling her “uppity” at times), she credits her parents for supporting her creative curiosity while driving expectations for her career, and remains thankful for her engineering education.
“You can design the best thing in the world, but it’s ultimately going to be the engineers that make that thing true. My engineering background has made me a better designer, and my design has made me a better engineer. They both inform each other, and I can’t take one away from the other.”
And for those looking for creative takeaways, she offers this advice:
“I would encourage people to find their unfair advantage. For me, that was design. It made me a little bit better at everything that I did. For some, it could be singing, for others, it may be learning to cook professionally, or coding. Find a role where your unfair advantage is helping you, as opposed to you having to find five different jobs to satisfy all of you. Find work that lets you bring your whole self to work, and bring all of yourself to bear.”