With our Women In Tech series, we speak with inspirational women throughout the world of tech to ask them about their own experiences, how they navigated their careers and overcame any challenges they faced along the way.
Here at SPICED Academy, we want to make coding a more approachable thing for people of all walks of life. Too often, we feel, people are put off by a lack of diversity in the tech and startup industries, and a lack of role models that speak to them.
The latest in our series of Women in Tech interviews is Reetu Gupta. Born in India and boasting a wealth of experience in both corporate and startup America, Reetu has a particularly unique perspective on diversity in tech (among a range of other things). We picked her brain on a whole bunch of topics, ranging from building your own startup to gender inequality in corporate America. Unafraid to speak her mind, we found chatting with Reetu to be wholly refreshing.
Having worked for 20 years for companies such as Honeywell and AT&T Wireless, 2 years ago you co-founded Cirkled in. Can you tell us a little bit about your mission and what Cirkled in does?
My mission, from early on, has been to leave a legacy. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it, and to somehow make a difference.
For 20 years I worked with Fortune 50 companies and startups. It was a blast, I learned a lot, but I came to a point in my life where I asked myself, “what’s new… what’s next?”. I was able to make a small difference by working in corporate America but eventually I found that in that environment your objectives, your goals and your mission have to ultimately be aligned with the organization. Which is to say, they’re not necessarily your own. That is why I started Cirkled in.
The college and career admissions landscape is drastically changing towards holistic review of the candidates and students are struggling to keep up. Cirkled in™ takes the pain out of admission process and increases students’ acceptance rate by providing one and only e-profile and e-portfolio platform. Cirkled in™ is a secure, centralized online platform to compile students’ achievements throughout their academic life, K – 12, both inside and outside school. Students can share their holistic profile with recruiters and admission officers and increase their success rate.
If you and I can have LinkedIn collating our professional experience, students definitely need something much bigger and better than that. Why? Because they change teachers every year, they change schools every 3 to 4 years, they’re involved in many many activities and they apply to many different institutions. And, yet, today there’s no way for them to put all their strengths and talents in one place and show to hiring managers and recruiters. Cirkled in gives students that platform, letting them tell their holistic story with proof points and evidence, including a portfolio and more.
Where did your interest in entrepreneurship start?
My interest started back in India, where I was born and raised. My mum started a school when I was 8 years old. It was something of a family affair with my dad, my sisters and I getting involved. Seeing her taking this school from its infancy, growing it, and then finally exiting 25 years later was hugely inspiring for me. I saw how fulfilling it was for her, and how she was able to do a lot of good since the school was her own: she could help out the poor kids who could not afford textbooks or uniforms, for example.
The second factor that developed my interest in entrepreneurship was that my mum was very active in society in India, and even contested a couple of elections. For one of them I was her campaign manager, and that experience stayed with me forever. Knocking on every door for every vote – it was almost like a startup. It taught me empathy, how to tell your story, how to connect with customers, how to make your story resonate with the listener, and how to speak the language that the other person understands.
Seeing and learning all this from such a young age had a huge influence on me, and definitely influenced my passion for entrepreneurship.
Cirkled In isn’t your first startup. Like so many entrepreneurs, your first attempt was not as successful as you hoped. What lessons did you take from this experience?
Our first company was called iFind. It was a device for parents to track their children both indoors and outdoors. It was going to be available for kids to wear like a bracelet, and parents would be alerted should their kid wander outside of a predetermined safety zone. Interestingly, in 2010 people were like, “wow what do you mean my kid has to wear a bracelet?”. At that time, wearable hardware was not cool. Today, of course, Apple Watch, FitBit and similar companies have changed the landscape. Everyone these days wants a wearable – not so much 5 years ago.
So we learned that timing is the key. If you are too early or too late to the market you will most likely fail. Timing to the market increases your chance of success significantly. Recently, in fact, I’ve come across a few companies that are doing exactly what we wanted to do with iFind. Funny enough, I was at an event recently where a first prize award was given to a company doing the exact same thing! I went up to the founder at the end and told them they can use all our marketing plans, business plans and anything else – we’d done all the work already!
With Cirkled in, on the other hand, we see a change in the admissions landscape happening already. Recently there are a few players popping up here and there, but there’s no big player in the space. Students and parents are also becoming more open to tech, as are schools, and so with all things considered we think we’re entering the market at just the right time.
There’s no doubt women in startups are the minority – in your experience, what reasons can you see for this imbalance?
Of course I’m aware of it and, unfortunately, I see it all the time.
There are many reasons, in my view. If we look for a big cause, however, I would say it’s the same one that has kept women out of the boardroom, out of the C-suite, out of leadership positions, out of government and much more. That big reason is nature.
