What is life beyond social hashtags for “India’s #MeToo” movement? One of the dangers that several women executives have flagged to me is that tagging every incident with #MeToo trivialises core workplace-related issues.
In January last year, much before India’s #MeToo got reinvigorated, Ashwini Asokan, co-founder, MadStreetDen talked about deep-rooted sexism across India’s VC and startup ecosystem.
Where we are today, especially with living in the flip-flopping shadows of India’s #MeToo movement, it’s worthwhile to revisit the text of this podcast with Asokan. We’re publishing the full and lightly edited transcript thanks to Kanika Berry’s efforts.
Pankaj: Welcome to the third episode of Outliers. It’s a podcast about crazy people with a sense of mission and…
Ashwini: Sounds about right.
Pankaj: Yes, change the world. So, guys, today we have Ashwini Asokan who is co-founder of an artificial intelligence (AI) startup called Mad Street Den. I have known Ashwini for only a few years and, you know, technology aside, a lot of time we have spent talking about the problem of sexism in the ecosystem. Most of the times we have had debates about how this person or that person behaves and how women are treated overall in the ecosystem. It’s been quite shocking, Ashwini, personally for me, every time you put names to these faces and you are like ‘whoa, you are talking about him, you are talking about her’… you know, so it rattles me and it amazes me that there is a lot of lip service happening when it comes to inclusion, gender diversity. People spend a lot of time talking about manels but again, but a lot is left desired when it comes to sexism and all that on the ground. Just to jump into this topic right away, how is it been for you as a woman founder of a startup and what have you seen?
Ashwini: I think I want to start off by saying that, you know, at some level every one of us is biased. I think it’s important to start there because I am sure as someone who spends quite a bit of her time, you know, actively fighting sexism in tech and in the startup space, I know that I am not without my own set of biases. So, (for all the) things that are blatantly biases that I am witness to, I am sure I have my blind spots when it comes to a bunch of other issues.
I do want to start off by saying that I feel like at some level everyone is biased because of the specific kinds of conditions and environment and experiences that each one of has growing up. I grew up in a highly, highly conservative, orthodox, South Indian Tamil Brahmin family. It’s weird because on one hand you know I had to do things a certain way because I was a girl but then I had to be educated. I needed to get out of the country, I needed to go get study, you know, continue studying, even today you know they get really upset if something happens at home and I just abandon what I am doing at work and come because it is important for them that I do what I am supposed to be doing at work.
So I grew up in a highly, you can say… a dichotomy, where on one hand I had to do certain things as a girl and then consistently, on the other hand, I had to break rules because I was a girl. And it was really confusing growing up but I do think, sexism was not something that I was taught to think about at all, having grown up in that environment and yet it’s interesting because I spent 10 years working in tech in the Valley and it took a bunch of mentors, fellow women mentors for me to start even understanding what is going on, so there’d be so many little things that happen and I wouldn’t even know what to make of it, you know as 22-year-old, as a 21-year-old, as a 23-year-old. I started at 23 in the valley, I was just getting done with 22 and what does one know, you know it is very hard to interpret.
You know, I remember having a senior, people much older than me in managerial positions in the US continue start talking in Tamil, randomly in the middle of a conversation and then they’d be like, ‘Oh, let that go, you know, move on’ and they’d suddenly just switch from English to Tamil and I wouldn’t know what to do. And here I would go like, I am trying to make an argument, we are trying to have a conversation, we are disagreeing and I am trying to make you see things a certain way and you are basically trying to tell me that, ‘hey, let’s just move on’. And then there would be situations where it would be blatant power, very clear exertion of power over the fact that you are young, you are a little girl who doesn’t really know where is she coming from… So it was always something and every single time it was something different and it depended on who it was and I would not know what to do, I would freeze. Very early on in my career, I remember, like 12-13 years ago I would just freeze and walk out of that meeting and start crying quietly in a corner but then I would pull myself together and walk up.
I used to work in a team with like 50%-60% women. It was run by one of the most famous anthropologists across the globe in tech and I used to just walk up to her and say, this happened… like I need to deal with this now; I can, you know, either file an HR case or we can either go directly talk to that person; and at times you don’t know what to exactly say when it is happening, when something is happening to you because you don’t even know what’s going on. So, very early on in my career, I think I surrounded myself with a lot of really, really, really strong women in my life and that helped me understand what it was that was going on. Even to identify bias, it took me like, I think, eight years, working in a highly, highly extreme tech environment and coming out of it, it gave me a lot of perspective, it gave me a lot of perspective for women that were way up the management chain, the kind of struggles they had and being not necessarily, especially early on in my career, like being a part of large groups, you’d hear people say things about those women higher up in the management and it was always interpreting power a certain way when there was a man in the room, saying the same thing versus a woman in the room saying the same thing. A woman if she is a VP, perceived a certain way versus a man having the same position perceived a certain way and it’s always branding. You know, you can come up with as many names that you can think of, talking about a woman in power who is being very decisive or you know, it’s always immediately you are expected to smile, be nice. You know, every single day you see in the media articles about ‘here are ways for women to succeed’, I see that every single day in like all the time and they say, try to put up a smiling face and it’s unbelievable.
