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Academy Xi Blog

Community Spotlight: Gowri Penkar

By Academy Xi

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Senior Service Designer and Mentor, Gowri discusses the power of mentoring and shares how determination and community have shaped her 20 year career.

Hi Gowri, tell us a little about yourself and your professional background.

I’m a Senior Service Designer at Telstra, designing the end-to-end customer experience for 5G Home Internet, a strategic product. When I began my career some 20-odd years ago, I started as a web and UI designer. 

My early roles were limited to the aesthetics of a website or an application. But I always felt that something was missing and wanted to learn more. This self-awareness was a turning point for me and thus began a journey of lifelong learning. I taught myself by reading copious amounts off the internet because human-computer interaction courses (which was what they were called at the time) were either inaccessible or little known. 

I began to understand the need for a change in mindset, the critical need for quality customer research and empathy in my practice. In the meantime, I landed a UI role in a multinational company and used my position there to request a transition to the research team. 

My next move was to a design consultancy in Singapore, where I worked as a design researcher with multiple industries including banks, telecom, advertising and marketing agencies. Since then, I have held various roles across UX Design, Design Research, Product Design and Service Design – working with stakeholders across different areas in the business to come up with a shared vision. 

“As I look back to all those years ago, I can’t help but feel proud of where I am today, both as a designer and a person. It was sheer hard work, resilience and determination, but also the wonderful designers that I met along the way who shaped my practice.” 

Navigating a Design Career

What do you think are the biggest challenges in navigating a career in Service Design in your case? 

I think the challenges with Service Design are organisational and cultural factors. Service design as a practice is supposed to influence the organisation’s different functions, including its systems, processes, marketing, digital touchpoints, etc. However, most times it winds up having agency over just the customer-facing functions. This makes it difficult to influence the complete service journey and make meaningful changes.

There also are times where individual product owners and managers provide an environment that encourages human-centred design, but it ultimately comes down to the business vision. Sometimes organisations don’t have the budget to support true human-centred design and it winds up as a checkbox rather than a practice that ensures rigour.

In-Residence Program experience

You generously volunteer your time to mentor students at Academy Xi.
Why do you think mentoring is important?

To me, mentoring is important because it is a two-way street with many benefits for the mentor as well as the mentee. Being a mentor helps me articulate concepts that I’ve been reflecting on, or perhaps methodologies that have become second nature to me. Taking someone through my thought process and talking through the nuances of a design approach essentially solidifies my learning too. 

For the mentee, it provides the benefit of learning from someone else’s experience and their insights. It’s also a great time to be a mentee considering they have access to the industry’s best and brightest through Academy Xi, not to mention the relationships they get to build. 

What made you want to become a mentor with Academy Xi? 

When I started my career as a designer, I did it all alone and learnt the hard way. I love giving back to the community by supporting the next generation of people, especially considering the complex challenges that await them (if you’ve watched “Social Dilemma” on Netflix, you know what I mean). 

“I love to guide others along this journey of changing their mindset, because design education aside, it is a powerful way of thinking and being.” 

How have you found the process and experience of mentoring? 

I am in the process of mentoring my second Academy Xi mentee right now. What struck me about this program is how much mentees value the In-Residence program and how prepared they are for each session. It is indeed admirable. 

Another interesting takeaway is how different each person is – their backgrounds, their goals and what they hope to achieve out of the sessions. 

It makes me think of how to structure my approach to different individuals so they get the most out of the sessions. I have a structured approach to my mentoring sessions, where I ask my mentees to:

  • List their short term and long term goals
  • Prepare their questions for each session in the context of these goals 
  • Think about what they want out of each session

I find that this gives them time to reflect and identify what is important to them. 

“Mentoring, I feel, makes me a better designer and design leader.”

How do you approach mentoring? What would you say is your ‘style’? 

I take an ideation approach with my mentees, giving them room to grow and use their unique path. I like to inject positive energy into the sessions and focus on the strengths and learnings from missteps. Ideating with my mentee ensures that they develop the quality of seeing the big picture, always. 

In-Residence Program advice

How can one get the most out of a mentorship program? 

I believe that all designers should develop their leadership skills, and what better way to do this than become a mentor? Mentorship helps you to be a better leader as you get the opportunity to:

  • become an effective listener

  • extend your people leadership skills and

  • develop your communication skills

If you’re new to mentorship and need guidance with it, the brain trust a.k.a the other designers-in-residence, is a rich source of experiences, support and advice that is always interesting and informative. 

The Designer-In-Residence program is also a great opportunity for designers to articulate, express an opinion or ask a design-related question in a public forum, while in a safe space. They are wonderfully giving of their time and knowledge.

Finally, it is a wonderful community that provides an instant network of design professionals from across the industry.

Is there anything else you want to share with our community?

My advice to people who are starting on their journey as mentors is to use your engagement with this program to develop your skills as design and thought leaders. The first step towards that is to NOT prescribe approaches to mentees. Mentors are meant to create an environment for the mentee to support, guide and enable them to find their path. 

For mentees, the world is your oyster. It might seem that you are giving up your precious time for a mentorship session, but if you play your cards well, you’ll end up with a great relationship and a rich source of advice, guidance and design knowledge that is invaluable.