When Ashwini Asokan was on a flight from Silicon Valley to India in 2013, she had decided diversity was going to be the critical factor to the success of her artificial intelligence start-up Mad Street Den. 

Fed up with often being the only woman in the room, there was no question in her mind about enforcing a 50-50 gender policy, even though she knew that it was a radical path to take in the male-dominated tech sector. 

Ms Asokan, 39, maintains diversity is necessary to break the stranglehold that tech groups such as Google and Facebook have on AI’s development and application.

The debate over diversity in AI erupted in December when Timnit Gebru, who had been co-head of AI ethics at Google, said she was fired after raising concerns about minority hiring and biases in the company’s AI technology.

Ms Gebru, who was famous for her work revealing bias in facial recognition, alleged that there was “zero accountability” at Google to increase the amount of women and that the company was “silencing marginalised voices”.

Ashwini Asokan at her office. ‘We had to make sure we constantly had enough women and if we didn’t get enough applications, we would have to go and hunt people down’ © Hemant Mishra/Mint/Hindustan Times/Getty

The controversy is familiar terrain for Ms Asokan, who says that in the first years meeting her quota was tough. “In the early stages it was difficult, we had to make sure we constantly had enough women and if we didn’t get enough applications, we would have to go and hunt people down,” she says.

But the mother of two, whose neuroscientist husband Anand Chandrasekaran is her chief technology officer, scoffed at the idea that there are not enough qualified women to do the jobs.

Over avocado toast and a cappuccino at a breezy café in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, she says the city has more than enough talent. Chennai has emerged as one of India’s hottest tech start-up hubs and is home to software unicorns Freshworks and Zoho.

“This whole thing that the pipeline [of women] does not exist is ridiculous,” she says. “You’ve just got to not be biased.” 

That means looking beyond formal qualifications — degrees, grades and job titles — and taking time to assess skills, says Ms Asokan. 

“You can get people from varied backgrounds, it’s really about understanding how this person thinks and approaches a problem,” she says. “You may have never done software as a service in your life but that’s still fine.” 

The 50-50 policy has been in place ever since she started Mad Street Den, a start-up backed by US venture capital groups Sequoia and Falcon Edge Capital, that raised $17m in its series B funding round two years ago and has place to raise more.

Mad Street Den has expanded during the coronavirus pandemic as companies turn to software to cut costs and embrace AI, machine learning systems that hold great promise — and risk. Elon Musk has described the spectre of digital superintelligence as “far more dangerous than nukes”. 

The company, which patented the technology underpinning its retail commerce system Vue.ai, counts Diesel and Tata Group, the Indian conglomerate, as some of its clients and is venturing into education and health.

Today women make up about half of Mad Street Den’s 300 employees, including at the management level where women are the team leaders of data analytics, product and engineering — positions that were traditionally held by men. 

Ms Asokan credits diversity with coming up with inclusive products, such as software that allows companies to generate clothes on digital models of different shapes and body sizes. 

“You see all the revenge porn, deep fakes . . . that to me is what you don’t get when you have a highly diverse organisation,” she says. “With diversity what you get is a world with AI applied meaningfully.”

Ms Asokan took an unconventional path to tech. As a child in Chennai, she trained as a Bharatanatyam classical dancer and musician, waking up at 5am to train, go to school, train again and do homework before bed. 

When her boyfriend, who became her husband, went to the US to pursue his PhD, she joined him there and completed a masters in design at Carnegie Mellon University. She was swept up in the tech boom and eventually landed at Intel in Santa Clara, California, and worked in product innovation on internet first platforms. 

There, acclaimed anthropologist Genevieve Bell changed how she thought about technology. Up until that point, the conversation was dominated by the hardware — its size, capacity and speed — without much thought to its application.

But Professor Bell, who was the director of user experience for the US chipmaker, said: “None of this matters if we can’t figure out how people are going to consume this technology 10 years from now.” 

Ms Asokan took Prof Bell’s focus on the future generation of tech users to heart. “That was pretty much the starting point,” she says. “We really need a human-centric story and layer to any kind of technology we build.” 

One of Ms Asokan’s biggest mistakes when she was growing her company in India was being too aggressive on diversity, or as she puts it, “being very impatient and very loud”. She was angry at the status quo and made enemies by calling out other executives and founders [on Twitter and Facebook] for being sexist. 

“I called out people in the industry and took them down for the shit they said,” she says, reluctant to give any more details. “I don’t regret it, but I see a much different way to approach change today.”

In the past five years, she acknowledges that attitudes towards women in her field have changed. “When I started, people were laughing at me,” she says. “Today there are so many women founders out there.” 

Her tactics today are different. “Standing on a rooftop and shouting about diversity didn’t really work, but when I was able to role model it, be successful and show growth, there’s legitimacy and credibility,” she says. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Like Ms Gebru, Ms Asokan fears that AI is not being developed responsibly because it is not inclusive and vows to continue her push for diversity.

“People need to not just passively consume AI, they need to be actual active creators of AI,” she says. “Otherwise we’re never going to create a world where industries everywhere can benefit from AI. It’s always going to come down to Google, Facebook and Amazon.”

Three questions for Ashwini Asokan

Who is your leadership hero?

Diane Greene, former CEO of VMware, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, and Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures are all people who have broken new ground in fantastic ways. I also closely watch female politicians across the globe. It’s been a refreshing 20 years to see the rise of women in politics everywhere — from Jacinda Ardern to AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Kamala [Harris]. Of course we’ve had these in India for decades now but it’s definitely more widely present today. They’re all absolutely inspiring!

If you weren’t a CEO, what would you be?

I’d probably be an artist. I still yearn for art. I don’t have time for it and I can’t honestly afford to be that way. That life is the exact opposite of the life I lead now. I used to spend hours and hours just being lost from reality in my music, in my dance, in my art . . . I used to love that. Just being gone from everything and living in my head that way. That said, it was art and my gurus along the way that were responsible for this discipline and rigour I have come to embrace over the years. Art brought me all that.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

It takes courage of a different kind to be great, to do something worthy with your life and make it count. It’s not easy. And it requires having the courage and willingness to be broken down again and again, repeatedly, before you understand what it means to succeed and lead.