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She is a woman in tech who left Silicon Valley to come to India and start an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company with her husband. Co-founder of MAD Street Den, Ashwini Ashokan is reinventing how we see AI and its uses. Moving from the realm of creepiness, they are helping people realizer the small benefits AI can bring into our lives. Not an impending electronic apocalypse, but just utilising its ability to read human emotions in our favour (something humans generally do).
Marking International Women’s Day, we celebrate Ashwini and her efforts in giving us a startup that is not only fun to use but also has incredibly awesome features like pattern recognition and machine learning. It has made people believe that AI can be silly and entertaining and not just serious. No doubt she is empowering women all over. A mother of two and her startup being her third child, Ashwini is multitasking like a pro. Mrs. Incredible in real life, we interviewed Ashwini about her life in the startup world and got some interesting answers (with a lot of smileys). Here’s what she has to say.
On being a woman entrepreneur
You see the barriers you break through every day. You see that you're going places where most have not. You know you're a first mover and that nothing is set. Every day is a fight and it can be exhausting but the challenge, and the fact that the world is not SET for you but you make your own rules to set it the way you want, is the best part of being a woman entrepreneur. There is much joy in breaking clichés, stereotypes and I've particularly enjoyed the sound and sight of victory as I've heard all that breaking around me.
On the changes she's experienced since the launch of MAD Street Den
I'm focused all the time. I can't turn off. It's turned into the poison that keeps me going on one hand and on the other, the same reason I know I'm ageing faster than I ever have in my life before this. I've become lonelier, while simultaneously learning how to handle different kinds of people from different segments of life. I've learnt not to take NO for an answer. I've also learnt to say NO more often.
I think the biggest lesson I've learned since I started Mad Street Den - is that everything has two sides. And you're confronted with both sides of everything through this journey and the context is everything. You pick based on the context and don't get too stuck to your choices, without understanding why it's important to give up what you thought was absolutely right.
My mentors Genevieve Bell and Lama Nachman - two amazing women at Intel – who, I think, did much more entrepreneurial things sitting inside Intel than most people I know building startups. I've had some strong women by my side through this journey and they're definitely two of them.
The other two people are my mom and dad. At 60, my dad decided to go to China one day, attend a trade fair on Chemicals and Perfumery, find a large Chinese company and he became their consultant and eventually their country manager. He had his own bio fuels factory in the village briefly at 63 .. This man... He's unbelievable. My mom - had one of the most famous boutiques in Chennai in the 90s, sourcing clothes from the strangest of villages and cities in Tamil Nadu and I wish she still had it. She was the queen of customer success and business development. Even though she had it for just a few years, I can't begin telling you how entrepreneurial she's been in her life, in general, given the circumstances she grew up in and the tough life she's faced. Entrepreneurship is not so much about starting up - it's about building a set of qualities that make you build and run an empire successfully.
When she is not working...
I have 2 young kids - that pretty much sums up my life right now - my startup, my two kids and my ageing parents. I dream of getting back to dancing and singing someday, which was my life till I was 23. But not today!
Another women entrepreneur, another big idea
MapMyGenome - Anu Acharya stands out there in a field no one's getting close to yet in India and very few have globally. Artificial Intelligence is kind of like that and it makes me scared sometimes. But it helps to know there are other women out there doing things on the edges, even if in different fields. Kind of like a connected sister hood of sorts.
Startup India; Stand up India - for women
I don't know... I'll have to wait this one out and see what comes out of it. I think the fact that they gave this attention is good but no amount of attention can fix the basic misogyny this country faces. But I'm hopeful ... I'd like to wait and see.