Alisha Sonawalla - pushing the frontiers of technology | Aga Khan Academies

Alisha Sonawalla - pushing the frontiers of technology

Alisha Sonawalla was part of AKA Hyderabad’s first graduating batch, the Class of 2014. Since then, she has accumulated an extraordinary set of experiences during a gap year and subsequently at university in New York City. These experiences range from heading projects geared at exposing girls in rural India to coding and internet technologies, to designing English language development programmes in Tajikistan, and most recently, to spending summers in Silicon Valley working on self-driving cars. 

Alisha is currently pursuing a dual degree – B.S. in Computer Science (from NYU Courant) and B.S. in Management Science with a concentration in Data Science (from NYU Stern School of Business). She has received the Dean’s Honour Roll for securing a Grade Point Average in the top 10% of the class. Outside the classroom, she has dabbled in multiple projects including building her own robo news-reader, and experimenting with developing a secure cloud sharing service. 

“The Academy helped me become comfortable with making mistakes and encouraged me to focus on identifying solutions instead,” explains Alisha. “That, and my gap year experiences ignited in me a passion for tech and an entrepreneurial spirit, and ever since, I have been excited about building products to push the frontiers of technology forward.” 

Copyright - GM/HondaAlisha’s internships at university have provided her with unparalleled opportunities to deepen her technical knowledge. In 2017, she did an internship at IBM, where she worked with machine learning algorithms to develop a predictive model that would help IBM use unstructured data to forecast revenues for subsequent quarters. And then last summer, she engaged with cutting-edge technologies as a software engineer on General Motors and Honda’s joint autonomous car venture, Cruise Automation. “It was an exciting time to be in in the Mecca of tech,” she reminisces. “I led the development of a large-scale mapping service to deliver real-time, preemptive updates to the vehicle, allowing them to make more efficient routing decisions and enhanced ride safety. As one of the early engineers in the self-driving car space, it was amazing to have the opportunity to contribute towards the future of tech.”

Copyright - Agastya Int'l FoundationAlisha’s technological accomplishments of the past and plans for the future are marked by a social dimension. Her work with Agastya International Foundation, the world’s largest hands-on science program, took her to a small, rural village in Southern India, and involved designing a programme based on Google Bus and Raspberry Pi devices. The programme encouraged 900 students to combine scientific concepts with technology to find a solution to a local issue, such as soil contamination or crop infestation. “The girls’ newfound confidence became my motivation as I travelled across India and to Tajikistan conducting sessions for women on STEM opportunities,” shares Alisha. She was also one of 25 female engineers globally who was awarded the Goldman Sachs Grace Hopper Conference Scholarship to attend the Grace Hopper Conference, the largest conference for woman in tech. 

 

In 2013, while still at AKA Hyderabad, Alisha travelled across four remote villages of Gujarat to document the livelihood and survival strategies of a lost community, the Devipujaks. Her interviews and field research was compiled into one of the only ethnographic studies done on this marginalized group of people, and she presented her findings at the National Conference on Human Rights organised by the Central University of Gujarat and the Government of India. 

“I do see myself returning to India at some point,” Alisha states. “I see a lot of potential for innovation in bringing the next billion users online, and I want to be a part of this tech revolution. With a growing population, the lack of an educated workforce could create the biggest hindrance to economic prosperity and therefore it is essential to focus resources on education. Once the workforce is educated, it will be important to open up avenues of employment. Though we have seen smart phones and access to cheap internet become commonplace in India, there are still large pockets of the country that can benefit from access to better technology infrastructure. This would allow more home-grown startups to flourish, and enhance the ease of doing business in India for foreign companies for whom the 1.3 billion consumer base is extremely attractive." In the meantime, Alisha is joining Microsoft as a software engineer on their AI & Mixed Reality team.

Alisha credits AKA Hyderabad with helping refine her value system. “The Academy gave me the space to develop my moral compass by taking on leadership opportunities and experiencing ethical dilemmas first-hand. Being faced with these ethical decisions on a small scale helped me develop a moral compass that guides me through major decisions even today. Moreover, living in a shared space taught me to adapt to different situations, lifestyles and people, which made my transition to NYU, a new city and a different culture seamless.”  


Written by Kamini Menon