Aashni Shah mentors young girls in the technology field. Shah has noticed a blind spot in the field, where women are not as welcome as they should be. Photo courtesy Aashni Shah

St. Mike’s alum fights bias in tech against women

  • December 12, 2021

A successful software engineer turned start-up CEO, Aashni Shah, and women like her, are still pioneers in a male-dominated tech industry.

Born and raised in Kenya, as an immigrant from a diverse background, Shah has a natural eye for blind spots in her field. In late 2019, Shah boldly left a job she loved at digital payment giant Square and launched her own tech companies. In 2020, the graduate of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto started HypeDocs, a platform built for everyone but targeted towards women and underrepresented minorities where users are able to track their wins and accomplishments, both personally and professionally. In addition to mitigating against gender and racial biases when tracking progress, the platform addresses issues that keep women from realizing potential by allowing users to share their wins with friends and loved ones for encouragement.

Shah also started Taonga, a platform that serves as a secure digital vault where users are able to store copies of important documents such as passports, financial records and more. Both platforms, she says, were birthed from a compelling desire to bridge voids she sees in the industry.

Shah’s frustrating early career experiences were her motivation for venturing out onto the entrepreneurial path. In many of those spaces, she could identify when she was being treated unjustly, like not receiving fair compensation or performance rewards for the work she was doing. She found herself consistently growing the women engineering team but wasn’t getting recognition as she watched males get promoted faster.

“Don’t feel like you have to hide your identity in terms of the fact that you’re a woman, you’re an underrepresented minority or whatever category or box you check when you’re filling out those forms,” said Shah, who moved to Canada from Nairobi, Kenya, to attend university in 2011. “Instead use those as things that fuel your uniqueness.”

She cites her own example with HypeDocs.

“It’s completely built off of my own personal experiences (as a woman in tech),” she said. “Taonga is built off the fact that I am an immigrant and I’ve got multiple citizenships and I need to track all those documents and have good ways to send them to my family back home and also to different lawyers or mortgage brokers that I work with here in Canada as well. Use the things that make you unique to fuel the fire of what you want to do in the future.”

The staff hired to work with Shah at HypeDocs all happen to be women, not because of their gender but because they were the best people for the role, she says. Having diverse staff enables companies to understand and meet the needs of people from different perspectives and creates a positive atmosphere. 

Claims that there is a lack of readily available talent from underrepresented populations is an excuse that has been used in the tech industry for its lack of women in the workplace but oversimplifies the real problem. Shah points out that rollout campaigns that don’t market in spaces where women can see it, screening processes that cancel out underrepresented groups, and companies with reputations for being unsafe work environments for women are why companies might struggle to acquire diverse staff.

Many women come into the work environment so damaged, that they accept a toxic company culture, Shah has observed. She’s also seen the contrast of good and bad leadership. With a clear vision for what she wants to accomplish in the industry, she encourages others to do the same and looks forward to a future welcoming and equitable tech environment. 

“I focus on my mission statement, which is I want to build a better tomorrow,” said Shah. “I recommend everyone to try to identify what their mission is” and stay true it.

Bullied for being the “nerdy girl” growing up, Shah says her experience at St. Michael’s, the Catholic college affiliated with the U of T, was instrumental in giving her the safety, freedom and flexibility to be her full self.

“I would say for me personally, it was really giving me a space and a way for me to feel comfortable exploring who I am,” said Shah. “Growing up as a girl that was interested in coding and as the only girl in a coding class of 20, I never felt comfortable being the nerdy girl. I used to get bullied for liking the things that I did. I feel like St. Mike’s gave me that safe space where I could explore all the different sides of me. It was just incredible people that I still talk to on a fairly regular basis.”

Passionate about encouraging young girls to consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Shah volunteers her time to participate in initiatives that teach children how to code, provide student career mentorship, as well as speaking at conferences and events about tech, leadership and diversity. Her message to them and others is that the qualities and experiences that make them different can also be their greatest sources of creative power and ingenuity when they learn to embrace it.

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