I’m Ashwini Ashokan, Founder of Mad Street Den, and this is how I Lead from Within
Ashwini Ashokan left Silicon Valley after ten years working on how cutting edge technology can be useful to people to come back to India and start an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company with her husband. She is a woman co-founder of an AI company, Mad Street Den, and doesn’t write a single line of code. She wears this story on her sleeve to tell everyone to back-off with their stereotypes.
My journey is very unconventional in the sense I graduated out of a CBSE high school in Chennai and then did my undergrad in visual communication. I was mainly a dancer for the first 23 years of my life; I travelled, sang, and danced all over the country. That’s what I was doing. And so it seemed like I should get into the creative space more than anything else. My dad was pretty adamant that I not do any of the usual B Com or Science subjects. So I did my undergrad in art visual communication. At the end of it, I realized there wasn’t really much of an opportunity here for me in India. I could have become a visual designer in an advertising agency, but that was really all I could have done. I did that for a few months after I got my bachelors, but I wasn’t interested in it.
Meanwhile, I was in the creative space and I was very deeply into my dancing. My then boyfriend of three years, who I later married, had just left for the U.S. to do his PhD. And at that point, nobody had a clue about what I was going to do next. My family is full of scientists, doctors, and professors, and so people were really confused about me. My dad was nagging me about going and doing my Masters; he was the one that did a lot of the research and found courses for me. I just applied across the board and pretty much got rejected from all journalism and design schools. Everybody said “you’re 20-21, too young for this field, you need experience.” Finally, interestingly, the only university that opened up was Carnegie Melon. Of course I was like, “Oh, I’ll take that!” It was really amazing.
It was the happiest time for me. It was also the first time I was living away from home. I started seeing design and technology, design and social sciences, design and robotics, none of which I’d seen growing up here in India. That was fabulous for me. But, at the end of that, I was back in that same space of “okay, what am I going to do now?” All of my friends were going to companies like Facebook and Google, or to design agencies. I wanted to do a lot of human centric research instead. I wanted to dabble in multiple fields, not just be an User Interface (UI) designer.
That’s when Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist by background and a pioneer in human centric technology, contacted me. She found my portfolio online, and we talked. Intel was putting together a fabulous group of designers, human factor engineers, social scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and all kinds of people. It was fascinating for me because they were not working in isolation; rather, they were working at the intersection of their fields. That’s what was distinctive. So I took that job, even though it wasn’t the highest paying offer. My parents were really disappointed, you know. I had huge loans to pay back and had just gotten married by the end of my graduation. This job put me in one corner of the U.S. in Portland, and my husband was still in Houston. It was kind of crazy, we had a long distance relationship for like five years by then. And then we were married and still living apart. It was hard, but I think professionally that was probably the best thing I could have done for myself. I joined at the time when they were starting up a lot of businesses, so I was essentially working in many small startups. I was helping them start businesses in entirely new technologies, ground up. This meant understanding the eco system, understanding the market, understanding the technology, and understanding the kind of the human experiences we wanted to enable, everything from top to bottom. I got ten years of dabbling in all of these across the board.
I was surrounded by some of the most amazing women in the industry when I was at Intel. Lama Nachman, who was the sensor and sensing expert; she pretty much built some of the core sensing strategies and technologies for Intel. She was the one who worked on Stephen Hawking’s chair. We were all part of the same team. It’s people like her and Genevieve to whom I owe my place today. I saw what’s possible, what’s doable. They gave me the strength to jump in and do the startup. I think I kind of dragged my husband out of academia into starting up with me. It was one of those things, he was getting annoyed about a lot of stuff going on in his life, and so I saw a perfect storm.
Because I had spent so much of my professional life at intersections of various disciplines, who better than me to jump in and say “hey, let’s start bringing these seemingly varied fields together!” The startup, Mad Street Den, was what happened. My husband and I decided we were going to startup one day, and ten days later after about 12-15 years in the U.S., we literally left our house, left our car behind, picked up our daughter and moved back to India.
On Artificial Intelligence
AI is something I’ve been working in and picking up skills in for the last ten years. At this point, AI is so challenging. It is everything and nothing to the whole world. Everybody thinks everything is AI, and everybody thinks nothing is AI. It is the ultimate product in my mind. It is going to change technology as we know it, people as we know them. One of the reasons I love living this and breathing this is because it pushes me. AI pushes me in ways that I could never have imagined, because there are so many ways you can draw; there’s no right or wrong. I think AI is a very emotional subject for me, which is ironic. It sums up all things human in what you could end up doing. You could create exciting products or security products; you could build it out of fear. You could create happy, pleasure, full robots or scary war robots. There are so many ways you could go with these stories.
