What’s your story behind starting ‘Space Kidz India’?
I got married at the age of 18. I was an all-rounder, national basketball player, state athlete and paratrooper parade commander at the NCC, Delhi. So, all these accolades, and for the first time, a girl was leading a parade with a sword. I was blessed to do that. And that day, we had general KV Krishna Rao around as our chief guest and he was so excited to see a girl cadet do this. After the parade, he called for me and he called my dad and said fantastic daughter and you’re a proud father. General KV Krishna Rao told my Dad that after graduation we will take her directly into the Armed Forces. So my Dad was very thrilled, but on the same day, we were leaving from Hyderabad to Chennai, for my wedding. I moved to Chennai. We have a huge family. But there was that little vacuum within me that wanted to do something in life. You’re not born to just be somebody’s wife, mother, sister and all that. You need an identity of your own. So I had that question on my mind ‘Why was Srimathy born?’ and I needed my answers.
My best friend Reema Sisodia suggested about world travel exhibition in Miami. It was a free trip. I think that was the first time when I came out of my comfort zone and never look back. I went there and got to see NASA’s presentation. They had an astronaut presenting completely all the exhibits of space shuttles. I got so fascinated because as a child everybody is fascinated is NASA. I spoke to some space course directors and they told me about space camps where you can take a child to NASA and they will teach you the nitty-gritty of making a satellite, how to launch a rocket and you can go around to visit the Kennedy Space Center. I planned for about 108 students and with a lot of struggle I got the visa and passports for the children. So if you are determined and throw to the Universe, work hard and you will get everything you need.
What is the current young scientist’s outlook?
I used to go to schools and talk to mothers but they always spoke about children going to IIT, medical school, charted accountant because these were the top careers those days. None of them told that they want their child to be a scientist; they want to do something for the country. After 16 years, God has put me in a frame where I’m working with the future generation and handpicking those children. I’m a little drop in the ocean giving this platform to the children but they are all excelling so much. These are all tier 2, 3 children who don’t even have internet in their homes. Such children have great brains. It’s just how you handpick them.
How has the journey been so far? What is smart scientist team all about?
Why only NASA, I thought, so I moved to ESA (European Space Agency). I wanted to do something different, so I then moved to Russia space center and I’ve been given the ambassador for all the three top space research centers. I started thinking probably we should start working on building the satellite in India and give the opportunity to students. Then I started working on the concept called Young Scientist India. It’s an innovation science competition. We conduct the competition once every year for children from all across India. We are in the eight year now. This is for high school students who are very bold, courageous and their ideas are very different. My first child is Rifath Shaarook from Pallapatti, who I felt was a mirror image of me. He has been with us from the 8th grade and is now the lead scientist and CTO of the organisation and then Yagna Sai is the CEO and he has done aerospace engineering.
Catching them young is the key. We explored high-altitude ballooning and that is a concept that is very famous in the west. It’s a helium balloon that carries a payload and that they will have all the electronics in GPS. So it will go near space that is 30 to 36km and after a lot of processes we finally launched it. It was a super success and from there on from an educational tourism we transformed to a proper R&D satellite and rocket research organisation. This is what Space Kidz India is all about.
How do you encourage women to not give up?
Every human being is made for a purpose. If we do not understand the purpose, then it is, you yourself who is actually killing yourself, and age is no barrier at all. Yesterday I read in a book there is a marathon runner who is 105 years old and she started running when she was 67years. She lost both her sons and felt very low and dejected and didn’t know what to do so she started doing this. She started winning awards and accolades.
Women in our country are wired in such a way that you get married your life is almost coming to an end. You only have to take care of your family and everything. Also, you have peer pressure. All these things are taboo. If you have to do something, there are millions of ways to do it. But now women have a lot of support systems like cooks, Swiggy, and child daycare centers. It is like you have to take your own decision and choice. God throws once if you don’t pick it up then you’re the loser. We women have got a special talent for multitasking. The warmth of the whole family is through the wife, through the woman of the family. So they want to keep the family intact. Divorces are reducing in other countries. In India, divorces are increasing looking at the western country. It’s very unfortunate. So I would really love to tell the woman that you are a special human being brought down to earth. So enjoy that specialty, never say you’re equal to a man. You are far superior to a man. Please don’t fight for equality. If you think you can do it, you will definitely do it.
