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How we got to 50% women at my startup

‘There are not enough women in tech.’ ‘Startups are not conducive to a family life.’ Ashwini, Co-founder of an AI and Computer Vision startup, proves the opposite and explains in which way they went about hiring women – without moving mountains.


Stop making excuses!

‘I organize hackathons, and trust me, women don’t show up.’

‘It’s easier to find women for positions with ‘soft’ skills.’

‘Most women out there prefer stable, safe jobs. Startups are not very conducive to a family life or stability.’

‘I don’t want to compromise quality for the sake of diversity or perceived equality.’

‘There are not enough women in tech.’

The list of excuses people offer for lack of representation of women on their teams ranging from the worst to the downright abominable could go on. One can hear pretty much the same arguments for representation of women at tech events, panels. I thought I’d lay out the simple ways in which we went about hiring women into Mad Street Den, my AI and Computer Vision startup.

Given the nature of company we run, it’s essential that a majority of the folks we hire code, code well, code absolutely fucking amazingly well. The rest are best-in-class fashion curators, product managers, designers, content marketing and support folks. Our employees need to be problem solvers, people who understand that at the core we’re a tech startup and whose main goal is to make AI and Computer Vision, human. Our business thrives on pushing the boundaries of tech, while taming it simultaneously. We have five broad categories of people in our company. Here’s the % of women in them – Computer Vision/ AI as core skills (20% women), Data Science & ML (>50% women), Product Design and Development (55%), sales, marketing & business development skills (50%) and finally, those that run operations. We’re a total of 30+ people today. With that bit of background, I’ll jump into the areas we focused on to get to these numbers.

The founding team

The WSJ, NYT, First round capital have published more than two dozen articles this year alone on the higher rate of success of startups with a woman in the founding team. But you’ve probably already read many of them. Aside from the core tech contribution of being a CXO, (which I assume here is a given), it sends a message, sets the tone of the company culture, and creates an opportunity for women to know you’re not a bunch of stereotypical bros. It’s important to show potential hires that the founders have zero tolerance for discrimination, are gender sensitive and acknowledge that employees can have a life outside startup involving children, families and more. Role models are everything. A woman on the founding team sets the cycle of role models, mentorship and sponsorship. And the cycle feeds far beyond what you can see, creating waves through an entire industry. Again, there are several well respected reports out there that highlight higher financial returns on ventures headed by teams with women in them. If one were to give an incomplete argument just for expediency, hiring more women is not charity, it is math and it is business.

In the case of Mad Street Den, this was me. I took the time to discuss gender with every single one of our hires, whether they cared about it or not. I spoke about culture, diversity, respect and highest importance given to multi-disciplinary collaboration/ teams, no cliques, a Design critique driven culture and much more. I am conscious that one of the roles I play is to hack the gender code, every single minute of my day. It’s been fascinating to watch the team evolve from vaguely awkward interactions to a place filled with endless discussions, arguments, fun and more fun. Mixed groups are now the norm, whether at lunch, a chai walk, a cigarette, at happy hour or during active brainstorming by the aisle. And suddenly, just like that – it doesn’t seem like a conscious effort anymore, just the natural state of the startup, it’s culture – and it absorbs every newbie that walks in the door. I am conscious though, that it is even more important for me to keep an eye on this and actively enable this culture as we scale from 30 to more. Three to six employees was easy, six to 30 hard and 30+ will probably be harder.

Step 1

Ensure the founding team has a woman. The best way to set the cycle going, is to start at the top, on day 1.

The first employees

Once your founding team is set, if you’re just getting off the ground running your early stage startup, you’re going to take a while to find people who believe in your vision and want to come on board. You’re literally just trying to build something, anything… to get you off the ground and gender is the last thing on your mind, often. But the beginning matters. It sets the tone and the culture. With every other person you hire, it gets harder to change the course you’ve already set yourself on. So while it is difficult, more often than not, hacking this at the start seems like a good way to solve the problem, for good. Here’s what I did:

1. Having a diverse team from day 0 helped. It got the ball rolling.

At MSD, our Designer was one of our first hires. She and I were the first two women in a five person team and it certainly helped that and, my cofounder was as vested in this. We set the tone early on. With an operations person to follow right after, we were 3–3. And then there was no turning back. Assuming you’re working on something that’s appealing to a broad population and a venture folks can believe in, you’ll note how much of hiring seems like it’s about perception. How friendly is this startup, how nice are the people, can I trust you to not screw me over –  all played big roles in influencing the mindset of the first folks we hired. Setting the base philosophy, character of the organization, it’s founders and expectations for the first few was crucial in causing a snowball effect. Hard as it is in the early days to be diverse, making it work in any small way, mattered and influenced what came after. And the perception and promise of MSD mattered, especially when the women at certain points in our journey over the last two years were fewer than the guys, for those that were planning to get married, needed paternity leave and more.

