By Kathryn O’Neill, MIT SDM Correspondent
February 27, 2014
As a volunteer in tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, Sagini Ramesh, SDM ’14, saw firsthand what it’s like to live without easy access to technology. That’s why her goal in attending MIT’s SDM master’s program is to gain the engineering and management skills she needs to help those less fortunate.
"I looked at SDM and I thought: Yes, it can help my career, but it can really help me help other people. And that was key," said Ramesh, who hopes one day to build a consulting practice providing technology to developing countries. "SDM will give me the knowledge, background, and connections to do that."
A native of Sri Lanka, Ramesh escaped the island’s civil war with her family when she was just 5 years old. She returned for the first time as a college student following the 2004 tsunami and discovered a country very different from Canada, where she grew up. "It was a culture shock," she said. "The northeast section where I was didn’t have grid electricity—they had to use generators. There were no cellphone networks and no Internet."
Ramesh had volunteered to rebuild houses, but she found her programming skills were in higher demand. So, she helped construct an ambulance tracking and medical records system for a local hospital. "This was first time I felt I worked on something meaningful," she said, noting that the experience opened her eyes to the advantages of a career in software. "We take a lot of things for granted growing up in North America."
Ramesh graduated from Waterloo University and went on to work as a software engineer for Vistaprint. She is currently a senior project manager for Vistaprint’s global customer service centers. She planned to attend graduate school, but initially she was unsure whether to pursue engineering or management. "I loved working with people from diverse backgrounds, strategizing and managing projects, but when I looked at an MBA, it honestly wasn’t so appealing to me," she said. "I am an engineer at heart: I want to understand how things work and how they come together, and have the technical aptitude to be able to design and innovate."
Then she heard about SDM, which combines management and engineering. "I looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this is perfect.’"
Ramesh started in January and has already put several lessons to use from her initial SDM projects. For example, a design challenge given to the cohort provided her with benchmarking experience she can directly apply at work. "I picked up skills I’ll be using the next time I select vendors," she said.
Meanwhile, Ramesh is advancing her long-term goals by taking a class in Humanitarian Logistics that centers on how to move materials into areas of need. "This is what I eventually want to do, so I’m learning how the supply chain works," she said.
She is also benefiting from SDM’s emphasis on team-building skills. "That’s very different from typical school, which is so competitive," she said. "[Here] you simultaneously learn from, and educate, each other.
It’s a familiar model for Ramesh. Raised by a single mother, Ramesh learned the value of education early as her mother worked factory jobs to put her and her sister through college. Ramesh, in turn, helped put her younger sister through medical school. And now, her mother is helping Ramesh and her husband—Ramesh* Sundralingam, a lab technician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—care for their 3-year-old son, Ellalan, so Ramesh can attend SDM.
Sagini Ramesh, SDM ’14, with her mother, son, and husband.
"I wouldn’t be where I am without Amma [Mom]," she said. "She’s the biggest reason I could go back to grad school and work a full-time, demanding job."
* In the Tamil Sri Lankan tradition, wives take their husbands’ first names as their last names.
Sagini Ramesh, SDM ’14
Photo by Dave Schultz