The Student of Vision ABIE Award honors young women dedicated to creating a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies for which they build it. Winners of this award have a unique vision of how technology innovation can solve important problems, and how inspiring more women in technology enables meaningful innovation. Harvard University graduate student Mehul Smriti Raje is this year’s Student of Vision ABIE Award winner, and will accept her award as part of the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), October 4–7 in Orlando, Florida.
When Mehul entered university at Manipal Institute of Technology, she was shocked by the gender disparities in her classes. These observations spurred her into action, and she founded an organization called Women TechMakers Manipal to empower her fellow students. Starting this fall, Mehul plans to focus her Harvard University graduate studies on ways that we can build emotionally intelligent systems that understand users’ thought processes, and offer solutions to collaboration hurdles and communications challenges.
We spoke with Mehul recently to talk about the award and the path that brought her here.
What led you to study computer science?
I became interested in computers really early because my parents have always been very technologically inclined. I’ve had a computer for as long as I could remember.
When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect just like my parents. But around sixth grade I started thinking of technology as a career. I wanted to be coding all the time — that’s precisely why I studied computer science!
I completed my undergrad at Manipal Institute of Technology in India. I got a good job as an engineer; I was one of the first students in batch to get placed! But of course, the journey has only started. This fall, I’m going for my master’s degree in computational science at Harvard University.
A lot of projects led you to this award. Can you tell me about one that was personally important?
I believe that coding’s really not just about mathematics or making apps; it’s also about a way of logical thinking. But not everyone has access to the tools that they need to learn these skills. In the types of rural communities where I come from, most people haven’t even seen a desktop computer.
So, as part of a Microsoft hackathon at my university, I created an app that allows you to code in your native language. The app allows you to use Sanskrit (which forms the basis of a lot of Indian languages) to give simple statements as instructions to the computer. I want to promote coding for everybody, and this app helps make that possible.
Have you attended Grace Hoper Celebration in the past?
I attended Grace Hopper Celebration India in 2015, and I was so surprised by the number of people who attended! Up to that point, I thought I was one of the few female techies who was really interested in coding. But when I went to GHCI, I realized that there are so many women out there who are doing precisely the same thing as I am!
I’ve gone on to write a few papers on topics that I found really inspiring at GSCI. That’s when my career really took a turn.
What are you looking forward to at Grace Hopper Celebration this year?
I’m really exited! I want to meet all the amazing people who attend Grace Hopper Celebration, especially the keynote speakers. I’m also looking forward to the interaction with the other women attendees.
At GHCI, I really learned about the current state of technology efforts in India. But now I’m looking forward to learning what people around the world are doing in the world of computer science.
Who inspires you?
I also would say Mark Zuckerberg. The whole story of him launching a startup when he was just in college is really inspiring. Every time my fellow students and I think up a new project, we always think of how he started Facebook and made such a big company out of it.
What would you like to see change for women in tech in the next 10 years?
The first change that I’d like to see is a better understanding of why women-focused organizations are necessary. For some reason, it’s still debatable as to why they need to exist, which I find rather strange given that the gender gap in technology is rather evident.
I think, too, that we need to change the perception that women are not as technologically competent as men. I’ve met really brilliant women in technology — my seniors and the people that I work with. I think that this bias is something that definitely needs to change.
Meet Mehul during GHC at Student of Vision, A. Richard Newton and Social Impact ABIE Award Winners 2017 – A Panel Discourse on Thursday, October 5, 2017 from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm in OCCC W300.
Thank you to FactSet, sponsor of the 2017 Student of Vision ABIE Award.