[Women in Tech] We need families and workplaces to proactively give women opportunities to learn and thrive: Arya Murali of WITI

Arya Murali, VP, WITI India, says girls must grow up seeing relatable role models so that they start believing that it is perfectly normal for women to be scientists, astronauts, engineers and world leaders.
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Arya Murali, Vice President, Women in Technology International (WITI) India, has been closely associated with the women in tech ecosystem in India. She has built a community of 1,000+ women in tech as the lead for Google Women Techmakers, Kochi; and impacted 5,000+ young women in tech through programmes such as the Women in Tech Learning programme.

An engineer by education, Arya is also a TEDx speaker, Jagriti Yatri, and one of the 18 young women to receive the prestigious WeTech Qualcomm Global Scholarship. A prominent proponent of the importance of scholarships and mentorships in empowering women, she is the author of an eBook on applying to opportunities (handbook.aryamurali.com), host of the "Writing a Winning Scholarship Application", podcast and runs a personal initiative Godmothers (godmothers.in) to support young women.

WITI’s global reach surpasses three million professionals across North America, South America, EMEA, Asia Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Australia, through more than 300 partners, 50 domestic and 13 global networks. WITI offers members best practice tools, programmes, and platforms designed to increase innovation, competitiveness, and revenue.

In a conversation with HerStory, Arya talks about her journey, her responsibilities at WITI, and reveals her biggest successes and challenges.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

HerStory (HS): Was anything particular that drew you to STEM?

Arya Murali (AM): I was born and raised in Palakkad, Kerala. Born into a middle-class family, I did all 12 years of my schooling at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Hemambika Nagar, Palakkad, and went on to pursue BTech from Government Engineering College, Thrissur. Both my parents are engineers and I think their keen interest in technology, especially that of my mother’s, was a huge driver for me to explore technology for my bachelor’s degree.

HS: Please take us through your career journey.

AM: My life changed when I entered the undergraduate programme at GEC Thrissur. I was exposed to a lot of exciting opportunities on campus and sometime in the second year of college I volunteered at an entrepreneurship bootcamp organised by NASSCOM and came across topics of innovation and entrepreneurship. My third year of college was the most eventful - I started building a community of women in tech as the Community Lead for Google Women Techmakers (WTM), Kochi, and co-founded a fintech startup called ‘Walat’ that enabled cardless ATM transactions. Over the course of two years, I grew the community of women at WTM to over 1,000 members; this was the beginning of my journey to empower women in STEM. 

We pitched Walat to several leading investors and banks, including ICICI bank. Although the startup did not take off at the time, I learned I had an entrepreneurial bent. 

I was selected by Google India to attend Google I/O 2016 on a full sponsorship and was one of 18 girls to receive the WeTech Qualcomm Global Scholarship from the Institute of International Education. Thanks to these opportunities, I sat in the third row watching Sundar Pichai launch Google Home, won a scholarship of $5,000, and received a six-month mentorship with an engineer at Qualcomm. I also became a TEDx speaker and was one of 450 youngsters to attend Jagriti Yatra where I travelled across India for 15 days to explore social entrepreneurship.

I joined Rethink (a nonprofit in youth development) as a founding member in 2017, and championed ‘The Opportunity Project’ aimed at democratising opportunities for youth in STEM.

After two years at Rethink, I went on to work as Director of Partnerships with Almabase (an edtech SaaS startup building alumni management software). It was only when I moved away from working closely for the cause of women that I realised how much I wanted to go back to working towards empowering more women.

That’s how I started working with WITI to build their community and business partnerships in India.

HS: Tell us about your roles and responsibilities at WITI.

AM: My key responsibilities include building and nurturing a community of women in tech in India, establishing relationships with other similar organisations so we can maximise our impact, and building services that cater to Indian tech companies and women in tech in India.

We organise monthly events and networking sessions to engage our community. Most recently, we organised the first-ever APAC track at WITI’s 27th Annual Summit with the theme ‘Stories of Resilience’ that witnessed 25 speakers and 1,000+ attendees. The summit was sponsored by Salesforce, Microsoft, and Mediatek.

