Women in Tech Interview: Jaya Chakrabarti

In the run up to our summer conference, we are interviewing female founders of the SETSquared Bristol member companies. Each of their stories is individual, some have a technical background, others are using technology to enable their business idea. Our aim is to inspire the next wave of female innovators to step forward and positively influence future development. What we need first is a practical conversation on diversity and how to identify and address barriers which deter women and girls from engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Jaya Chakrabarti MBE, the founder of tiscreport, shares her story:

What were your earliest interests and experiences?

As an Indian girl, growing up in a professional family – my mum’s a doctor, my father’s a mathematician and scientist – I was a girl who wanted to please. From the age of 4, I was cutting out pictures of heart organs from my mother’s medical journals and if anyone asked me, I dutifully said I would be a doctor. I was a super-geeky kid, coding from around 8, keeping my diary about the universe and exploring those interests. I really loved the creativity on the technical side. At school, I took Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry. However, a friend from my further maths class died in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and that affected me hugely. It really scuppered my predicted A-level results, so I veered from the plan.

Which study path did you take?

I chose to study Physics and came to Bristol. My life had been very sheltered until then because my family were so protective of me in a loving way. Bristol was where I grew up; gaining my own independence once I got to university. In my second year, I fell in love with my now-husband. And by my third year, I got scared because I knew my mum planned to arrange my marriage after my degree. I quickly decided I had to do a PhD – the path I would have chosen anyway.
During that time, our Indian community found out about my boyfriend and my honour was in shambles. My family was suffering because the community reacted very badly, and my academic performance was marred by the emotions involved, I couldn’t detach myself from it. I completed my degree and applied for a PhD and got a place in Bristol. I became a materials scientist, doing my MSc in Electronic Materials.
A number of academic advisors made it clear that following a technical career as a woman would be very difficult.  One of my female peers actually left after suffering advances from a supervisor, so I chose to leave my PhD to avoid the same fate. I was devastated because my identity was pinned on getting my doctorate to redeem myself with my family. I loved technology and science but didn’t know what next.

How did your career unfold from there?

Looking back, I was liberated by the series of failures; I had to choose my own path once I fell far from expectations. I stayed in Bristol to get through that difficult period and got a job at the digital agency where Stu was working. Fortunately, the community forgave me, and my family chose love over honour, and I was allowed to marry my husband.
My role soon changed, as I started running a subsidiary company for them – a joint venture between British Airways and the digital agency – where I was doing sales, tech support, development, testing, everything.
The agency reached a point where the directors received a buy-out offer from Kingfisher plc because we had developed the Screwfix website and their plans were to develop world-class e-Commerce systems.
Several of us knew we would be happier staying in a creative digital agency, so in 1999 we sought their agreement to start Nameless. Watching the way that company had grown, I decided it couldn’t be too hard to run a company as long as we made different mistakes! It was a hey-day for digital marketing; luckily several of our big-brand clients – Orange, Guinness, British Airways – came across with us.

How did your latest venture, tiscreport, begin?

After years of winning awards yet making only modest amounts of money, Nameless went through a rough period where we came within two hours of closing down. The thing about digital is that people undervalue the creativity and the masses of effort you put in, so you get a relatively low return. We were hit by a bad debt, forced to reduce down to a core team of six and I had to renegotiate payment terms with all our suppliers. It was devastating and I was determined to help everyone find new job offers.
The same year I got my MBE for the work we’d done during my maternity leave: exploring the use of technology to empower people to think about a new form of city governance, a democratically elected Mayor for the city of Bristol, and for services to the creative sector. I was invited to meet Ed Vaizey, (Minister for Digital and Culture at the time) who got me thinking about what I should do next. It made me realise I had options now I wasn’t losing sleep over payroll for a large team. I wanted to combine my passion for technology with making a real difference to those in poverty or those who don’t have access to opportunities like I’ve had. Within a month I met Andrew Wallis OBE, who told me modern slavery was alive and kicking, and he explained how even with the Modern Slavery Bill (now Act) there was no big, open data across the silos on supply chain transparency to make it effective.
It was a moment where I thought yes, this is me – I was used to handling spectroscopy data and could write programs, I was a data chick and I could do this. So Stuart and I set up our sister company to build the UK’s open data anti-slavery register, tiscreport.org. We are a profit-with-purpose social enterprise where companies pay a membership fee for our services. We make it easy for our members to file their statement and fulfil their obligations under the Modern Slavery Act. Then we give 50% of membership revenues to Unseen, who run the Anti-Slavery Helpline – creating a kind of circular economy to tackle the issues.

How would you encourage other women to consider innovation or technical roles?

I always loved technology, but my real skill is connecting – and that’s what I’ve been doing for tiscreport.org  to develop open agreements with governments and anti-slavery partners. We give businesses the ownership of the issue, helping them understand they are the solution, not the problem. Our members are starting to realise how useful the data is, and I’m getting some large organisations on board. Instinctively, women know how to connect and nurture. As women in tech, we have the opportunity to maximise our natural abilities and weave the human side together with the technical capability. I know my weaknesses and have an amazing team – including my incredibly supportive and talented husband who works out how to deliver our ideas.
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend you identify any limiting beliefs about your capabilities and seek help to navigate through them to reach your potential. Ask the questions and never assume you’re not worth it or you can’t do it. You have to try it and embrace the failures – there is always an opportunity to learn from mistakes. Allow yourself a time of grief and misery if things don’t go well, but don’t let panic stop you from seeking the next opportunity.
For women returning to work, I’d highlight that even as my own boss, I felt like an imposter after maternity leave. I sat in my office, trying to mask post-natal depression, scared of going back out there. It’s important to recognise your brain is different post-maternity, but you’ve got more to think about, so don’t waste energy being hard on yourself or hating your new body.
Do the inner work to recognise what puts you under pressure and what strengths you have. Surround yourself with mentors who can help you overcome those limitations, because those people will mostly be flattered to be asked when you need help. It’s about connecting again. I spend time on mindfulness every day; take time to breathe, decide what you want to be and have, then set your intention and do it.

What changes would you suggest businesses make to encourage diversity?

If companies and support organisations want to achieve greater diversity, they have to find a more distributed way of reaching those communities. Places like Watershed and Engine Shed in Bristol are fantastic, however, we need to build bridges into the minority and motherhood communities first, with an ambassador to connect with them; otherwise coming to those physical places may be just too scary.
In our business, we have previously tried to recruit more women and I found it’s rare for women to apply; we have to go to them. We have to nurture them early from schools, and if they are feeling shaky about their skills later on, we have to encourage them more.
It’s also important to create flexibility for both men and women because once companies release fathers to have time with their families, women can operate as equal members in business. Being able to fit your work life around school hours and family has to happen for both sexes.

Written by Debra Penrice. See more of her work at 27 Marketing