Three years into the work on her Ph.D., Priya Narasimhan woke up and realized that everything she'd done on her project was wrong and she'd started from the wrong place in her coding. "Worst day of my life," she recalled.
She went home -- defeated and depressed and sure that she wouldn't earn the degree.
Then, the next morning, she went back in, started all over again using her revelation and what she'd learned over the past three years. In about six months, it was done. "The mistake shaped me to do it faster and better."
Ms. Narasimhan, who is now a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University as well as the CEO and founder of a mobile sports apps company called YinzCam Inc., considers that one of her more useful life moments.
And it helped her to achieve what she now considers one of her most important accomplishments: giving the people that she works with, whether in the academic or business world, permission to fail. Creating a safe environment gives people the chance to take bigger risks and do bigger things, she said.
"If you know it's OK to fail, you can take bigger and bigger risks because someone has your back."
That project also gave her experience in being a leader, because the work became the launching point for a business project in which she raised $7 million in first-round venture capital funding and managed academic colleagues working on the business.
From being someone who feared public speaking so much she chose her college courses to avoid it, she has become someone comfortable with meeting with potential investors, making presentations to groups, leading a team of workers as well as teaching.
Leadership is a very different thing in the academic world vs. the business side, in her view.
In industry, the purpose is to build a product. "It's crystal clear what you are after," she said, so the job is to inspire people to achieve that.
Working with graduate students on their projects mean helping them do something that is very open-ended, even scary. It's not clear what the answer will be to whatever question they are asking. "We don't even know if we can answer it because we're asking such a big, hard question," said Ms. Narasimhan. There, the goal is to support them as they venture into the unknown.
She knows they have gained the skills and confidence they need when they start to say, "I got this."
-- Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018