Any advice you would like to share with young women entering the aerospace profession?
Initially, it was only 3% of women in stem, that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, then it became 14% and now it is 37%, but in India it’s still 14%. I think last year it moved to 21%. People think that when you get into this stem field, you have to spend late hours and are not paid properly, not treated equally to men and there are a lot of problems like people’s mindsets about women and technology. You have female children taking up Engineering. A lot of female students are doing engineering now, but once they finish an MBA they divert their field.
In NASA’s ongoing Mars 2020 mission there were so many Indian women. In Chandrayaan 2, we had two women, Muthayya Vanitha and Ritu Karidhal who were the directors. There are many sporadic women taking up leadership roles. I think they have to break the glass ceiling. They have to come out and when they take that one step, the entire family also will understand and they will also support. So without hesitation, if you come out, I think this is a beautiful creative field, so plunge into it, forget everything and you’ll be the best.
Tell us about your experience interacting with the honorable Prime Minister of India.
That was a very special moment I should say. When I was in the NCC and on Republic Day in Delhi, I got an opportunity to meet President Venkataraman, and we had high tea at his house. So, that was a very special moment as a child. But this was kind of a dream moment. The icing on the cake was when we had the opportunity to interact with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They always have a feeling that if you’re from South India you cannot speak good Hindi. I was interacting with him in Hindi and he was giving a big smile that was very encouraging.
What are the benefits of having women in leadership roles?
In pre-independence post-independence we had beautiful leaders like Sarojini Naidu and Indira Gandhi and each one had something special in them. Now it’s in the corporate firms and businesses. We have the main leaders helping plan women, plunging into doing business.
What you would like to tell women out there in our Women’s day special edition.
A very Happy Women’s Day to all the women out there. When you are on the dias people will say so many things but you have to believe in yourselves, have confidence and be patient. Each and every woman should have an identify of her own and should know the purpose of her life. If you identify that, it will lead you to a path of ultimate success. Success is not only earning money or earning fame. It is the satisfaction you possess when you do what you love. If you are able to educate one child then it’s great. You need not pay their fees, but at least if you’re able to teach some new skill set to that child, that is the best thing you can give back to the society.
Name some of satellites you launched
• KALAMSAT 1 – World’s Lightest Satellite
• SKISAT – a 1U CUBESAT with 27 experiments on board
• Orbital Satellite – KALAMSAT – V2
• Orbital Satellite – SATISH DHAWAN SAT
Which are some of the distinguished titles and awards you have won?
• “Most Inspirational Women Lead Tech organization in South Asia 2020” by Corporate
Vision, AI Global Media Ltd.
• Unified Brains and Asia African Chamber had conferred the title of being one of the “Most Admired Global Indian” in the space industry to Dr. Srimathy Kesan on the 25th Jan 2020 at New Delhi.
• Only Indian to receive the “Regal British Award” at the House of Lords, UK in the Trilateral Global Summit 2019 by World Humanitarian Drive.
• Received the Title “The Name in Science and Education” from Oxford University, UK.
• Received the Title “The Name in Science and Education” by The Socrates Committee -United Kingdom.
• “Enterprising Women Entrepreneur“ Award by the Ministry of Small, Micro and Medium Enterprise (MSME)
• “Best Social Entrepreneur Award 2019” was awarded by FICCI FLO.
• Women of the year in Science and Technology category – Women Entrepreneur Development Organisation.
• Golden Disk Award from India books of records World Record Union.
• Received “Nation’s Supreme Pride” Award by Panimalar Institutions, Chennai.
• Abdul Kalam Award – for Science and Technology category.
• Women Achiever of the year Excellence in the field of Science and Technology category – Raindrops.
• Women Icon 2017 by BERG and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
• Innovative Educationalist by Pondicherry College.
– By Vinitha Venkatesha