2. Recruiting first employees to actively discuss importance of diversity, both publicly & within the office was crucial to growth. 

Again, this sets the cycle going. We’ve hired six of our 14 women through referrals, people within the office bringing others they know. Three of those six were referred by men, which in particular is an achievement I’m proud of. Both men and women in my organization get the importance of diversity, actively contribute to thinking and making it work. Not everyone has to take a stance or evangelize all the time, that’s certainly not what I mean here. But awareness, acknowledgement of a need to bridge the gap and a consistent effort to bridge it is a key to hitting the snowball effect.

Step 2

Initial perception matters a lot and sets the tone for hires in the future. Go the extra mile to hire a diverse initial team and you’ve solved a key part of the problem already.

Hiring practices

Some simple, straightforward tips. Nothing requiring you to do anything wildly out of the ordinary:

1. Social Media overdrive

LinkedIn: You’re probably reaching out to folks on LinkedIn. We reached out to as many women as men who had profiles that matched. We made a conscious effort to click on the women we saw in the results. I’ve noticed that a lot fewer women keep their profiles updated. If a profile looked even remotely promising, we took a chance, sent an inmail and saw if it worked. Actively advertising for jobs on LinkedIn itself created interest. One of our best data scientists is a girl who recently moved to Chennai from B’lore. She reached out on LinkedIn, which I’ve noticed a far fewer % of women do. She asked for a chance to come in and chat. I responded in three mins of receiving the msg, interviewed her in the evening and hired her in 10 mins on our drive to a team happy hour. She was that awesome!

Facebook: Our facebook page is where we say stories about our team. We post pics of our dogs, children, happy hour, karaoke nights, discuss importance of diversity… it serves as our way to give the world a peek into our lives everyday. We spend between eight and ten hours together everyday, sometimes more, how can it not be important to form memories, say those stories and grow the team in that spirit. We made two key hires because of Facebook referrals and job posts.
Word of mouth: I have my male founder counterparts always sending me referrals of women they know, resumes that come through the network. Not only have I recruited women that came recommended by them, I now have them actively asking me for recommendations of the awesome women who reach out to us for roles, whether or not we’re hiring. There’s the snowball effect I talked about earlier.

2. Having the talk

I discuss diversity with every new candidate. I tell them we have a dog, family, child friendly workplace. I make it a point to discuss gender and how important it is to keep the company free of the bro-code. I explain that sometimes many of us don’t intend to offend each other on basis of gender and we still do, unknowingly. I explain that the organization is very sensitive to gender based stereotyping and such. It’s been interesting to watch how people transition from interview/ new hire and eventually find their way into the company’s culture. This is also where the first few hires mattered. There was already an air of ease with men and women in the same space, working together. The points from ‘the hiring talk’ resonate with the candidates that join us, as they see it in practice from their day one. There’s an active mutual respect for each other and the cycle continues.

3. Conferences and events

The problem with representation of women in tech is systemic. You can’t solve the problem by just hiring women into your startups and never having them represent you. To keep the cycle mentioned above going, we try and solve the problem at different points in the system. We make a conscious effort to send the women in our startup to conferences and panels. It has further fed the hiring cycle, acknowledged expertise where it’s due, while filling the system with role models and much much more.

One thing that I have realized is that given the odds are against women in the workforce to begin with, the women that do show up in tech are already beating the odds, much better at ass kicking at tech. 

Step 3

Karma has a way of coming around and so does the cycle of referral. Put in place, a best practices for hiring at the center of your agenda, win off of the snowball effect.


This is a loaded term, one that I’ve used generously in this article. Culture to me, is the underlying set of gears that power my startup. It explains why MSD’s people work as well as they do, seem motivated to go far beyond their goals, feel empowered to challenge each other. The endless laughter riot that our place is – reflects everyday to me, the principles on which it was built. It reminds me that the folks in there can totally have fun, make silly jokes, still respect each other’s boundaries, get slammed for it sometimes, learn, move on and continue to indulge in a healthy fun, respectful and hyper productive cycle. Building gender into culture was essential for this, just like building any other value or philosophy. It’s not a one time thing done at hiring or while posting pictures. It’s a way of life at work where gender gets woven intricately into everyday practices to the point where it eventually disappears because it’s now the norm. It’s about paternity leave, domestic work, stereotypes, watercooler conversations… it’s complex. And yet, if there’s one lesson I’ve learnt, it’s that if you build the practices into the very base and first steps of your startup, it becomes habit. It gets built into the workings of a group of people, in an almost invisible way, like it’s the norm – nothing to see here.

This article was first published by Ashwini Asokan on Medium. We’re happy to share it with you here with her kind permission.

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