Women carry the burden of keeping our species from being extinct. Meaning, simply, they’re the ones that give birth. If you think about it, giving birth and raising kids is often a huge part of woman’s life and job and to carry that out you have traditionally had to make sacrifices. Unfortunately, though things have come along in many ways, society has not fully stepped up to share that burden with women, and that’s the historic reason – or evolutionary reason – for the lack of balance.
Also it remains true that everybody still has unconscious biases that put women at a disadvantage – and people are not even aware of them. For example, when people look to hire, promote, give raises or invest money, they often go with people that look like themselves because they connect better with them. In a male dominated environment, men are more likely to favor other men, and therefore it becomes harder for women to break through.
In a male dominated environment, men are more likely to favor other men, and therefore it becomes harder for women to break through.
Then there are ripple effects of first two reasons. So when women see other women struggling – and women do struggle, with jobs and families – it tells them, “hey, it’s very hard to do this and needs a lot of courage.” And that discourages other women to take on new roles. For example, there was an article that came out about the pay gap in the US, detailing how women are paid 79 cents for every dollar. My daughter read that article, came up to me and she asked, “Mum, whats the point? Why even bother? This is not fair.” I could see that even my daughter, who was 12 at the time, was being discouraged to even try. Of course we had a conversation about it, but this is what happens. Women see another working woman struggling and it just says to them: maybe it’s not worth it.
Now as I say, things are changing, and people are becoming more aware of it. You and I are talking, and that’s evidence that people are aware that there are a lack of women in STEM and we need to do something about it. A better balance brings more success to companies, it grows us as an economy and helps us as a nation.
Did you ever feel as though there was resistance to you progressing in your career based on being a woman?
Definitely. We’re not going into the details of Indian culture but just so you know, I became a rebel growing up in India. I had to. I was a girl and everybody looked down on my parents because they didn’t have a son. It made me rebel against expectations, and I’ve never really let go of that rebellious nature.
Specifically speaking about my career, I started in a small startup and I didn’t really feel much resistance to my progress. In fact, I felt I was treated equally. It was a good testament for why this should be the norm: we were a small company and our goal was to get the product out to customers. Nothing else mattered, so whether you were a man or a woman made no difference because they simply hired whoever they thought was the smartest of the bunch, and that included quite a few women. Because of this attitude we did pretty well – while I was there the team grew from under 100 to around 1250.
It’s very hard to leave something when you love it. It becomes easy when you feel discriminated against.
As I progressed, however, I began to notice the resistance get stronger and stronger. At the lower levels it isn’t so bad, but moving higher up in organizations it becomes more apparent. I certainly saw that my pace of growth was much slower than my male co-workers. In one of my jobs, I clearly felt that I was doing at least 2 people’s jobs. Even if that’s exaggerated, there’s no doubt I was doing at least an equal amount to the others and I was not promoted. I was always bringing ideas to the table, always a people person, always working hard with my co-workers to find solutions, and I felt they could see it too. But I was not promoted. Why? Well, maybe because I’m a women and perhaps because I’m Asian. I kind of had a double whammy.
And so it’s not hard to understand why we don’t see many women in C-Suite or in the boardroom or in leadership positions. There are hurdles and unless you have stamina and courage to overcome every obstacle in your path for 20-30 years of your career, it gets very tiring. I did not get promoted and that was very annoying. It was this experience that gave me the kick I needed to leave my cushy job and say, you know what? I’m done. I’m done with this crap and I’m going to go do my own mission. It’s very hard to leave something when you love it. It becomes easy when you feel discriminated against. And it’s when you get that kick, that’s when you take action.
I’m glad I did.
In your (quite excellent) blog at Cirkled in, you often quote your daughter. What do you make of the current situation for girls as they grow up looking to get into STEM or simply into leadership roles?
I think in some ways this is a perfect time for girls for many reasons. One, awareness is increasing. People are talking about getting girls into STEM and women in boardrooms and everything else. Why? Because they have seen evidence that when women are in leadership positions, companies have higher earnings per share. Companies have better financial performance. Companies have higher resilience to recessions and bad weather. So, there is this awareness that’s building around this and people are saying, “ok, if we need to be a healthy company, we need to have more women. So how do we do that?”.
This leads to the formation of schools, camps, special organizations, non-profits and much more that are designed specifically to encourage women and girls to believe in themselves and get into the business and tech worlds.
Another thing that is helping girls today is having strong female role models. There are a lot more female entrepreneurs visible to girls today and in the past 4 or 5 years apparently that percentage has increased significantly. So having these women in role model positions, girls can look at them and can say: oh, I can be there one day, too. They can picture themselves in those roles which is something that women my age didn’t have so much. Hillary Clinton, for example, is the first female major party presidential candidate. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on – what’s important to see is that after 250 years of independence, finally the US has a female presidential candidate.
