Bhavna Chhabra (CompSci’95) grew up in New Delhi, India, in a house without electricity or running water, expected by her parents to marry a man they chose. She didn’t know how to turn on a computer or type. Today, she’s the new site director for Google Boulder, overseeing a 1,300-person operation. It’s a big job, but one she’s ready for: On her journey toward independence, Chhabra rejected the life pre-planned for her and found courage and opportunity. Now, she hopes to empower young women to do the same.
After earning a scholarship to study in the United States in the early 1990s, Chhabra convinced her parents to let her leave home. They agreed on the condition that after Chhabra finished college she would return to India for an arranged marriage. Her father told her if her future husband allowed, she might be able to get a job, but that decision would be up to him.
“That was where I was when I came to the U.S.,” she said.
“I’m passionate about trying to deprogram the implicit and explicit messaging sent to young women. I want them to know they don’t have to look like a cookie-cutter male programmer to succeed.”
To search for universities, Chhabra went to the American Embassy in New Delhi, where books listed U.S. colleges and universities. Her criteria for picking a university were pictures of pretty campuses with happy, smiling students. Her list of potential universities included Boston University, CU Boulder, Stanford and MIT.
Although Chhabra’s interest was chemistry, her father wanted her to study computers, telling her that computer science was the “new, best thing.” Despite not ever having seen a computer and no access to a computer, Chhabra followed her father’s urging. She chose Boston University to study computer science.
Among the few items Chhabra brought from India were sweaters borrowed from a cousin, T-shirts she bought based on what she saw in American movies and a pair of gloves that were “useless in the cold.”
Because her worldview came from watching American TV shows, such as Different Strokes, Silver Spoons and TJ Hooker, the reality of transitioning to college life was overwhelming. She wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of being a first-generation college student and one of few women in the computer science department. After five days of feeling miserable and alone, she called her parents, who encouraged her to try another university.
CU Boulder was next on her list. To her relief, her experience at CU matched the pictures in the embassy books.
“I had completely different and friendly interactions at CU,” Chhabra said. “The way I was welcomed to the university, it was like I found a home.”
"I didn't know how to type. I didn't know how to turn on a computer. I wasn't good at math."
In computer programming classes, she had to work twice as hard to keep up with the other students.
“Things that students in my class took for granted were hard for me,” she said. “I didn’t know how to type. I didn’t know how to turn on a computer. I wasn’t good at math.”
One of her classes was an operating systems course taught by CU professor Mike Schwartz. Seeing her potential, Schwartz — now a Google software engineer working on cloud storage — became her mentor. He asked her to be his research assistant for a government-funded internet project.
“Professor Schwartz saw something in me,” she said. “I was the kid who sat in the front of the class feverishly taking notes, because I had to catch up. When I talked about the arranged marriage, he would say, ‘Is that really what you want? Because you can be more.’ But I didn’t believe it.”
In a life-changing moment for Chhabra, Schwartz showed her an article about an Indian woman Arati Prabhakar, the first woman to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder. Schwartz told her that could one day be her.
“I wouldn’t have invited her to join the research project if I didn’t think she was one of the better students in the class,” Schwartz said. “I wanted her to know she had options, to not assume that she did not because someone had told her that, and to not let that stop her from moving forward.”
After an internship working for a local company building computers, Chhabra got a job in Denver as a software programmer at Quark Software. She decided she would not live a life directed by her parents — she would stay in Colorado.
At her CU graduation in 1995, her parents came to the U.S. to take her back to India. Chhabra told them she had a job with a company that would sponsor her visa, and she wasn’t going back to India to marry. Chhabra’s parents were taken aback: She was straying from her Indian community’s tradition.
"While it was initially tough for my parents to accept that I was staying in the U.S.,” said Chhabra, “in time they came to understand, accept and support my decision.”
Through the 1990s as Chhabra’s career took off, she was told repeatedly that she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she dressed too femininely with earrings, makeup or skirts. To get a promotion, people advised her to wear hoodies and jeans to look like a programmer. Even when she moved up to higher positions, it wasn’t unusual for someone to ask her to fetch coffee for meetings.
“Having gone through all this, I’m passionate about trying to deprogram the implicit and explicit messaging sent to young women,” she said. “I want them to know they don’t have to look like a cookie-cutter male programmer to succeed. I aspire to give junior women what I didn’t have — a role model.”
For 18 years, she served as a senior engineer and then senior director at Qualcomm. She moved on to Google Boulder in January of 2016, where she was director of Google Payments.
In September 2019, 26 years after coming to Boulder, she became Google site director. In addition to overseeing all operations, she represents Google in the community and ensures her more than 1,300 employees are healthy, happy and working on a robust slate of projects — all while maintaining a collaborative culture.
“I’m approaching this from a place of humility, because this is good,” said Chhabra, 48, who is married and has three children. “It’s healthy. It’s vibrant. … There’s a strong sense of community here, so obviously it’s not broken. There’s a term we use at Google when we’re trying to do something really innovative and we’re excited about it. We say we’re uncomfortably excited. That is how I feel, which means I’m pushing myself.
“As someone who found a home in Boulder, I’ve grown up here and raised a family here,” she said. “This place is my home, and now I’m in a position to help Google engage more with the Boulder community. It’s full circle.”
Photos by Glenn Asakawa