Last evening, Kiran and I walked into a dinner organized for entrepreneurs (or some such event Kiran asked me to come for). One of the guests, who seemed like the co-host, introduced Kiran as “this is Jonnalagadda and he runs a group called HasGeek”. At that point, I intervened and said, “we both run the company. And I am also his financier.” The co-host immediately corrected himself and said “of course”. I settled into one of the chairs in the balcony rather uncomfortably.
I started talking to one of the women who was sitting in the gathering. I asked her “what do you do?” Just as she started to tell me about her company, the co-host said “she is my wife. She is also my financier and banker.” He then went on to elaborate the story of his marriage with her, how he had been living on the edge and how she had accommodated and been with him all the years. I wasn’t sure how to read this turnaround. I let it be.
Later, when the other guests started stepping in, he continued to introduce his wife as his “financier and banker.” The host for the evening looked at me and asked why I was silent to this introduction. I said, “well, I have set a trend.” I wasn’t happy with the tone of my responses because I felt the responses were stemming from reaction, defense and anger. Having been through the Vipassana school of meditation, I have come to realize the value and importance of responses that are free of reactions.
Through the evening, I forced myself to sit in the balcony. Gradually, the host’s and co-host’s wives went to the living room and the balcony was occupied by men. I was the only woman sitting there. The wives of other men joined the women in the living room. I tried to put myself in an optimistic, positive mood and genuinely talk to some of the ‘entrepreneurs’ and engage in their conversations. I found I could do it most of the times but my heart was definitely not in the right place. At dinner, I felt the need for my own space and did not want to force myself into making conversation with men just to be part of the group.
Years ago, I rarely went for dinners and gatherings with my parents’ friends from our religious community because the separation of genders affected me very strongly. By the age of 19, I was part of an organizational culture where our leader was a woman and she had imparted to us a culture where men and women were equal. Since then, I could not tolerate discrimination or any separation of genders on the basis of intelligence quotient, power and roles. I have picked fights with my father, father-in-law, ex-boyfriends and male friends on issues of a woman’s entitlements and marginalization of women in households, professions and society.
In recent times, I admit I hate to go for entrepreneur gatherings, startup founder meetings and other such events because I find these spaces to be very “male”, like boys’ clubs. The figure of an ‘entrepreneur’ is typically a ‘man’ and in Bangalore, largely ‘male, engineer’.
In the past, I have felt uncomfortable about my position as a non-engineer, newbie to the jargons of the technology world, ‘woman’ and unknown to the world of SAS and media business. I perceived my role in the company as someone who has simply been managing the company and ensuring smooth running, and that this is a no-brainer activity. This perception of my position in such a simplistic fashion has made me feel very vulnerable and marginalised in tech and startup spaces. My silence reinforced my position of marginality. In turn, I was marginalised because I was not speaking up. Clearly, I was doing disservice to myself.
In the past few months, I have started pulling myself up and asking why I have been behaving like a victim in this space of a gendered startup and tech world, and why am I doubtful of my own position in this space and the company I run with my husband. I realize I have caved into one of the biggest pressures and glamours of the startup world – the glamour and sexiness of being an engineer, and the assumption that engineers can help to achieve scale in businesses. I am not an engineer and the pressure of not being one has been getting to me. And this pressure gets to me even more when people don’t recognize that in some of the technology conferences, I have played a part in framing the content and agenda of the events. Neither have I spoken up to those who have failed to recognize this role.
I also have to question my relationship with the technology community since this is the primary community our company works with. For Kiran, his relationship with technology communities has been organic by virtue of him being a developer, open-source programmer and a person who is passionate about the freedoms and logics associated with open source software. He has also spent many years of his life thinking about interactions in the community and interfaces that facilitate more interactions. I have no such ties or history. Further, I have found that members of these communities respect practising programmers. I am not one. And I am also not sure if I feel a sense of belongingness to these communities despite my active interest in developing ideas for hacknights and curiosity to participate and learn by organizing more technology conferences.
This blog post is not a rant. It is an attempt to question some of my deepest angers and resentments against the tech and startup world and to separate my emotions so that I can understand the situation more objectively and why it is so. Why is it so much easier for my spouse and co-founder to be part of these communities – is it simply because he is male, engineer, ‘product oriented’ and visible in social media and networks? What causes invisibility for me? Is it because of my non-sexy role in the company, not being an engineer and practising programmer? Is it because I am a ‘woman’? And if being a woman is what works against me in the tech and startup world, then what it about being a woman that is uncomfortable and unacceptable in tech and startup worlds?
I am emotionally and intellectually invested in these questions because the subject of ‘entrepreneurship’ is very, very close to my heart for 34 years now. My father was an entrepreneur, a true risk-taker, and growing up with him made me a risk taking woman. I have taken risks in love, in career, in finances and I have been amply rewarded for each of these risks – sometimes with tangible outcomes, sometimes with life’s most insightful lessons, and on one occasion, with the man I married four and a half years ago.