Pankaj: Coming back to India and the Indian ecosystem, how was it building Mad Street Den? How was it raising money? I have noticed you on Twitter, you are quite vocal.
Ashwini: You are being really subtle out there, aren’t you?
Pankaj: You see, I am biased. So what I am trying to understand is, in your own journey of building Mad Street Den, how has that been when you went to seek funding for the first time? You have handled marketing and market-facing roles and all that, so how has that been?
Ashwini: So, you know I mean, I can only say by looking at other people’s experiences for the most part in terms of how it panned out founder versus founder but I can say some blatant things got in the way because building up Mad Street Den… as you know I am doing this with my husband who is also my co-founder, he is the CTO, I am the CEO. You know, starting off was much easier because the two of us were at it and I was basically trying to build the product and he is was trying to build the technology. It was a really small team in the initial days and we were bootstrapped and for the record it was money that we had basically saved from my Intel days that had come in handy and that was a big thing for the family, constantly ‘Oh, Anand is in academia, you are the one who was a part of the corporate’, it was a running theme throughout if you think back and we’d managed to save up, come and then bootstrap this company and things were working out wonderfully. I have said it a lot before that Anand is as much a parent to my children as I am and I am as much the boss in the office as he is, and you know Anand is very blatant in meetings and stuff would be like, ‘Well, I report to her’ and even in the early days, you could see people literally struggling with it, like people interviewing having struggle with the concept where he would just defer to me or he would ask me and he’d be like, ‘that’s not what I do, that’s a business decision, that’s a product decision, that’s not what I do’ and we’d have these arguments inside the office and you could see, people would be like, ‘what the hell is going on’ and I think it was a shock for everyone but then right off the bat from the time we started building the company, we made it one of those things… for the people coming in, we would say, ‘this is how it is, this is the culture we are going to build, this is how it is’.
When we started fund-raising, that’s when I think the friction all started at that point. And I think I have written about this pretty extensively before also. I had just had my second child, my son in 2014 when I started fund-raising and we hadn’t started seeking funds as much as we’d had a lot of inbound interest. Back in the day, 2013-14, how many computer vision AI startups did you have to begin with? So there was a lot of inbound interest and you know, we’d kind of hang out with a lot of them, spend a lot of time in the basement in Chennai and then I still remember, there was this one time where you know, this one angel walked in the door. You know that word ‘angel’ almost seems like wrongly used to the context where I am going with this story…
Pankaj: I am looking for names.
Ashwini: No, no, no, let’s not go there. But it’s one of those things where I think my son a month old, I was still obviously breastfeeding and this guy walks in and he goes, we start the interview, he is talking, most VCs come and hang out with you for what two hours, when they are getting to know you, one hour and this guy stays for like five hours and obviously I am stepping out of the office and going upstairs to my house to feed the child, like, every one hour, every two hours.
By the end of the day, the guy basically says, he is not sure that I can run the company because I have a young child, I couldn’t even sit for the five hour meeting and continually in there with him and he is not necessarily sure that, you know that the company is being run by the right… (sentence left incomplete). At which point we basically told him to get the hell out of that basement and I immediately called the main person in the investing team and said, ‘this is not going to work out’ and, of course, the main person was extremely gracious and apologised, didn’t question anything.
All of that aside and even during fund-raising, like I was travelling to Mumbai and Bangalore and Delhi all the time, airports did not have nursing rooms, what do you do? I had a breast pump in my hand. How many people do you think actually even knew what that was in India in 2014 and I was very used to this, having lived in California and having had a baby there, the first one there. And I used to go and I used to ask them, ‘can I have a private room?’ and they’d be like, ‘for what?’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I have a breast pump, I need to pump’. And they’d show me the toilet. So I literally had to go shut myself in a toilet and it’s unbelievable and I did it, I had to do it and I did it.
