27-May-2018
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Nikita Hari: Defying conventions and inspiring girls to pursue their dreams

By Aswathy Mohanaprakas
 
Nikita Hari, from Vadakara in Kerala, grew up no different to any other family in the most literate state in India. Although Nikita excelled at school and university, she was sent to a local university as per her family's wishes, and in accordance with what is expected from girls and young women in Kerala. 
 
She realised fairly quickly that when boys are encouraged to get the best education and build a great career, girls were expected to sacrifice their careers and get married. However, a chance meeting acted as a catalyst to her journey to success, once she decided to pursue her educational aspirations.
 
Presently, she is pursuing her doctoral studies from the Department of Electrical Engineering at University of Cambridge, and is the Vice-President of the Graduate Union.  Setting an example, Nikita is now committed to encouraging others, especially young women and girls, to pursue their dreams. Her vision to uplift society through education and technology has seen her become co-founder of two social tech start-ups: Wudi & Favalley
 
 
On Academia and other ventures
 
One could say Nikita fell into Academia. Nikita had dabbled in Management Consultancy after her undergraduate degree, but decided to go back for further education after realising that the increasingly popular career was not for her. Naturally, she ranked 1st in her University for her M.Tech, and following this she decided to do PhD from IITs. Nikita then spent a year as a lecturer in Electrical Engineering at NIT while undergoing the admissions process for IIT, at the end of which she secured herself a position as a research associate at IIT-D. However, finding this, too, not fulfilling, she looked for pastures new (and abroad) for PhD programs. Another long year passed with interviews and applications, and this time she was offered a place by several prestigious universities, including Manchester University (with scholarship), as well as Oxford and Cambridge: two of the best Universities in the world.
 
Fast forward to now, and she has two social and tech entrepreneurial ventures under her name, as well as having been a significant influence in the future of entrepreneurial ventures in India through her roles in the student-run Tech Labs at SRM University, Rajadahani innovation disruption cell, Brainaura & Probiz, India. Nikita has also held positions as IEEE Cambridge Secretary & Beyond Profit Cambridge Conference Director from 2014-16.
 
That isn't all, though. Nikita has also been active in the STEM field as an ambassador for STEM, an active member in Cambridge Association for Women in Science & Engineering, and a prominent speaker at GSA girl conferences, Cambridge Science Festival, and Soapbox Science, all aimed at encouraging more women to pursue a career in the field.
 
How she found her passion
 
How Nikita describes her passion for Electrical Engineering reveals a lot about the connection we all seek in life. She describes a sort of 'electric shock', a thrill, that she got when she realised how much potential her field has, to impact on the world we live in. A ubiquitous force, electrical power, she says, is all around us. Nikita's key achievement has been her work on these seemingly obscure devices called GaN converters (Gallium Nitride, that is), which has the potential to disrupt a $12 Billion industry of electrical devices and manufacturing of power converters which currently uses Silicon (transistors, LEDs, and the like). Nikita aims to show that electrical power, as she said, can transform the world: just as it doesn't differentiate the rich from the poor (or indeed the West from the East), it doesn't differentiate boys from girls.
 
Although her father's background in Electrical Engineering field seems like the driver for her work from afar, Nikita attributes her motivation to pursue education to her mother. An educated woman herself, Nikita's mum always encouraged her (and her brother) to pursue Higher and Further Education. However, that is not what fuelled her fervent ambitions: it was all the things that were left unsaid, but that she witnessed growing up.
 
Having been brought up in a society where educated women were ostracised for doing exactly that, being educated, choosing academia wasn't an easy decision for Nikita.  In state that claims 100% literacy for the population, the expectation that a large proportion of these educated women are expected to give up their identities pre-marriage (in a more literal sense than not) and become the epitome of homeliness did not spare her household.
 
While the jokes about marriage, and the 'ball and chain' and the 'noose', the 'kurishu' and the like are prevalent in our society, one can find that it is more often than not the husbands referring to their wives, as opposed to the contrary: because of course, the wife is too busy in the kitchen, making the next meal (see what I did there?). Jokes aside though, historically our community has a very distinct way of treating married women, and this begins at the point where she is married. It's almost as if we expect the women who were, accomplished, high achieving and ambitions, to be locked away inside the three knots of the thali, or to ooze out the pen nib the moment her name is signed away at the wedding registry.
 
For Nikita's mother, another victim of this reality, tears were the only way to cope with the constant ridicule she was subject to on a daily basis. Not allowed to sate her intellectual needs, even news papers and technology was out bounds. It is easier to objectively read this and critique from where we are at the notion of this, but imagine this:
 
Everyone's in the living room switching on the regular telly after food; and automatically you shout out for tea from the daughter-in-law. She makes the tea and brings it over. Everyone's still watching the show, but she missed about 10-15 minutes. No one wants to tell her what went on, and they're too into the TV to notice anything else anyway. She starts to say something, but is instantly shushed. She sits down quietly. A few minutes later, someone notices her as they put down the tea. They wonder why she's here in front of the TV, when there's tea cups to be taken away and washed, and it's almost dinner time so she should be doing that instead. If it's the husband or the parents in-law, it's an 'edi adukkalayil poyi pani cheyyadi'. If it's your nathoon or siblings, the knowing condescension is veiled in a big smile as the question is asked 'chechi, raathri enthuva kazhikkan?' Cue her exit back to kitchen. 
 
