Navigating a “gendered” world – starting a startup with a spouse – Part I

The first post I wrote last Sunday received a good number of responses. I am not going to dwell too much on the responses and the post itself. I have changed the way I am now approaching the subject of “gender” in this post. I have put “gendered” in double quotes because the first post and the responses got me thinking me whether some behaviours and attitudes I experience in the tech and startup world actually have a gendered angle or not. I hope that this series of my personal reflections and what I observe will help arrive at a fair conclusion. 

Before I begin with the second post, I want to acknowledge that some of the people I have worked / interacted with during my journey at HasGeek have been remarkably insightful and sensitive. Many are practising programmers with some great reputation in the community. Some of them are individuals with an active interest in technology and communities and have been ardent supporters of HasGeek. I have sincerely had the good fortune of working with them, learning the intricate mazes of technology, industry, economy and community. Thanks to all of you!

Figuring out the starting point of the second blog post was very tough. I spent the last six days wondering where to begin. As some of you may have perceived by now, the issues I confront are highly intricate (not necessarily uniquely) because they combine both the personal and the work elements of founding a company with my spouse. Further, as I mentioned in the last blog post, Kiran is a highly visible and respected person in the tech and startup communities. This further makes it tough to determine whether certain behaviours and attitudes are the result of gender biases, or whether they stem from issues of visibility-invisibility, voice and lack of voice, and uneven trajectories.

I thought I will start by reflecting on my very journey in HasGeek – how we started the company together, how I got involved and what I do here. This will give me clarity on issues and the world out there.

Kiran and I have been married for a little over four and a half years. Before our marriage, we had known and been together for two and a half years. We had a unique meeting. Quite honestly, for a very, very long time, I did not know who I was dating and was married to. My choice to be with him was based on his remarkable and clumsy sensitivity, my desire to make a difference to someone else’s life, and many other nice aspects of him that I started to care and appreciate. I knew that he was a fairly known and respected person – from academic circles, from his BarCamp Bangalore days, from his associations with circuits connected and unconnected with my worlds.

Quite immediately after our marriage, Kiran decided to take a sabbatical because of the burn out from his previous employment stint and desire to explore something different in life. His decision was a shocker for me since that was the year I was beginning my PhD fieldwork and was hoping that I’d have emotional and financial support. PhD students are perennially faced with the angst and worry about lack of money and finances. Writing about a PhD student’s insecurities is a full treatise altogether. For now, see this post to get a good perspective: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/

The first two years after our marriage were particularly tough. I was trying to get a hold on my PhD and support myself financially and build on my financial capital while also dealing with various crises in my family. Kiran was busy figuring out his ideas for starting up in life. Initially, I dismissed all his ideas and insisted that he should take up a job. Each time I insisted that he take up a job, I felt very guilty and unfair that while I was living life on my own terms, I was subjecting him to do what I wanted him to do. I spent many nights staying awake and questioning my values and hypocrisy until such time in September 2010, in Coorg, when I found myself saying to Kiran that he has to jump into the waters he wants to because if he does not, he and I won’t know whether he will swim or drown. I felt a great sense of relief at having reconciled that Kiran had every reason and right to pursue his dreams. Come to think of it, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

While it is easy to say that a person has the right to pursue his/her dreams, it is difficult in practice. When I read this blog post this morning – http://www.feld.com/wp/archives/2013/08/startup-couples-when-is-it-time-to-ask-for-help.html – I could resonate with everything that the wife felt in this case. However, during those initial years, I had to keep reminding myself that Kiran and I were friends first and spouses afterwards. And that good friends always stand by each other. Therefore supporting him was a standard I set for myself. I am not a paragon of virtues and despite the high standards, I kept struggling with my inner insecurities and desires. 

In Dec 2010, we incorporated the company. Kiran chose me as a partner for reasons he knows best. I decided to join the partnership because I wanted to start my own research firm and not be dependent on academia’s wretched and miserable hierarchies and poisons. I always wanted the freedom to function as an independent individual. So here was a fairly good opportunity to start a business together where I could run an independent unit within the company and do what I wanted to.  