So, you could see that one, you don’t have a support system, two, you have people questioning, you know, what you do because it’s always two different things. It’s either this or that, it is always black and white, you are either a mom or you are a professional, you are either a stay-at-home mom who takes care of her kids and cares for her or you are a beep-beep who goes to work and who is like this power career hungry… (sentence left incomplete). These stereotypes, I think people have started very consciously not talking about this in public. I notice that a lot, I think there is a lot of awareness of how to talk, which is a fantastic first step. Let’s start there. I think it’s a fantastic first step that people don’t necessarily talk that way anymore but it’s very hard to scrub it internally, you know that’s what they are thinking. Whenever we get into a lot of these meetings, like the customer who is a guy, who is also the founder-CEO or a VC, sitting right opposite me… oh they can’t look me in the eye and they would keep looking at Anand, and Anand would keep looking at me because these are business questions that he is not necessarily going to be the guy who is going to be answering and they would just by default, you can tell, they are just looking at him.
Pankaj: They just ignore you?
Ashwini: And you can’t even take offence because you can tell, they are not used to sitting at the table talking to someone who can look assertive and sure of herself and is actually the one that’s making the decisions from a business perspective. I have been in meet-up groups in Chennai where good friends of mine have actually looked at me and said, ‘Oh, but you are the trophy wife’ and it’s interesting because my team always laughs when I say that because I am badly, badly dressed at work, like I go to work as I have just rolled out of bed but Anand will come like, wearing the newest thing and like having used his nose strips and they will be like, ‘Well, we know who the trophy partner is in this relationship’. Anand is always like this charmer who walks in and says all the right things and I am the one who always rolls from bed into work and it’s the opposite of a stereotype. I just got out of an event where there was this kid standing on the stage, definitely a kid, who was a founder of a chatbot company who basically said, you know, ‘Oh ya, all moms’ are like that. They don’t know how to book Uber, they don’t know how..’ and I was like, ‘Really, did you just say that standing up there on the stage?’.
Yes, it’s everywhere and the journey of building Mad Street Den is such. I think it’s continuously being aware, for me that’s been the most important thing, being aware of all the stuff that’s going on and consciously figuring out, how to say no and say that, ‘I will not stand it and this is not how it is not going to get done and if you are not with me, we can’t have this conversation’.
Pankaj: Do you have to say no to money or business because of this? Do you have to do that a lot or what?
Ashwini: Yes, I think it’s very hard and this is where I think it is definitely a struggle because I know that I did very consciously not talk to a lot of people because I was not comfortable and you know, I just did not feel comfortable enough moving forward. And, you know, it’s also really hard when you continually think about companies like ours and when you think about the kind of similar companies that are across the globe doing something…
Pankaj: Do you want some water?
Pankaj: You need to cool down.
Ashwini: Yes, I know, the topic has already got me. The topic has already heated me up.
Pankaj: That’s such a sexist remark.
Ashwini: ‘You need to calm down.’
Pankaj: You were saying when you had to say no to…
Ashwini: Yes, I mean you are not comfortable and I also think that, you know, I don’t think twice before calling someone out on something that they say. You know, I have been regularly known to pick up fights with people who actually say things which are not acceptable. You cannot walk up and say, ‘Ya, all you founders, you know, make sure your girlfriends know that you are going to work hard, that assumes that all the founders are men, right!’ At the end of the day, it’s the gift that keeps giving because it is a cyclical effect, it’s a network effect. There are more men out there because there are more men out there because there are more men out there and then they make more men get out there. It’s like the whole BITS or the IIT stories like you have the IIT alumni who help more IIT guys come out who help more IIT guys come out who help more and then there’s the same chain that happens with BITS and if you take a close look at it, it’s just the snowball effect of men, it’s like you take one guy and then you roll them up with more men and more men and then you get this large snowball, filled with men and it’s an effect and at the end, then we wonder why there are only men because role models matter and we don’t have enough women role models not because we don’t have enough women achieving because we constantly bury the stories of women that achieve.
Pankaj: So, why is that? And the other thing is about, since you are so visibly talking about these issues, do you have more women come to you, talk to you about their experiences because even in the Valley there have been a lot of troubles, I mean there is nothing like a holy cow when it comes to this. So, in India, ever since you became visibly kind of a voice for these issues and topics, have women come up to you and spoken about it?
Ashwini: Yes, absolutely, all the time.
Pankaj: Why is there not enough sharing…
Ashwini: You know, one thing about a year and a half ago, there was this Facebook group called ‘Bangalore Startups’. If you remember what happened, some guy who went up there and who said something really awful about like, ‘women have no business being in startups, they should be doing blah blah blah’. Myself and someone else we were, of course, promptly there and it turned into this massive, massive, massive thing and we went and wrote about it extensively. And I think this was some time in 2015 and I will never forget what came out of that big blow-up because so many women came out of nowhere to talk about how they don’t go to meet-ups, they don’t share because it’s like a one big ‘bro voice’ in the room, it’s a group of guys.
