Leading in Central MA: Naureen Meraj, Sr Global Director, NTT DATA
Monday, March 24, 2014
A Conversation with Naureen Meraj
SW: You began your career as a guidance counselor. What led you to your current career path?
NM: I had just graduated with my Master’s degree to pursue a career in school counseling in 2011 which included spending the 2010-11 school year working at West Boylston Junior-Senior High School. Unfortunately they weren’t able to get enough funding to hire me on for the following year so I was left looking for a job in a competitive market and bad economy. Most school districts were facing cutbacks and primarily hiring from within so that left me in a conundrum. Long story short, as I was networking my way through this, I was presented an opportunity for a contract to conduct some employee engagement work for 3-4 months. They reached out to me because first off they were looking for someone who was not from a technology background, but rather someone who understood people from a behavioral and psychological perspective. Secondly, based on the initiatives I had worked on and implemented at West Boylston Junior-Senior High School during my school counseling experience, they thought I would be a good fit when it came to not only working well with people in a culturally diverse environment, but also in developing and implementing new and creative solutions for non-technical challenges. The initiatives that I created at NTT DATA during that 4-month period were successful and very different from traditional approaches and solutions, so they offered me a full-time position. The opportunity was so intriguing and unique… I couldn’t refuse!
SW: You have had an amazing journey at NTT Data. Can you talk about beginning as a consultant on contract to moving to a full-time position?
NM: I joined NTT DATA, Inc. as an individual consultant hired on a 4-month contract to work on an employee engagement initiative back in December of 2011. In the process of creating a framework for the work I was doing, I identified an opportunity to use game dynamics for behavior modification and reinforcement in an effort to (successfully) cultivate a more productive and innovative work environment. I was able to get buy-in from several leaders within the organization by demonstrating that the concept of “gamification” was a very useful and legitimate solution for a variety of business challenges. This led to a full-time position within the company by April, 2012 and in addition to leading the employee engagement practice, it was also the start of one of the first gamification practices in the IT services industry.
SW: You have risen through the ranks at NTT Data at the speed of sound. What positions have you been promoted to?
NM: By November of 2012, I was promoted to Global Program Manager and I started putting together a team of individuals with various skill sets in gamification and behavioral psychology. Within approximately a year’s time, it had grown into a highly recognized practice within the entire organization. NTT DATA is a $16 billion global IT organization with over 60,000 employees; so to be able to accomplish that was quite exciting! Especially since my background was not in “IT” - but rather in education and counseling.
All the hard work, along with some divine blessings, really paid off and in July of 2013 I was promoted to Senior Global Director for the 2 practices. I never imagined it would all happen so fast! I give much due credit to the collaborative efforts of the several leaders, mentors and team members within the company who have supported my ideas and my work that has gotten me this far in a fairly short period of time. I am very appreciative.
SW: You and your team have received a lot of recognition for your work.
NM: I have a wonderful team of people working in my practice and the work we have done since has gotten a number of awards and recognition from Gartner, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Top 500 Innovator for 2012 & 2013 from InformationWeek! It has been truly gratifying in a very heartening sort of way to be recognized within the IT industry by NTT DATA and beyond, for both the gamification and employee engagement work. I have spoken at leading conferences across the globe, such as Gartner and The Gamification Summit, on both gamification and employee engagement.
SW: You grew up in Pakistani household. What was that like?
NM: I grew up in a very culturally traditional and strict household. My parents were first generation, and as immigrants in a new country they were desperately holding on to traditions that they left behind. I am sure they had a certain fear of assimilating too much so as not to forget all that they were familiar and therefore comfortable with. I was the first-born and the only daughter. They had certain expectations on them in regards to how they were ‘required’ to raise me. Abiding by the cultural and/or religious bylaws of their native country, I think they felt they had to severely limit me from assimilating into American culture in an effort to hold on to their old traditions. And no matter how near or far one is from the Motherland, there is the “it takes a village” mentality where everyone and their neighbor gets involved in making decisions for the child.
SW: What was that like when your friends were being raised much more liberally?
NM: Well, it was difficult because I was always very independent minded and knew very early on that I didn’t want to aspire to be in a “domesticated” role. I wanted to explore my potential and experience the world. I wanted autonomy rather than be confined to the traditional female roles prescribed by the old culture of a land that was in fact foreign to me. I was in America; and even though I was American, for the longest time I didn't feel like I fit in here either. Growing up, as culture mandated for a young girl/woman, I was not allowed to question, speak my mind or state my opinions, or do anything that would command public attention (unless it involved showcasing my strict cultural/religious identity). During my elementary and middle school years I was growing up in Arvada, Colorado and at the time being culturally and/or racially different meant standing out like a sore thumb. I was severely and continuously bullied, mocked, taunted and even beaten by school kids during those very vulnerable years. I endured this pain without any intervention, as I had no one to turn to for help.