Having girls like Malala, too… These women are giving all girls a new hope. If she can win a nobel peace prize, well, so can you. Kids today take Google for granted, and don’t realize the incredible technology they have there at their fingertips, and similarly, I think girls will take equality for granted in the future. I know we’re not there. We have a long way to go but I think we’re moving in the right direction, identifying the problem and moving towards the solution.
Things shouldn’t come too easy either, I think. We’re on track, but we’re far from done. We have identified and diagnosed our problems and now we are working on fixing them, but girls today still have to struggle, and I think that adversity makes them stronger.
And let’s be clear. It’s not just for women, it’s for the whole society. There is clear evidence out there: companies do 40% better with women in the boardroom than when it’s all male. I mean, nobody is begging for pity: do it for yourself, for the economy, for us as a species, whatever. As Obama recently said, when everyone is equal, everyone is more free. Everyone benefits.
We’ve heard a little about your path to becoming a successful entrepreneur with Cirkled in. What lessons do you think your experience offers specifically to women looking to build their own startup?
Let me first clarify: at this point, I’m far from what I would consider to be “successful” with my business. Personally, I am a successful entrepreneur because of my definition of success. When I started this I defined my own success criteria. When I’m on my deathbed, Iwant to be able to say, “I tried”. And just by starting Cirkled In, I can say I’ve been successful in this regard. Company’s success will be determined by regular business metrics.
In any case, one thing I would say is: don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Ever. My dad is a big supporter of me and he really motivated me when I was growing up. He told me I can do anything. If I want it enough, I’ll find a way.
Lesson number 2: be true to who you are. You are a woman, and you should be proud of that. Don’t try to be a man. Use your empathy to your advantage, use your resilience, use your emotional strength and every other skill that you have. Otherwise you won’t be happy and you won’t be living your own life, you’ll be living a life someone else wants for you. Be you and use your strengths to propel you to the next level. These skills are within many women, and can help make them successful entrepreneurs.
What specifically do you think men in the tech and startup industries can do to help address the issues facing women?
That’s an interesting question. I will go back to the point I made about unconscious biases. I think one of the major overhauls we can do in this area is everyone being aware that we have the biases mentioned earlier. So when you take your next action or you make your next decision, be aware that there is a bias against women that puts women at a disadvantage. And being aware of those you can come face to face with them and say, am I making a decision that’s affected by my biases? If you’re not self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses it’s hard to improve. When you make a decision, be it hiring, promoting, investing, try to put those biases away.
In addition to this I will say that women are, in my experience, more self-critical than men. I’ve seen this the last 25 years of my life working in different countries and at different levels. Even today, women will come up to me and say ask for more details on a job in order to see if they’re a good fit. And then, if they fail to meet just one of the requirements, they’ll be deterred. Men, on the other hand, will immediately send me a resume and say, “hey, I need a job and I have 2 out of 5 of the qualities. I think I can do this.” So if we are aware of that, maybe we can give women a chance and try to motivate them. I believe that, when we give them a chance, give them that job, they will step up to the plate. And so if a woman is saying they don’t think they have what it takes, take the time to talk to them and see if it’s really true. I think there’s a good chance they’re just being self-critical.
Are there any companies, in your opinion, that are setting an example for diversity in the startup industry?
You know, I wish I could make a long list but unfortunately I can’t. There’s a lot of lip service that’s happening right now and I’m really disappointed. I don’t remember the stats exactly but big companies like Facebook and Google, they kind of stink when it comes to diversity.
We, at Cirkled in, are very conscious of the diversity. AT this point 100% of our advisory board is women. We help women who want to go back to work force after a gap. We hire women interns. We give women fair and equitable chance. There is another startup that I am aware of called 500 Startups and from what I know they’re setting a good example. I think almost half of their companies are female-founded. I have a pregnant friend that went through the program and she couldn’t stop talking about them, and so whenever I think of a good example, I think of them. I’m sure there are others, I just personally haven’t come across any of them.
Any final thoughts for women or girls that are interested in working in tech and startups?
Don’t think any field is only meant for boys. The first code was written by a woman. Look out for female inventors, too, because they’re not talked about very often but there are a lot of them.
We women are like the wind: we can go wherever we want and if there’s a mountain, we can rise above it. Nothing can stop us. There will be hurdles, but I can say that after my 2 years with Cirkled In, I’m a much stronger person. If things were easy, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today.
So if you hit a hurdle, think to yourself that it’s for your betterment. You will come out stronger in this situation. Unfortunately, today, women have many more of these opportunities to become stronger. But know that success will be much sweeter after all these hurdles.
The water tastes better after a 2 mile hike on a mountain than from a fridge in a hotel room.