Changing Professions, Dr. Rukhsana Malik: “Anything is possible in this world.”
January 28, 2013
— career development, changing jobs, Rukhsana Malik
Last week we met Senior Project Manager, Dr. Rukhsana Malik. It’s clear she’s an expert in solving problems and working with teams. She is the balancing point between business and technical perspectives, and has a knack – with the help of a board and some writing – to help people separate their work-problems from their emotional preconceptions. But how does someone with a background in high energy physics find themselves on a career path so far from the original trajectory? Apparently, it all started with a bit of Sister Leadership from Rukhsana’s own mother.
Rukhsana explains about her mother: “Her father died when she was three and a half, and she is now 82. So at that time, as a child, the culture where she was living, she had a lot of money in the family, but the girls were not allowed to study.”
And so, when Rukhsana’s mother grew up, married, and had a family of her own – she was adamant about the education of her children. “My family’s focus was education: get an education no matter what, even in a country where the women were not very educated,” explains Rukhsana. “The vision of my mother is a wonderful, wonderful mom – very intelligent. I love her and if she hadn’t done what she did in teaching me to just get the education and the rest of the world would come, I would not be talking to you right now.”
Rukhsana, like her mom, also had a craving to learn as a young girl. While the other children were outside playing, she was inside studying. For her, it was exciting to take a course book and work through the problems. Everyone around her asked if she was crazy, except for her mother. Rukhsana recalls one specific memory when her uncle came to the house. All the children ran to the door to greet him, except for Rukhsana:
Her uncle asked her mother, “What is that girl doing, Phd?”
And her mother replied, “She’s doing something good. Let her play whatever she is doing.”
With that recognition of her abilities and push for education, Rukhsana was encouraged toward biology and in the process, fell in solve with physics.
“I got married but I never gave up my physics. With two kids, I did my masters in physics. Then I went to Germany. I studied in Hamburg for almost four years, and for the love of physics I learnt German in six months to one year. Then I had a fellowship from CERN, and I went to CERN to do my PhD. So I have seen the whole world. That is an experience that I bring to the team. I love to have all types of people around me.”
How does that work with her project management style?
“When I go to the team, I know they are different people coming from different backgrounds, different knowledge, different degrees.”
But how does a woman who studied at CERN in high energy physics transition to the business world? That was Rukhsana’s worry as well when she was about to move to Canada in 1994. She asked her PhD supervisor for some advice:
“I asked him, ‘Albert, what will I do over there? There is no high energy physics.’”
“And he said, ‘Rukhsana, what you do here and what you learn here . . . just go. Anywhere in the world you go, you can do anything that you want.’”
“I said, ‘How do you know that?’”
“And he said, ‘I know, because you work under my supervision, and the work that we are doing is extremely, extremely complicated, and the world is very, very simple.’”
And so she went.
“Anything is possible in this world. That is my thesis. I think everything we want, can be done in this world.”
Rukhsana came to Canada and found herself unable to move her family for the sake of working in high energy physics. That meant she needed to find a different field.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper that said ‘we are looking for people with SGML expertise.’ I said, ‘I know what that is. I know SGML very well. I don’t know what the company does, but I can do whatever they are saying here.’ I sent the resume. What I had was 50 publications in physics and zero days of experience in business.
“There were 200, 300 resumes – 1994 was a bad time for Toronto, and the director, he just picked up my resume and asked them to throw away the rest. They told me this story when they hired me later on, saying ‘We were so upset. Why is he taking that resume and there is no experience?’”
The director told them, “What she has done, we cannot even understand. If she can do a PhD in such a complicated thing that we can’t even understand, then this job is very, very simple.”
And so began her career that was separate from high energy physics.
Several years later, she had her resume passed along to a company that needed some help in sorting their entire structure. Here, once again, her whiteboard became the star as she explained her approach:
“They said, ‘We have this problem, we have this team, and the majority are like you – they’re PhDs and engineers and they don’t listen.’
“And that is when I said: ‘We have a white board, let me draw the picture, and let’s see what you think the problems are and what I think the solutions are.’ So we draw the picture, and they say, ‘Okay, a portion of these people have been here a long time – 15 or 20 years, and they don’t do much in the office.’
“I said, ‘Maybe this is a little person, maybe they do things we can’t see . . . it might be because you are from a different background and think people not making money are not worth anything. Let’s sit back and see what our business is, what our business needs, and how that can be done. If we need all those people, that is well and good, and if we don’t need all those people we can do something.’” She help reorganize that company, so that it could be sold for millions.
Her impressive CV and million dollar projects speak volumes for the success Rukhsana has had in project management and looking at the big picture. She has an extremely ‘can do’ attitude.
“There is a lot of negativity all over the place, and people will tell you, ‘It cannot be done.’ And the first thing I have to negate with those people is that everything can be done. Let’s find out how.’
“I am calm because I can do a million things, and I’ve done a million things in my life.”
This lovely and generous woman has a confidence that appears unshakable. She believes in solving problems, a passion that developed as a little girl with her course books, and has carried through as she went country-to-country, and profession-to-profession.
And taking her influences full-circle, one day Rukhsana would love to pen her own mother’s story. “If I stop working, solving these problems, I might someday write the story of my mom, because she was always telling us about our background. That needs to be kept somewhere for the future.”
It just goes to show that with all the successful people we meet, one of our greatest Sister Leaders may be the women who appear earliest in our lives – pushing us forward, telling us stories, and letting us do what we like, because it is good.
Once again, we would very much like to thank Dr. Rukhsana Malik for sharing her fascinating story of success with Sister Leadership. It has been an inspiration to learn about her family roots, and see how she made her big transitions in life.
Till next week,
Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, bringing her knowledge of resilience, perseverance, and changing perception to others. Camille is currently accepting applications for the Women’s Executive Network Senior Executives Wisdom Peer Mentoring program. Applications to this exciting and knowledge-sharing program are available here.