“Cancer Survivors on Career Ambition, Ruthless Prioritization, and Self Care: Fireside Chat”: Aastha Gupta and Sharmeen Chapp, Senior Directors of Product Management at Meta (Video + Transcript)

March 21, 2023

Hear valuable lessons to share on the importance of ruthless prioritization, letting go of mom guilt, and self-care from Aasha Gupta and Sharmeen Chapp, both Meta Senior Directors of Product Management – these cancer survivors share inspiring stories of ambition and resilience.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Okay. I’m Sukrutha, back with you again to this fireside chat where I have Aastha and Sharmeen with me here today. Aastha is a senior director of product management at Meta. Interestingly, Sharmeen is also a senior director of product management at Meta! They’re going to tell you a little bit more about their journey career-wise, as well as how they have been warriors in their battle with cancer, which has been such a personal subject for me. Last year, I lost someone very dear to me to cancer, and so when I read about Aastha’s story on Facebook, I was immediately touched and I was so happy to see, more recently when there were posts from her, and it included Sharmeen about how they were on the other side of that journey. So, welcome!

Aastha Gupta: Thanks.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Go ahead. Would you like to start?

Aastha Gupta: Of course. Thank you so much, Sukrutha. Hi everyone. I am Asta and I’m a senior director of product at Facebook where I lead our identity and product foundation teams. I have been at Facebook or Meta for over a decade now, so I feel a little bit like a dinosaur.

Aastha Gupta: I like to say I’ve had a very squiggly career path here, across roles, across functions. I started in global operations leading global teams, moved to business strategy to lead monetization for a lot of emerging businesses at the time, so got a chance to work across Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Marketplace, Video, the whole portfolio of products, which is wonderful. I then transitioned to product.

Aastha Gupta: I was the head of Facebook Integrity for about three years, a role I absolutely loved, very mission-driven. I wanted to then do consumer product, and I led product for community builders or group admins, one of my favorite features on Facebook. And now I’m in my existing role. And I think as I’ve thought about career changes, I’ve always really sort of, the impetus has always been learning and building new skillset sets. In many ways. I’ve also grown up at Facebook personally – I got engaged here. I got married here. I had both my beautiful children in the last five years here.

Aastha Gupta: I was unfortunately diagnosed with breast cancer in April last year. It came out of absolutely nowhere, no genetic history, no obvious risk factor. My kids were four and two at the time, so as you can imagine, just very life-changing for me and my family. I decided it take seven months off work to frankly, just survive, and focus on getting better. And I am now cancer-free and back at work in January, and very grateful to be able to be back. <Laugh>

Sukrutha Bhadouria: How wonderful. Sharmeen?

Sharmeen Chapp: Yes. Hi everybody. Aastha and I have such interesting stories to contrast. I began my product career at Twitch back in 2014. I joined as an individual contributor product manager, and I grew to be our VP of community products, leading engineering, product, data, and technical program management. It was an incredible time to be there. I got to work on the creator side and the viewer side, and at the time that I left, I was leading all of our community interactivity products, and our trust and safety products as well.

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Sharmeen Chapp: Facebook for me was the big journey that came after Twitch, but the way Aastha was talking about Facebook is how I was at Twitch. I got engaged there, I got married there. I became a mom of my wonderful two year old while I was there. And when I came back as a new mom, I had to evaluate, what am I getting out of my role and what do I want in my career? I realized that I really wanted to keep learning and growing at the speed that Twitch had enabled me to do over the past six years, and given the senior position that I was in, I found that that was starting to plateau, and I wanted to keep pushing myself. And so that’s why I decided to look at other opportunities, and Meta landed at my doorstep.

Sharmeen Chapp: I joined and I’ve been supporting our creator team at Facebook ever since then, so for the last year and a half and, I took two months off before my time at Twitch and Facebook. And so I was ready to come to Facebook, hit the ground running and give it my all, super excited. And then six weeks into my time there, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that happened in October of 2021. I’ve spent the last year and a half going through all of my treatments, and different from Aastha, because I was ready and had a ton of energy to hit the ground running.

