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IWD 2020: Conversations with Women in STEM & Social Change

In honor of International Women’s Day, we spoke with a few of our MIT-India host companies who are paving the way for women in the fields of research, technology, sustainability, and social change – in India and beyond – about what inspires them, their roads to success, and advice for young women pursuing careers in STEM.

Kristin Kagetsu, co-founder at Saathi Pads (MIT Mechanical Engineering ‘12)

How did you transition from a background in mechanical engineering to co-founding a company like Saathi?

The transition from a mechanical engineering background to co-founding Saathi was pretty smooth, as in mechanical engineering we learned mostly about the aspects of product design and the process of product development and presentation of products. Along with that, in mechanical engineering, we have learned about system-thinking to create solutions for product development. At Saathi, we are developing a product which solves a very large and important problem of the world, and mechanical engineering has played an important role in co-founding Saathi.

What book are you currently reading?

Currently, my schedule is pretty packed and sadly I am not getting any time to read! But one of my favorite books is “Cradle to Cradle” by Michael Braungart and William McDonough.

What advice would you have for young women interested in pursuing a career in sustainable product design?

My advice is to pick and choose the product you want to design. Think through and understand if this product is a need or something which should be great to have, then approach the problem for its solution. While designing the solution, always think about the entire life cycle of the product, and don’t stop following your heart.

Saya Date, co-founder at Linecraft AI (MIT Computer Science & Mechanical Engineering ’16)

What led you to pursue a career in software engineering, and eventually start Linecraft AI?

I always loved building and creating things, so I was naturally drawn to Mechanical Engineering early in college. I particularly enjoyed the MIT product design and robotics courses. Up until this point I had no idea how to code, except in MATLAB – which my software-self now cringes at. I was intimidated by anything remotely to do with coding, for two main reasons: one, all computer science majors at MIT seemed to have coded since they were in diapers and two, the command line, which made the entire subject inaccessible.

As a burnt out junior I decided to study abroad in Budapest to explore an offbeat country. The program was for computer science students, but I went away. It was probably the low-pressure environment, and the “anything-goes-at-study-abroad” attitude, but I really enjoyed the subject. I loved the fact that I could iterate and build things so much faster in software. When I returned from study abroad, I added on Computer Science as another major.

Starting my career at Google, I learned the best engineering practices as well as dove deep into the practical aspects of implementing and scaling Machine Learning algorithms. During that time, the topic of “industrial internet” was emerging and people were recognizing the potential to apply AI in the manufacturing industry. My father runs a company that supplies robots and automation to the manufacturing industry. His domain expertise and connections to industry (and therefore hard-to-come-by data), with my background in Machine Learning, were a perfect fit. We collaborated on a few proofs of concepts and I eventually moved to India to start this business.

What book are you currently reading?

I am one of those people that starts several books at once and then takes my time to finish them (or not). Right now, since we will be raising a round of funding, I’m reading “Secrets of Sandhill Road”, about how VCs think and fund startups. I am also reading “Creative Confidence” and “My Brilliant Friend” (fiction).

What advice would you have for young women interested in pursuing a career that combines computer science, mechanical engineering, and technology?

1.       Most important skill: Learning to interpret, manipulate, and present data.

2.       Learn how to code, regardless of your major.

3.       The coolest thing about being in CS is that you can build anything with almost no resources.

4.       Technology is only useful if it solves a user problem; it is as important to understand your users and their problems, as much as technical problems.

5.       Finally, build responsibly and always think about the impact of what you create!

Dr. Shannon Olsson, PI at the NICE lab, National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS)

What led you to pursue a career in chemical ecology?

I have always been fascinated by nature. I grew up in northern New York State catching fireflies and climbing trees. I used to imagine that I could speak with the squirrels, rabbits, and turtles in my yard. In high school, I became interested in the molecular basis of our universe so I decided to major in chemistry. In my junior year at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, we were assigned an independent project. I had just read about the concept of pheromones in the animal kingdom so I chose to synthesize a pheromone mimic. The only mimic I could find to readily synthesize was for the American cockroach, which freaked me out quite a bit at the time. However, once I tested my synthesized molecule and saw that it could be used to communicate information to another living creature, I fell in love with the chemical language of nature. It is this remarkable field that in some small way helps me to live my childhood dream of “speaking” with our natural world.

