The only woman in the room phenomenon: Madhurima Agarwal wants to see more women in tech and boardrooms

As a woman in tech and Director - Engineering Programs and Leader - NetApp Excellerator at NetApp, Madhurima is passionate about giving back to the ecosystem by nurturing innovation and talent through helping and enabling people build successful companies and careers.
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It was the 8th grade and Madhurima Agarwal’s computer science class was assigned a coding task. While most of her classmates went for a textbook approach to solving it, Madhurima wrote an unconventional piece of code which was marked wrong by the teacher.

Convinced that she was right with her approach, Madhurima went on to try it out on a computer and got the desired result, which her teacher went on to acknowledge as right.

Beyond just changing how her teacher and classmates perceived her, this seemingly innocuous incident would go on to shape Madhurima’s work ethic, and underscore how she would approach problems and challenge conventions in her career: don’t be afraid to try something different, challenge norms, and defend anything you know to be right.

An early start with startups

This mindset led Madhurima to embrace entrepreneurship right after college. She went on to found her first startup and even had an exit in two years, setting the tone for her future role as a startup mentor. Today, as Director - Engineering Programs and Leader - NetApp Excellerator at NetApp, Madhurima is passionate about giving back to the startup and tech ecosystem by nurturing innovation through helping and enabling startups and building successful companies.

An alumna of IIM, Ahmedabad, her 17-year career is spread across enterprises and startups, has also seen her working with the global capital markets as a stock picker.

The most common mistake founders make

Madhurima believes that while founders bring a lot of passion and energy to their startups, their emotional investment can be a double-edged sword.

“Being emotionally invested in your startup could also lead to insulation and irrationality,” she says, advising founders to temper their emotions with rationality.

Madhurima prescribes ‘attachment with detachment’ as a way to deal with it, while recommending that founders find the right channels to invest their emotional energy in ways that are productive for the startup.

What successful founders do right

Madhurima’s involvement with the NetApp Excellerator, whose cohort has accelerated 29 startups till date (with three successful exits), has given her a unique perspective on what successful founders do right.

“I find that when founders have a relevant solution to a problem, a grand vision for it, and take calculated risks, it usually works,” says Madhurima, adding that getting the product-market-fit and growth strategy right also played key roles in its success.

Citing the example of CloudSEK, a leading AI-powered digital risk monitoring platform, she explained how good founders, the right team, a great CEO and a growth strategy that demonstrated instant value for customers had all the makings of a winning combination.

More women in tech and leadership positions

Madhurima, who often finds herself the sole woman in a room full of techies or entrepreneurs, or at a leadership meeting, is keen on changing the dynamic. She champions the cause of diversity as an adviser to the WIT (Women in Technology) group at NetApp and focuses on the professional development of women in the workplace where she sees a huge gap between women’s careers in tech and men’s.

“Women don’t have enough role models in the tech space, and mentors who understand the challenges women face here,” says Madhurima, adding that the entrepreneurial ecosystem also needed more women investors and VCs.

While the number of women in STEM and investing is minuscule even at the learning stage, , the number of women growing into leadership roles is even smaller..

Moving the needle on the gender gap

While she acknowledges that it is very encouraging to see many corporates with comprehensive diversity and ‘women in tech’ programmes, Madhurima believes that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface, and that the movement needs to begin at the grassroots level. “It’s not just about just getting more women in tech or in the workforce, but it’s about changing perceptions about women as a whole,” she adds.

“It has to start at the grassroots. Society needs to have an open dialogue and take proactive steps together. Women should be empowered and not judged,” she adds.

The conflict between motherhood and career is also more pronounced in the Indian scenario. In addition to facing recruitment biases from employers, I’ve noticed that Indian career women, especially in the tech arena, fear becoming irrelevant in their roles or skills especially with the rapidly evolving tech dynamic.

“It’s personally okay to take a break and it’s possible to come back strong’” says Madhurima who has taken two career breaks for her kids.

“However, it’s imperative to stay updated, upskilled, and in sync with the dynamic as much as possible, during the break” she adds while urging people in leadership positions to be more accepting and give women a chance to prove themselves as a 2019 LinkedIn Gender Insights Report research shows that men apply for a job when they meet 60 percent of the requirements, whereas women only apply for a job if they meet 100 percent of the requirements. “Companies need to take this into cognisance and give women candidates a fairer chance,” she adds.

The power of words in addressing gender bias

Expanding on the subject of how bias can creep into the recruitment process, Madhurima advises candidates to make their resumes as gender agnostic as possible.

“Candidates should leave out gender cues from their resumes that aren’t relevant to the job role.” She adds that HR personnel could also help reduce gender bias in the selection process by anonymising resumes and removing traces of gender identification to ensure candidates win on meritocracy, adding that there were tools available to do this.

Madhurima also advises on recording interviews and having a panel to review recorded interviews at random to check for gender bias. She also suggests that companies adopt gender-neutrality in job descriptions. “Certain words have been shown to be associated with masculine or feminine roles. This has been borne out in the research which has identified words which can act as an unintentional signal that women do not belong in certain roles or organisations. A gender decoder for job ads will help identify and suggest alternative wording, meaning job descriptions can be made gender-neutral and more accessible.

After all, in the words of Albus Dumbledore, ‘Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it’,” concludes Madhurima.


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