Technology continues to be a playground for the boys. Many companies are trying to bridge the gender gap when it comes to leadership opportunities, pay and flexible work options. However, when it comes down to it, women in tech continue to be sidelined, and therefore are either resigned to accept the situation as is, or else leave technology entirely. Which can be heartbreaking if the world of STEM is your passion. It takes a thick skin, a never-give-up attitude, and the willingness to be open to redesigning your career to survive in tech. Meet Nirupama Mallavarapu, founder of MobileArq (www.mobilearq.com), whose keen eye discovered an opportunity for improvement in the public schools PTAs and had the vision to come up with an effective solution to fulfill their needs. Read on to find out more about this brilliant entrepreneur and mom of two, based out of Summit, New Jersey.
AM: Tell us a bit about your background.
NM: When I was a teenager, I got a unique opportunity to learn programming and fell in love in with it. I went on to do my undergraduate degree in Computer Science in the Indian Institute of Science and then came to the US for my graduate studies in Computer Science at Georgia Tech. A few years later, I went to Silicon Valley and was fortunate to be part of some of the pioneering startups and companies when the Internet was born. I was a member of the first server team in Sun Microsystems that handled internet traffic. Those were exciting and heady times when I learned and worked with several programming languages, e.g., Java, J2EE, databases and the infrastructure serving the internet.
AM: Who were your influences/role models growing up and how/why?
NM: My role models were my parents. My father, MVR Rau, was a well-known researcher in India in documentation and Library Science. He served as a UN expert for libraries around the world. My father’s work ethic left a deep impression on me at a young age. After we lost my father prematurely at the age of 50, my mother took on the responsibility on of raising my two sisters and me and inspired us with her courage and resilience.
AM: Tell us about MobileArq – its purpose, what solutions it provides and how?
NM: MobileArq is a software solution for parent organizations to help them with their school directory and fundraising needs. Our app is used by parents to get their school information at their fingertips. They can call/email/text any parent/teacher in the school, pay for any fundraiser, lookup an event, get the latest school news and alerts and volunteer for events.
AM: You are the brainchild behind this product. What was the intent here, and what led you to its inception?
NM: As a working mother of two young children, I found it challenging to stay in touch with the school community. We got emails on all of the activity details and changes and it was hard to keep track of them. It was difficult to get other parents’ contact information when I needed to arrange a play date for my kids or even in critical situations when I needed someone to pick up my kids. It was challenging to find everyone’s contacts. In some schools, they published a printed school directory but I could never find a copy of that directory when I needed it the most.
This is why I felt parents like me needed an easier tool to get their school at their fingertips and thus, MobileArq was born. As we collaborated with PTAs to distribute MobileArq to parents, we found that that the PTA has several other needs to be fulfilled. PTAs typically do a lot of fundraising for which they use paper forms to collect orders and kept track of the inventory and deliveries using spreadsheets. MobileArq has made it really simple to do online fundraisers. Not only can the PTA setup a fundraiser in minutes on the app, they also get analytics on how a certain order performed.
AM: How do you manage your team? Are they based here or globally?
NM: We have members who work in-house as well as remote team members. We collaborate with our virtual team members every single day. We have advisors who are based in different states in the US who help strategize with us.
AM: What are some of the challenges you have faced – as a woman in technology and as an entrepreneur?
NM: As a woman in technology in the early 90s, it was hard to find mentors and network.
Although working in Silicon Valley was exhilarating in terms of technology, it was also a brutal environment for a young mother like me. I was excluded from important tasks while I was pregnant and let go the day I was supposed to come back from maternity leave.
After the dot-com crash, I moved to New York as my husband changed jobs. The job market was completely down after 9/11 and it was difficult to find anything close to the server-side programming job I had in Sun Microsystems. As I found my way into the workplace again, my bosses in the technology world did not like the fact that I had to go home at a certain time and take care of my kids.
In those days, I was young and very unsure of myself. I always thought it was my fault when anything went wrong. I never made excuses about work with my pregnancy, however my bosses openly told me that it was undesirable and I should have planned better.
