By Jessie Tu
Mani Thiru flew into Singapore a few months ago and was sent straight into the island city-state’s Covid-19 circuit breaker, where she isolated for the next month.
She has taken on the role of Business Lead in the Aerospace & Satellite Solutions team at Amazon Web Services for that region — a position she is ‘really stoked’ about. “I’ve been wanting to look after a regional business for a while,” she tells me.
“Space is science, technology, research, innovation, economics, and even politics. The more collaboration we have between countries with their different strengths and unique differentiators, the faster we will evolve in this sector to benefit of many.”
Earlier this year, Mani Thiru took out the WALA Award for Emerging Leader in the Private Sector — where she flipped the lid in her acceptance speech.
“When the judges had me on the panel I thought I stuffed it up,” she said. “I’m going to act like a man today and just wing it. They do it and it works. It’s about time we got some of that. They stand here and say, I deserve this. So, I deserve this.”
“I’ve been slogging my guts in the last ten, twenty years,” she said. “I accept this award with so much humility. There are so many of you other winners and finalists I want to sit down and talk to.”
A lot of that humility she owes to her parents, who, according to Mani Thiru, sacrificed a lot to ensure she and her siblings had an education that would set them up for a ‘decent job’ and a better life.
“I never wanted to disappoint my parents,” she tells me. “They taught us after class, checked our homework, encouraged us to do more.”
“The way they had to leave a country in the middle of a civil war, get their kids to safety in a new country – then take on lesser jobs, continually reinventing themselves to adapt and strive to provide a better life – it will never match anything I’m likely to experience.”
Thiru is one of four, born in the UK to parents from Sri Lanka. Thiru’s family fled Sri Lanka to Zimbabwe with a handful of bags one night in the middle of a bombing raid. From Zimbabwe, they moved to Auckland where Thiru completed her undergraduate studies.
“My father, an engineer, and my mother, a chemist, moved us to New Zealand so we could attend university in a “first world nation’,” Thiru tells me. “I didn’t know English when we left Sri Lanka.”
“I then studied at Webster University in Leiden, in the Netherlands and started a masters in international relations. It’s always been about what can get from being able to live in different places,” she says– “new things, new experiences, new people, new perspectives.”
In her job and in her life, Mani Thiru continues to live by the moral of “joy of exploration, thrill of exploration”.
“It’s not a thing ‘I do’, it’s a thing ‘I am’, she says. “I’m always seeking something; answers mostly. I explore ideas, I explore people’s mental maps and models, the business/technology landscape and overlay it with commercial and regulatory, political and diplomatic…then connect dots. I imagine different possibilities. The thrill is in that exploratory process.”
In her career working across multiple tech platforms, Thiru has navigated a wide range of environments. These experiences have led her to developing a confidence built on recognising the gender and generational disparities yet still holding her ground.
“It’s taken me years to get to this level of confidence,” Mani Thiru says. “In tech and science circles – everything is traded on the basis on content matter, capability & subject matter expertise. If you’re really good at what you do, they can’t close the door on you. I work for a brand that everyone wants to work with.”
“I spent years trying to blend in, not be noticed, be quiet and sit in the back of the class…not anymore. I hope the way I project myself in these circles becomes a standard to white men. A bar for women of colour.”
Mani Thiru’s vibrancy, energy and intelligence shines in the way she responds to my questions. This leader has no time to fluff around with people who can’t recognise what is important to her.
“When I was young, I admired intelligence,” she admits. “As I grew older, I reserved my admiration for the kind, the generous. I save my respect for the strong, not the powerful. And my fanaticism for those who champion justice.”
In her day to day role as the APAC Business Lead in the Aerospace & Satellite Solutions team, Thiru works to understand her customer’s missions and work out how her team can help with Amazon cloud services like machine learning, satellite communications, high performance computing.
“We look at how to take customers into different markets, extend their international research collaboration, provide access to VC’s,” Mani Thiru tells me. “I meet very cool people all the time… people like start-up entrepreneurs, professors, researchers, diplomats, defence personnel, educators, engineers. They’re brilliant, funny humans who want to make a difference”
“The future of the space industry is bright in Australia,” she continues. “Several Asian countries like India, Japan and Korea also have a number of exciting deep space and satellite missions in play today. The commercial opportunity in the global space economy is going to drive innovation. This will generate social, economic and security benefits.”
“In turn, this will require training for students/scientists/researchers who become the next generation of a skilled workforce. The innovations emerging in space will have cross-sectoral impact in medicine, manufacturing, agriculture, conservation, climate. It can be a virtuous cycle.”
She credits a number of people who have propelled her in her career.
“Some of the coolest women I know are friends and associates in space, like Dr. Allison Keally, Jackie Carpenter, Dr. Sarah Pearson, Prof Anna Moore, Prof Michelle Gee, Aude Vignelles, Michelle Gilmour, Alisa Starkey, Carely Scott, Azzah Aziz.”
When Mani Thiru met Australia’s former chief scientist Alan Finkel at an education conference, he introduced her to Megan Clark, the CEO for the Australian Space Agency.
“I wrote a business case for AWS to consider space as a business vertical in it’s own right in Australia. I had a very supportive manager — another great migrant woman of colour – Dr. Anna Liu and the Director of WWPS System Integrator Partners, Rebecca Wetherly – who helped turn into reality.”
What advice does Mani Thiru have for women who are aspiring to work in a tech and space industry?
“Have the confidence to put yourself out there,” she says. “You will always be different. Some men will embrace it, some will find it threatening, some will be like meh.”
“If we ever want to solve the major problems of the world, we need every kind of person from all kinds of backgrounds, no matter what gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, because we each see things in different ways.”
“More women are needed in research to increase the range of inventions and breakthroughs that come from looking at problems differently than men typically do. Women tend to foster good relations, build community, create an inclusive environment.”
“Having women’s emotional skills in the mix can yield immensely positive results. The stereotypical image of research geniuses making discoveries while working solo has given way to a more collaborative model and women are natural collaborators.”