Finance and Investment
Breaking the Gender Barrier: Vinita Gupta on Creating More Women Technology EntrepreneursPublished: March 07, 2011
Vinita Gupta is best known as the first Indian-American woman to take a company public. Digital Link Corp., a telecommunications products company she founded in 1985 in Palo Alto, California, and ran as CEO, went public in 1994. She now sits on the boards of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, the Indian School of Business and Maitri, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that assists women victims of domestic violence. In an interview with India Knowledge@Wharton, Gupta identifies social, cultural and psychological obstacles in both the United States and India that prevent women from becoming entrepreneurs, and shares her insights on what holds women back and what must change to unleash their potential.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
India Knowledge@Wharton: You are a well-known Indian American woman technology entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and have funded other technology firms. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, you say lack of self-confidence, motherhood and parental discouragement hold back aspiring women technology entrepreneurs. Could you elaborate?
Vinita Gupta: When I consider why women don't pursue professional careers, especially in the field of technology, I look at the drivers that help them go and excel in professional fields. Also, who in the family is in the driving seat, and what internal family battles women have to overcome before they can even dream to be ambitious. It is also about expectations from a girl as she is growing up, especially from her mother. I then look at social, cultural and economic impediments; sometimes economic drivers become important and women have to work. There are also biological factors that come into play, like when a woman has a child. They come into play in different ways for a woman than they do for a man. There are also a lot of psychological aspects that influence what holds her back and what doesn't.
India Knowledge@Wharton: For aspiring women entrepreneurs, how does the setting in the United States compare with that in India?
Gupta: There is a difference between what I understand of India and my adopted country, which is the U.S. The U.S., as much as it is very advanced in some ways, is far more traditional in putting women in traditional roles. For example, there is a misconception in the U.S. that women are not as good in math and science. I don't think that perception exists in India.
Also, traditional expectations are that a woman would be a home-maker, in both countries. The school system in the U.S. requires parental participation, and if both parents are working, it becomes difficult. In the U.S., there is less social pressure on women to adhere to any particular way. But somebody needs to take primary responsibility for the children. And women become the primary responsibility-bearers.
India Knowledge@Wharton: How could a woman overcome or work around those barriers?
Gupta: If economic factors take over and a woman has to go to work, she leaves behind all these notions -- that she has to participate in her children's school education, and biological and psychological factors -- and she pushes forward. In some cases, a woman's career takes a life of its own and she becomes successful.
But women in India have the family support structure to raise their children in a safe setting. On the other hand, they could be held back culturally because of other expectations from the extended family. In the U.S., the woman is in charge. But she doesn't have the support structure of a family (as in India) and faces demands on herself. If her husband is in a traveling job or in a very demanding job, she may feel she could serve the family better by being a stay-at-home mom.
India Knowledge@Wharton: You have spoken about how pregnancy could hurt a woman entrepreneur's opportunities, especially in dealings with banks or venture capitalists (VCs). Does that hurt her chances of becoming successful as an entrepreneur?
Gupta: My anecdotal answer is no. But do the VCs perceive that as an issue? They absolutely do, and they have to perceive that as an issue. However, in the U.S., a VC will also come across divorced men who may have children from previous marriages and in some cases they become single fathers. I am throwing that in to point out that it is not as black-and-white as it might appear. I was on an entrepreneurship panel recently where I found myself sitting next to a gentleman who was the father of my younger daughter's friend, and he was divorced. It occurred to me that here I was, beating my chest saying I brought up two daughters, ran a successful company, took it public and all that stuff. And I know what he went through for a number of years. For a person running a company going through a divorce, it takes away a few years from his or her life.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Would Indian American women in the United States have a better chance of succeeding as technology entrepreneurs compared to their counterparts in India?
Gupta: The chances of women becoming technology entrepreneurs are higher in the U.S. than in India. Women in India are less of risk-takers than women in the U.S. The reasons for that are differences in the socio-cultural settings and in the education systems. The education system in the U.S. encourages higher risk-taking and innovative thinking. There are very many ways to excel in the U.S. education system; it is not just about memorizing and performing well in an exam. I hear that from entrepreneurs who have a major part of their business in India, but grew up and had their education here. They don't think many graduates from Indian technology institutions have that culture of innovation.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Are there other factors that set apart women of Indian origin in the United States?
Gupta: In some ways, women entrepreneurs of Indian origin are in a stronger position than others. They are exceptional women in terms of ambitions. For them to come to this country and even dream of becoming technology entrepreneurs, they must have a lot of ambition. When a venture capitalist talks to a man or a woman, that ambition pours out, no matter what language or what accent they have. They are the cream of Indian talent. I have met those women -- from India, China and other countries -- and they are truly exceptional. You can see they want to make a difference and want to be somebody, and they've made it happen for themselves.