From an interview with Anuradha Vajjala.
Anuradha Vajjala (Anu) was born in Jamshedpur, India. She later moved to Hyderabad, where she completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Biochemistry. In 2008, she moved to Singapore to join Nanyang Technological University as a Research Assistant before doing her PhD in Microbiology. Anu lived in Singapore for twelve years before turning her sights on Canada as her next destination. Drawn by Canada’s renowned universities, our country’s open society and social democracy, and the opportunity to live life freely and make a difference in the healthcare ecosystem, she got her permanent residency in 2017. Anu brought her wealth of experience, deep passion for her work and love for humankind. She is a vocal advocate for women in tech and aims to make her mark in the biotech industry.
I never really thought that I would become a scientist. I actually grew up with a love for literature and humanities. It was my dad who coaxed me into science. My PhD is in a very interesting field of microbiology. Because of COVID-19, the world is more attuned to the fact that human beings are not living alone. We’re surrounded by an ecosystem of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. I’m extremely passionate about what I’m doing because I believe that for the future of humankind and human health we have to strike a balance in that ecosystem.
I graduated in 2017 and continued as a postdoctoral fellow in the same lab. My professor was a really cool American lady named Kimberly Kline. We were working on a project involving bacterial biofilms and things like flesh-eating disease – very exotic. The project spanned across countries and work cultures. Singapore is an awesome cosmopolitan place with people from all over the world: My research department had people from thirty-seven different countries.
We are at a stage where healthcare and research and the Biotech industry and the MedTech industry all have to collaborate. I come from a very interdisciplinary outlook, and I guess that’s why I’m in Canada right now. Canada has awesome universities conducting world-class clinical research: the University of Toronto (U of T), McGill University in Montreal and The University of British Columbia (UBC). There are also more and more opportunities for newcomers in the growing biotech industry.
If you can, come to Canada for a soft landing before you move
I applied to move to Canada through the Express Entry program as a federal skilled worker in October 2017. I had all my educational credentials and did very well in IELTS (International English Language Testing System), so my scores were high, and I got my Certificate of Permanent Residence (COPR) straight away.
I “soft-landed” in April 2018 and stayed in Toronto for ten days before heading back to Singapore. In mid-August that same year, I had a conference in Boston, so I rented a car and came back to Canada, this time through Quebec, where I spent a beautiful couple of weeks camping and exploring the rural countryside before coming back to Toronto to get my PR card. It was quite adventurous!
Making a soft landing provides you with a bird’s eye view of how things are done here, and you can actually get a feel for the place. It’s like a rehearsal. If you’re coming from a tropical country, you might consider coming in March or April so that you get an idea of the feel of winter and how the city operates during that time, without coming in the heart of winter.
This will help you mentally prepare and can help soften culture shock. While you are here for your soft landing, you can reach out to a few folks here, make some local connections and explore some of the initial things that you will need to do, like opening a bank account. You can research accommodation and look into career bridging programs. Even if you don’t have a PR card, with a COPR, you are eligible for some of the newcomer programs offered by government and local organizations.
Between your soft landing and permanent move, you can utilize all the essential intelligence you gained to make your plans. If you’re lucky, you could even land a job before you land.
Even if COVID-19 delays plans, there’s work to do at home
After I left Singapore last year, I moved back to India to take a short break. I was supposed to come to Canada in April 2020, but because of COVID-19, all the borders were closed, and the flights were cancelled. So, I was stuck in India. I realized I could use this time to prepare before moving permanently to Canada. I changed my schedule to Canada time (EST), slept during the day and started work at 8:00 p.m. India time, which was like morning in Canada. When I arrived here in September, there was no big change because I was already working on Canada time and had already established a few connections here.
I researched specific companies, startups, and sectors that I was interested in – for example, innovation or healthtech or MedTech, or FemTech – female tech. I searched for all those hashtags. I created a spreadsheet and methodically added the top companies and key opinion leaders (KOL) in my field: C-Suite executives, including Chief Executive Officers (CEO), Chief Technical Officers (CTO) and directors and approached them for advice on how to navigate the Canadian job ecosystem as a highly qualified newcomer.
I sent them messages over LinkedIn, and I’m very lucky because I heard back from nearly everybody. I think my response rate was close to 90 per cent. I would then ask them very politely whether they could chat with me as a newcomer, and I’d schedule Zoom calls. My LinkedIn profile itself helped me connect with these amazing people. I had a lot that I was bringing to the table: my skillset from Singapore and India and my current work on my own healthcare startup.
