Women Can Have It All

Meet Ashwini Asokan, co-founder of Mad Street Den, an artificial intelligence company that she started up with her husband. Breaker of stereotypes forever, Ashwini attributes the way her life has turned out to her inability to accept the norm.

“I get bored really easily. And that’s what sets me apart from my peers. I need to be challenged and enjoy what I’m doing. And that unwillingness to compromise on this is what has brought me where I am.”

As an engineer with a Masters from the reputed Carnegie Mellon university and an Intel job on graduation, it would’ve been super easy to just accept life as it panned out for her. Married to her childhood sweetheart who also is a neuroscientist with expertise in Artificial Intelligence, Ashwini admits that evenings at home were full of rich discussions about the technology and its transcendence to everyday things like fashion and retail. With a professional compatibility like that, it was only an eventuality that they would explore their combined future together.

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Starting up

“And one day, just like that, we decided to quit, pack our bags, come to India and start up.”

By then, they’d had their first child – a daughter who found it immensely difficult to adjust to the busy streets of Bangalore with the new uncharted territory and crowded life. As did they.

“2013 was probably the worst year for us. Everything was so hard to get used to. It was a sensorial overload for my daughter. As for us, my husband was trying to build the tech part of the company and I was being the Product Designer.”

Over her decade at Intel, Ashwini worked closely with the machine learning, image recognition and sensor teams and attributes a lot of her expertise to her team there and her mentors.

On being an entrepreneur

“I’d just had my second child when we started to look for our first round of funding. And I was totally vocal and shameless about my needs. I mean, midway through a meeting with a VC, I would pause and say that I had to use a nursing room to pump milk.”

And she got her breaks. No matter the reason.

“I took my breast pump everywhere. I’m not just an entrepreneur – I was a breastfeeding mother too. And somehow, I managed to breastfeed my son for a whole year – through the madness of funding, of starting up and establishing ourselves in our current venue, our hometown, Chennai.”

She says that the key to women getting what they want is asking – something one of her first women mentors in Intel taught her. And that women are responsible for their careers. Having a child or two needn’t sap out the career off of you, as society had made one believe.

Women in Technology

“Start-ups are predominantly a “male” space. There are snazzy cafés and trendy pool tables for their breaks as opposed to say, a nursing room or a day care centre. And that’s why at MSD’s new office space in Chennai that we’ve recently acquired, we have an in-house day care facility. Now if a new mom joins our team, she can be there for us and her child. It’s not what gets priority. It’s possible to give attention to both. They’re equally important.”

She admits that the path of the “career woman” isn’t easy. It’s difficult to be seen as just an entrepreneur without the “woman” prefix and that just screaming out “equality” against the men isn’t quite enough. Women have to work at evening out he playing field that has been unequal over multiple generations.

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The bottom line

“It’s a bit easier for me as my and my husband work for our own company. It’s sort of helped blur the line between work and home. My kids are constantly at the work place. We even have dogs around. We are over 40-strong now. And even with all this, I wouldn’t have done it without a support system at home. I hired all the help I needed and had them supervised by my parents and in-laws. All of this was possible because in our time in the US, we significantly saved up – for all of this.”

MSD has raised over 1.5 million dollars in it’s first round of funding. Soon there will be a second round. And that will incur more traveling and out of the house time. But she says that’s ok because the kids are a bit older, her husband supports her in every way possible and the company is now a more comprehensive, well-oiled machine.

“My husband is more of a feminist than me, even. And that works so much to my advantage. I don’t think I would’ve done it without him.”

Women should demand what they need. Be it nursing rooms, be it shifting meeting times to a more suitable slot, be it changing the concept of something that’s always been accepted without question. We shouldn’t have to bend over backwards just to fit in with the norms. Ashwini will not stop asking for what she wants. And she thinks the rest of the women should follow suit.  

Cofounder of a start-up. Mother of 2. Women can have it all.

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