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Vassar in Tech-Asia Panelists Weigh In

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology is more important than ever, allowing us to stay healthy, safe, and connected in an unprecedented way. This was one of the topics of discussion at the Vassar in Tech panel, presented by the Vassar Network Asia. Facilitated by Anish Kanoria ’18 and Milena Chilla-Markhoff ’92, Vassar alums currently active in the technology industry weighed in on several topics, including the importance of a liberal arts education in technological fields and the impact the current pandemic has had on their work.

Clockwise, left to right, panelists Stanton Wong ’11, Vivek Mahapatra ’05, Jim Leu ’94, and Sharon Heller ’92.Photo: Courtesy of the subjects

In his introduction to the program, Kanoria noted that the discussion was the first in a series of events aimed at building the global Vassar community. “We aim through different programs to build a greater sense of the global networks that bind us together,” he said. Parents, current students, and alumnae/i dialed in from all over the world for the thought-provoking discussion.

Sharon Heller ’92, the Asia Pacific regional leader for Google’s global site strategy, highlighted the importance of a liberal arts education in teaching students to think “deeply and critically about the human context.” She added that, in “facing some of the biggest social and technological challenges we’ve ever faced...we need graduates who have that training and those capabilities.” 

For Vivek Mahapatra ’05, a leader in global competitive product strategy at Salesforce, and Jim Leu ’94, cofounder of italki, an online language marketplace that links learners with instructors, the benefit of a liberal arts education lies in the range of topics students are able to explore, the diversity of people with whom they interact, as well as the curiosity inspired by the curriculum and experience. Vassar’s influence may be reflected in the panelists’ wide interests and unconventional majors, including art, history, and film. 

Technology has been a dominating force during the pandemic, panelists said. Most noted a heightened demand for technological services and products, especially those that facilitate communication and improve health and wellness. Panelists also noted a marked shift in the conversation surrounding accessibility and priorities. Stanton Wong ’11, the president of RESET, a company that provides tools and services that allow organizations to receive and manage data related to health and safety, has noted that his work on improving indoor air quality, while previously focused on China, has shifted to the West. In Europe, he said, people are concerned about the aerosolized transmission of COVID. “We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries on ‘How do I improve air quality?’... so people coming back won’t feel as afraid.”

Mahapatra said one change he sees as a result of COVID is a large shift in the way people regard the workplace environment. He specifically noted the difference between an entirely virtual workplace versus one that revolves almost entirely around commuting and physical interaction, and noted the trade-offs. “People’s mental health is being impacted by the fact that they can’t physically interact with people. But then you think about accessibility and anybody working from anywhere now can join a team,” he said. He also noted an increased emphasis on the role of mental health and well-being in the workplace, reporting that employees are taking more mental health days. “Everyone’s trying something new,” he said.

Despite the tension we are experiencing today, all four panelists reported being grateful for the time they spent at Vassar and for the connections they made there. Leu in particular, is still in contact with his classmates. “We have these check-ins with friends from the class of ’94 that previously I never really saw or talked to, because I’m out here in Asia...but now we meet every month and obviously, most of our topics are about COVID-19 and how people are dealing with it.”

A sign of the times, for sure.