Posted on December 21 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is the fantastic Anjali Ramachandran. Anjali has a wealth of experience working in different sectors from media and non-profits to innovation and startups.
Anjali is also the co-founder of Ada's List which is a community for women in digital and tech and is editor of Other Valleys, her blog covering global innovation stories (outside of Silicon Valley). Here's her story:
Danielle Newnham: What were you like growing up and who/what were your inspirations?
Anjali Ramachandran: I grew up mainly in India and Saudi Arabia, both countries where, at the time I was growing up, there weren't a lot of female role models to look up to in the news - other than celebrities. It's very different now - there are women who are learning to drive in Saudi Arabia despite the public backlash, and multiple successful businesswomen and scientists in India.
But my inspirations when I was growing up were mainly those close to home - my parents, and one or two teachers during high school. I was always a good student, quite the goody-goody actually (and therefore not necessarily the most popular girl in school!). University was a big change as I went to a bigger city, and had the chance to participate in multiple college competitions in various fields: music, dance, debate, quizzing, theatre - I gave almost everything a go. University is also where, despite doing a degree in sociology, my interest in technology started. I did a few extra-curricular modules in tech, but still didn't think I'd ever make a career in anything related to it. It was always the domain of engineering students.
Newnham: Can you tell us about your career to date and what you are up to now?
Ramachandran: I have had a really wide-ranging career - and that's not an exaggeration! I started in international development, moved to the corporate world with Nike in Asia, then to the digital world with a product innovation studio in London, followed by a media agency here in London as well. In that time, Facebook and Twitter took hold of the world (this was way before Twitter's troubles began), and technology became a really viable career; digital advertising, to be more specific, as well.
But things change so quickly: working at a media agency, I realised how media owners, brands and agencies were all grappling with how best to deal with the challenges posed by tech - from ad blocking to programmatic advertising and social media. Every single week would bring a few more startups working to disrupt a specific space, and the challenge for me would be how to communicate their offerings in a way that made sense to clients - who weren't used to working to a long timeframe and therefore didn't always find their products the most obvious or useful.
I'm now a freelance consultant and working on a pretty exciting project with Storythings, focussed on bringing stories from researchers and people working on the ground to the digital domain. It suits me perfectly and the team is great!
Newnham: Having worked in both agencies and startups, you have a great mix of work experience in the innovation sphere. Can you tell us what innovations you are looking forward to seeing in the coming year?
Ramachandran: One area I think almost any large technology company worth its salt is investing in is Artificial Intelligence and the automation of services. In retail, Amazon Go's pilot cashier-free store in Seattle could be the start of something interesting, and in the automotive industry, I'm looking forward to seeing how self-driving cars continue to proliferate. Regulation and ethical considerations in this space are still in their early stages though, so that's a mountain to climb. Energy-wise, I'm looking forward to the expansion of solar energy, especially in emerging economies where fossil fuel sources are a huge drain on health and the economy. Unsurprisingly, energy firms are setting up venture funds to invest in this space heavily. I write a newsletter focused on the emerging markets called the Other Valleys; one of the topics that repeatedly comes up in my research and writing there is how digital payments are changing markets globally.
Newnham: Can you tell us about Ada’s List; what led to you starting it and can you tell us about its current crowdfunding campaign?
Ramachandran: A favourite subject of mine, thanks for asking! Four of us started Ada's List three years ago to create a community of women who would have each other's backs, acting as a source of support and information as women moved up in their careers, and building a pipeline of technology jobs so we could get more of us in this otherwise male-dominated industry. The over-arching aim was to increase diversity and inclusion, words which most companies only pay lip-service to even now, going by the number of women on boards and in leadership positions.
Ada's List has grown from a couple of hundred UK-based members to a strong global network of nearly 2500 (and growing), with members based as far as Australia and California. In these three years, we've done a fair bit. Our members repeatedly tell us how we are making a difference to them: some would not have started their technology businesses but for the support and advice the community provided, some have successfully changed policies in their companies to make them more female-friendly (and dare we say, better for everyone as a whole), many have found the courage to launch freelance careers, and lots have found jobs they love or recruited talented women in tech themselves.