While there's nothing particularly abusive or horrific about the above, think about this repeated day after day, year on year: perhaps the ammayi-amma notices that she's made one of the curries a bit too salty. Clearly that's because she's spending too long in front of the TV, or newspaper. Marimolu clearly thinks she's cleverer than us, right? What does she know about the need for the coconut to be roasted properly when making curry: she spent all her time learning useless stuff at her university, instead of learning good housekeeping like I did.
 
For a young girl to watch her mother being treated differently due to her educational background being different to the rest of the family was hard. However, the support from her mother and brother; along with a healthy dose of isolation from all the negative voices that reinforced the stereotype got her to where she is. While the society asks educated women the age old question of who's going to marry you if you keep studying like this, I'd like for them to consider the following: have you thought about the impact to society that this young woman has made already?  The question we ask, ourselves, ought to be: how can we encourage our sons and daughters to be more like Nikita? And the answer probably lies with Nikita's mother, who, an educated woman herself, dedicated her married life to giving the best she can to bring up two upstanding members of society who turn their negative experiences to fuel their ambitions, and change the world for the better.
 
Engineering, Nikita says, 'to me is about creatively solving world’s problems through collaboration, empathy and innovation. My aspiration & vision is to create a platform for youngsters to be positive change makers for society thorough my initiatives thereby helping engineer a better and brighter world... any engineer looking forward to solve problems in the world – big or small, has the potential to be a positive change maker for the world.'
 
 
On entrepreneurship
 
"Over the years, I have realised that our passion is worthwhile only if we can use it to help others", Nikita notes. "In the age of racism, fascism, sexism & terrorism devouring humanity, the world needs us youngsters to act - we need to pledge to have a compassionate heart that seeks and strives to make a positive impact in this world for a safer & sustainable tomorrow".
 
Nikita's venture into start up was accelerated by the resources provided by Cambridge University, where like-minded individuals are connected with each other, and given the platform to nurture their ideas from conception to full businesses. Following Nikita's vision to transform education through Artificial Intelligence (AI), she has co-founded Wudi together with her brother Arjun; an educational AI package that is programmed to help students identify their real talents. The aim of said product is reminiscent of the familiar quote from Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
 
Nikita has also had the opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals at the Forbes summit in Jerusalem, the tech start-up capital. She found that rather than being the outlier, everyone there had their unique stories of passion, and their struggles which they turned into determination to pursue their goals. This period of her life reinforced her ambition to not just be one story of success, but rather an enabler; to build a platform where other young minds can become change makers in their own right. To start a new venture, she emphasises the need for the trifecta of: passion, a great team (with complementary skillsets) as well as a plan on how to execute their visions. Nikita warns the aspiring entrepreneurs on the need for keeping the momentum and flexibility as you change (many many times), and not to follow this path just because it's the current trend.
 
 
On education
 
Having had the opportunity to experience education both in India and in the UK, she notes how, contrary to UK, education is not publicly funded (the majority anyway), nor is it free and compulsory for youngsters in India. While the UK educational system places much importance in the practical teaching methodologies which fosters the natural discovery of one's passion, Kerala has a very heavy focus on Engineering, Medicine, and Finance. It is not uncommon in the UK to encounter Surgeons pursuing PhD in literature, and literature grads in Finance sector, whilst Keralite (and Indian) educational methods of memorisation and 'cramming' works negatively to this objective. Moving beyond a concrete vocational path set in stone, she recognises the benefits that UK's aptitude tests in finding one's innate talents for subjects, thus leading to the discovery of their passions. British educational system, notes Nikita, empowers students to develop their curiosity, academic capabilities and personal skills with confidence and conviction.
 
India needs to rethink its educational system with technology expanding by leaps and bounds, it cannot thrive on a system that encourages outdated studies and kills creativity. Unlike UK universities like Cambridge which are consistently ranked 1-5 in QS rankings, Indian IITs/IISC hardly crawl to the top 200 with difficulty. So India needs to refocus from being mere teaching institutes to developing as world-class research universities that empowers students through the learning process. 
 
Final thoughts
 
Nikita's advice to the readers is to be a positive change maker in the society, in our small and big ways. For tech organisations to venture into the social entrepreneurship scene, and consider how tech can be used to benefit society. For professionals, it's to formally affiliate with, and support other social (and tech) ventures we believe in, give them momentum and traction to make change in the society. It starts with us.
 
About the Author: Aswathy Mohanaprakas (neé Mohanlal) is an Oxford graduate and works in Information Security at Oxford during the day, while writing on the side. She is currently working on a translation of an 18th Century Portuguese text cataloguing Malabarese medicinal plants which will be published by the Natural History Museum of London as part of their digitised collection. Aswathy is a young parent and a proud feminist. She also does editorial pieces for WWW.UKMALAYALEE.COM. You can follow her blogs on https://truthflows.wordpress.com