Sharmeen Chapp: I decided to work through my cancer treatments, and for me, work was my stabilizing force. It kept me sane, it kept me feeling productive, it kept me mentally happy when I felt like everything else in my personal life, I had no control over. So just really interesting to contrast our stories and how we approached going through such a challenge in our lives.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: My goodness. Such amazing stories from both of you. And by the way, there’s some very, very personal comments on the chat. You’re already touching everybody with your story so far. But tell us, what is it that you think you learned about yourself and learned through this journey? I’ll start with you. Aastha.

Aastha Gupta: You know, many, many lessons, obviously Sukrutha, this is life changing, but I think two things that sort of may help this crew a little bit. One, I think just this notion of control. You know, I think we’re all we all like to plan make sure everything is sort of in order, everything is teed up right to the very last thing. And I remember when I was diagnosed, one of my first oncologist visits, I read a quote which said, peace is being comfortable not knowing what’s coming next. I think it’s the opposite of how many of us are wired, where we want to plan everything and just know exactly what’s happening. I think one of my biggest lessons was to really embrace uncertainty, have faith, let go of things, and just feel like living in the moment, much more fully, and much more richly.

Aastha Gupta: I think that was actually very life changing for me, because that’s not fundamentally the sort of person I am at all. That’s one. And then second, I think, you know, especially as I’ve come back to work, I’ve really been thinking about, “how do I show up in this second phase of my life, as my husband likes to call it, “Aastha 2.0.”

Aastha Gupta: I’ve come back with a very balanced state of mind. You know, I’m a passionate leader who you know, lives on adrenaline and really caring about what, what I do. And of course, I’m going to continue to do that. I invest very deeply in my people and care about the work I do. But I think I’m trying to approach my work in by being a little bit more emotionally detached. And that means not letting the small things get to me. When things do get to me, really thinking about what the bigger picture is in terms in the grand scheme of things called life, work is just a very small part of it, even though it’s a very meaningful part, and having some perspective there. And I think this is going to help me evolve my leadership style in a way that I think is hopefully much more mature, much wiser, and much more sustainable.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: What about you, Sharmeen?

Sharmeen Chapp: Yeah, I think for me, the biggest thing that I learned through my journey, you know, I was just so eager to learn and grow when I started at Facebook and I wanted to prove myself and kind of make all of those first relationships with everybody around the company, and then I was diagnosed and I was like, “I’m not ready to just step away, right?” I wanted to keep working for me. I think if I had taken the whole time off, I would have just driven myself crazy. I felt like I wasn’t able to, to have control over anything. I wanted to feel a sense that I could be making an impact on the world, be productive, be helping my team and our customers, and build products for them.

Sharmeen Chapp: It really turned into a game of ruthless prioritization, right? I had to really be conscious of myself and what my limits were. I had a certain amount of energy once it was gone, it was, that was it. I had to stop. The time that I was able to put towards work had to be the most important things that I needed to do. This is actually a lesson that a lot of new moms have shared as well. Like, when you become a new mom and you go back to work, you just learn how to prioritize what are the most important things that you spend your time doing, and you have to be comfortable letting everything else fall by the wayside.

Sharmeen Chapp: For me, it was the ruthless prioritization and then really, really critical to be able to communicate to your team, to your, to your peer group and to your leadership, what those energy levels are, and how much you’re going to be able to give them, so that everyone understands what the expectations are. The combination of those two things helped me successfully work through my treatments and feel like, you know, that sense of accomplishment and onboarding at this new company that’s super intense and exciting, but also making time for myself, to go through those treatments and make sure I was putting my health first and, and prioritizing that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, prioritization is hard in general, right? No matter what new challenge we are being thrown our way, and I struggled with this myself when I moved you know, from <laugh>, I wanna say, moved from childless to then being a mom, and I struggled with that every few months. It’s like a dynamic puzzle. How do you make it work? <laugh>, You think you have it sorted and then you have to fix it again. I didn’t end up asking you this, but I do want you to share with everybody how you ended up meeting each other and how you ended up building this connection, so tell everyone that story?

