Zainab says the challenge for women in tech is to overcome the intimidation, to constantly second guess themselves when it comes to knowledge.
Zainab Bawa/Facebook

Women in Tech is a special series of stories of women who have pushed boundaries to make it big in the Indian tech space, which is still largely a male domain. In this series, we ask them what it’s like to be a woman in Indian tech, the challenges they face and lessons they can share from their journey with aspiring women technologists.

Zainab Bawa, co-founder and CEO of HasGeek, believes that the phrase ‘women in tech’ needs to be re-thought because you don’t necessarily have to be a programmer or a developer to be a part of the tech community.

She is a standing testimony to that. Running a startup that conducts some of India’s best technology conferences, Zainab has no formal education or previous experience in programming, which is often seen as the basics of being a ‘technologist’.

Zainab comes from a background of politics, sociology and economics.

“I’m not a programmer and I’m not apologetic about it because I don’t think you have to be a programmer in order to understand how technology functions or how to work with technologists,” she adds.

Coming from a non-tech background to organising hundreds of technology conferences across the country, Zainab Bawa has become part of the Indian technology/developer community with ease.

In a space largely dominated by men today, Zainab runs a company that curates some of the best technology conferences, bringing together domain experts and enthusiasts from across the world to discuss and share new ideas and happenings in the developer and technology space.

Beginnings and hiccups

Zainab co-founded HasGeek with her husband Kiran Jonnalagadda back in 2010. HasGeek has to its fame six flagship tech conferences that feature handpicked speakers from across the globe. And the entire process is run by Zainab.

Zainab with her husband Kiran and daughter Amal

She admits, however, that it wasn’t easy or simple in the beginning.

“I started with a feeling that I don’t know anything to a point now where I definitely understand the language and how people think. I’ve grown from being an outsider and being intimidated, to someone who is very capable of confidently holding a conversation. Because I don’t necessarily need to know the intricacies, but I do understand how the architecture functions,” she says.

And if her no tech background was a challenge, being a woman only added to it.

She recollects several incidents where her authority wasn’t recognised because she was a woman.

“One major challenge comes from the people who handle say HR or management when they interact with women. In my case, nobody would even realise that I was the CEO of the company. They’ll say, ‘Oh, she’s part of this company called HasGeek’,” she says.

What’s worse, Zainab adds, is that earlier when Kiran and she would go for meetings, people would think she was his secretary. That was back in 2010-2012.

“Once someone from Delhi called me to negotiate a sponsorship… he asked who’s the ATN (Authority to Negotiate) and when I said you’re talking to that person, he was shocked,” she recalls laughing.

And that’s when Zainab and Kiran decided that they wouldn’t do meetings together and that Zainab would hold meetings on her own. They have made a conscious decision that she speaks most of the time so that it lets people recognise where the authority is.

But these challenges did not deter Zainab from running and growing the company over the years. The startup now also runs HasJob, which helps people find technology-related jobs.

While she initially started off with only providing logistics support to HasGeek’s conferences, today she runs the entire show, from finding sponsors, to having a say in the editorial panel.

In an interview with FactorDaily, her husband Kiran admitted that Zainab knows how to run an actual business and it is in Zainab’s hands that HasGeek went from being a gathering of technology enthusiasts to a real business-like organisation. It is also Zainab’s active role in the growth and transformation of the company that sets HasGeek apart from other tech events in the country.

Being a woman in tech

Zainab believes that having a woman visibly in charge brings more women to the forefront and makes them more vocal.

Zainab says that the challenge for women in this space is to overcome the intimidation, especially given that women constantly crosscheck and doublecheck when it comes to knowledge, unlike men who will talk about tech openly whether or not they are actually knowledgeable.

Because largely, it is still a man’s world out there.

This is mainly because, Zainab says, a programmer is always referred to as a ‘he’ and never a ‘she’. So the language and imagination is always that of a ‘he’.

But Zainab says the trend is changing. And it’s not just because there are more women attending such events.

“Footfall in conferences isn’t necessarily the best measure – saying if I had 5 women or 10 women, then things are getting better. A good measure is how visible were the women in proportion to men. Were they able to ask questions, were they participating, were they appreciated,” she adds.

What’s encouraging is that over time, not specifically in HasGeek’s conferences but worldwide, there are more women who are into machine learning.

“If you look at the recent trends in the tech development world, there is now a far more active push towards having more women as speakers and having conferences where women are much more visible. We have watched a few trends; for example, if there is a woman moderating a panel, there is a higher chance of women in the audience asking questions,” she says.

Over the years, Zainab has constantly pushed limits and gone beyond boundaries to make her mark in the tech world. She believes that is what is required for women to be more visible in the technology realm.

Women are often expected to focus more on managing their homes than their careers.

Zainab says, “Whether it’s women in tech or elsewhere, it is indeed very hard as a woman to have a child and manage your career. That’s primarily because the role of a mother, more than being biological, is extremely cultural where you’re expected to do a bunch of things.”

Zainab, for example, never lets her career come in the way of being a mother to her daughter Amal.

“I made a conscious decision to take my kid wherever I go and that’s mainly for two reasons. One is because I want to spend time with my kid. The other reason is because I really want to change people’s perception that just because as a woman I’m carrying my child with me, doesn’t mean I’m a homemaker. I am doing my job,” she says.

There have been instances where Zainab has taken Amal to meetings where she wouldn’t hesitate to feed her in the middle of the meeting and not care what people thought.

“These are things women really have to do if they want to change the perceptions in the world out there. You have to keep pushing boundaries and keep pushing limits. You can’t just be comfortable doing what is comfortable,” she adds.