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'Dyslexia helped me learn to solve problems'

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The Times Of India
25th November, 2021 13:12 IST

We’ve all been asked to read lessons out loud in class. It isn’t difficult for most of us. But for Shilpa Rao, it meant waking up early every morning to memorise the lesson. Neither did she, nor anyone else around her, know that she was dyslexic. She just knew she had to put in the extra effort to keep up with the rest of her class. “I was a slow reader and couldn’t do simple math. I would write down ‘b for bat’ on my hand so I know the difference between b and d. But I loved art and was naturally good at it, so I leveraged that to colour code my math notes to remember the problems,” she says.

Finding creative solutions to a problem is something she’s been doing all her life. “I’ve always painted my nails on my left hand to identify left from right,” she says, whipping out her left hand.

Though she was accepted at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, she chose to pursue engineering. She says she needed a lot of time to keep up with her classes. “It is a common misconception that dyslexia goes away with age; we only learn to manage it better over time.”

She began her career at TCS. Once, when she was posted in a small town outside London , she noticed discarded food packets outside the town’s biggest grocery store. She spoke to the manager and found that the packages shipped contained a larger quantity of the product than was required. So she set about working on an algorithm to optimise merchandising.

But it wasn’t easy catching the attention of seniors in TCS to take the idea forward. So Shilpa and her team participated in client hackathons to demonstrate its potential. Today, that idea has become what TCS calls Optumera . Shilpa leads the team. The AI-powered solution takes into account more than three thousand factors, including demography, competition, weather, customer preferences, and performance. It even offers a breakdown of all the factors that drive sales, helping users understand the 'why' behind its recommendations.

“What started as an idea has now grown into a full-fledged suite and it has delivered fantastic benefits to customers,” Shilpa says. It has been implemented in the food and fashion industries, and the team plans to take it to pharmaceuticals and healthcare.

Shilpa is based in Chennai and mentors young women in analytics, data science, AI and ML. She even participated in a beauty pageant to raise awareness about the need to revive the Thaiyur lake near her home. “It’s probably something I did to keep my creative side alive!” she jokes.

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