Aastha Gupta: I love it. It’s such a fun story. Sharmeen and I were supposed to report to the same VP but the week she joined, I ended up taking on a new role within Facebook. This VP asked me to be an unofficial mentor to her, to help her integrate within Facebook, and get to know the place I’d been there for so long. I was Sharmeen’s mentor for about six months, and then Sharmeen was ahead of ahead of me for by six months in a cancer journey. And when I got diagnosed, and Sharmeen became my cancer mentor. I feel like our paths were meant to cross. And it’s a club that no one wants to be a part of, but I do think it’s a very small but very mighty group and community of women who are in it together. I simply couldn’t have done this without Sharmeen and without them. Unfortunately, this fear of recurrence is real for both of us and for anyone who’s gone through this. Just knowing that we’re all in it together is what helps me get through

Sukrutha Bhadouria: <Laugh>. Yeah. Destiny is a real thing. I feel like <laugh> is truly is. Yeah. Tell me how you all ended up using technology or what your experience was using technology through your treatment, whether it was using social media to connect with other people, or whether it was through your medical care.

Aastha Gupta: Let me go first. For me, I use our platform. I am somebody who’s lived all over the world. I have friends all over the world and I like to live my life in more of an open book fashion. I posted about my cancer journey on my Facebook and Instagram pages and profiles, <laugh> Instagram, and spoke very, very openly about everything I was going through. There was a part of it where I wanted to help anybody who may be going through anything in life, if I could make an impact on even one person and help them think through things differently, that would be worth it. It was actually really, really cathartic for me.

Aastha Gupta: I thought it was therapeutic, being able to share my story, and I was completely, beautifully overwhelmed with the love that I got back. There’s a lot of power in prayer and every single wish, every single message, every single prayer, I just added up to positivity, and me feeling like I was getting better, and feeling this surge of love and support behind me. I thought was a very important part of my journey was being able to be vulnerable and share it very openly in a way that was very cathartic for me, and hopefully I helped others. I remember going through all these apps that you have to go through once you’re in these healthcare systems and thinking, oh my God, the Stanford Healthcare one is much more beautifully designed, and the Sutter Health one doesn’t have attachments, you can’t put pictures up, and just thinking through the product pieces around that. I really do think healthcare tech is something that I’m now going to… it’s just a lot more meaningful to me, and it’s something that I’m going to spend time on as I recover.

Sharmeen Chapp: Very, very similar for me, like Aastha was saying, I made that decision when I first got diagnosed that I also wanted to share my story publicly. The month that I was diagnosed, it was in October of 2021 – and October is Cancer Awareness Month – and I remember, it felt like the right time for… there’s never a right time for something horrible to happen, but if it’s going to happen, it felt like the right time to be able to say… I similarly had no genetic history, no family history. It shouldn’t have happened to me either, yet here I was, and it was supposedly a rare anomaly, and I wanted to raise awareness.

Sharmeen Chapp: I wanted other women to know that this is a thing that can happen to anybody, and the sooner you catch it, it can make a difference between life or death, so it’s very critical for all of us. Forget the statistics, forget your age, forget your genetics. Go get checked, make sure you give yourself exams ,and just take care of yourselves, because it can make a huge difference if something does come your way. And sharing that honestly gave me the strength that I needed, right?

Sharmeen Chapp: Like there were times during this journey, I shared that after my surgery, I couldn’t pick up my son for eight weeks because I had a double mastectomy and it was just too risky, and that was the hardest part of my entire journey, because of the mom guilt and not being able to care for him, and I remember posting how vulnerable and guilty I felt in my posts to Facebook and Instagram as well, and I got such an outpouring of love and support, and that’s what kept me going. It was also a form of therapy for me, cuz I would process my feelings, and then I would also get the energy and the support from everybody to give me the strength to keep going. It also pushed me to be kinder to myself, which was really important during those tougher days.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. And like, how about reflecting back? Do you think you would’ve done things any differently?

Aastha Gupta: You know Sukrutha, reflecting… I’m reading the comments, the number of women who are talking about how they’ve been diagnosed is sort of frankly shocking to me, but to answer your question, I don’t think I would’ve done it differently at all because I was, pre-cancer for the past four years before cancer, I had two difficult pregnancies, and two difficult deliveries. I had breastfed both my kids for a year each, and I had three senior level promotions at work, so you can imagine just the amount of intensity in a very, very compressed period of time. I was completely burnt out and, you know, I had an amazing support system with my partner and husband with help at home you know, a high profile intense job that I absolutely loved.

