Technology has been the domain of men, and it’s unfortunate that women haven’t had enough opportunities to prove their mettle in this arena — they’re still under-represented in the 21st century, despite efforts to establish some sort of parity.
It is against this overwhelming reality that stories of women like Manisha Biswas feel like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. If anything, a sign that slowly but surely the needle is moving in the right direction.
Hailing from Kolkata, Biswas is a 25-year-old software developer with a difference. She knows web development, built IoT solutions, and done some interesting work in the field of Artificial Intelligence application. She’s been recognized by NASSCOM, Intel and Google, among others, for her software development work, while also having authored three books. Quite a résumé.
Apart from her noteworthy coding and programming chops, something that continues to reward her with accolades and opportunities from big tech companies, Manisha Biswas looks at her technology exploration journey as one focused on empowerment.
“I founded the ‘Women in Technology Community’ in Kolkata in May 2017 to empower women to learn and explore new technologies,” Manisha says, as she recounts her journey. This was challenging initially as it was difficult to get women to participate in her technology workshops.
“I still remember the second meetup where we had five speakers and only two attendees,” says Manisha. “It was difficult to get a free venue to host the meetup, organize everything alone, starting from creating a Facebook meetup to getting enough people to come.”
But Manisha persevered, refusing to give up. Slowly, through word of mouth, her community grew. From the paltry two, she quickly surpassed the 200 women attendees mark. And after an initial solo push, Manisha realized that her Women In Technology Community morphed into an extended support network, becoming as much about helping others achieve their goals as you pursue your own.
Manisha Biswas with Women In Technology community members
“There were a lot of women facing the same problem to identify a platform to learn, explore and share their experiences,” Manisha remembers. “We collaborated and the senior professionals in the community became instructors, training other members. Some women members, who took a break from their work after having a family, loved to be a part of the meetups, even as speakers sharing their inspirational stories.”
Manisha wasn’t a tech-obsessed kid growing up in Kolkata. There were no dreams of becoming a tech tinkerer, no revelations of technological grandeur. She realized she’s good at programming and has a talent for it only during her undergraduate days, not too long ago.
“My involvement with technology started with developing my first project in C++ in university, where I developed an augmented reality Android app for an online hackathon during my undergraduate course which got me the first prize,” Manisha remembers fondly. She feels this was one of the major motivations for her to learn and explore more about technology, possibly even as a career option. “This app also marked my journey to eventually become an Intel Software Innovator when I was in the final year of my B-Tech degree,” she says.
Manisha in her classroom workshop
Manisha Biswas agrees that she wouldn’t have been a software engineer for a product company, and now a data scientist, if it weren’t for brands like Intel who supported her growth beyond just academia. “I got early access to Intel technologies, including IoT boards, and opportunities to speak at different conferences, organisations and colleges through the Intel Student Ambassador Program for AI,” says Manisha.
From what we know, the Intel Student Ambassador Program for AI gives select graduate and PhD-level students exclusive access to resources in the fields of data science, machine learning, and deep learning to assist their academic research in the space of artificial intelligence. Selected ambassadors like Manisha have to meet a strict standard of excellence for continued support — like publishing one AI project, two technical articles within a year, and speaking at tech events.
This is how she also came to realize her broader mission and started her ‘Women In Technology Community’ in Kolkata. She knew she had much to offer in up-skilling or re-skilling women that could open new career avenues for them.
With over 200 women community members, Manisha Biswas’ personal mission to train women with technology is gathering pace. She even has some interesting women empowerment stories to share, her source of immense pride and satisfaction thus far.
Rimjhim Bhadani is a final year student at Institute of Engineering and Management, Kolkata, and associated with Manisha’s tech community since early 2018. “I met Rimjhim for the first time at her college’s hackathon, where I was a mentor and judge,” Manisha recollects. Rimjhim was the only girl competing with eight groups with minimum four members each, but she didn’t get any members to participate.
“And today, Rimjhim is one of three Indian students selected by Anita Borg Institute as Grace Hopper Student Scholar For 2019 and is invited to attend Grace Hopper Celebration ’19, the largest technical conference for women in tech to take place in Orlando, Florida in the month of October,” says Manisha.
A web developer in Kolkata, Sumitra Bagchi has five years of experience in PhP development. But after her marriage, and due to family responsibilities, she took a break from work. “There are lot of women who tend to take break from their work after getting married,” according to Manisha. “This is also one of the reasons women start taking up roles which are less demanding and there are very few women who reach senior levels in an organization.”
Women’s Day celebration
But Sumitra was lucky to have her family’s support and decided to start working again as an independent developer. “She’s also starting taking part in a lot of online hackathons, and was one of the speakers for the first event which I hosted for Women in Technology in 2017,” Manisha remembers fondly. “Sumitra is a self-motivated member of the community and a great mentor to a lot of girls.”
Riya Guhathakurta works as a DevOps Engineer with Johnson Controls India Engineering Center. Her journey with Manisha’s community started in the year of 2017, when she was an undergraduate student struggling between coding and classroom lectures.
“It was difficult for Riya to figure out how to explore this tech world other than classroom syllabus and how she could stand out among the crowd,” Manisha says. But Riya has come along from being just an attendee of the Woman In Technology group in 2017, where she now volunteers and taking up speaking assignments at tech-focused meetups and conferences.
The ‘Women in Technology’ community in Kolkata started with Manisha’s realization that women are underrepresented in the tech workforce and most of the tech conferences. “There are very few female speakers compared to male speakers.”
She also identified a larger problem through her own experience, that women are largely relegated to testing software rather than design and build it. “Despite their interest, women aen’t getting any exposure or platform to learn and get started on their desirable tech journey,” Manisha says.
Facts are on her side as well. According to a recent survey, 75 percent of women in tech in India think gender diversity is the industry’s top priority, and 83 percent of women entering the field of tech believe that taking a break can practically end their careers. An overwhelming 87 percent believe the industry needs to actively do more to support their reintegration into the workforce.
As she prepares to leave for the US in September to pursue her Master’s in Computer Science, Manisha Biswas is looking forward to what the future holds with a lot of optimism. “I am looking forward to connect women in technology with each other, so they can share experiences, ask questions, get advice, and learn from each other,” Manisha says, as she prepares to rise higher and achieve great things in life.
All of which couldn’t have been possible, she’s quick to remind me, without her community initiative to empower more women in tech. All the code-labs and hackathons, study jams and community building activities ultimately helped her best self flourish, Manisha says with a smile. And she has no plans of stopping anytime soon.