It’s bad, it’s hard enough for a girl to just step out on the road in India. It’s even harder to gather the courage to walk up to a meet-up filled with guys. By the way, I am the only woman in my Chennai founder meet-up group and I have regularly called (out), you know, Bangalore startup meet-up groups that are only filled with men and that name themselves with the men in the title. Which girl is going to go out there and share? Who is going to feel welcome? You are going to feel like this meek little thing, you got these guys that have already somehow established a relationship and then they bring along like three other guys who look very similar to them because you know that it’s all about who you relate to. And then there is this, like, meek girl who’s managed to like gather up the courage to walk in the door.
She is actually not meek at all but then she is uncomfortable and she has figured out how to walk in the door and here you are, like, you know, what are you going to do? She is going to sit there in a corner, watch you. You think you know, so mansplaining; you are going to ‘man-terrupt’ her, you are going to interrupt her every single time she speaks, you know what this is stuff that we have seen published everywhere.
You have a room full of men and women. Guess who speaks up more? Why? Women get spoken over, women get constantly pushed to the corners and it’s an aggression thing, it’s a very aggression thing. You know, it’s also stuff that we regularly coach, like, the women in my own office constantly. We have our own little MSD (Mad Street Den) ladies group. In there, we have our own, like, once a week meeting, we have been 50% women. People keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to get women into startups’. That’s bullshit! That is bullshit. We are an AI startup, we are a computer vision startup, like seriously and an AI (startup). We have got our data science team, head of data science is a woman. We have got 2-3 computer vision women in out of like what 6 or 7. Like, how is it that people are telling me that there are no women in tech?
Pankaj: Then, why are startup founders not hiring women?
Ashwini: It’s a comfort thing. You hire someone who you are going to go chest bump with, then be like, ‘Hey, what bros’, like it’s a question of finding your peer group at the end of the day. You want to hire people that you are comfortable with. And think about who is starting companies? People in their 20s, people fresh out of school for the most part. Maybe a few like myself in the 30s but mid till late 30s but a few far in between. Most of them are super young and they are looking for a peer group. They are not going to hire someone who is like super experienced right off the bat. They are looking for a peer group. So you go and seek people who are very like you. That’s a very natural thing for all of us to do. Go seek people like us, to come and join us.
But I think it takes a certain amount of discipline to say no. Like, it’s been proven, been quantified that having a diverse enough group, a team, women, different sexes, different backgrounds… Sure, you need a very homogenous group for doing highly optimised things. If you are doing something, like, that’s super delivery focus – and we have this conversation all the time in Mad Street Den – and we need people to be available between 9 pm and like 8 am in the morning because you are delivering something to the customer in the US. What kind of people do you hire for this role? This is a raging debate that we have at Mad Street Den all the time because some of them say, ‘Oh no, we can’t hire women because they can’t come in to office, it’s unsafe’ and then, on the other hand you go, ‘No way’. You are denying women in back-end and DevOps the opportunity to participate in the most challenging aspect of delivering a product by saying no. And, no one has a straight answer to these but who is having these discussions? Are you being fair, are you being objective, are you taking a look around and going, ‘I have 10 men in my team. Like, stop it. This has got to change’? And then the immediate question is, ‘Oh but we only hire based on quality’. What does that say? That means nothing. It just means that you haven’t looked hard enough. There are women out there who do fantastic work and you know, let me give you the benefit of doubt, as the person who is making this argument and say, ‘Fine’, maybe there are not a lot of women in your particular field, in your particular discipline, then you owe it to level the playing field, as someone that feels so vested in bringing your juniors from your college into the mix and training them, you owe it to the other gender to do that.
Pankaj: One of the things that has really disturbed me is when I look around and hear some of the top startup founders in India, India’s biggest startups and the most important startups. I see very little talk and action. I mean, most of the times they are either angel investing or managing family offices and you know that’s become very disturbing because you talked about role models. Now role models can be men and women both, isn’t it? I mean, so just because you are talking of so-called gender diversity, it doesn’t mean that a role model has to be women, it can be men who stand and talk about those things. What disturbs me is, today in this ecosystem, I can pick names of all the startups that I track… from Flipkart, you name them, I see very little talk and action.