Aastha Gupta: I was sleeping about six-ish hours a day on average, and I was physically active but not consistently exercising. And I was consistently, my family and my work, over sleep and exercising. I thought at the time, it’s a new phase you know, and it’s just a phase. I’m a new mom, self-care can come after, and I made the best decisions I could in that moment. But I really do think that cancer is multifactorial. There’s no one reason, but I think there’s a confluence of factors that definitely did not help, and, and as I’m reading these comments and seeing so many women impacted, I think people may sort of relate to this, but in my case, I think there were three things, at least.

Aastha Gupta: One, we’re the first generation that is completely on with devices. Two, I think the tech industry in the last 10 years has started functioning at a pace that’s pretty unprecedented and, and potentially unsustainable, very stressful. And three, I think many young women are getting more senior quickly and having later children later, so our biological and professional clocks are coinciding in a way where many of our bodies are breaking. They’re just not meant to do all of this together. And I think the confluence of these factors just doesn’t help any of us. My biggest lesson, nobody can answer the question of why I got cancer, that’s not in my control, but what is in my control, is trying to learn from it. And my biggest lesson, in addition to what I spoke about was, my body’s my temple, and sleep and exercise have to come first. Self-care has to come first, and so I would not do anything differently. I am so glad I took those seven months off to focus on just recovering, getting better, spending time with my two little toddlers who were crazy. They were four and two. And I would not have it any other way,

Sharmeen Chapp: If I asked that same question to myself, Sukrutha, it’s very similar to what Aastha said in line with self-care, but it’s the realization that we continue to be our own harshest critics every step of the way. Like, the fact that I’m saying the hardest part of my cancer journey was the mom guilt of not being able to pick up my son for eight weeks, right? It wasn’t the chemo when I couldn’t get out of bed all day, or help myself, or change my own clothes after surgery. It’s the mom guilt. And that’s the piece around, we keep prioritizing ourselves last, and we need to give ourselves grace. We need to be kind to ourselves, and so what I would do differently, is not feel so guilty.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I mean, it’s really hard to like put yourself first and not feel that guilt. Yeah. But another thing that kind of like struck my mind, is how, when you talked about how differently you handled prioritization, and whether or not you chose to continue working or continue, or chose to take the time off, I do wanna ask you – Do you see a correlation between your tendency to either take calculated risks, or not take calculated risks, and take the risk, and deal with the calculating later? You see correlation with that at strategy <laugh> and you know, taking time off when you may or may not need it. So how about you Sharmeen? Do you think you saw any kind of connection there?

Sharmeen Chapp: I am very much a calculated risk taker, right? Like every job that I have chosen to leave, I’ve had a framework, there’s been a reason why I think it’s the right thing for me to do. It’s a combination of what might be going on in my personal life, in my career and what my goals are. And those are continuously evolving. I’m always checking in, and when they start to not be aligned, that’s when I know it’s time to make a move. And I’ve also always had an offer lined up before I leave the job that I have. Like, I’m very risk averse, but then what I end up doing in those transitions is when I prioritized my time off.

Sharmeen Chapp: I took two, two and a half months off between my time at Twitch and then joining Meta. That’s part of why I didn’t want to take a break when I was diagnosed, right? I was coming in well-rested and ready to hit the ground running, but then it meant that when something was thrown my way, like a curve ball, like my diagnosis was, I wasn’t ready to take a break and it wasn’t part of the plan and it was something that I had to figure out how to work into and adjust the plan accordingly. Yes, very much a planner on my side. <Laugh>

Aastha Gupta: You know, it’s fascinating. I think I’m a planner generally in life, but with regards to work, I have been completely unplanned. And it is relationships or different decisions have taken me in different directions. I remember I was at Microsoft before before Facebook or Meta, and as immigrants, a lot of people will relate with this, I was on an H-1B visa, and I was fresh out of business school, you know, doing product management. And I was in love with a boy in India and I decided to just leave. I decided to leave, move back to India, called up my business school friend within a week, had a job at Facebook and this new company, in operations versus product, and just moved and did it, and did it for love, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made when I decided and moved back to India after 13 years…

Aastha Gupta: Came back two years later to take on a role, I was leading a global team of about a hundred people and came on to take an IC role for business strategy and just for building a new skillset and just learning a completely learning how to function in a completely different way. I was a director on the business side, really progressing well in my career, and I was asked to move to product and that was a pretty big switch so late in your career in, in terms of seniority. I made that switch. For me it was actually very, very different. And again, it was for learning, and not love.

