In a world where over-confidence gets attention, Shweta Shidhore, the experience design leader in Slalom Silicon Valley, shows how much further humility can take us.
By Randi Eicher, photographs by Steven Stelter
This is a profile on someone who wasn’t sure she wanted to be profiled. In fact, when I asked Shweta Shidhore if I could write a story on her, she paused. “Is it okay if I get back to you?”
By the end of the week I hadn’t heard from her. Bummer, she’s not interested . . . Why isn’t she interested? Then, at 5:09pm on Friday, an email.
Okay. She was in.
Shweta Shidhore is an experience design leader in Slalom’s Silicon Valley office. She helps some of the world’s most innovative companies create user experiences for their apps, websites, and products.
Her team tells me she’s a visionary. She’s extremely creative, a big-picture thinker, and also practical and efficient. She’s the rock of the experience design team. She’s extremely caring and thoughtful. An exceptional human being.
“I could go on and on about her,” says Aisha Quaintance, Shweta’s colleague. “She puts everyone on her team first and always looks out for them. She makes sure that everyone who’s a part of a project gets credit. It’s rare to find someone so professionally skilled and also so humble.”
Let’s talk about humility. We all know humility is a great quality. We love working with people who are humble because we don’t have to navigate around that extra thing in the room: the ego. But when it comes to being humble, staying humble, as we grow in our careers—it can be hard to do. Isn’t it more important to be ambitious and confident? Isn’t that how we get respect?
Being around Shweta gives me a deeper understanding of what humility really is. It’s not a lack of confidence or thinking we’re unworthy of something. It’s not a stepping-stone virtue, something to leave behind once we get great at our jobs. Humility is about focusing on the bigger picture more than ourselves. It’s about working toward a mission—and being open to ideas, acknowledging our own weaknesses, and lifting up others to get there.
I shadow Shweta in Silicon Valley, going with her to two well-known tech companies that Slalom works with. In every meeting, she’s calm, even-keeled, hard to rattle. Her grounded energy is consistent, no matter the energy of the person she’s talking to. She’s intentional with the words she uses, asks a lot of questions, and really listens.
When she leads meetings, she gives junior team members opportunities to stretch and grow. She asks, “What do you recommend?” and makes space for their ideas.
One of Shweta’s teammates tells me he was recently struggling with something, and Shweta could sense it when they were meeting one-on-one. “She was able to pull it out of me,” he said. “She helped me talk it out and figure out how I was really feeling and what I wanted before I was able to articulate it on my own.”
I notice when Shweta talks to people that she focuses more on them—what they need, the challenges they’re facing, the pressure they’re getting—and less on herself. I ask her how, as a leader, she handles it when someone on her team seems stressed or off. She says she’ll ask herself questions like: Are they getting to do the type of work they love? What’s their commute like? How can I better support them?
She believes that you should never go into a meeting with a prejudice that someone is difficult. If she hears that someone has been hard to work with, she tries to get to the root of it, really meet them where they are, and see them with impartial eyes.
This empathy is what makes her a great experience designer, too. Putting herself in users’ shoes is key to designing a great experience for them.
“She has a way of objectively seeing what’s working and what’s not, and helping our clients get a 360-degree view of their users,” says Aditi Kulkarni, Shweta’s manager. “She’s extremely thoughtful with everything she does, and she builds deep connections on every project because of it.”
“That’s a red-shouldered hawk,” Shweta says, pointing to a tree. We’re walking on the trail of one of her usual after-work hikes. She’s carrying a camera and wearing binoculars around her neck, which she always keeps in her car for birdwatching opportunities.
“Where?” I’m looking for the hawk, but I can’t see it. She gives me her binoculars and describes where to look. I can’t see it, I can’t see it. Oh—there! Blending in so much with the tree I don’t know how she spotted it.
There are thousands of birds in the Bay Area, she tells me. Hawks, cranes, hummingbirds, seagulls, egrets, eagles, many others. She likes to sit on her deck at home listening to birds and has even learned to mimic a few of their calls. She and her husband go to a wildlife conservation conference every year and travel to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as much as possible. Once, on a bird-watching trip, she waited in the woods for over four hours to spot a great grey owl.
She’s passionate about doing little things to try to help animals and the environment. She’s part of Slalom’s pro-bono team in Silicon Valley, and she co-led a volunteer event at the local animal shelter. Her Instagram is full of beautiful photos she’s taken of animals and facts about them, like: Each year, 80% of all the cranes (around 500K) on the planet congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska. And: Point Reyes Lighthouse [in Marin, California] has 54% or 490 species of all North American birds. How cool is that you get to enjoy wildlife right in your backyard?
The filmmaker Ava DuVernay said, “If your dream only includes you, it's too small.” Humility is knowing you’re not the center of things. It’s having perspective—that the world is big, and we’re small, so we should work toward something that’ll make an impact beyond our own lives.
Shweta admits she almost said no to this profile because she doesn’t like being the center of attention. She wants to be behind the camera, the one asking questions, the one giving her teammates the spotlight. I ask her why she ended up saying yes.
Because, she says, she wants to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. She’s always encouraging her teammates to challenge themselves, stretch, do the things they don’t think they can do. They encouraged her to do the same, by agreeing to this story.
Weeks after I flew home to Seattle, I was finishing the draft of this story. Before I sent it to my teammate for review, I asked myself: How open are you willing to be to feedback, to new ideas? I thought: If you want this story to be as good as it can be, you need to be open. Be open. More open. Take your ego out of it.
That’s the impact a humble leader can have. It might not be loud, but it’s lasting.