We hear a lot of complaints about sexism and chauvinism in 21st-century Silicon Valley. I want to share some stories from India in the mid-20th century. It may sound prehistoric, but it wasn’t that long ago.
I was born into an old family in Calcutta, India. We were a traditional extended family with about 25 family members and another 25 servants living in one family home. My father is the youngest of six siblings — three brothers and three sisters. His father, my grandfather, was a good man, a noble patriarch, well-meaning, trying to do the right thing.
The right thing, however, in his worldview, did not include treating his sons and daughters equally.
My father’s youngest sister, my aunt Dipti, however, had her own ideas. She became a nuclear physicist, completed her PhD, and went on to England to do her post-doc at Oxford in the early 1960s. Eventually, she became a professor at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta. My aunt, I am immensely proud to say, was a pioneer in her generation, when her peers were mostly being married off in their late teens or early twenties.
My grandfather was a savvy real estate investor. He had inherited a strong portfolio, and grew it manifolds. In his will, he left all his assets to his three sons. His three daughters did not inherit anything.
If this strikes you as unjust, it was. However, it was also how society operated at the time. My grandfather did things in tune with society’s norms.
But he was a good man. In fact, in his own way, he too was a pioneer. He nurtured and supported his daughter’s ambitions. He was even a feminist, to stand by her and let her pursue her dreams against society’s norms.
But when it came to property rights, he was NOT a pioneer. He was NOT a feminist.
My father grew up as part of this family, observing life around him. He had only one child — a daughter. Me.
From the very beginning, he reinforced in me a simple belief that I could be anything, do anything that I wanted to. In fact, he had expectations that I would at least try to do world-changing things with my talents. Whether I succeed or not, that I would attempt important things was assumed.
I left India at 18 to come to Smith College in the United States. I went on to MIT to do my graduate work in Computer Science. I started my first company while still a grad student at 24. I became a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, eventually founding One Million by One Million (1M/1M), the first and only global virtual accelerator in the world, my fourth company. This venture is my attempt to experiment with an alternative to the fortune at the tip of the pyramid capitalism that is currently in vogue. 1M/1M aims to democratize capitalism and unlockfortune in the middle of the pyramid. It is my vision for restructuring capitalism.
My father supported me every step of the way. The scale of my thinking, my vision, thrilled him.
My father IS a pioneer.
My father IS a feminist.
And that has made all the difference.
Our family still has difficulty with feminism. Many of our men, even in my generation, harbor chauvinistic values.
Long time ago, one of my female cousins had said to me, “The difference between you and me is that you have a feminist father, while I have a chauvinist father.” Her poignant words ring so very true, as I look around, even today, even here in 21st-century Silicon Valley.
A lot gets decided about your life, your choices, your future by what you experience as a child. If a father instills feelings of limitations, of barriers, of ceilings to what a girl can do, that will always remain as a nagging voice expressing self-doubt.
Many of my friends who have experienced chauvinist fathers have gone out to prove to themselves and their fathers what they can achieve. They have achieved way more than what they were told they could achieve. But they have had to expend huge energy to overcome the self-doubt that was deeply ingrained in them from the beginning.
I was immensely fortunate not to have to worry about any of that. My self-esteem is rock solid. My confidence is profound, fundamental, core.
And that is a gift from my feminist father.
Note: iPhone photo of the author and her father at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.