Aastha Gupta: I’m so, so grateful I did it, but mine were less calculated. And I think that’s why also just the decision. I remember I was diagnosed the next day, I said, I’m taking the time off. It also didn’t help that I was burnt out, Sukrutha, I was definitely burnt out. It was very clear to me, said, we’ll see what happens at work. And I’ve been fortunate, Sharmeen, I think we’ve been both fortunate, that Facebook and Meta have supported us in the way they have, in very different phases of our journey. She was brand new. I’ve been there forever, and I just feel very supported, but I made that decision without thinking… Did we lose Sukrutha?

Sharmeen Chapp: I think she’s frozen. <Laugh>

Aastha Gupta: Oh no, what timing.

Sharmeen Chapp: I know. Let’s see, what would Sukrutha do if this was her, right? I think we’re probably probably due to wrap up soon. And so, oh, she’s back

Sukrutha Bhadouria: <Laugh>. We’re concerned about the few months and the few years when our career is gonna span decades. It’s a very, very exactly difficult decision to wrap your head around how much time is okay to take off, and how much of a risk and how much of a reset, and a recalculation is okay in your career. These are all like difficult things to do and they’re so personal, these sort of risks that we are willing to take. I’m like looking at, you know, the chats and how people are talking about self-care being the most important and general acknowledgement around not really giving, putting themselves first is the general trend and how instinctively we are sort of trained, I think to put as..

Aastha Gupta: It could be when you’re a new mom. You don’t have to go through a life-changing thing like cancer at all. It’s exactly what you said, and what I’m seeing in the threads, it’s self-care, fundamentally, especially when you become parents. When you’re in parenthood, we start to put a partner, a marriage, a children, work, before us.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. It even happens prior to parenthood when someone meets a partner, and they’re making certain choices, and taking a choice, and then dealing, adapting to that, and still pushing through, is one thing, versus taking a complete backseat. Taking time off to focus on your self is something that generally something we struggle with. These are all eye-opening conversations. I am seeing also a general shout out from multiple people on how you both are amazing, amazing role models.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I do wanna quickly wrap with, what are some final thoughts you might have that you might like to share with everybody, as we like, nevermind cancer, nevermind parenthood, nevermind anything. Life is difficult. Working in tech is difficult. Working and living life is difficult. <laugh> How do we balance life, and how do we balance ourselves?

Sharmeen Chapp: That’s the heart of it, right? The biggest message here is that you don’t need something like cancer or even parenthood to teach you that lesson. We need to be prioritizing our self care from day one. Whatever situation you might be in, you need to be able to recognize when it’s too much., when you need more sleep, draw those boundaries, because no one else is gonna do that for you. You have to do it for you, and when you do that, then you can be your best self, for everybody else in your life, whether it be your family, your partner, your children, your coworkers. They’re not going to get your best version if you don’t put yourself first.

Aastha Gupta: Sharmeen said it so beautifully, but I will add to that. If I can’t be there for myself, I can’t be there for my family, for my work, for my friends. That became very clear to me, and I wish I had known that without having to know it, theoretically, but truly, truly felt that. And then second, I think just this feeling of gratitude for being able to come out the other side.

Aastha Gupta: I never thought at the age of 37, I would be fighting for my life. And you know, especially coming from a lot of privilege, I feel like I’ve always had a great life, and just it came out of nowhere and hit me so hard. I think this feeling of, I’ve got gratitude today, and this feeling of, I really want to take each day at a time, because you just don’t know what life’s gonna throw at you. Self-care for me, as well as just gratitude, and take each day at a time. Rally live it up, because you don’t know when things can change.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Thank you so much, both of you. And thank you to everybody who’s shared their stories. Don’t forget to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on. Anyone else? All right. Have a good rest of your day in the sessions. Thank you everybody. Thank you. I would love….

Aastha Gupta: To finish that. Thank you for having us.

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