For this installment of my Women’s Empowerment Series, I had the honor of interviewing millennial superstar Nitasha Syed, Founder of Unboxd! Throughout her career, Syed was appalled by people always telling her she didn’t fit in the STEM space. So, she decided her mission was to help young women see role models in the STEM field so that they would pursue STEM careers. Her company, Unboxd, is a media startup that is the “Vogue for STEM”.
Your career is so fascinating and inspiring. Tell us about your career trajectory?
I was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada and went to school for Computer Science. I started my career as an analyst on the FIFA14 Game for the PS3 platform. It was one of the largest teams that I worked for and an amazing experience! I then moved into the Smart City/Smart building space where I was programming building management controllers and helping commercial buildings become more eco-friendly. Internally, I moved from engineering to product marketing and it was the first time I was exposed to the story telling aspect of a product. There isn’t much thought given to marketing within an engineering department and it was eye opening to see that regardless of how optimized or scalable my product is, it won’t sell if it can’t build a connection with the customer.
Even though I’ve been in technology through my whole career, I am still in awe how one small product change or line of code can have an impact on millions of users around the world.
How did you get started in the industry? What got you interested in the industry?
My interest in technology started from a young age. My father was a computer scientist and I remember being fascinated by his computer and trying to pick it apart to understand how it worked. He was a database programmer which meant that I learned to program in SQL at a very young age. I was never the biggest fan of math but when I started learning to code, for me, it felt more like learning another language which was a nice surprise. It was almost like I was learning to speak in English in another way and I thought that was pretty cool and it pushed me to pursue technology in college.
As I started working, I realized that Computer Science essentially taught me how to break down big problems into smaller pieces and solve them in an interactive, scalable manner and I could take that knowledge and apply it to any industry or role. When I started in tech, I thought I would only have a small subset of career options; as I progressed, I realized that CS had given me the building blocks to really do whatever I wanted.
You empower women with Unboxd! Tell us about it!
Unboxd is a media tech startup in the gendertech space. We believe that gender equality is essential within the tech workforce in order to create products that are representative. Getting to gender parity is not an easy task however because stereotypes of what an engineer or scientist ‘looks like’ are ingrained in kids from a young age. Representation is incredibly powerful and when young girls start thinking about what they want be when they grow up, they don’t see someone that looks like them in science or technology.
This lack of representation signals to them that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in these roles and that is not okay.
We use our platform to showcase diverse women in STEM and the amazing work they are doing so we can create a world where girls and young women feel confident and supported to pursue STEM careers and are equally represented and respected in the workforce.
What amazing projects can we expect to see next?
We have really cool partnerships lined up with organizations like Women in Product and Wonder Women tech and we’ll be bringing exclusive content of their members and events. In addition, we’re partnering with a lot of tech companies in Silicon Valley this year to showcase the amazing women behind the products you use everyday. If we’re going to create a more diverse tech workforce, we need to showcase people in that workforce so girls can actually see themselves in those roles.
How do you create work-life balance?
You don’t balance work and personal life. You are having to make sacrifices in both areas and you need to find balance in those sacrifices.
Can you share some tips on how to cultivate it in our own lives?
I think we need to start having open and honest conversations with ourselves and our partners about how sacrifices are a reality of startup life and you’re going to need to ask for help if you want to get through it. You can’t do it all by yourself. There is nothing wrong with turning your phone off to get some quality time with your family or getting someone to watch the kids for a conference you just can’t miss. I made a conscious decision early on in my life that I wasn’t going to be the perfect anything and made peace with that. I was going to be okay with asking for help, sharing chores with my partner and delegating tasks that I just don’t have the time to do. I don’t have any pressure of living up to the not-so-realistic image of what a perfect wife, founder or mother needs to be like and I actually enjoy my life and am happy (and healthy) with my imperfect self.
What advice would you offer to those interested in getting in the industry?
Do it. I think a lot of hesitation within girls who are thinking about getting a tech degree or young women who want to pursue a tech career come from within themselves. So many of the young women I speak to always say tech seems like something only ‘smart people’ can do and they think that they ‘aren’t smart enough’ and I think that is ridiculous. Most of the time, these mental barriers are built due to what young girls have seen in media or what a successful scientist or engineer can look like. This goes back to the point I made earlier about why representation is so important. To all the young girls out there who are interested in science or technology, the only thing that is stopping you from being successful in the field, is you! Don’t box yourself in by looking at the narratives that media has put in front of you. You can be at the top of your dance class or the top player on your basketball team and a successful heart surgeon. You can spend your days building mobile apps and your evenings on stage as a comedian or a broadway actress. Don’t let society tell you what you can and cannot do.
What would you tell your younger self?
Don’t let other people write your narrative for you. Being a women of color, people will make judgements about you but that’s their problem and not yours. I had a teacher tell me once that I won’t be able to succeed in math because I liked listening to pop music. In college, I was told multiple times I didn’t ‘look’ like a CS student and I should switch my major to arts. One of my first (male) mentors told me that I need to throw my ambition out the window because being a South Asian woman meant that my purpose was ultimately to get married and have children and I wouldn’t have any time to devote to a career anyway (I quote ‘what’s with all these ideas Nitasha? Girls like you start getting family pressure about marriage and kids at your age. You’re going to put all this hard work into building a career for a few years and then throw it all away to change diapers eventually. Take my advice and go easy on your ambition and you won’t be disappointed’). At every single point in my life I’ve had people try and tell me who I was and what my purpose in life should be. As I got older, I realized that those opinions didn’t have to hold any value in my life unless I wanted them to.