The struggle with a startup husband and a PhD wife (or vice-versa) is that one rides on high energy whereas the other has variable energy levels and extreme mood swings. In 2011, while I was trying to concentrate, build on my dissertation arguments, deal with isolation and the conflicting desires and disdain for social company, I could feel every moment of high energy that Kiran was going through as he was building the foundations of HasGeek through coding, organizing events, networking, learning, growing, etc. Our worlds were quite apart at that time because we were each trying to achieve something we really wanted. Our time together in that year was a fortnight’s vacation in Ladakh, which I will admit was terrible because I could feel the constant stress and pressure (positive and negative) he was going through in trying to organize an event remotely. Even then, I had no clue what business my husband was into. All I knew was that he was happy while I was trying to build a career and reputation as a researcher.

After our return, we were fairly immersed in our worlds. I tried to support Kiran whenever he needed assistance with an event – whether it was finding a venue or fixing a caterer or help on the actual day of the event. It was a nice break from the routines of writing (and the anxiety and sleepless nights I was experiencing then because of the intensity of my dissertation writing). Being with some members of the tech community was also a welcome break and experience after all the isolation I was constantly immersed in.

By early October, I had started to experience the extreme stress that Kiran was going through in trying to put together two back-to-back events, including one of an international scale. I was trying very hard to set boundaries for myself because I did not want to be affected by his emotional states and disrupt my focus. At some point, I felt the effort to separate our lives was becoming too much. I still remember that night when I went over to the coffee shop after a meeting at Jaaga and realized that just the act of sitting together with him while he was working and offering unconditional love, support and care was critical for him to tide over his tough times. I was the tea-making person for him in the ensuing month when he stayed up at nights trying to build a website or reply to innumerable and piled up emails. Those were very satisfying moments!

My dad was a businessman in the late 1970s. When he married my mother, he was struggling with his finances and was under the constant pressure to be successful and support a young family. I remember all those times when my mother went all out to support him. I have a lot of appreciation for those early days of my parents’ marriage because they set an example for me. I felt I could do the same for my husband, or more importantly, for my closest friend. I also have memories of those early days of growing up when my father was not around. My mother was the only person we could go to for all the world’s problems and she held the fort at home while also building a financial future for us with my father’s limited savings. She has been the fortress that I took inspiration from early in life. Later, I was scared of her when I realized that in the years when my father was not around, she had grown resentful of all the sacrifices she had made. She had a fairly turbulent 40’s. During my teenage years, I was determined not to have a marriage like my parents’. More importantly, I did not want to ever become like my mother who made sacrifices all her life. I grew fiercely independent and yet vulnerable from deep inside.

Coming back to Oct-Nov 2011, I was the fortress for Kiran. I decided to put my writing and studies on a short break and support him in every way I could. That was the start of my active role in the company. I became ‘the organizer’ – getting people together to run an event, collaborating with sponsors and vendors, working out deals, etc. Droidcon 2011 was an interesting spiritual experience because it reinforced the power of collaboration. I was forced to think about my PhD world which reinforced isolation and independent work. It was quite a period of surprises.

Back then, I did not foresee myself as playing an active role in the company. I kept telling myself, “I am only helping my husband”. Seemed sufficient to rationalize this way at that time. Not any more!

[to be continued]

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About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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2 Responses to Navigating a “gendered” world – starting a startup with a spouse – Part I

  1. Monika says:

    I know you don’t need your husband’s approval or support in asserting your stance but this sounds like a painful struggle also because it lacks ‘his’ voice. I am just curious (because I read the other posts too), what is his position on all of this? I am a woman in tech but not a programmer and I really appreciate the effort my male colleagues or my partner put in to show that we are a team and how outdated we think gender stereotyping is. Humor and sarcasm are the tools we use to get our point across, as a team.

  2. Pingback: Navigating a “gendered” world: starting a startup with a spouse – Part II | A Writer Runs

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