How a Shy Torontonian Became a Leader at Google
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
Do you get that Tai Lopez ad everytime you open YouTube too? The one where he’s holding a book and amongst his 11 Lambos? Yep, me too. Guess what? We met the mastermind behind these ads. Ok, she didn’t actually make them, but she leads the team that designs these YouTube Ads. Reena Merchant. If you’re like me, you might expect the leader of the ad design team at YouTube to be some corporate suit who sits in an office, secretly listening into our mics, and flipping us ads for that Tesla we joked about at lunch. But as much as I love conspiracy theories and hate being wrong, Reena Merchant’s story proves that her success has purely been the product of hard work, empathy and resiliency as a woman of colour within a very male tech industry.
Growing up in Toronto, Reena was a shy young girl who struggled even just socializing with people who weren’t her parents; but being shy never stopped the ambition and drive that burned within her. Achievement, perfectionism and external results were ingrained in Reena’s life by her parents from a very young age, and have remained at the forefront of her schooling and career ever since.
When she was in grade nine, Reena’s parents sent her to school in India for three years in an attempt to better connect her to their family’s language, culture and roots. While this may sound exciting to many of us 20-somethings who are yearning to live up to our “catch flights not feelings” Instagram bios, Reena recalls being extremely challenged by the whole experience at first; feeling totally displaced after leaving her friends and family behind in Toronto at the formative age of 13.
Worst of all, the new language and school system in India was so tough to adjust to that she was definitely struggling with her classes for the first time. As a fellow child of parents with high expectations and even higher IQs, this gives me high blood pressure. Seriously, my palms just started to sweat. There is nothing more terrifying than having to tell your overly intellectual parents that you got a mark below an A and then explaining your five-point plan for ensuring you will never fail them so miserably again.
Of course, she adapted and made it through the next three years, rising her way up again, ultimately seeing the amazing value of the experience despite the initial struggle.
When Reena returned to Canada for her final years of high school, she once again had to reintegrate into a society and culture that she felt disassociated and disconnected from. Luckily for her, India’s education system felt far more advanced than the one she had come home to, so this time was more about recalibrating her workload as opposed to constantly feeling behind. But despite being on top of her school work, the dynamic changes of her childhood and adolescence had left Reena feeling unsure of who she was and what she would do with the achievements she already had under her belt.
Attempting to balance her creative side with her analytical one, Reena must have been her guidance counsellor’s worst nightmare; her career aspirations fluctuated between becoming a ballerina and going to law school. Ultimately, she landed on going into computer science.
But after graduating university, migrating into the User Experience space of the tech industry and landing a good job at Blackberry, Reena got laid off.
Now a contextual side note for all you Gen Zers whose entire lives have been characterized by the war of Apple vs. Android: although my high school years were significantly impacted by the meteoric rise and fall of Blackberry, I seldom consider the impact that it had on the people who were actually working for the company at the time. BBM was cool for a hot minute in 2009 and its success gave all of us young teens the opportunity to perfect the fine art of the status/photo thirst trap. But the trend of updating your BBM status with the title of the song you were currently listening to died almost as quickly as the battery on my Blackberry Torch.
Back to Reena.
Despite the fact that when layoffs occur, it’s usually a much bigger reflection of the corporation doing the layoffs than it is about those getting laid off, the hit took place so early on in Reena’s career that her faith and confidence in herself were seriously damaged.
“Growing up, there had been such a huge focus on this external aspect of doing well and pushing yourself and achieving things and perfection - which was good. But all of a sudden when that’s your whole identity, and then you get laid off, you start to question your self-worth.”
On a personal level, she’s experienced similar challenges as well. After losing her job at Blackberry, Reena got married, moved to California, and a few years later, got divorced. Again, she found herself questioning her self-worth after realizing she wasn’t meeting the social expectations that had been set out for her.
Instead of wallowing, she decided to get a change of scenery and move to San Francisco *cue The O.C. theme song*.
“I had focused so much on external achievements in my life and checking all the boxes. But there was a misalignment and less discovery of who I was on the inside,” Reena says. Recognizing this misalignment, she needed to give herself space for some serious self-reflection and processing of what she was doing, and how the external experiences of her life might become better aligned with who she was on the inside.
So while she lived out Eat, Pray, Love in San Fran (not really - that’s just what I imagine it looks like while engaging in some deep self-reflection), she realized that achieving congruence between her internal and external self would require the dismissal of trivial social standards and a shift in the
evaluation metrics that she used to measure her life.
Finding better balance also led Reena to understand where she sat as a young woman of colour in the boardrooms where undertones of power and influence often reside. And let’s be honest - it doesn’t get much more powerful than the Silicon Valley offices of YouTube and Google, which is where she has landed.
“Sometimes you walk into a room and you really want to be taken seriously, but maybe you don’t feel like you’re being taken seriously because you’re the youngest person in the room or the only woman in the room or the only person of colour in the room.”
The intersection of each of these parts of her identity could sometimes make it difficult to be herself, build credibility and establish a good reputation for other professionals to know her by. To this day, despite attending countless meetings and sitting on the boards of multiple organizations, she still remains conscious of what it takes to be taken seriously.
Now if Reena still feels this way, it probably means that the rest of us who experience this level of discomfort are in the struggle for the long haul. The good news? Mentors make all the difference in navigating these types of challenges, just as they did for Reena.
After leaning on her fellow women in the tech industry, she later discovered the gratification that could come from becoming a mentor herself:
“There were times when just sharing my story or experiences felt like I was able to give someone a helping hand or help them make decisions in their career or help them work through something that they were really struggling with in terms of a decision - for me that felt so gratifying.”
Reena’s story is a collection of the personal and professional challenges, insecurities and triumphs that so often fill the lives of successful women. She truly represents a light at the end of the tunnel that keeps us young women feeling perpetually behind in our schooling, careers, and baby-making years. Do it all, or do none of it - just know you’re not alone.
“If my stumbles through life can help even one other person, that’s so gratifying for me,” Reena says.
Watch her share the five chapters of her life in the video above.
Written by: Hannah Geiser