What’s on your playlist?

I am currently listening to Halsey’s newest album “Manic”, unless my daughter, Grace, takes over my Spotify account with the Trolls World Tour Soundtrack.

What advice would you have for young women interested in pursuing a career in scientific research?

There are so many things I would have told my younger self that might have made things a bit easier for me. Perhaps the main thing I would have needed to hear is “Learn your place”. This is often used as an admonition to someone who thinks a bit too highly of themselves. But, I think it means to learn to respect your value. Several times during my career I was undervalued, and I grew to accept it as “my place”. Looking back now, I would have told myself that it’s ok to demand respect from others, and to stop interacting with those who will not give you respect. Realizing your own contributions to society can help you to see when they are not being recognized. Even more importantly, understanding your unique strengths can help you to seek out those who will help you develop them further. Everyone on this planet has value. We just need to recognize it in ourselves.

Anu Sachdev and Pallavi Jain, co-founders at The Change Designers

What led you to start your company, The Change Designers?

We are all changing the world every day. Sometimes a smile, a hug, or a story is all it takes. Our desire to amplify people’s voices, ripple the hidden wisdom and discover the outliers, motivated us to be The Change Designers and begin our journey from India, our home country, in 2016.

There were three big reasons why we started The Change Designers. First, working in big organizations, we both realized early on that to change the world, we’ve got to be with people. Second, for a long time, social development was governed by top-down principles of communication and we identified potential in bottom-up approaches that could drive sustainable change. Third, development systems were designed to create dependency on external resources and we wanted to empower communities to become their own “change designers”.

Essentially, for any change to happen, it needs to be designed in a step-wise process. Our organization proudly facilitates the process for developing communication solutions with communities for complex social problems.

For over three years now, we’ve carefully designed multiple “communication for social change” campaigns, research, and capacity-building initiatives on complex social issues of health, environment, livelihoods, and social justice. We’ve created impact in over seven states in India and across two countries in the world. So far we have managed to touch the lives of a little over 30 million people. As the days pass, this number is ticking higher, and so is our passion for transforming the world.

We are only looking forward and continue to carry the fire within our hearts with which we had pledged to be The Change Designers.

What book are you currently reading?

Pallavi: I’m currently reading “My Life on the Road” by the American activist Gloria Steinem. This awe-inspiring memoir is filled with anecdotes and Steinem’s humble life experiences from across the world that help shaped her as a woman, activist, storyteller, and most importantly, a change-maker. The book is a fantastic read as it reminds us of one of the most important ancient secrets that becomes Steinem’s motto for life: “Keep moving. And keep asking questions.”

Anu: I’m currently re-reading a book that Pallavi gifted me when we first met: “Things Fall Apart” by the Nigerian storyteller, Chinua Achebe. It’s a story based in pre-colonial southeast Nigeria. Achebe says, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This is a passage that has always allowed me to think beyond the stories I hear and tell. If each one of us has the power to tell a story, each perspective will wary. Also, this excerpt reminds me to always stay away from the danger of one-sided stories. An absolute must-read if you like to dive deep into the world of stories in far-off lands.

What advice would you have for young women interested in pursuing a career in social development and change?

An idea is never too big or too small to change the world. Today, we are global citizens impacting the future of the world. Carry within your minds the power to imagine what lies beyond you and humility within your hearts to stand on the same ground with those you are interacting with. The combination of the two will allow you to see the world as equals and create impact in a world that has no boundaries.

If you’re beginning or interested in pursuing a career in social development and change, here are a few things that may help: live with people, eat what they eat, be a part of their daily lives; then experiment with ideas. If you have wild ideas, do not be afraid to test them out; express your true self when committing yourself to a cause or place. Last, but always important: share your stories with everyone.