Sundari Mitra

8/19/2014 Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. Most families are having late dinners or settling in front of their televisions to relish the last moments of their weekend before the sun sweeps in and the work week begins anew.

But the work week has already begun for Sundari Mitra (MSEE ‘88), CEO and founder of tech startup NetSpeed Systems, as she begins her remote meetings with companies in Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan to sell her company’s product there. After a pause of a few hours, early on Monday morning, the European meetings begin, and after these, it’s time for Mitra to actually head in to work until 6 or 7, then get home for a quick dinner and exercise before the evening Asia meetings begin again. 

Sundari Mitra (MSEE '88), CEO and Founder of NetSpeed Systems.
Sundari Mitra (MSEE '88), CEO and Founder of NetSpeed Systems.

Confronted as she is with early mornings, late nights, and a variety of duties in between, most would wonder why Mitra chose to leave her position as a high-level executive at Sun Microsystems and establish a series of startups. Her first, Prism Circuits, was bought by memory intellectual property company MoSys.

“Right now it’s all work and no play and can seem like a crazy schedule, so you’re probably asking why someone would be nuts enough to do it,” Mitra said. “The answer is that I truly love what I’m doing and am very passionate about it, and it is that passion and love that keeps me going every day. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to devote what I’ve devoted to my job.”

NetSpeed is a semiconductor intellectual property vendor that is developing a solution to the problem of data gridlock within traditional chips used in high performance electronics.

It’s useful to think of these chips as a small town, in which the inhabitants, representing data cycling through the chip, travel using dirt roads. As the town grows, the amount of people on the roads increases and some want to use cars. Pretty soon, the village’s tiny dirt roads are full of angry drivers caught in traffic jams. Expanding the roads helps, but eventually, without a traffic management system, the cars start swerving to avoid crashing into each other, turning the task of crossing the town’s once-peaceful streets into a terrifying game of Frogger.

Traditional chips will need traffic management systems to better manage increased data throughput in the same way that the burgeoning town would require traffic lights to direct the vehicles on its roads.

NetSpeed Systems is working with an emerging technology called Network-on-Chip, which uses high-level algorithms and traffic management techniques borrowed from networking technology to better route the data on a chip.

The technology is not widespread, and Mitra has a lot of work to do in obtaining acceptance of NetSpeed’s networks on a chip in the greater tech industry. However, the customers that have used the products are pleased with them, and Mitra is making progress in garnering support. 

Though Mitra is amazingly committed to her work, she wasn’t always sure of wanting to work in engineering. She grew up in India in the 1970s, a time when most women were expected to eschew higher education and employment in favor of lives as dutiful wives and mothers. Mitra didn’t have a clear idea of her future, but her mother pushed her into obtaining a professional degree with the goal of becoming financially independent, a highly uncommon goal at the time.

“At that point, I felt as if I was pushed into engineering,” Mitra said. “However, once I started, I realized I had a flair for some aspects of it. I was great at circuit design and totally geeked out over the physics behind it.”

In addition to Mitra’s passion for her work, she nurtures a constant hunger for learning and being challenged.

“I learn from everyone around me and this also keeps me going,” Mitra said. “I love being able to innovate and still brainstorm with my team on technology. I also learn things every day about positioning our product in the market and how to grow the company, and dealing with all of these challenges makes my job awesome. In any job, I need to keep learning and dealing with new challenges to be satisfied.”

Mitra’s dedication and passion clearly distinguish her in the workplace, but beyond these qualities, Mitra easily stands out as an Indian female executive in the tech world, an industry that still struggles with the inclusion of women. Though at first it the odds seemed stacked against her when compared with her male peers, Mitra now sees being an Indian woman as an aid in her job.

“Many ask me about the challenges of being an Indian woman in the tech industry, but I actually see it as an advantage,” she said. “As an Indian woman, people don’t forget you. When meeting customers, you want to be remembered, because otherwise whatever product or idea you were trying to sell will be forgotten. However, if you are able to make an impression, they will remember how well you did, and as one of the few Indian women in this position, that’s already cut out for me. This does cut both ways, though: if I foul up, people remember that better too, so I conduct myself with integrity and put in the work, and people remember me for it.”

Besides dealing with the unique facets of being a South Asian female in the technology development world, another fact that surprises many about Mitra is that she worked part-time for a significant amount of her career. 

“For 13 years in my career, I actually worked part-time,” Mitra said. “When my son, Sachin, was born, I wanted to give him attention as a mother, and so from his birth until when my second child, my daughter, Shivani, was 12, I worked part time. It was incredible working as an executive at Sun Microsystems, managing several hundred people, and doing it part-time.”

Mitra credits her high levels of professional success while working relatively few hours per week to her work ethic and time management skills.

“The reason that the part-time schedule worked was because of my working style,” Mitra said. “When I work, even if it’s not for a huge number of hours per week, I’m very diligent and on the job. I do visit people’s offices to ask them what they’re up to and to talk through any issues they have to maintain the human element in my management, but I don’t waste time just talking. When Shivani was 12, I went back into full-time work and founded my first startup.”

NetSpeed still has a long way to go, and Mitra will be putting in many more long months before her results come to fruition. Regardless, she loves her work every step of the way.

“I don’t know where my company will end up, but I have a fantastic team and am confident they can get the job done,” Mitra said.