By Ashwini Asokan
Co-founder, CEO at Mad Street Den
Every once in a while there comes a day, maybe an event or two, that changes the way you do things. It changes the way you view something, challenges aspects of your current approach, shakes up your otherwise steadfast beliefs and sends you in circles of depression. I love to be in such a place. It almost definitely means that I am going to take a leap in my journey (much like the growth spurts of my 10-month-old). The struggle typically pays off.
My trip to Silicon Valley, organized and sponsored by the fabulous teams at AnitaB.org, the Department of Science and Technology – Government of India, the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) and the National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board was one such event. I was honored to be a part of the women entrepreneurs in technology delegation that visited Silicon Valley for what you could call an “immersion boot camp.” As one of six finalists of the Women Entrepreneur Quest (Women Entrepreneur Quest) 2014 contest, I had the privilege of participating in an all-expense-paid experiential learning visit to Silicon Valley, CA from April 13-17, 2015.
Initially, I wondered how five days could have much impact. How could I walk away with something useful in such a short time? Looking back, I am surprised by the doors this trip opened up for me. We met VCs, senior executives and women technology leaders from eBay and Google, other women-led tech startups. We mingled with faculty, attended a networking event at TiE Silicon Valley, spent a morning with the Consul General, SF at the Indian Consulate, and much more.
I was surprised at how tough it actually was. The mentoring sessions with a local entrepreneur, the founder of a women-focused incubator and at the Meera Kaul Foundation all pushed my thinking further. Questions I had not thought of, challenges to my strategy that I had dismissed previously and notions about the ecosystem that I had not considered were thrown at me. The lessons kept coming.
Every bit of it has already influenced the strategy of my AI startup, months later. I was surprised at the depth of insight each individual offered. A five minute pitch to a VC yielded a handful of points to consider about the pitch itself, the business and my strategy. And while at the moment, much of it seemed like general takeaways, upon further reflection, I realize how profound they were. Some opened doors for further conversation and meaningful connections—the people I’ve met are not just contacts, they are people who are helping me learn. That has been my first lesson!
Traveling with 10 other women was an experience in itself. I think the last time I was in a place filled with women was at my all women’s undergrad school! I had forgotten how fabulous it was. The Indian startup ecosystem is beginning to bloom. I have worried about the lack of representation of women in the current ecosystem. I’ve fought endless battles on the topic. I rarely find any women in the usual meetups. I regularly advocate the need for ‘leveling the playing field’ before we all start running around declaring that there are barely any women the startup community! If anyone ever had any doubts about women in the startup community, they should meet this Women Entrepreneur Quest team and watch them pitch. Such conviction, clarity of thought and hard work! This trip reminded me that I was not alone in my journey.
India’s women are bold, challenge-hungry and big thinkers. There is no other way to say it. And the interesting thing is this not limited just to entrepreneurs. The organizers from AnitaB.org and IUSSTF had clear goals and constant discussions that revolved around what the trip meant and how to change and iterate on version two of the program.
My second biggest lesson, and one that’s important for the technology industry, is this: don’t underestimate what Indian women founders are capable of. Reach out, enable and include them, and you will see the snowball effect of that goodness going around. We wouldn’t need women-only events if we saw good representation of women in mainstream tech to begin with. This trip was a bold reminder of the quality of tech startups as well as the nature of the ecosystem that India is nurturing, and a reminder that women can be the captains as well.
If you are a woman founder of a tech startup, apply for the GHCI 2015 Women Entrepreneurship Quest program. You don’t want to miss out on the 2016 trip and a week that can change the way you do what you do!