On this week’s Hay Festival special of Break Out Culture, Ed Vaizey and Charlotte Metcalf meet Bangladeshi-born writer Tahmima Anam. They discuss her new book, The Startup Wife, which tells the story of computer scientist Asha, who creates a successful new app – but somehow finds herself invisible in the boardroom of her own company.
Tahmima Anam on Women in Tech
Charlotte: What was the premise for your novel?
The novel is about a young Bangladeshi American woman called Asha Ray. She’s a brilliant computer coder, and she comes up with an algorithm. She starts a tech company with her husband and her best friend, and even though it was her idea, her husband becomes the figurehead and almost like a cult leader of the company. But it is also a love story. It’s about the world of love and work and how they mix together sometimes to great effect – and sometimes with some big challenges.
Ed: How autobiographical is it?
I was a little bit nervous when I showed my husband the first draft of the book. But luckily, he has a great sense of humour and took it in his stride. And he said: ‘you did create a very charismatic and handsome hero’. But the parts of the story where the relationship starts to be strained under the pressure of success, and the ways in which Cyrus becomes quite egotistical, are all made up and my husband is nothing like that.
Charlotte: Are you in business together?
Yes – I have been on the board of ROLI (a London-based startup founded by Tahmima’s husband Roland Lamb) for the last 10 years. It’s been really fascinating. On the one hand, blurring work and life has been really energising for us – it’s given us something to relate about that is beyond the children and the domestic. But it’s also been very challenging – talk about not being able to leave work at the office. It’s just everywhere. We can’t get rid of it, we talk about the business as our first child. It’s a mixed bag.
Ed: The tech bro culture is pretty nauseating. It’s full of relatively young men who raise enormous sums of money, and then think they rule the world. It is also a very male dominated culture; we still lack female founders.
Absolutely. And what’s really ironic is that the tech world is all about disrupt, and yet the basic structures of power are not disrupted. We’re still elevating young white men to great positions of power and giving them control over our lives.
Charlotte: WeWork was a man and wife team – what do you think about them?
And Bill and Melinda Gates broke up recently. These partnerships are so interesting. There’s a lot of human drama behind every tech company and a lot of stories that are happening under the surface. That one with WeWork and Adam Newman was a particularly dramatic one – but I’m sure if we scratched the surface, we would find a lot of other relationships that are both created by and create these tech innovations.
Charlotte: Your main character is a coder. Is there a disparity that far more men go into coding than women? Or is that changing?
It is changing, but certainly not fast enough. They talk about this tech ecosystem – from young girls being discouraged to join the sciences all the way up to the female founders who do and don’t get funded by VCs. The whole the whole world is geared towards having white male founders. And that’s really got to change.
You can listen to the full episode here.
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