Leader insights: Sheela Kosaraju on making the most of every opportunity
It’s game night. Sheela sits down with her sister and pulls out their favorite, “The Game of Life”. Sheela moves her way through college, and it comes time for her to choose a career path. She selects the same career every time she plays, the lawyer. Though it would take a winding road to get there, Sheela would eventually end up right where she started in the game as a lawyer.
Growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, to parents who immigrated from India at a great personal sacrifice, Sheela Kosaraju (pictured left) felt a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities available to her. Sheela’s parents had wished for her to be an engineer, so she received her bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering and in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University. After spending her summers interning as an engineer, she realized her true passion was law.
“Being a lawyer was always something that I wanted to do, and I thought about it from the standpoint of social justice and fairness,” said Sheela. “I thought it would allow me an opportunity to have a voice when either myself or others didn’t. Knowledge of the law is empowering to me.”
Sheela used her Engineering degree to start her journey to initially become a Patent Lawyer, which was a typical path for an engineer turned lawyer. After starting law school and interning at a general law firm and a patent law firm, she realized that the most interesting areas of her legal work were where technology intersected with business strategy.
When Sheela graduated with her law degree from Wake Forest University School of Law, technology startups were booming across the United States. With her technical background and interest in business law, Sheela wanted to work in the technology space. She contacted some of her past engineering professors at Carnegie Mellon to see if they had any connections. She eventually hit the ground running as a Vice President and General Counsel at a technology start-up.
“My engineering professors helped me expand my thinking on the art of the possible and focus on the things that I was good at and not limit myself based on all of the things I didn’t know,” said Sheela. “It was serendipitous to be given those early opportunities. I got an extreme education on the law and how a small business works and how to build a risk based, pragmatic legal program in companies with limited structure. It was a great way to learn the law, how people and business dynamics work, and develop the emotional intelligence and confidence to make it through.”
In 2010, Sheela came to Ciena and worked on corporate and North American matters but soon expressed her interest in experiencing what it was like to work in another region.
“I was always transparent about what I liked to do, and I think it’s really important that people make others aware of that because then they’ll think of you for things that maybe they wouldn’t have ordinarily thought of you for,” said Sheela.
Sheela was given a project in India to negotiate an agreement with a new customer. It was a unique experience for Sheela as she spent a month negotiating the deal as the only woman in a room of 20 men in a country that she was not familiar with the business and legal environment.
What she didn’t realize was the impact that her actions had on the people in the room. A senior, well respected Ciena employee was in the room and had been impressed by her and soon became an advocate and a trusted advisor to her throughout her career.
“That moment taught me that you should look at every moment of your career as an opportunity,” said Sheela. “You don’t even realize it, but people are watching and observing and hopefully having a good impression which could ultimately lead to those individuals becoming your supporters.”
A few years after the engagement in India, Sheela became the Head of Legal for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). She later became the Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Head of International Legal.
“Working in the international region was new to me and it wasn’t obvious how an American lawyer could come to a region and make a difference, but I think I managed to find a way to add value to the team, the business, and as a leader in the region,” said Sheela. “Ultimately, my advice is when you feel fear in your gut about something, that means you should be doing it. Otherwise, you’re too comfortable in the space that you are in.”
Now, Sheela has been promoted to Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Assistant Secretary. Looking back, she would tell her younger self and any other early in career individuals to be present and view each day as an opportunity.
“Every moment is a chance for discovery,” said Sheela. “Maximize and appreciate the opportunity you have in every moment to either learn or show what you’re capable of.” - Sheela Kosaraju, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Assistant Secretary
In her leadership role, Sheela finds the most fulfillment when helping others look at a problem from a different perspective, watching their internal light bulbs go off, and engaging in conversations around strategy and risk in helping our business grow. Outside of her career, Sheela is very close with her family, enjoys sports and scuba diving, and advocates for mental health.
“As a lawyer, you often have to be the calm in the storm. When it comes to mental health, I try to be really open about it because I have had family members that have suffered with mental health issues,” said Sheela. “One thing we all have in common is that we experience challenges in life, and I think there should be a space to talk about it and be clear that no one is alone.”
At Ciena, we’re proud to have executive leaders like Sheela, who possess a drive to succeed and never stop learning or let boundaries get in her way. She is genuinely limitless in how she approaches her work while also showing up as her authentic self with humility and empowering her team members to be the best version of themselves.