This year, 670 startups closed funding deals worth $2 billion. And only three percent (21 startups) of these deals were bagged by startups with women co-founders or sole woman founder.
Nagasravya Tandule, Co-founder of AAMI, a startup that makes reading assistant device for visually challenged and those with dyslexia, makes a very valid point when she says, “Bollywood, politics and sports are filled with achievers who become role models in the technology domain in India. The list is small, and within this list there are a few who prefer to stay away from the limelight. What it means is that youngsters like me don’t know whom to contact for support, mentorship and guidance.”
We have seen a visible dearth of women in tech and the tech leadership, but it does not end there. The ratio of women in IIT’s and other engineering colleges too is skewed. Despite the gender bias and lack of role models, small town women like Nagasravya has not let it impede her growth nor discouraged her to use technology to solve a problem to create an impact.
Nagasravya, 21, finished her schooling in her hometown – Hindupur, a small town in Anantapur in Andhra Pradhesh. The male-female ratio at her school was 40:60. She then moved to an all-girls campus. “Here all my friends were preparing for entrance exams, and most of them are still into STEM. However, things changed at graduation level. During engineering at ISM, Dhanbad, we had 15 girls and 80 boys in our branch. Overall, the ratio in our college was 1:10 (almost) as is the case with most IITs. Out of this small percentage, some have taken non-core jobs.”
“My mother always told me to follow my heart. My father also encouraged me to dream big and work hard to achieve it. Given my interest in technology and their support, I did just that,” she says.
However, she had to convince her parents when she decided to startup, but eventually they supported her decision.
Nagasravya enjoys working with embedded systems, and linux. She has built several small robotics projects and participated in many college-level robotics competitions. However, the most attractive aspect of technology for her is problem solving. “Problem solving is a challenge I have always loved – from completing puzzles at home to programming at university. Possibilities in this field are endless,” she says.
According to her, one of the coolest recent developments in technology has been the growth of social media. “Consider WhatsApp, with a team of lesser than 50 engineers they were able to build a product that has more than a billion active users. Similarly Facebook. These companies have really changed the way we interact.”
It was her penchant for problem solving that sowed the seeds for AAMI. The idea came to her when she was in school. “I visited a school for the blind and saw the students reading books in braille. I learnt that braille printed versions are not available for every book in the market. And a very small percentage of blind people have access to these books. And even fewer, less than five percent, receive any kind of training in reading braille. So the idea to make the life of a blind person better was born,” she says.
During her engineering days, studying Image Processing opened her up to the possibilities of the variety of products that could be made to turn her dream and idea into a reality. “I discussed this idea with my friend Pawan Kumar from college and we started working on the same.” Pawan continues to be a part of AAMI.
She also joined hands with other engineers whom she met online through engineering platforms to get AAMI off the ground. Vikram Rastogi, Aneesh Durg, and Piyush Anand joined her in this journey using their expertise in Natural Language Processing. Built on Python and C++ using open-source libraries like OpenCV and Tesseract the company's product is still in the R&D phase and is waiting to be signed up with hospitals and schools to spread the idea of using such a product for the blind.
In the initial phases, thinking like an entrepreneur was a challenge for Nagasravya. However, the business and technical support provided by Hacklab Innovation, which runs a hackerspace in Bengaluru, has helped the team find their footing.
They are currently bootstrapped and looking for funding. Over the months, Nagasravya’s interaction with customers and potential investors has increased.
“Bootstrapping has been the biggest challenge for us. But I feel that it is also beneficial, as it has helped us get good people on board who are passionate about the idea. It has also helped us focus on the core of the product, as we can't afford to be distracted,” says Nagasravya.
They participated in the GE Jugaad-a-thon and went to win Rs 1 lakh cash prize.
Tech innovation has been happening in India, but mostly in service sector. But many such innovations don't come in the limelight as they are not product related. But, things are changing. With hardware startups getting the support of government and companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Hacklab, we might definitely see some good products coming out of India.
Nagasravya is cognizant that the product-based companies in India don’t receive the same attention and support as in the Silicon Valley. “In US, product-based companies are well developed. Scope of development, better exposure and more inputs and feedback make it a better ecosystem for product companies to thrive.” Moving out to Silicon Valley for the same factors is something Nagasravya aspires to.
One of the women she admires in tech is Marrisa Mayer.
Marissa's passion and dedication has made her into a successful business women. It’s great to see a female CEO with such influence.
Nagasravya feels a more systematic shift has started happening in India as more and more girls are taking up challenging technical and managerial roles in startups. However, it is still a drop in the ocean especially given that women entrepreneurs not just those in tech but in non-tech sectors too face multiple challenges.
As an entrepreneur, she shoulders more responsibilities and takes her responsibilities seriously. She has also come far from the introvert shy girl that she was in her first year of college. “I have to put my best foot forward especially when I take to a stage to talk about AAMI.” To ensure a smooth sailing, she practices before she goes before an audience. It is just the consistent practice that has brought her this far she claims.
While Nagasravya has received constant support and encouragement from her peers, co-founders and within the startup ecosystem itself, she believes that the most important thing to do is to listen to your heart and follow it.
“This (young age) is the only time that you can chase your dreams. As you grow older responsibilities increase especially for women.” Though she does not know what the future holds for her, she wants to make the most of what she has.