Breaking the Gender Barrier: Vinita Gupta on Creating More Women Technology Entrepreneurs

Technology is one realm where women could break gender barriers and flourish as entrepreneurs, says Vinita Gupta, a prominent Indian-American businesswoman in California’s Silicon Valley. She 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: As an investor, would you also consider a woman with pregnancy as one with a higher risk?

Gupta: I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I say I don’t see that as an obstacle. I do see that as an obstacle, but I recognize people who can overcome that obstacle. Of the three companies I invested in earlier, one was run by a woman entrepreneur. She was pregnant at the time I was a seed funder for her company. We did okay — not too well — but that was because the company was in the education space and the whole education industry faced problems at the time. She is, however, very tenacious, and she later sold her company.

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? After all, the United States, especially the Silicon Valley, offers a deeper and well-developed network of venture capital firms and access to angel investors.

Gupta: You are right. 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 thesocio-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. Why do I feel they are in a stronger position? 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.

India Knowledge@Wharton: A similar drive must have helped you to become a successful businesswoman. Could you tell us about your career?

Gupta: I was born in India, did my bachelor’s in engineering in 1973 at the University of Roorkee (now the Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee). I then came to the U.S. for my post-graduate master’s education, to UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles). I worked five years with GTE in its telecom group and eight years at Nortel (then called Bell Northern Research). I started Digital Link Corp. in 1985, where I was the CEO for about 20 years. I took the company public in 1994, re-privatized it in 1999 and continued until 2005, when I decided to retire, although I was its largest shareholder and continued as chairman. It needed more investment, there wasn’t a good enough team in place to take it to the next level, the customer base was dwindling and we thought that closing it would be the best outcome. Eighteen months ago, we did an orderly shutdown of the company and sold a small piece to another company so that our customers were not affected. I would say I had a very good run with Digital Link.

India Knowledge@Wharton: What is your role as a board member at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation?

Gupta: I have been on the board of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation for more than 10 years. It is a $2 billion organization that is part of the Sutter Health System, the premier health care provider in Silicon Valley or the entire region. It takes up about 30% of my bandwidth; for the past two years ending 2010 I served as the chair of the foundation’s community board of trustees. The roots of that role go back to having a business sense; every industry is somewhat different but at a business level the issues are very common, such as dealing with competitive pressures. For example, right now the health care industry is in turmoil. Costs are too high. Technology companies face similar issues in a much more compressed time frame. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation has benefited a lot in getting board members who are not from the health care industry but from the fast-moving technology industry.

India Knowledge@Wharton: With the rise of India as an economic power, there will be a higher focus on both technology and entrepreneurs. If the next economic boom will be technology-led, how do you get more women to participate?

Gupta: Progress has to be made and will be made because the world demands that. When we educate our children and they strive to get into the best schools and colleges, it makes absolutely no sense from the standpoint of society, for a family unit, or for a nation if half their population is marginalized and is not participating at the highest level.

Change has come, but it is not sufficient. We are somehow too slow to change our habits. I feel passionately about this. The way we raise our girls is different from the way we raise our boys. And it is different not because we want it to be different. It’s different because we are victims of our habits. Internally we know the boy has to launch himself in the world, he has to be able to make a living and so on. We have a different way in helping this boy grow up within the four walls of the home. But we don’t give a girl much freedom in thinking.

Every time a woman has to work full time or launch herself as an entrepreneur, she has to home-craft a solution to take care of her family at home. As a family unit we have to come up with solutions. There has to be a more systematic approach, there have to be resources that are available and affordable. Society needs to evolve in that way — and it will. This is true for both the U.S. and India.

India Knowledge@Wharton: If the technology space is gender-neutral, it should afford women a greater chance to become entrepreneurs than any other industry. Do you agree?

Gupta: I totally agree. Technology should be a great leveler. It usually doesn’t require physical work and it gives a woman entrepreneur a lot of flexibility. Technology is a great place to be and women should dream of that. They should know there is nothing that should hold them back. But it is not gender-neutral, although it can be.

What many women don’t realize is how much fun it can be, and how the skill sets they learn in their engineering education come into life in all aspects. They gain enormous critical and analytical skill sets that make them better human beings in all respects. It is a lot of fun, especially solving a problem if you are an engineer. The day you come up with an elite solution to a problem or you innovate something, you are in seventh heaven. Nobody can give you recognition as much as you can give yourself. It is a tremendous high. When you take your company public, it gives you a tremendous high because you have broken a barrier. I’ve always said that for entrepreneurs, the highs are very high and the lows are very low. If you have the personality and the aptitude to handle the highs and the lows, then technology is the place to be.

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