Sirisha Valupadas, Debate Phenom & Business Enthusiast
Our June Leader in the Spotlight features Sirisha Valupadas, accomplished debater and recent University of Alberta graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in Biological Science and minoring in Political Science. Over the years, Sirisha has won 8 gold medals, 5 silver and 4 bronze medals in various Alberta Debate and Speech Association tournaments. With her plethora of competitive debate experience, Sirisha volunteers as a debate coach at the junior high school level, and has coached students who have placed top 3 at the Alberta Provincial Debate Championships.
Besides excelling in debate, Sirisha has diverse interests. Currently, she works as a part-time consultant, serves as the Youth Coordinator and blogger for the Indo-Canadian Womens’ Association, and volunteers at the Stollery Children’s Hospital. Previously, she has worked as a research assistant, and served as the Executive Director of Corporate and Alumni Relation with AEISEC Edmonton, and the Secretary General for the University of Alberta High School Model United Nations. In our interview, Sirisha discusses the importance of debate, shares her networking and negotiation tips, and offers advice for incoming undergraduates.
1. What first got you into speech and debate? What aspects of speech and debate inspired you to continue for 9 years?
I was a really talkative baby; as I grew older, I guess it got a bit worse! I always had an opinion and I loved discussing, debating, reading, writing, and arguing, particularly about political and socio-cultural issues. In junior high, a teacher wanted to start a debate team, which seemed to make my talking productive. One classmate and I were the only ones interested, so we were paired up. We were so scared of failing that we worked and prepared immensely. We entered our first tournament and won first place! I was a competitive student so that win was all it took to keep going.
I’ve always loved how speech and debate brings so many skills together: research, organization, argumentation, thinking on your feet and learning about so many new issues, laws, policies and nations. I loved the challenge of arguing both sides and the competitions. The skills I’ve learned helped me throughout school and in my personal life as well. Communication is such an important skill. You could be the best scientist in the world and no one would know if you don’t know how to communicate your ideas clearly, effectively, and convincingly.
2. You’ve given back to the speech and debate community, by representing Northern Alberta alumni in the Alberta Speech and Debate Association, mentoring junior and high school students, and chairing the Model Legislature tournament. What are some of your most memorable moments, acting in these capacities?
When I entered university, I started volunteering for the ADSA board and coaching junior high debate. I wanted to help younger students attain the same skills that I developed and found so useful. The students I coach now know more about Canadian policy, current events, the war on drugs, and nuclear energy than some of the adults I know! I love seeing them formulate ideas, research, write and combat arguments. Seeing their skills improve is an amazing feeling.
There was one especially shy student in my class who initially never participated. By the end of our term, for his year-end evaluation, he wrote a 7-minute speech on nanotechnology and robotics, a field he was really passionate about. It was so well-written and presented- I was blown away by his improvements.
I love when parents tell me how much their kids enjoy debate, how their communication and academic skills have improved, and how they think of me as a role model. Instead of competing for myself, I have the opportunity to make an impact on so many lives. My students have made it to provincials both years that I’ve taught; it was the first and second time in the history of their school. Their wins are my wins. I am competitive and I push them. But, no matter the outcome, they always make me really proud.
3. As a Team Leader in Business Development for AIESEC Edmonton, you’ve networked and negotiated with top businesses in Edmonton. What are some tips you have to excel in networking and negotiations?
Working with AIESEC Edmonton was definitely a highlight of my undergraduate experience. You meet so many people from so many different places, and develop a global perspective that’s hard to obtain anywhere else. In my case, I had the chance to apply my public speaking skills to a completely different kind of task: networking and negotiating. There are many overlaps between skills; here are a few hints:
- Know who you’re talking to.
If you can, always research who you will be talking to, what their needs are, and think about what your own needs are. See if you can find something in common with the person you’re talking to (ie. You’re both UAlberta alumni). You can use this information as an icebreaker, and potentially form personal connections. Not only will this remove your anxiety about networking, but you’ll demonstrate interest and enthusiasm for the person.
- Have confidence.
Remember that the person you’re networking with is just another person. You both have experiences, failures, successes and needs. In particular, being intimidated by the person’s accomplishments and reputation can harm negotiations.
Make sure that you always conduct negotiations on equal footing. For example, if you are in sales, always keep in mind that you have the BEST and the ONLY product that they are looking for. Have that confidence, and use it to amplify their need. A great handshake, good posture, and being assertive can go a long way!
- Follow up.
People are busy. If you’re networking with professionals, they will have many emails to respond to every day. Make sure you get their contact information and follow up a couple days later.
Remind them of your interaction, and what you needed, be it a reference, referral, meeting etc. If they don’t reply back, email again after a week. If they don’t reply then, call them directly. Make sure all your emails are courteous and concise. Persistence is key and it pays off.
4. You’re currently working as an associate consultant for a management consulting firm. What does consulting entail? What advice do you have for students looking to get into consulting?
Consulting is an umbrella term for many different career paths. Simply put, consulting for a company involves bringing a project to life, with your expertise. Consultants often work privately. They bid on projects and write proposals to show how their firm would to the best job carrying out the clients’ work. If they win the contract, they execute their plans.
I’ve been working on an ad hoc basis with a consulting company, helping write their proposals, doing some organization and writing for their documents. The one thing I would like to highlight is that you don’t have to have a business degree to be a consultant. Consultants come from all sorts of backgrounds and provide their expertise to many different types of projects. At the firm I work for, there are people with backgrounds in history, political science, business, and in my case, science. The various perspectives combined can result in impressive results.
Consulting is a competitive field. You have to win your work, form connections and make tight deadlines. It’s pretty thrilling, once you break your way in! Work on those networking skills and make your own opportunities!
5. Congratulations on convocating! What was the best experience of your undergrad? Do you have any words of wisdom for graduating high school students starting their undergrad in the fall?
Thank you so much! They don’t joke when they say undergrad flies by. My best experience would probably be leading the University of Alberta 2016 High School Model UN. I’ve been involved with organizing that conference for many years, and it was an amazing feeling to serve as Secretary General this year. I was able to leave my own mark on that conference.
As for words of wisdom, I think I have 3 tips for new undergraduate students:
1) Get involved. Participate in a club, join a sports team or get involved with some research for one of your professors. The friends you make and the things you accomplish in these experiences are something that cannot be obtained in the classroom. Often, these extracurricular experiences are the ones you’ll remember the most when you finish undergrad.
2) Take care of yourself. Make sure you get a good night’s rest, eat properly, exercise, and take some time to do the things you loved. In my first year, I slept at 3 or 4 in the morning, ate junk food all day, and I felt terrible all the time. Bad habits affect your school performance more than you can imagine! After I enforced a bedtime, ate better and exercised, I was happier, had more energy and I felt like I could take on the world!
3) Follow your dreams. It seems cliché, but I know a lot of people are pressured to start degrees they aren’t interested in. Others may find that their initial interest in an area fades when they take more classes in said field. It’s never too late to switch and do something different. In fact, it’s better to do that now, rather than 30 years from now, when you achieved the degree you never wanted, and work at a job you’re not interested in.
Be whatever you want, and be the best at it! That’s how we all contribute towards making the world a better place.
Want to ask Sirisha a question? Schedule a chat with her today! Sirisha is happy to provide advice on public speaking, networking, and negotiations.