SW: How did you evolve to the woman taking the IT Services Industry by storm?
NM: At the start of my high school years, my family moved to Seattle, Washington where I was finally welcomed and accepted among my classmates in spite of my cultural differences. This was refreshing and I started a new journey to rebuild my confidence. However there were still too many situations that hindered me from all that I wanted to be as an individual and forced me to continue living a suppressed existence. This continued to prevail well into my adulthood. What was really disappointing was that I completely lost my true self in the process and even as an adult, I had a great difficulty finding the real me…. One who could genuinely be happy from the inside out. It has been a long difficult journey and I am happy to say that I have found myself and I have learned a lot about how to handle difficult situations that life often throws at us.
SW: How is your relationship with your parents today?
NM: I have also learned about how and why people react to situations in certain ways, including my parents. It’s all about what they knew and understood at the time. Today I couldn’t ask for more loving and supportive parents and I would like to think that at the end of the day, they did a pretty good job in raising me. I didn’t understand what they were thinking back then and perhaps they made some mistakes. Who doesn’t? But judging from how I have turned out, I think they did something right!
SW: Are you involved in the community?
NM: My community religious center is located in Wayland, MA but people from many communities around the greater Boston and Worcester area come together as members there. For about 8 years I have been actively involved in a number of initiatives. I currently volunteer as the guidance counselor for the Sunday School students where I teach character education and diversity appreciation along with implementing anti-bullying and responsible behavior programs for both children and adults.
I also founded and help facilitate the Domestic Harmony & Family Affairs (DHFA) committee, which helps give support and referrals to battered and abused individuals along with educating the community about domestic violence issues. My experience in this area stems from the volunteer work I did with the Rape Crisis Center of Central Massachusetts in Worcester some years back.
SW: You have founded iGAME to aid in public school education. What are your goals for this organization?
NM: Most recently, as a result of my passion for educational initiatives, I founded and co-chair iGAME (Institute for Game Accelerated Multidisciplinary Education) which held its inaugural conference in September 2013. The focus for this nonprofit organization is to help increase innovation and adoption of educational games in public schools – which in turn will help K-12 kids achieve, retain and sustain higher levels of learning and then enable them to better utilize what they have learned. The conference brought together top entrepreneurs, educators and academics from the local area as well as across the US, Canada and UK, resulting in the launch of several initiatives to address difficult problems in schools (academics as well as social issues) with innovative games.
SW: Who or what has had the greatest influence on your life?
NM: The Late Lady (Princess) Diana has been a major influence in my life, both while alive and even after her death. Yes she was a princess but that’s not the reason why I am so inspired by her. She had her strengths and her weaknesses; she was not perfect nor did she ever claim to be. She had her struggles, often faced extreme obstacles and adversity, yet remained kind and humble. There are many parallels between her life and mine: family pressures to behave in a certain way, lack of support and censure for many of her initiatives from her immediate circle, and her ability to succeed in spite of these barriers. The fact that she persevered in her passion to make a meaningful difference in the lives of so many is a constant source of inspiration and motivation for me to continue to aim for even greater success and accomplishment in my personal and professional life.
SW: What is the something that few people know about you?
NM: I am a poet. Not a published one (yet) but nevertheless… I love creative writing!
SW: How do you spend your free time?
NM: First and foremost I love spending time with my 3 children! I have a busy life so every opportunity to spend with family and friends is a treat. Beyond that I enjoy being creative and creating things plus I love to travel; so I often try to incorporate the two. Things I see and experience from my travels I try to weave into my writings, drawings, decorating and handiwork. The best for me is when I get to take my family on trips and do all of these things with them!
SW: How do you define success?
NM: Honestly, success to me is about making a positive difference in the lives of others. In spite of what I may have gone through in life (good or bad), if I can use those experiences to teach others in a way that resonates to in some way better their existence then I have achieved success. And just to be clear, in no way is this meant to sound arrogant or clichéd even…. For me it really is about bringing out the genuine goodness in people and acts of kindness that bring people together. These things are what make us better individuals. If I can do that for others, then I’ll feel like I’m golden!
SW: What is on the drawing board for 2014?
NM: With my work, I suppose it just depends on what comes my way. There are always new challenges with different client needs and I hope to continue to help with finding innovative solutions for them as well as for the company I work for.
