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Learning, teaching and trekking with Upasna Gautam

Upasna Gautam exemplifies embracing the journey. While that experience looks different for everyone, the intention, awareness and iterative approach in the trail she’s blazing paints a clear picture of the life she’s building. The TEDx speaker, CNN product manager, hiker and lifelong learner shared more about her journey with us, including lessons from mentorship, advice for TEDx talks and the important role mindfulness plays in her happiness and career fulfillment.


Some people might see experience in scientific research, digital advertising, publishing and then e-commerce as unrelated, which isn’t the case. What thread connects your experiences across these fields?

I firmly believe that taking the time to develop essential skills (aka “soft skills” but I do not like that term anymore, so now use “essential skills”) is the key to professional success because they are transferable, especially across the STEM ecosystem. When I say the key to professional success, what I really mean is professional opportunity that comes from having strong essential skills. For me, I was able to transition from scientific research to SEO/data analytics, to product management (across multiple industries and Fortune 500’s) because of my communication (speaking, writing, listening) skills, critical thinking skills, innate curiosity, and baseline of empathy which was developed over a decade of practicing mindfulness. Empathy is definitely the most important and I also firmly believe that practicing mindfulness is the only way to truly develop empathy, which is the prerequisite for every desirable skill that an employer seeks. We become better communicators, problem solvers, leaders, critical thinkers and team players because of empathy we develop/have, which is the by-product of mindfulness.

Let’s talk TED talks. This is an aspiration for many; what was your biggest learning from the process of applying and delivering this talk?

There is always someone who knows more than you, and there’s always someone who knows less than you. This means that you always have something to learn, and always have something to teach. You don’t have to wait until you reach “the top” to become a leader. Become a teacher, and you’ll become a leader. Cultivating this mindset is what makes the difference between good speakers and great speakers.

“You don’t have to wait until you reach “the top” to become a leader. Become a teacher, and you’ll become a leader.”

Your passion for public speaking includes working to get more women speakers at tech conferences. Tell us about how you decided to commit to solving this piece of the gender gap problem.

In September 2020 during the height of the pandemic, I decided to spin up a little workshop to help women in tech become conference speakers. After a decade of speaking at tech conferences across the globe, I realized that inspiring women is one thing, but what’s really been missing is to show them how to do it. That’s been my goal — to tap into those women who are already inspired, but need the direction on tactical next steps to achieve their goals. It’s not a pipeline problem — I’ve had over 500 women attend my workshops in the last 6 months. This is pure validation that there is a severe lack of resources and support, and my mission is to help provide that. Since then, I’ve also joined Shine Bootcamp as an official Coach!

You were working remotely prior to the pandemic. What are your biggest tips for those wanting to make remote work a long-term thing?

I talk about mindfulness a lot, but when it comes to remote working success, it’s of utmost importance! When I joined CNN in 2019, I started working remotely for the first time in my career, while also starting a new chapter of my career. I realized quickly that while there were tremendous benefits, working remotely also presented a very unique set of challenges. I even spun up a little Instagram profile (@workingfromaum) to create a space where I could share my successes, trials, and tribulations. The benefits that a mindfulness practice brings to remote work success are numerous: you become better at managing your time and energy, setting boundaries, fostering meaningful professional relationships, and prioritizing your mental and physical health.

“[A]s a mentor, your responsibility is to open the door to the toolshed and show how the tools are used. As a mentee, it’s up to you to make what you want with those tools.”

As a mentor, you know the power of sharing experiences, knowledge and connections. Who has been a key mentor in your life, and what did you learn from them?

I’ve had two key mentors in my professional career that have profoundly impacted and accelerated the trajectory of my career – at two critical junctures of my career. They saw things in me that I couldn’t see, trusted my skills, challenged me to think bigger and differently, and provided me the opportunity to grow and flourish. Because of them, and now that I’m in a position of privilege, I feel compelled to pay it forward. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from them about mentorship is that as a mentor, your responsibility is to open the door to the toolshed and show how the tools are used. As a mentee, it’s up to you to make what you want with those tools.

“I took my first big hiking trip since my injury last month to Big Bend National Park and it was exhilarating to be able to get back to doing something I love so much!”

You hiked the W Trek in Patagonia. What’s the next big challenge on your horizon?

Ah yes, the most magical trip and trek ever! Over the last 15 months, I’ve actually been recovering from a traumatic hiking injury that I suffered from during the pandemic. I completely broke both bones in my left arm, and then contracted a really dangerous, near-sepsis infection. After a couple of major surgeries, massive antibiotic infusions, I’ve finally been on the upswing over the last 6 months. Right now, I’m working on regaining my physical strength and breaking through the PTSD. I took my first big hiking trip since my injury last month to Big Bend National Park and it was exhilarating to be able to get back to doing something I love so much! I definitely still get episodes of PTSD when I’m out on the trail, but they are becoming less intense. Next up is Denali National Park in August and Smoky Mountain National Park in October!


Inspired? Appreciate Upasna’s trail, start a conversation or send her a connection request.

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