Sonita Lontoh | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Sonita Lontoh

Background:  

Siemens AG, headquartered in Germany, is a leading manufacturing and electronics company. Siemens has operations throughout the world, including Foster City, California.

The Mistake:

My mistake was that I thought my passion for my work was enough to make me happy on its own.

I came from a family that had a lot of expectations. Education was one of those expectations. And it wasn’t just education. You had to get into the right schools and the right major. 

I got my bachelor’s in engineering at Berkeley. Then I went to MIT to get my master’s in engineering. And then of course I had to get an MBA. So, I was doing all of these things because that was what was expected from me.

After that I thought I would just focus on my passion, the things I wanted to do. So, after school, I had a series of careers. I did consulting. I was a technology entrepreneur for a while, and then I went to a Silicon Valley venture-backed company.

When I first got into a job, I would be happy. But then soon after I would be unhappy. I would start thinking, this is not my passion, I really don’t want to do this and I need to find the next thing that will really serve my passion.

That’s when I had an epiphany. I got into the world of smart energy and the industrial internet of things. This is a world, where I kind of felt a little more sense of purpose.

This work still serves my passion, because I’m working at the intersection of technology, business and policy, and this definitely serves that need. But I also found an industry that serves a purpose, because when you do this, you are not just producing a product or selling a product to someone, where there’s no higher purpose in it.

When you work in smart energy, you affect climate change, and you are helping people in the industry move forward into the 21st century. So, I just felt like I found a purpose.

From there, interestingly, I started getting invited to speak and to write about my work and I met many people. I just found that was very fulfilling.

I thought if I kept looking and I found what I really love to do, I’d be happy.

The Lesson:

My mistake was really just focusing on myself, just the passion part. That’s because I thought if I kept looking and I found what I really love to do, I’d be happy.

I learned that wasn’t really the right way to think about it. I found that once I changed the focus from what I want to do, my passion, to actually marrying that with the skills that I have—and most importantly finding a purpose—I was happy. I feel my work is affecting bigger things other than just selling a product or getting revenue and profit for my company.

I’ve also had a chance to mentor the younger generation.

A lot of young people I talk to, especially the millennials, focus so much on what they want to do—on passion. Some of them say, “I’m not that happy in my work right now. I’m in finance now, but what I want to do is in strategy.”

They keep focusing on what they want to do.

That’s great—and a lot of young people are still trying to find their sweet spot in their career, but I would advise them to [focus on] what you think you want to do. I ask them, do you have the skill set to do what you think you want to do? And more importantly, what is your purpose?

Follow Sonita Lontoh on Twitter at @slontoh.

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