It’s important to convey the value you can bring to a Canadian firm and leverage your credentials. You need to gather intelligence in terms of how the system works, who you should be talking to, the companies you’d like to work with. It has to be a very targeted approach.
Starting conversations and building relationships
It’s not enough that you have all those credentials. You have to understand where you fit. It’s a challenge that many newcomers face. They are highly-qualified but have difficulty finding a role at their level. It can be highly frustrating. So personal research is a must. You have to be building relationships within the workforce to better understand how the system works.
My approach is to reach out to people, not because I want a job, but because I genuinely want to understand the sector in a better way. I have had great responses and have followed up with Canadian connections that I made while I was in India, and we have re-connected since I moved to Canada. I am building relationships; people are getting to know me and have a vested interest in what I’m doing.
It’s crucial to build personal connections in the local space because the Canadian job market is largely an internal one, meaning that most of the ads posted are not really for people who are generally applying. They will likely be filled by someone within or connected to the company. Having connections here will definitely help you in the long run.
Newcomer women in Canada
I’m a fiercely independent woman. I’m very ambitious. I want to really nail my goals in the healthcare ecosystem. For that kind of visibility, that kind of freedom, I don’t think any other country fits the bill as Canada does.
The people here are so accepting of each other. It’s also a no-frills country, in the sense that you don’t need to be “somebody” to find your space here. You can be yourself. I came to Canada to be myself. I’m a free bird. I’m also an artist and a poet. If I weren’t working as a scientist, I would most probably be an English literature professor somewhere. When I think of myself being able to do all this without restriction because I’m a single woman, and I think about rocking the tech space as a single woman, that’s what Canada gives me: the space to be myself. That is the spirit of Canada that I embrace.
I would encourage newcomer women to research bridging programs. There are many available that cover everything from entrepreneurship to leadership. There are also programs designed specifically for women, like ACCES Empowering women and women in tech. More and more forums are being built for women by women. Check Facebook and Eventbrite for events. It’s especially important for women newcomers to establish more connections with women’s groups and forums. Not only can you build relationships and have a sense of camaraderie with fellow women in tech or women founders, or women small business owners, you can also find inspiration from Women of Influence. That’s how I do it. I attend webinars, seminars and panel talks.
Following an event, I comment on LinkedIn and tag some of the speakers so that they see that I’m part of this whole discourse. Invariably, they will reply to me and then that’s how the conversation starts. We’ll have a two-way dialogue, which leads to a better understanding of the system.
Changing paradigms: Women in tech
Among my varied interests, I am most passionate about women in tech. There is an outdated notion that women are inherently empathetic and that because we possess a high emotional quotient (EQ), we should therefore go into humanities. Men, on the other hand, it is generally perceived, possesses a higher intelligence quotient (IQ ) and can naturally pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The time has come to totally break that trend. I am an advocate of breaking that paradigm and bringing in a new one.
I believe women are inherently smarter because we can multitask much better than men and can juggle personal and professional roles effortlessly. Believe me – I’m a scientist. I can tell you that the way a woman’s brain works is very different from the way a man’s works. More and more women are joining executive boards. They bring in a very different approach to running businesses. Any venture henceforth, especially for a country like Canada, has to be run both on IQ as well as EQ. I think women bring that to the table.
I intend to incorporate my own MedTech venture very soon. It’s a startup, and it’s still in the very early stages. I know I have a long way to go, but that’s why I’m here: to make a mark in the Canadian healthcare and innovation ecosystem.
The primary focus of my venture is on infant and maternal health: addressing the significance of the gut microbiome on the developmental origins of disease. It also stresses the importance of breastfeeding in newborn infants’ cognitive development and immunity via breast milk microbiome. And on a larger scale, it’s about how women should be advocates of their own health. I want to create a movement where people think about preventive health and empower their children with good health practices leading to an entire future generation of healthy individuals. It’s about integrating mental health, physical health as well as social health.
I want to make these conversations more mainstream. They shouldn’t be something that only PhDs talk about. These are topics all Canadians should be talking about. I want to incorporate all these into the Canadian ecosystem.
Making Canada home
When I landed, my long-term goals were to put down roots here, grow a great friend circle, community and create an inspiring work culture. Although I have only been here since September, I feel Canada is my home. So everything downstream becomes easier for me because I already have a sense that I belong to Canada and Canada belongs to me.
This simple mantra has helped me. Even though I understand that in this COVID year there are many challenges, jobs are not readily available and it might take me another three months to even float my venture. Maybe I’ll have to pick up a part-time job to bootstrap my venture until I raise investment, but the very fact that I already belong here in my heart and I feel that the Canadian spirit belongs to me, I think half the battle is already won.
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