Ashwini: You know, I will just challenge that a little bit where I will go as far as saying, you know, what you see as a child that’s growing up and I will give you a very specific example, you tend to be like the person that you see the most or that you end up learning from. Visibility is very important and the reason I say that is, yes, it’s important for men to be role models who show that there are different ways of doing the things that people have said should be done in a particular way. And I keep going back to Anand as an example. You know, you have got to put that kid to bed as much as I got to put that kid (to bed). You got to feed that kid as much as I got to feed that kid and he does it so naturally.
I would like to believe that that’s the fantastic way of showing and telling the other men in the team who might say there are a lot of people that say – even women, not only men – we have our own set of issues that we come up with. Conditioning… you have been conditioned all your life to believe a certain set of things, you know. I have had women on my team who would walk up to me and say, ‘I am really uncomfortable around you. You keep talking about this; like, you know, I can’t talk about harassment in public. I can’t talk about these things. You are just supposed to, like, figure out how to compromise and move on, you are a woman.’ I have had a lot of people even say that to me, but my point here is that, visibility is very important and just as much as it is important for the guy to be visible, it’s even more important for the guy to let the women be visible and this is why it is, yes, the biggies of the Indian ecosystem, I am not necessarily talking about women at all, but I’d argue that I would love it if they didn’t speak about that at all and just put the damn women on stage.
Actually, there was this one feature (on) the woman behind Myntra or the woman behind Flipkart, I am trying to remember when this was about, like about a year ago and it was a fantastic article. I don’t remember her name or the particular background that she comes from but it was a fantastic article that spoke about how this was a woman in the background like keeping the show together, I don’t remember and that’s the story, she should be at the events, why is she not at events? Why are we not seeing more women from these big places show up?
And you know, I will give you a specific anecdote here, a story here. About two years ago, when we came to Chennai, when we came back from the US, my daughter goes to a classic school where NRI kids people have come back from the US. You know, she had a little support group and she has always known me as a working mom. I have always been a working mom and Anand’s been the stay-at-home dad. He finished his life in academia, he went and worked at a startup, he was in defence, all that for a while. The guy was just out of it and he decided he is going to stay home and take care of our first child which is a very Californian hippie thing to do, by the way. You know, a lot of dads’ that stay home and take care of the kids and Anand spent about two years – he had his own little consulting office at home but he was the primary caregiver during the day if you really thought about it. We had a nanny and stuff and it was fantastic. I still, very fondly think back to those two years because I felt Anand was at his happiest during those two years, like absolute happiest. And this kid, my first child basically comes home from school one day, she was like one-and-a-half-ish, she was in the equivalent of UKG basically. She comes home and she says, she had a homework and she is sitting at work with me, by my side at work and they basically asked her to write something about what her dad does for her every day and what her mum does for her every day and she goes on to write, ‘Mommy gives me a bath every morning, daddy goes to meetings’ and she is sitting right next to me and writing this and I am looking at her going, I was like, ‘Really, Adi, is that true? Is that what happens?’ And I am trying not to like, you know, overwhelm her in any way. Mommy is trying to just hold it in, going like so much for role modelling, so much for having a non-stereotype family and she said, ‘No, that’s not how it is, Mommy, but that’s how it should be’ and you know, there were like four people around me at that point. We have this little big bar that we work on either side and everybody froze because everyone was shocked. Like, trust me, we are like the opposite of, like, a stereotype couple and a family and everyone just froze and then I just let it go, I was like, ‘don’t react guys, let’s just move on, just pretend like nothing happened’. Then, that night when I went to bed, I was talking to her and she said, ‘that’s what I see everywhere. When I go for playdates, all my friends’ mums are with them. You know, why should Daddy come to the park? We take turns going to the park or whatever but why should Daddy come to the park?’ And I was like, you are very close to Daddy and she goes, ‘Yes I am, I love to do a lot of things with him but you know, I can see that mommies’ are present at a lot of places’. That’s what she sees, that is her majority view not the view that we have created for her at home and that to me makes me sit up and go, ‘what are we doing to our children?’
Pankaj: I think that’s a deeper problem. So you know, we could really go on, on this topic with you, clearly.
(Addressing listeners…) If you are someone who is listening to this podcast and you are also questioning and wondering about these topics, write back to us. I am at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can even drop in a mail to email@example.com and the idea is to trigger a meaningful conversation and, you know, kind of shift the conversation from lip service and kind of stuff that Ashwini you talked about.
(Addressing Ashwini…) But thanks for starting this conversation with us.
Ashwini: Thanks for having me over and thanks for being people that think a lot about this.
Pankaj: Okay, we keep doing that. Thank you, Ashwini, take care. Thanks so much for listening in. Bye-bye.
(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)
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