In June 2018, Abhilisha Puwar moved back to New Delhi, determined to find a solution to the massive air pollution crisis affecting Indian cities. A little over a year later, she is now the CEO and founder of Blue Sky Analytics – a startup building Geospatial Data Platforms for Environmental Data. In the short span of time, her company has won several awards such as the MIT Solve, AI Innovations Challenge, and Copernicus Masters Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. Yarrow Global spoke to her about what it was like as a young female entrepreneur in the tech space in India – and what advice she would give women trying to break into this space.
This interview has been edited for clarity
Y: Tell me about how you first started Blue Sky Analytics?
A: I moved back to New Delhi from the USA, where I had done my Masters in Environmental Management at Yale , in June 2018. New Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, emergency hospital admissions for respiratory issues, especially for vulnerable groups, were rising, and I knew I had the skills to do something about it. I wanted to more than just contribute a little, I wanted to move the needle – like really move the needle. I wasn’t inspired by any of the other organizations working in the field. Plus, as a 28 year old female I was pretty sure that even if I got a job, I wasn’t going to have a say in these organizations dominated by 50 year old men.
The system for even monitoring air pollutants was old and inefficient, I decided I needed to create a different system and that Data had to be the backbone of a clean air economy. I had some savings, so I just lived off of $200 a month plus rent. I initially asked my brother to help. Even though I am an engineer and know how to code, there is still a gap in my knowledge. Part of the reason goes back to my undergraduate years, where I would be in classes with 35 girls and 700 boys. I would inevitably have to go to boys if I had a question and the way they would answer the questions, with undertones of flirting, or being patronizing because I was a girl really pushed me out of coding. Even though I got 99% all throughout high school in computers, I had so many bad experiences of feeling small or feeling dumb.
But my brother was good at explaining. He can break down problems and technological stuff and in exchange I taught him about economics and climate change, air pollution, inefficiencies around technology. So we both became founders.”
Y: What is it like being a woman in your specific field?
A: Being a woman in tech and in India? (laughs). I think everyone at the beginning of a startup faces problems, regardless of gender. I have the privilege of a having had a good education, and have had good friends that supported me financially , and my brother was a real collaborator. But being a woman, I faced extra problems. It’s a completely different domain. The thing that hurt the most was that there was no other woman. There are no other allies, partners, who you can sit and have a glass of wine with. The mentors and investors aren’t there at 10pm when you need other mentors or a friend. There are also no female “angel investors” – basically more older women with disposable income who can invest in younger women in startups. All of the angel investors I met were men. Some were really encouraging. But some – I’ve left meetings with investors in tears because they were so patronizing, or because of sexual advances, or aggressiveness.
“Anybody with money gets more respect, anybody with age gets more respect, and that is usually the men”
Y: What are some of the biggest barriers you see in your field?
There is a real brotherhood among male co founders so they’re constantly upping each other. We need more women in our fields to be able to have this.One of the problems you face as a woman is not knowing – are these problems the same that others face? Or is it extra cause I am a woman? There are no other women to compare with or exchange experiences with. I would like to see more girls. Anybody with money gets more respect, anybody with age gets more respect, and that is usually the men. That unfair allocation of respect is difficult. I was pushed out of tech by boys who talked to me in a patronizing manner when I was 20 and I still see this happening today. That’s sad, in a decade nothing has changed.
I want to build an organization that gives girls the opportunity to contribute. But tech giants swoop up the few girls there are at engineering schools and they pay better. By taking the few girls that have “made it” they create more hurdles for females in general in the future because as a female you aren’t encouraged to take risks or speak out or even believe in yourself, which is what you need if you want to become an entrepreneur. This means women aren’t becoming entrepreneurs, and they won’t be any time soon. But you need female entrepreneurs to have more female entrepreneurs, to take women into a higher income bracket and create a disposable income to support even more female entrepreneurs in the future. So it’s a cycle that just continues. Five years from today I will either be a millionaire or I will be broke. But I am just one. If there were twenty of us, we would have at least half of us as millionaires and we could invest in other women.
“You have to take that first leap. You have to be courageous, aspire big.”
Y: What advice do you have for women starting in this field?
A: Take risks. Women need to have big dreams – solving plastic pollution, planting 100,000 acres of forest, putting a rocket on mars. Whatever you want to do. If you only ever climb the small rocks, you’ll never have the stamina to climb the big ones. You have to take that first leap. You have to be courageous, aspire big. They call entrepreneurship this journey where you jump off a cliff and build a set of wings on the way down. Have courage in yourself and your abilities. Take risks. Have trust in the world.
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