For the past 15 years, Reena Merchant has been combining logic and intuition to design user experiences for leading companies such as Google, Sony PlayStation, and Citrix. Reena is also the founder of OurVoice, an online community focused on helping others embrace their authentic presence. 

Standing testament to her dedication, Reena has been featured in numerous publications including Silicon Valley Modern Luxury, Toronto Star, and Metro News. She’s also a visual artist whose work has been showcased at venues such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian National Exhibition. Reena was a finalist for the 2018 Woman of the Year award by Women in IT Silicon Valley and will be featured in the upcoming book “Women Gone Wild: Intuition Edition.”

Rhonda Swan: There’re so many amazing women that come on our show. And I want to honor you for that. Can you talk a little about how you got into the IT space? How you got to where you are today?

Reena Merchant: Yeah, absolutely happy to share. When I was younger, I wanted to be an artist. I also enjoy problem-solving and logic and using my head. And so, I ended up getting into computer science, and I really enjoyed studying it. 

I actually started my career as a software developer and then I really wanted to connect that with the artistic realm. That’s how I got into user experience design, and that’s how my journey brought me into tech. And I never looked back. I enjoy tech because it’s the perfect way of combining logical thinking and problem-solving with the artistic side and the creative side. And when it comes to user experience design, it’s so much about creating that great experience for humans. That’s something that’s really important to me. 

Rhonda Swan: So, you actually take what’s trending and combine it with your creative ability. I think it’s so cool when someone can take what they are really passionate about and bring it into something they do. Is tech something that you see yourself doing for a long time?

Reena Merchant: I think so. Many times throughout my journey I’ve paused and thought, “How am I feeling about this? Is this really my calling?” And I think that it is. What I love about it the most is the human component. We’re building all these products. Whether it’s at Google or Sony PlayStation, or company XYZ, we’re building all these products and there is focus on revenue, sales, and helping business grow. I love being a part of that because you’re at the heartbeat of business. 

But what I love especially is the human side. User experience design is all about building products in a way that’s good for humans. We aim to bring some value, meaning, and usefulness into people’s lives. That to me, the intersection of those two things — being able to benefit business and humans at the same time — is a meaningful challenge. And I know we don’t always get it right in the tech industry, but aspiring to that is gratifying. So I really do think that I’m going to be doing this for a while.

Rhonda Swan: You said that this is a part of your calling, which leads me to the area of intuition. You’re going to be one of the authors in our “Women Gone Wild: Intuition Edition.” How has intuition played a role in the work you are currently doing and where you’re going?

Reena Merchant: Intuition has played a big part in my life. I think back to my earlier years and how I didn’t understand my intuition and didn’t know how to tap into it. I was always in my head. I’ve always been a very logical person. But I’m also a very sensitive, feeling person. So I always have all these emotions going on inside me. And then somewhere under all that there are my gut feelings. I think that my whole life, I didn’t know how to sift through all the things that were happening within to really listen to what my intuition was saying.

I was going through life, whether it was my career or personal life decisions, by just doing what my head was telling me. And my head was usually telling me to do what others expected of me. So that was essentially my life journey. And then somewhere along the way, I had some awakening moments. It was almost like the universe was pushing me into some scary situations. 

I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and I never thought I would leave. I was working for tech companiesthere in Toronto, and it was completely out of my comfort zone to leave. But somehow the universe pushed me and I ended up in California. And because of that, I got all these opportunities to work at tech companies. And so I think along the way, I got a little bit better at listening to my intuition. 

Rhonda Swan: You’re obviously extremely logical, you really know how to put things together. So how does intuition play into that? And how do you separate intuition and logic?

Reena Merchant: It’s a constant journey. Every day I’m working on really honing in on that. I think, for me, it started with meditation. I was at a point in my life where I was so stressed out, there was just so much swirling inside my head. And I started meditating. And that allowed me to learn and give myself permission to just quiet all of that chaos inside me. 

Then I learned that when I was quiet there was another little voice in there that I usually wasn’t hearing, but oh my goodness, I could hear it now. And through that I learned that there’s this intuitive voice that’s always there. It’s just that many times I’m not tapping into it. So then I started learning how to connect that to my logical thinking even when I’m not meditating, like when I’m walking down the street or I’m sitting in a meeting at work.

Learning how to give space to intuition has been a critical part of my life. Intuition helps me in the tech world. Day to day, I’m making all these logical decisions on various projects and software, but then deep down I ask myself if I am doing the right thing. Am I headed in the right direction? Am I doing what’s right for my team? Am I on the right path? I think that’s where my intuition has really helped me build an inner knowing.

Rhonda Swan: Being a woman, you’re kind of an anomaly, if you will, being the head of a very big tech division. How do you bring intuition and that calming space as a woman into this male-driven industry?

Reena Merchant: It’s challenging at times because, as you said, there aren’t as many women in tech. And because of the cultural status quo, we are often expected to behave in a certain way. We’re often expected to be that louder voice, that louder presence that doesn’t necessarily lean on intuition. And I have found that whenever I’ve tried to be that person, I’m actually missing out on the intuitive part within me. 