I think this will be a nice, long journey. AI will change the way I think about everything around me, as a parent, as an adult, as somebody in the society, as somebody who is a part of different geographies and cultures; it could change everything. I’m barely peeling the onion on this one, and every time I peel a layer, the shape changes. It’s going to be that way for a while.
I come from a Tamil-Brahmin South Indian family. Growing up, I was in some ways the ultimate Tamil-Brahmin daughter. You know I sang, I wore sarees and Indian clothes all the time. I was the quintessential persona. But, for me, even that journey was filled with complete opposites. I was bold, I was a rebel, I got what I wanted and did what I wanted – within the constraints of my family. My dad was bold and my mom is unbelievably bold; these two people have never stuck to the norm, they’ve always done things completely out of the dark and encouraged me. So on one end, my dad would be like “my God, you can’t wake up and get out of a bed without a bindi on your forehead!” And then on the other hand, he’d be like “why haven’t you visited Africa and done field-work yet?” I mean, complete opposites. That really helped me find myself in a way, because I was constantly fighting with myself. There were two parts of me, the one that wanted to break out and be something absolutely different and the one that wanted to conform. I think that’s very gender specific. There are a lot of struggles that make you go two ways, but I think it was entirely about gender for me.
My professional journey has been affected by my gender as well. Though, I don’t think any of the people that I worked with thought about it through the gender lens. But now, when I look back at everything that went by I think ‘wow, nobody actually called out that everything that happened was a commentary on gender.’ Nobody sat and told me anything. Nobody sat down and explained anything to me. It was just play; it was the constant crack that ran across all my life, and I didn’t even know it until I walked away.
Once I moved back to India and I got the time and space to think about the ten years I spent in Silicon Valley, I thought ‘oh, my God, what an idiot. This is really what this has been about all along.’ The struggle is to move beyond this; I mean, the struggle is not to conform to anything, or to fight the fact that gender exists. It’s something to acknowledge that, acknowledge the reality, and kind of break out of gender roles. I think everybody has their own version of reality when it comes to gender and people should just be more understanding. You can’t deny the fact that things are not equal; it’s a constant struggle. So I’m very, very loud about that topic.
On Owning Failure
For me, I don’t think I ever thought about what I did as success or failure. When I think back, when I really think about it, that’s not really what I was about ever. And I don’t think I ever phrased it in my head as failure at all.
I was never given any opportunity, I always asked for an opportunity. I’d always run after an opportunity. One of my strengths was to look at different pieces of things that happened and put them together, find the connections between stuff. That’s where I’ve thrived, putting things together; things that might seemingly be completely different to other people, but I was able to see the connections and jump right in and make something out of it. My entire life at Intel was me going to my bosses and saying, “Hey, I know this is not what I’ve been hired to do, but here’s an opportunity I see and it involves putting these things together. I’m not doing all these other things, but I want to go do them because if I had to put them all together I’ve got to really understand them. This is the money I want, this is the budget I want, these are the number of people I want,” and I would paint the vision. I was able to go and make a pitch for every piece of vision I had, and get the money and the people and the resources to go build what I wanted.
Part of it is managing people, communicating your vision and making it their vision. Making others believe in the vision, making them a part of the journey, and making them successful. How do you make someone else successful, and how do you convey that to someone else? You’ve got to convey it to the right people- customers or internal stakeholders- it’s about their interests too, not just yours. It’s about the things that are possible for all of us.
In my early 20s, it was very easy to go up to someone and say “hey, I want a million dollars, can you give me a million dollars? This is the project I want to do.” I don’t think I could still go out with a straight face with that kind of stuff anymore, but I did that and I got it. So, I don’t see it really in terms of failure or success. I see it as a set of things you want to achieve, and there are a lot of small goals along the way. There’s this big vision you have, and you’re constantly learning new things as you pursue your vision. For me, my journey at Intel was about learning as many new things as I could.
One of my super powers is thinking big and bold. Something might cross my mind, that maybe others would think is idiotic, but that doesn’t even occur to me. If I have a vision that I think is good and I have the data to support, you just can’t stop me.
I tell people there’s a very thin line between being really brave and being really foolish. My answer to the question of which side of the line I fall on is largely dependent on what’s going on with me that day.