It's 2019, And Roshni Mahtani Still Has To Teach VCs To Respect Female Founders
The woman behind The Female Founders Network and The Asian Parent talks feminism, #MeToo and building a media empire
If Roshni Mahtani had her way, the non-profit research and advocacy organisation she founded wouldn’t exist. The Female Founders Network, which she launched in 2012, tackles the gender gap in technology—but she hopes that when her young daughter is grown, there will no longer be a need for such groups.
Big tech is facing increasing pressure to even out the gender pay-gap and address workplace issues like sexual harassment and a lack of representation by women. Less than a third of the workforce at Google, Microsoft and Apple are female. And even at companies such as Netflix, where nearly half of all employees are female, women only occupy 30 percent of actual tech jobs.
The increasing reliance on computer algorithms in areas such as artificial intelligence has also led to concerns that the tech industry’s dominantly white and male work forces are building biases into the technology underlying those systems. And even when it's humans in charge, women are being forgotten: we all remember the Apple watch that tracked everything you could possibly wish for… except menstrual cycles.
Statistics show it is still men who are shaping the industry that will affect all our futures—in 2018, the number of male authors in the sum of computer science papers was about 475,000—compared with 175,000 women.
“When I set up the Female Founders Network, it was very clear to me that the tech scene was taking off,” says Mahtani. “We were focusing on girls in tech or women who code, but nobody was talking about how tech businesses get funding. The answer is through venture capitalists, but if investment firms are filled with men, the bias will continue. I realised how essential it was to create a club of female founders who could help each other out so we could get women to the very top of the industry.”
As well as creating networking events and business evenings where women get together and mentor one another, and sometimes even fund each other’s businesses, Mahtani has also taken it upon herself to teach male tech employees and VCs how to behave around women. In her courses, she shows them what to say, and more specifically, what not to say.
“I worked with all these VCs on how to respect female founders, during #MeToo,” says Mahtani. “But instead of talking about the cases that got into the media, we came up with a toolkit to educate men in powerful positions on how you work with women. Some of it sounds quite simple, like don’t hit on them if they’re pitching to you, don’t comment on their bodies or their looks – because if you do, you’ll be the only one enjoying it. But it was important. Initially all these guys humoured us, but they soon realised they had such an unconscious bias, not just in terms of gender but also race and religion.” And this unconscious bias has very real implications—funding for female founders was 2.2 percent of all VC dollars in 2018.
Mahtani thinks this work is particularly important in Asia, where gender equality largely lags behind the West. This is why it’s difficult for women, particularly in Southeast Asia, to follow a specific kind of Western feminism that doesn’t always speak to their situation.
“In the West, women have been in the workforce for a lot longer,” says Mahtani. “For us it’s a relatively new phenomenon—my generation of cousins were the first women to ever work, our mothers never worked, our grandmothers certainly never worked. So couple that heritage with tech and social networks and we’re growing up in a completely different way to any of the women who have come before us. As a result, in my family, I have much more in common with the men than the women: men talk about money and business and women are expected to talk about housekeeping issues.”
In an effort to speak out to this new generation of women in Southeast Asia—who are grappling with motherhood, careers and a new type of marriage—Mahtani launched a publishing house. Her media company Tickled Media owns female-focused platforms The Asian Parent, Asian Money Guide, Her Style Asia and Nonilo, which together reach women in 11 Asian countries.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I realise how many people I reach,” she says. “The figure is now about 30 million, with eight out of 10 new mums in the region citing it as the go-to guide for raising kids. I think what I did differently to everyone else was look at cultural practices in Southeast Asia—a part of the world that is steeped in cultural traditions—and combine them with modern science in a non-judgemental, non-patronising way. It was delicate balance but starting the company before I became a mother helped a lot, as it allowed me to look at the results without any preconceptions.”
Mahtani now has a three-year old daughter, and like all parents, she hopes her child will be free to pursue whatever career makes her happy—whether it is in a role that has traditionally been for men or women.
“The tides are changing,” she says. “When I look around me, I see a lot of women who are sole founders, running big soon-to-be unicorns. It has only started happening in the last two to three years, so I can’t even imagine what it will be like when my daughter is grown up. I’m excited for her future.”