What Indian American Women Want in the Board Room — Representation

Access is harder for women. 92% of investors are men, 98% of investments go to men; those at the top are all men.

South Asians
6 min read

Neha Sampat vividly remembers the exhilarating moment when investment dollars reached her company’s account. The CEO of Contentstack, Neha was at a winery in Mexico with her sales team when she got the call.

“It felt like a big victory, so positive, surrounded by the team that helped us get there.” 
Neha Sampat, CEO of Contentstack

Certainly a special moment that every founder who has ever raised venture funds remembers forever, as it comes after a lot of building, grit and resilience. And in Indian American Neha’s case, constantly going against the grain.

“USD 31.5m is one of the largest rounds in the enterprise SAAS space, raised by a woman.” 
Access is harder for women. 92% of investors are men, 98% of  investments go to men; those at the top are all men.
Neha Sampat, CEO of Contentstack in San Francisco
Photo Courtesy: Neha Sampat

Sampat’s achievements are not very typical:

“Men are 63 percent more likely to raise funds than women, everything else remaining the same. You enter the field knowing that you have to be 3X better. We are held to a higher standard than our male counterparts. This is why we aren’t seeing more women in these roles.”
Neha Sampat

Women make up only 20 percent of directors of public companies in the US, but comprise over half the population, and make up over 70 percent of purchasing decisions.

Along with top executive positions, the board room has remained elusive for women, even in California’s Silicon Valley. The road to a board goes through the C-suite — Founders, CEOs and top operational leaders sit on boards, which is where all significant decisions are made. European boardrooms are far more gender diverse as compared to the US. To make the field more equitable and change the typical image of an American corporate board room — a group of affluent, middle-aged, white men — California became the first state in the US to legislate the requirement for female board members in public companies headquartered in the state.

With six-figure penalties for non-compliance, the SB-826 law has had the planned effect, with more than 90 percent of publicly traded companies based in the state now in consent.

‘Like Finding a Unicorn’: Few Women in Tech

The glorious Indian tech success story in America’s Silicon Valley has mostly centered around men with engineering backgrounds. Corporate boards have accommodated a few successful Indian and Chinese men, yet there is little representation of South Asian American women. But the ‘diversity conversation’ has reached American dinner tables, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement. Companies are trying to navigate what society — particularly the marginalised — wants from them.

Access is harder for women. 92% of investors are men, 98% of  investments go to men; those at the top are all men.
Raji Arasu, CTO, Autodesk
Photo Courtesy: Raji Arasu

Boards are racing against deadlines, opening up to not only women candidates, but also to women of colour. Indian American women leaders have significantly been in demand. The CTO of Autodesk, Raji Arasu is a technology executive with over 25 years of experience. She serves on the board of directors for NIC Inc and MediaAlpha Inc. She has seen a surge in outreach of late:

“Investors want to find those with experience in tech and operational backgrounds. There are few women in tech. Coloured women in tech who make it to the executive roles is a very small number. When you want all of these criteria from among a small set of people, it is like finding a unicorn. A few that exist in visible roles get a lot of outreach. Definitely a flood gate has opened up. I can say that I have received requests, on an average probably once a week, in the past year or so.”
Raji Arasu, Chief Technical Officer, Autodesk

What Women Need in the Race to the Top: ‘Confidence & Access’

CEO and President of Gap, America’s largest apparel retailer, Indian American Sonya Syngal appointed a sixth female to Gap’s Board of Directors on 5 March 2021, raising women’s representation in the company to nearly 50 percent. Of all trail blazers, Sonia admires the founder of Gap the most:

“Doris Fisher defied convention when she co-founded our company in 1969 with her husband Don. Back then, you didn’t see many women seated at the conference table, let alone running companies.”
Access is harder for women. 92% of investors are men, 98% of  investments go to men; those at the top are all men.
Sonia Syngal, CEO of Gap Inc
Photo Courtesy: Gap Inc

With more women getting on board, some organisations have found a niche to facilitate the climb. Athena Alliance is a community of corporate women that empowers members to overcome barriers in their rise to the top. They network with companies to provide access to influential women leaders for board seats, etc. Athena’s Founder & CEO, Coco Brown is seeing the rise of a conscientious capitalist:

“For every board opportunity we discuss, diversity comes up. More powerful people have entered the conversation. Historically women were respected for their roles in marketing and HR; now they are playing significant roles in the C-suite. Women don’t need anything different in terms of mentoring; they need the same stuff as men executives, except access and confidence. Access is harder for women. 92 percent of all investors are men, 98 percent of all investments go to men — the funders and founders at the top are all men. The thing men don’t need is access, as they have dominated the ecosystem for years.”

What Happens When There Are More Women in a Board Room?

Athena’s Board Support Manager, Samantha Lorenzo adds: “Our point of focus in our coaching is for women to own their power. Have the posture and the confidence.”

Minds and board rooms are opening to unique perspectives that women leaders bring. Vinita Gupta is the first Indian American woman to take her company public in the US. Founder and chairperson of Digital Link Corporation (now Quick Eagle Networks), she serves on multiple boards, including ‘Palo Alto Medical Foundation’, one of the largest medical groups in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Vinita believes that the mandate will help show how women add value to the board room:

“With more women, the style of dynamics and conversation changes, making it more wholesome. Women’s observations are different because their experiences are different. In a medical service provider’s board meeting, other men were pleasantly surprised by my story of how I feel about the thought of aborting a baby if something with the baby was abnormal, if discovered by an amnio test. I experienced pregnancies in my 40s. Real experiences leave powerful impressions.”
Access is harder for women. 92% of investors are men, 98% of  investments go to men; those at the top are all men.
Vinita Gupta, Founder and Chairperson of Digital Link Corporation (Now Quick Eagles Network), Chairperson of PAMF
(Photo Courtesy: Vinita Gupta)

Towards a More Conscientious Corporate Culture: Gender Parity & Diversity

Consumers are becoming conscious of the brands they choose and employees are more aware now of what their companies represent. In a digital age where brands are created in communities and spaces outside the traditional marketing arenas, the corporate world is waking up to creating changes that have not happened organically. Nasdaq announced its diversity mandate in December 2020, that requires listed companies to have at least two diverse board members — a woman and a member of another marginalised group such as the LGBTQAI+.

In 2020, with a special focus on women, Goldman Sachs announced that it would not take a company public unless it had at least one board candidate from an underrepresented group.

California has inspired lawmakers in other states to introduce similar mandates, even as it has faced some recoil at home resulting in a few lawsuits. Some (mostly men) find the mandate ‘constraining, costly, and unfair’ — that they are being forced to make decisions based on ‘gender’ instead of ‘quality’.

But Indian American women corporate leaders all agreed that “the law is necessary to balance years of bias”.

The mandate has given them a chance at breaking the glass ceiling — by having a shot at ultimate corporate power — a board seat. With expertise across multiple boards, Raji Arasu urges women to expand their thinking.

“Women shy away from it as they are tired of balancing their lives. Board experience actually makes you more strategic in your operational roles, to see the other perspective. I urge women to say yes to it, invest in it, network for it.”

Diverse representation has become key for companies in America. As United States Inc makes powerful manoeuvres to create ‘united nations’ on their boards — to reflect the increasing diversity in its population — Indian American women are getting out of their comfort zones, armed with their CVs.

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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