This year, we also launched the Carolyn Leighton Scholarships for students in APAC to attend the WITI Global Summit on a 100 percent scholarship. We had 2,400+ applicants from APAC and 1,051 scholars who were awarded. Additionally, we’re proud to share that 50 percent of the APAC registration amount was forwarded towards COVID Relief.

HS: What were the challenges of working during the pandemic?

AM: At WITI, we had set out to build the first-ever APAC track at WITI’s 27th Annual Summit. We’d started our prep for the summit six months prior to the event. In April, we had 18 speakers confirmed and that is when the second wave of COVID hit India. This was a period of struggle because our speakers and team mates lost loved ones and struggled to cope with the stress of another lockdown. 

We had to take a two-week break to take a step back and reconsider everything. This time helped us gather our thoughts and take care of ourselves. We then came back, deciding to continue the summit with a theme relevant to COVID climate in APAC, and with the intention of making an impact through our summit, by forwarding 50 percent of APAC registrations towards COVID relief. While this time delay set us behind, I think it was much needed for us to do the right thing when faced with uncertainty.

HS: What more can be done to attract and retain women in the tech workforce?

AM: Young women need to be exposed to tech from a young age. They must grow up seeing relatable role models so that they also start believing that it is perfectly normal for women to be scientists, astronauts, engineers, and world leaders.

There is an aspiration deficit in young women where they are even scared to have dreams and goals. A lot of this is because of fear and cultural conditioning that dictates timelines for a woman to follow. However, this is where encouragement can play a crucial role in telling young women they can do whatever they set their mind to.

We need families and workplaces to proactively give women opportunities to learn and thrive, and also give them support and encouragement to navigate challenges. Retaining more women in the workforce will require a conscious effort on the part of women to continue to prioritise their career, irrespective of other challenges, and a deliberate intent on the part of her support system - be it families, society, or her workplace - to ensure she has all the support she needs and doesn’t give up.

HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?

AM: I’ve struggled early on in my career with a lack of belief. For the longest time, nobody believed in my abilities to accomplish anything significant in life. Despite my raging enthusiasm, I was told to dream within my limits. Things changed, however, when I received a scholarship during my undergraduate course; this proved that I was not joking about my ambitions. That was a turning point when I saw my friends and family start believing in me.

My biggest success is the stories I can tell you of women whose lives I’ve impacted through my work. I’ve touched the lives of at least 10,000 women in just my first 25 years of life and this inspires me to keep working towards empowering women.

HS: Why do you think there are very few women in leadership positions in tech?

AM: Lack of exposure - Women must be exposed to technology from a young age. As children, they must be able to tinker with technology and develop a familiarity towards it.

Lack of self-belief and relatable role models - Seeing is believing. Women tend to doubt themselves a lot more than men do. Studies show how men apply to job opportunities if they fulfil 60 percent of the criteria, while women wait to complete 90 percent of the criteria. It is therefore important for women growing up to see other women in leading tech roles so that they feel it is possible for them to be like their role models.

Aspiration deficit - Cultural and behavioural conditioning has led women to aspire for less. It is almost as if they self-reject themselves before they pursue an opportunity. It is important that women show the courage to set big bold goals and go after them.

Lack of support - Despite the conversations around gender inclusion, progress is slow. We need organisations making more effective policies to better support women in their careers.

Lack of encouragement - The need of the hour is a sisterhood where women work towards uplifting other women. Sponsorship, allyship, and mentorship become key in giving women support and encouragement they need to rise up the ladder.

HS: What are your future plans?

AM: I have always aspired to pursue higher education from a reputed global university. I look forward to pursuing my MSc in Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the London School of Economics and Political Science this year.

I hope to continue to work with social impact organisations or eventually build my own social enterprise to empower more women to enter leadership positions. My vision is to impact one million women in my lifetime.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai