Are you a woman in NYC Tech and interested in participating in this series? Make sure to read the whole article…
Much has been said and written about the lack of women in the tech sector, be it as investors (or associates), founders, or in management positions at major companies. Is the problem the old boys network – or that success in technology is seen as a young man’s game? In this series, we speak with some of the top women in tech in New York as they discuss the challenges they face, the perceptions that need to be changed and the work that’s being done – or not – to help to promote women in tech.
Today, we sit down with Nirupama Mallavarupu founder of MobileArq. Mallavarupu is a technologist with experience with pioneering web projects in the Bay area at Sun Microsystems and Oracle prior to her moving to NYC. More recently, she has led engineering teams in open source development and created MobileArq out of necessity as a parent – to get information about her children’s schools and community at her fingertips. The company has raised over $860K for school PTAs and tens of thousands of parents use the app
What’s your background and how did you develop your career as a female entrepreneur in the NYC tech ecosystem?
I started as a software engineer in the mid-nineties in Transarc, a pioneering startup that commercialized the Andrew File System (AFS) developed at Carnegie Mellon University. Transarnc also developed the first transaction processing system (Encina) that could handle three or more parties in a transaction from different locations, used to this day in the IBM servers for banking and other industries. After Transarc got bought out by IBM, I moved on to work at Oracle and Sun Microsystems in the bay area as a server engineer. In 2003, I moved out of the Bay Area to NYC with my family. In contrast to the Bay area, the tech scene in the NYC area was fairly nascent – think of pre-meetup days.
In my new surroundings, it took me a while to get my feet wet. I attended startup events ameetupsups regularly in the New York/New Jersey ecosystem to develop connections. I also worked through three startups. While working as the Director of Engineering in a funded startup that built open-source based web technologies for universities, health care and financial institutions, I also had to manage school activities of my two young boys. There was no central website or app to get all of the school-related information or connect with other parents in the school community. I realized that I could apply my technology expertise to solve the problem I was facing as a parent – to make the school-related information easily accessible to a parent on-the-go and easily reach out to other parents and teachers.
So, I founded MobileArq, a startup that provided communication software to schools. I applied my IT know-how to build a private and secure digital school directory with all the school information including contact information of the school parents that could be access easily on a mobile phone or any ‘connected’ device. As the software gained traction, I also received feedback from my customers, the school parent organizations, e.g., PTA and the PTO, on the need for an online fundraising platform. In response to this feedback, MobileArq grew into a communication and fundraising platform for the K-12 schools.
What are the advantages of being a woman in tech?
Women understand the needs of other women better and can therefore create better products to fulfill their needs. This is an inherent advantage for a women in tech. Also, there is kinship amongst women in tech, you get support and mentoring from other women in technology. I have been selected for mentoring programs that are exclusively for women entrepreneurs.
What can be done to further promote female entrepreneurs and women in tech in New York?
We need more grants and accelerator programs with a mandate to nurture and support women entrepreneurs. This will help more women to get the support they need to build and grow their startups. This is needed since there still exist a bias against funding women entrepreneurs by investors who are predominantly male.
What is diversity to you and do you see it evolving in tech?
Diversity is hiring and including people from all ‘different’ types of individuals who can contribute significantly to the company regardless of their gender, color and sexual orientation. There seems to be a lot more PR by the big companies that they are working on evolving the culture in technology. However, the numbers do not reflect the changes happening yet.
Why do you think it’s important that women retain, grow, and develop into senior roles within their organizations?
When women grow into senior roles, they can hire more qualified women into the organization and mentor/support them in their career. They serve as role models for the newcomers in the organization. There should be a buddy system in which each incoming woman should be assigned a senior woman to mentor and learn from. I struggled with not having a mentor during my early days in the tech industry.
You previously worked at large corporations that were not well suited to promote a family/work life balance for women. Have you seen a shift in how employers are approaching this now?
I worked for two major corporations while in the Bay area. Both of these corporations significantly lacked women leaders. Family/work life balance was not an issue that was supported or promoted in these work places. I was considered dispensable after taking a pregnancy leave. To gauge if my experience of over ten years ago has changed, I spoke to a couple of friends who currently work on Wall Street. The upper echelons of management want to promote family-work balance and diversity. The middle management though who are directly managing people are rooted in the old-fashioned rules and do not show empathy. This is reflected especially in teams that are mostly male and have only one or two females with a male manager. Hopefully, this will change with the current emphasis on diverse hiring.
Even in the startups where I worked, I have experienced the absence of family-friendly policies. It depends completely on the top brass and the kind of culture/environment they want to create in the company.
How do you see the future of teams and interactions in a diverse environment and what implications will this have?
With an emphasis on hiring diverse teams and more virtual and global teams, we are going to see more of the multi-cultural teams. People are learning to accept those who are not like them, those who come from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
The current atmosphere in the US has deeply divided the liberals and conservatives. This can cause rifts in the workplace too. Only education and empathy can help everyone see other’s points of view and live harmoniously.
How can women rise in the ecosystem and what are the unseen barriers?
Women can rise in the ecosystem not just with the support and mentorship from women. We also need mentorship and training from men in decision-making roles in organizations. They need to look out for the women working for them.
Women need to make their voices heard in every organization and not be paralyzed by ‘what if I spoke out’. I don’t believe that ‘Leaning In’ is easy or the strategy to be used for solving the problem of not having adequate women representation in Tech leadership. I not only ‘leaned in’ in my days in Sun Microsystems and Oracle. I went out of the way to make my voice heard but it was difficult to get cooperation and results.
The unseen barriers are those faced by women who are in the trenches whose concerns are not heard. The middle level management in every organization needs to cultivate empathy for women with children and family responsibilities, either through education or listening with an open mind. This is easier said than done. The dropout rates among young women in tech is very high due to this lack of empathy.
Policies to rehire women who have left the workforce for raising children or other family issues is commendable. There has to be more support for women entrepreneurs to provide mentorship and financial grants. There has to be more accelerator programs for women entrepreneurs with child care support.
Please tell us about a few organizations that you are involved with or respect that are promoting women in tech.
I have been involved as a supporter of ‘Women Who Tech’ run by Allyson Kapin. I am a volunteer at ‘Ladies who Lead’ events that is run by Bonnie Halper. I have also made connections with the women entrepreneurs in the New Jersey community through women’s networking organizations like NAWBO, BIG and local Suburban chamber of commerce.
What can men do to participate in this discussion?
While I understand some men are frustrated with the increased attention to women, once again, dialogue with women to understand the challenges they face will provide them a better perspective. We need more open and public conversations in meet ups and forums around these issues between women and men. Even those who are not on board need to come on and ask those difficult questions so that there is a dialogue. This leads to better understanding of the issues and viewpoints on both sides. Even though there are laws to prevent ‘Pregnancy Discrimination’ and ‘Sexual Harassment’, managers skirt around these laws to do whatever they want to do. In my case, they fired me the day after I came back from maternity leave to work around the ‘Pregnancy Discrimination’ law.
The team at AlleyWatch believes it’s important to have an inclusive discussion around the challenges facing women in tech along with highlighting the work of the female entrepreneurs that have made NYC one of the best places for women in tech according to some recent studies. That’s why we are running this series that showcases women in tech in New York.
If you are a female founder in NYC working in tech and interested in participating in the series please visit this link or click on the image above.
Please feel free to pass this on to any women in NYC that you feel should be considered for the series. Thank you.