When Ingrid Erickson began teaching at the iSchool in 2017 she encountered something different about the students in her classroom–many, if not most of them, were from India. This was a change from the students she had taught previously as an Assistant Professor at the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University. Erickson was impressed with the drive these students possessed, as well as their strong technical proficiency. More intriguing, however, was the fact that her female students, who were equally if not more proficient than their male counterparts, often lacked confidence and muted the expression of their expertise. This paradox, especially when placed against the ubiquitous initiatives in the United States to train more women in STEM, eventually germinated into a Fulbright proposal to study how culture shapes the development and demonstration of technical skill. In late 2019 she applied for a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellowship to go to Bangalore–known by the name Bengaluru at home and around the world as India’s “Silicon Valley”–to see what she could discover.
Excitingly, Erickson was awarded a 5-month research fellowship several months later. However, before any plans could be put into place, the COVID pandemic stopped the project in its tracks. In the end, COVID caused a two-year delay for Erickson, forcing her to shift her plans for a semester away from Spring 2021 to Spring 2023. Gratefully, she was able to finally depart for Bangalore in early January of this year with a somewhat updated research plan to investigate the experiences of women tech entrepreneurs, specifically founders and co-founders.
In Bangalore, Erickson is affiliated with the prestigious Indian business school, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB). Aside from its academic prowess, the school boasts one of the oldest and best-respected startup incubators in India, known as NSRCEL. At IIMB, Erickson works with a host scholar named Vasanthi Srinivasan, who is Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management. Srinivasan is a reputed scholar of women in management and the past president of the Indian Academy of Management (INDAM).
Now, currently on the ground in India, Erickson is embracing everything she can about her adopted city. Even though Bangalore gained its tech reputation for being the back office to the world in the 1990s, it is now a thriving hotbed of indigenous innovation. Indeed, India today is producing an ever-increasing number of unicorn startups (privately held tech companies valued at over US$1 billion)–many headquartered in Bangalore but also found throughout the country in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Pune.
With her research focus so closely aligned with the lives of women tech founders, Erickson is spending a lot of time in Bangalore’s notorious traffic traveling to meet and interview female entrepreneurs from all sorts of sectors, including biotech, fintech, green tech, and edutech. Her intentions during this period of her research are to gather as many stories as she can about the on-the-ground experiences that have been challenging and/or enabling for these women. In particular, she is looking at the different experiences female founders have with venture capitalists and other funders when they are solo founders, are part of an all-female founding team, or when they are part of a mixed gender founding team. She is also keen to know what supports these women draw on, from peers, mentors, and family. Finally, she’s gathering data on founders’ personal, educational, and professional backgrounds to see if any notable patterns emerge, especially when it comes to things like challenging gender role expectations and embracing risk. In academic parlance, Erickson says that she is, “interested in the social construction of technical skill and technical acumen.” Despite India’s impressive track record of relatively equal gender representation in tech education and strong cultural norms for women to join the tech field, as a country it stands alongside places like the United States in having too few women in tech leadership positions overall. That said, according to India’s market intelligence platform Tracxn, women-led startups in the Indian tech industry grew by 8 percent in 2022.
While in India, Erickson is working with some of her Indian students back in Syracuse, which has been a great resource for her to ask basic cultural questions about holidays, foods, and other intriguing things about India that she has come across. At the same time, she has also had the opportunity to reunite with some of her former students, and has been able to experience their home and family lives in ways that were never possible from far away in Central New York. She is getting to celebrate exciting career developments with students who were once trusting their education to her and her colleagues while being so far from home. The hospitality of these families, and strangers alike, has smoothed Erickson’s own transition into her time studying in India.
Acknowledging that there exists a fair amount of research around women in tech, in India, and in other parts of the world, Erickson hopes to bring a more qualitative approach to telling these stories, using narratives based on the messy, often convoluted experiences of real people to tease out the nuances of success for women leaders in technical professions. Erickson sees the work she is doing now as an early step in a much larger and longer-term project. Because, as she says, “innovation is a social construction”, and despite all of her good reasons for exploring her research questions in India, Erickson hopes to discover insights that apply to societies all around the world; helping to inform and inspire students, colleagues, educational disciplines, and even her own understanding and approach to teaching and learning.