Artech Information Systems CEO Ranjini Poddar put it bluntly:
“There's a certain perception the (tech) business community still has of women, and being a woman of color is a double whammy.”
Though Poddar hasn't been impeded on her firm's climb to the Top 10 in IT staffing companies anywhere in the country, she's a leader in an industry that she admits is growing faster than it is becoming more diverse.
Since its 1992 founding, Morristown-based Artech has been compiling an internal database of available IT staffers that runs around 10 million strong. The $330 million company is No. 2 in the state in terms of minority-owned tech companies.
In 2014, it was ranked No. 39 on the Women Presidents' Organization 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies worldwide.
NJBIZ spoke with Poddar at length about what it means to be an Indian-American woman and be among the tech world's major players.
NJBIZ: Let's start with the early history: You were 8 years old when your parents immigrated to the U.S. What was your childhood like and how did it influence your business perspective?
Ranjini Poddar: My parents' motivation for moving was primarily for more opportunities. My family has always been very entrepreneurial and has had been involved in business enterprises.
My father had gotten his bachelor's and master's degrees in the U.S., actually, but then had returned to India. They decided to immigrate 10 years later. In terms of my upbringing, they really struggled the first couple of years. When he emigrated here, he was highly educated but had to do different, small things to support our family. He started a business importing and distributing products from India, and then eventually China. ... He had a home office for the first three or so years, and I would help with filing or minor tasks, even when I was 9 or 10 years old. Later, I started doing invoicing and reports and analyzing his customer base for him.
I saw what it was like to run a business. I was young, but old enough to see the time and effort, the work ethic my parents both had. That really informed my personality and the way I look at work today.
NJBIZ: Did your upbringing also somehow inform your decision to pursue computer science studies?
RP: I did gravitate toward computer science because it was something more practical. When I proceeded to college, I questioned what it was that I wanted to do. But I felt as though I could use that degree for something after graduation.
NJBIZ: Computer science is a field that has historically been male-dominated — was that something you were cognizant of?
RP: It was a male-dominated field when I entered college in the '80s, and it still is. But I have a law degree (from Yale Law School) as well. And even though it's an even spread between males and females in college (in the law sector), if you work at a top-tier firm — it quickly becomes male-dominated.
So I've always been in environments that tend to be more male-dominated, and I'm totally comfortable with that. It's a matter of finding your comfort zone and your confidence and being able to navigate that.
NJBIZ: Do you think fields such as computer science have made any improvement on closing the gender gap?
RP: There's much more awareness, at least. It's something that our children need to be exposed to at an early age. All children need to be equally exposed to different types of fields. To a certain extent, it's the environment that determines it. If your parents are buying dolls instead of Lego sets, that probably informs the way you grow up and what you're going to be more naturally attuned to. So it's encouraging to see all these programs that engage girls at a young age in STEM fields, such as Girls Who Code.
Hopefully, if we're talking 10 or 15 years from now, the imbalance won't be as pronounced as it is today.
NJBIZ: Have you experienced any workplace discrimination based on your gender or your ethnicity?
RP: Outside work, I think anyone who is a woman or someone of color experiences it at some point, whether it's overt or discreet. It can be something as simple as walking to a counter at a department store and how that sales clerk perceives you or walking up to an airline counter and how that agent talks to you.
In the workplace, it can be part and parcel of being the only woman in the room during a meeting. If I'm in a room full of people who have not interacted with me before, I'm of Indian origin, a woman and I'm 5 feet tall. They may form an impression of who I am based on that. In a way, it's up to me — with confidence and intelligence — to dispel that and get the results I'm looking for.
NJBIZ: Lastly, how are you working to help eliminate that discrimination and promote diversity in your position at Artech?
RP: Certainly, we try to support — in our supply base, when we're buying products or services — businesses that are women- and minority-owned. And in terms of our corporate employee base, we're looking for the most qualified person, but we also want a diverse employee base. Just as others have helped us be successful, we want to reach back and give a hand to others who may need help in various communities and organizations that support women and minorities.
E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
NAME: Artech Information Systems LLC
FOUNDER Ranjini Poddar
EMPLYEES: More than 460
REVENUE: More than $330 million
To become officially certified as a minority-owned business under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program, there are a few key criteria a business has to meet.
It must be a small business (that means under $100 million or 50 employees, generally) that is at least 51 percent owned by U.S. citizens who are socially and economically disadvantaged.
Socially disadvantaged refers to individuals who are “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice” and includes, but is not necessarily limited to, individuals who are black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian-Pacific and subcontinent Asian.
Economically damaged is defined by the SBA as “individuals whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same or similar line of business who are not socially disadvantaged.”
More information can be found at 1.usa.gov/1dBJ8dY