AM: That must have been very difficult to swallow. Who have been your support structures in this journey?
NM: It was always harder to deal with office troubles when I was single. I was not aware that you could get a career coach. After I got married, my husband has been a great sounding board for me. Finally, you have to rely on yourself and get advice from others whom you trust.
AM: What are the major challenges faced by public schools in New Jersey and why do you think that is?
NM: There are two major challenges faced by New Jersey schools today – funding is low and bullying has increased. I see that New Jersey has many small school districts – 678 school districts for 2516 schools. This adds to the number of school administrators, attorneys and staff. Would the budget get better distributed if we combined more neighborhood districts with three or lesser schools and have a common administration?
While the reported bullying incidents have gone down, we hear of more cyber bullying. I think this is due to a rise in the use of phones and social media starting earlier – right from elementary school. Now with these devices, bullying can go on 24 hours a day.
AM: Do you have liaisons with officials/PTO leaders from schools? How do you get the word out?
NM: We work with the Parent Teacher Association/Organization – (PTA/PTO) in the school. The PTA has already designated volunteers for various tasks such as producing the school directory and fundraising. We work with directory volunteers and the PTA officers to release MobileArq each school year and communicate with parents. We train the incoming volunteers each year in using the administration portal for their school.
We get the word out by going to PTA and PTO conventions to meet the leaders in each community. There are district level and state level PTA conventions. In addition, our current customers help us to spread the word about our product.
AM: What would you say are your most salient qualities that make you succeed as an entrepreneur?
NM: Resilience, hard work and the ability to close deals!
AM: Top 3 books you would recommend for every entrepreneur?
NM: I have several favorite books in every area of business.
“The Four steps to Epiphany” By Steve Blank and ‘The Startup Manual’ by Bob Dorf and Steve Blank have great practical advice/steps for any a startup owner.
“The E-Myth Revisited” is a great book to learn about scaling up and growing a small business.
“Never Lose a Customer Again” by Joey Coleman deals with the most important aspect of a successful business – keeping your customers happy and turning them into raving fans.
AM: Where do you see yourself going? What is the future for MobileArq? Do you plan to expand to other states besides NJ?
NM: The MobileArq platform can be used by parents anywhere in the US or for that matter anywhere in the world. We are working on expanding our reach beyond the tristate area as well as beyond US.
AM: Have you or would you like to be a mentor to someone following in your footsteps? How do you think mentorship shapes and changes a woman?
NM: Yes, I do help women in women’s networking groups to which I belong. I mentor high school and college students. We welcome interns every summer to my business. I am also a mentor in women conferences like Grace Hopper. Mentorship helps the mentee and mentor. It is rewarding to have another woman benefit from my experience in the industry or as an entrepreneur.
AM: What are the issues closest to your heart? Do you represent or or a part of any charity? How important is giving back to you?
NM: The issues closest to my heart are helping the less fortunate to succeed. I have worked with ‘Project Read’ in the past to help children with their reading skills. One of the causes I am currently supporting is a village in South India that has severe drought for the past several years. The women in the village have started producing cloth bags to support themselves.
I have also participated in increasing the ratio of women in Computer Science (CS). To that end, I mentor and talk at conferences about my experience as a woman in the industry. I do panels to educate girls on what it is to take up CS in college. Most girls are too intimidated by CS and coding. I want to assure them that CS is not all about coding and acquiring competency in CS can open up a number of career opportunities for them.
AM: And finally, any advice for women who are still figuring out what path to take in their lives?
NM: Find your passion and follow it! If you don’t know your passion, you may need to try several paths before you discover what you enjoy most! Your passion may not feed you or provide for your needs in life. However, it will give you more happiness and satisfaction than something you are not passionate about.
Thank you Nirupama for talking to us, and inspiring women to stick with their dreams, no matter what the obstacles! We hope to see more women entrepreneurs like you in the technology space in the next decade!
To find out more, please visit MobileArq at www.mobilearq.com.