In my personal life, I want to move forward with some of my goals for iGAME this year, which could entail pilot programs in local Worcester area schools. And I would love to focus on some of my writings with the goal of publishing a book (not sure if I will be publishing anytime soon, but at least getting the process started).
GoLocalWorcester presents Leading in Central Ma, a weekly profile of an outstanding community or business leader. Join us every Monday for an inspiring look at the careers and lifestyles of Central Massachusetts’s most influential citizens. If you have suggestions for a profile, please email [email protected].
Susan D. Wagner is president of Susan Wagner PR, a boutique public relations firm invested in meeting client's goals with integrity and creativity.
Related Slideshow: Women Leading in Central Massachusetts
Who are some of Central MA's high-level female bosses? GoLocal takes a look at some of the leading women in the region in their respective industries, in the private and nonprofit sectors.
Piehler has been the Regional CEO of the American Red Cross of Central and Western Massachusetts since 1993, overseeing a regional area of 1.7 million people in over 200 cities and towns in Central and Western Massachusetts, and a staff of 30 and 400 volunteers.
Prior to working at the American Red Cross, Piehler was the Director of Parks and Recreation for the city or Worcester. Piehler received her bachelor’s degree in park administration from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree from Clark University with a concentration in non-profit management.
Waterman is currently the CEO of Girls, Inc, the non-profit organization meant to help girls navigate through the challenges of growing up female and to gain the skills and confidence to achieve their dreams. Waterman had previously been President of Leading Women Massachusetts, an organization that provides leadership development solutions for women in organizations.
Waterman, who has 20 years of experience in the mortgage banking industry in the marketing sector, received her bachelors of science in marketing from Bryant in 1985. Waterman's awards include the Stevie Awards Honoree for Women in Business in 2010 and the excellence in Board Leadership in 2012.
Penta is the Founder and CEO of Penta Communications, the regional integrated marketing, advertising, web, interactive media, and public relations firm.
Penta has helped senior level management teams develop shape strategic and effective marketing, advertising and public relations programs, and has served on the Board of Directors at Worcester County Food Bank, the Board of Directors at Worcester Regional Research Bureau, and the Board of Directors at Worcester Community Action Counsel. She received her bachelor’s degree from Stonehill College and her executive education from Harvard University.
Sen has been the President and CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club for over 4 years, having previously over 20 years of experience with BJ’s, including having roles as Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President of Merchandising and logistics,Vice President of Logistics, and Senior Vice President of General Merchandise.
Prior to working at BJ’s, Sen has nearly 30 years of experience in mass retail, working with Zayre Corporation and Jordan Marsh Company. Sen has served on the board of Saint Coletta and Cardinal Cushing Schools of Massachusetts and has provided support to non-profit organizations including the Women's Inn at Pine Street, the Neely House and the Cardinal Cushing Centers Springtime Event.
Sen received her Bachelor’s degree from Boston College.
Stone founded Precision Engineering with her husband Peter in 1988. Located in Uxbridge, Precision Engineering focuses on custom metal sheet fabrication.
The company has grown to include 40,000 square feet of manufacturing, assembly and warehousing space, encompassing two physical plants within Quaker Industrial Park.
Stone is a graduate of Syracuse University.
Engelkemeyer was appointed the 7th President of Nichols College on August 1, 2011 and was officially installed on October 21, 2011, where she now oversees a student body of 1,500 students.
Prior to working at Nichols College, Engelkemeyer worked for Babson College, Ithica College, and the Charlton College of Business at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Engelkemeyer received her Bachelors degree from Stephens college, her Ph.D in Industrial Management from Clemson University, and her M.B.A from East Carolina University. She serves as a peer review team leader for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and served on the board of directors for GOAL/QPC for 20 years.
Rooney, the 13th President of Dean College, as according to the school's website has overseen enrollment that has "more than doubled and overall retention has increased substantially, while new baccalaureate partnerships and programs have been launched to complement the college’s established associate degree programs.
In addition, campus improvements such as new building construction and renovation and Dean’s wireless technology environment have dramatically transformed the campus" -- and under Dr. Rooney’s helm, "Dean College’s financial status has been solidified as endowment has quadrupled from $7.9 million to $32 million."
President and CEO of GFA credit union, Sbrega has been Director of the Massachusetts Share Insurance Corporation, Trustee for Mount Wachusett Community College, and Trustee of Heywood Hospital Credit Union and Freedom Credit Union, and acquired a credit union technology service in Rochester, New York.
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