A Letter to Shireen Santosham (From Shireen Santosham)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

The year that will change your life

When I was 15 years old, I made a bold decision to leave my comfortable life in suburban Maryland to move to India to attend boarding school on my own. Motivated by a sense that the world was bigger than the confines of a privileged private school life, a desire to explore my family roots, and a deep-seated need for teenage independence, I embarked on a journey that would literally change my life.

This is a letter to myself on the brink of that journey.

Dear Shireen,

You may not realize it yet, but you are about to walk down a path that will change your life forever. The people you meet this year, the experiences of freedom and exploration, and the acts of service you will give and receive will help you build empathy with people from all walks of life. This is a privilege (and responsibility) that few are afforded in this world. Spend less time worrying about feeling different and fearful of the future — instead, embrace every moment and the journey. When it gets hard, and it will, remember that this is supposed to be hard. (That’s how you grow.)

In India, you will meet people from every corner of the earth including Tibetan refugees, hippies settled in India for generations, musicians, poets, and scientists. Over the summer, you will move to Calcutta on your own to volunteer in Mother Teresa’s home with the poorest and most vulnerable women and children in the world. Unfortunately, you will lose many of them. This will be hard for you to reconcile with your comfortable life and youth. But you will walk away with a sense of wonder of the magnificent chaos that is the world in which we live and an obligation to make it a little better. You’ll arrive to India as a child. You’ll leave an adult.

In twenty years, you will look back and be surprised how blessed you are with an interesting and vibrant life where you were called to serve at an early age. You will have the opportunity to travel the world. You’ll live and work amongst the poorest and most wealthy — you’ll help Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen invest in social causes and, while in graduate school, help Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize winner, rebuild her country after a war that left millions in poverty. Eventually, you will make your way to San Jose, a diverse and innovative city where you will be asked by a vibrant young mayor to build technology that helps improve people’s lives.

This life journey would not have been possible had you not stepped out into the world so early. Your experience in India will help you relate to all sorts of people and understand who you are and where you come from. These are the most important skills you will ever learn — and you’ll need them for every chapter. Start believing in yourself now. There will always be naysayers and people who doubt you, people who think you don’t belong. They are not worth your time. Though your mother often tells you your head is in the clouds, she believes in you too and will help you every step of the way (so try not to give her such a hard time).

Good luck!

Your older self.

Shireen Santosham is the Chief Innovation Officer for Mayor Sam Liccardo and leads efforts to make San Jose the most innovative city in America by 2020. She has a passion for using technology to broaden opportunity and improve the lives of everyone in the city — especially for San Jose’s youth.

Previously, she worked at the GSMA where she was a Director in the Mobile for Development group that aimed to close the digital divide for base of the pyramid populations in the developing world through mobile technology and the internet. She has extensive experience working on innovative initiatives across sectors, including working at McKinsey & Company, with international NGOs, and as an impact investor at Vulcan Capital

Shireen holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, an M.P.A. from Harvard Kennedy School, and a B.S. and B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Global Governance Futures Fellow at the Robert Bosch Foundation.