All this we've managed to achieve because of the commitment of a team of volunteers who are incredibly passionate and hardworking; we wouldn't be where we are without them. But if we want to do more - and we do, as much as the community tells us they'd like us to - then we need financial support. Being a democratic community, we believe crowdfunding will help us to pull together people from various domains who support us: not just members, but corporates, non-members and the many men who encourage us from afar. So to anyone reading this: if you believe in increasing diversity and inclusion in technology, or your company believes in it, then please contribute to our campaign and spread the word! It will make a big difference to our work and you'll be making a positive dent in the world. It's also the season of giving, after all!
Newnham; What are some of the bigger obstacles you find your members facing and how do you help them overcome them?
Ramachandran: There definitely are some frequently-mentioned issues by our members, which include the difficulty of getting women to apply for jobs in male-dominated companies and how to negotiate asking for more money to achieve pay parity or just fair pay levels.
Members who run startups themselves have asked about guidelines for creating the best parental leave policies. Others, who either organise or help to organise conferences and events, often ask about how to frame calls for proposals or invitations to speak at events such that women are likely to take these opportunities up, because as we know, most technology events are dominated by male speakers. This is changing thankfully - the more aware and conscientious conference organisers are starting to introduce things like codes of conduct for attendees and the simple logic that more diverse speaker line-ups make for more interesting events, the more the organisers want to try harder themselves. It isn't uncommon for female conference organisers to look for speakers from within Ada's List, and for men to contact us to ask us to spread the word about their search for more diverse speakers.
Ada's List helps members by enabling members who have experienced these situations to share their wisdom with the community, but where possible either our members or the Ada's List team ourselves try and collate the best suggestions on topics like these into a document for everyone to reference later. We'd like to do more of this and release it to a wider audience - part of the funds that we hope to collect during our crowdfunding campaign will hopefully go towards projects like this.
Newnham: What plans do you have for Ada’s List in 2017 and how would you like to see the digital/tech landscape changing to improve diversity? And why is that so important?
Ramachandran: 2017 will definitely be a big year for Ada's List. We hope to hit our crowdfunding target, which should give us the momentum and resource we need to build out specific offerings, like working with corporates in a more concerted manner, and running workshops with and for our community to answer many of the queries they have about best practices in diversity.
As far as the digital/tech community goes, there is a lot to do. I'd like more companies to not only commit but also take active steps to inducting women and people of colour onto their boards. Right now, the UK doesn't even meet the European average of 25% of women on boards. From a tech industry perspective, less than 5% of leadership positions are held by women.
I'd also like to see hiring practices change. More and more tech companies like Facebook, Pinterest, Amazon and Microsoft are implementing a version of the Rooney Rule in their hiring practices, i.e ensuring there is at least one woman or under-represented minority is in the interview shortlist - and I'd like to see all companies do that. I was on a panel this year where a senior department head in data at Deutsche Bank said she routinely pushes back when her internal recruiters come to her with a pile of CVs that don't even have one female's CV in them. Ultimately leaders need to take responsibility, like she does - and it is also the job of recruiters to expand their networks if they aren't doing it already. Looking to the same network of white men isn't going to get them very far, no matter what their excuses are.
The easiest way to explain why increasing the diversity of a team is important is that it simply makes business sense. There's enough research now to prove that diverse teams are more successful. It's also important because diverse teams help build more inclusive products, which the world needs more of, and because we are losing out on a whole lot of smarts if women and people of colour are left out of these conversations.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give a younger Anjali?
Ramachandran: To my younger self, I would say - believe in yourself. Be less self-conscious and don't worry about what others will say. I was way too concerned about the opinions of others when I was younger, and only much later in life realised that the best person to help me is me - meaning, if I didn't do what I think I should for fear of others, the only person who would be negatively impacted is me. And much like investing in startups, the potential upside is very high. I'd tell my younger self that yes, mistakes would be made, but that's OK because that's how I'd learn and become better. I'd ask her to make more of a habit of saying 'yes'. Having the privilege and ability to say 'no' would come much later in life.