It’s been a lot of learning to have the courage to say, “No, I don’t need to show up in this industry that way. It doesn’t need to be like that. It can be my own flavor and my own way of showing up.” It’s learning about how to coexist in this industry. I’m constantly in boardrooms with people who aren’t like me. They’re men. They’re older than me. Or they’re maybe women but maybe they have a louder presence than me. I have my own demeanor. And so it’s taken a lot of courage for me to say, “No, I have permission to be who I am. I don’t have to go into that boardroom being that person. And I don’t have to be loud.” And that’s where the intuition comes in. Just having the courage to say things in my own way. 

Rhonda Swan: I think it’s coming with what you know and really standing your ground. It’s about not being a pushover but also not coming in in a heavy way. Can you add to that a bit?

Reena Merchant: I’ve learned this many times the hard way. It seems like what I’m experiencing on the outside is so much a reflection of me and my own thoughts. And if I am coming in clear and strong, then I am able to speak and I am heard. I’m showing up as my authentic self, whether that’s loud, whether that’s quiet, whatever that is. On the other hand, the situation is different when I’m doubtful, I’m not sure, and I’m not listening to my intuition, or I’m coming in with these preconceived notions or fears that I don’t belong here. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t an external responsibility for all of us to ensure equality and diversity because there is. But what I’ve learned is that if I’m aligned, then I see that reflected back to me on the outside, and then it just becomes so much easier. I sometimes have been so surprised when I walk into a room and I’m aligned, it’s so easy. It’s like I get my point across, I sell what I’m trying to sell, and I convince who I am trying to convince. But if I’m shaky going in then it’s my own doubt that makes the whole process harder.

Rhonda Swan: There are inequalities and forms of suppression in a lot of ways, especially for women. However, what you said is very powerful. If you are uncertain walking into a room, this gives off a certain energy. I think that there’s a lot of power in taking self-responsibility. And just knowing who you are. And I think that’s what we’re standing for with the movement and the roles that we’re taking on. So here I want to talk about your OurVoice project. Could you tell me more about it?

Reena Merchant: OurVoice is inspired by my own journey. As I shared earlier, I’ve really been on this journey of finding my own voice and trying to understand what authenticity means for me. I had certain thoughts or feelings inside me, but I wasn’t showing up externally in congruence with what I was feeling on the inside. I was just doing what was expected of me. 

As I would talk to others, I realized, well, wait a minute, everyone’s on this journey. It manifests in different ways for each of us but to some extent, everyone is kind of exploring this in their own ways. And so it prompted me to connect with others. I found that the more I built a community and connected with others who were also exploring similar things, the more it helped both me and others.

I launched OurVoice in 2019 as a community organization. It’s all about connecting people and bringing resources to help all of us strengthen our self-confidence, authenticity, and voices. And it’s been incredible because I’ve learned that as I put my heart and my soul into it, as I build resources, whether it’s podcasts or blog posts, it’s continually helping me grow. And, of course, I’m doing it with the hope that I can help other people. But the more I do it, the more I grow. And so it’s this beautiful experience, and I’ve connected with so many amazing people through it. 

Rhonda Swan: So how is the community run? Is it monthly, daily, is it online? How do you connect? And how is it all managed? 

Reena Merchant: It’s mostly online. We initially started with live events but after the pandemic, most of it moved online. There’s a podcast, reading resources such as articles, and blog posts. I think the podcast has been the most exciting part for me. It’s generated so much dialogue. The guests on the podcast bring their expertise to the table about equity and inclusion at work or navigating psychological subjects in the context of authenticity. We always have interesting topics and guests. The podcast has also generated a lot of dialogue from a community standpoint.

Rhonda Swan: I am so excited about the work you are doing. I want to learn from the work we are doing on “Women Gone Wild” and how we can have a grander impact on the world. Final question, can you share with us what you’re currently working on? And what initiatives you have planned for this upcoming year?

Reena Merchant: I work on YouTube ads. At YouTube, I lead a team of user experience designers and researchers. And what we create together is essentially the ad experience on YouTube. So if you’re using the free version of YouTube, it’s the ads that keep it free. So if you’re watching free YouTube on any device, you’ll encounter ads, and our team designs the experience around these ads. How do they appear? How do users interact with them?

It’s going to be my five-year anniversary at Google in just a couple of days. And I’ve learned so much there because I hadn’t worked on ads before. I’ve found it exciting to be working at the heart of the business. At the same time, it’s a very interesting human challenge. How do you create ads that are useful, meaningful, relevant, and help people? They are more than just ads, they’re not just there to make money, but they’re actually used in a deeper way. And that is such a difficult challenge. We have a lot of cool things on the go. Basically, trying to reinvent and innovate ads on YouTube and make them great for users.

To see the full episode of The Rhonda Swan Show with 

Reena Merchant, click the link below: