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Amrita Bhasin: In the tech and startup world, female representation matters

Startup founder and graduating UC Berkeley senior reflects on building a venture-backed company as a college student

Illustration of Amrita Bhasin

Startup founder and graduating UC Berkeley senior Amrita Bhasin reflects on building a venture-backed company as a college student. (Photo illustration by Neil Freese)

This I’m a Berkeleyan was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Sotira founder and UC Berkeley graduating senior Amrita Bhasin.

When you watch movies like The Social Network or TV shows like Silicon Valley, there is a real reflection of how women are seen and treated in the tech world.

As the typical narrative goes, a young Mark Zuckerberg-like character creates a budding tech startup company in Palo Alto. The scrawny, white male founder comes across as misunderstood. He burns bridges and approaches industry gatekeepers as a contrarian. But despite his self-sabotaging efforts, he eventually gets venture capital funding that propels his company to a billion-dollar valuation. The end.

It seems so simple for them.

Amrita Bhasin posing on front of the ETH Denver backdrop

Bhasin in Denver, Colorado attending ETH Denver, the biggest Ethereum conference in the world. (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

But as the founder of my own software company, Sotira, it has been hard to see myself in that typical representation. These stories never feature female founders. And if they do, they are usually non-verbal roles that are tokenized to show the façade of diversity.

Sitting in rooms talking to investors and other founders, I have experienced firsthand how that lack of female representation impacts the startup ecosystem and culture.

When I attend conferences or board meetings to talk about my company to other startup founders, I have gotten responses like, “That’s great. And you’re the intern, right?” People who look like me aren’t taken as seriously in these spaces because “we don’t belong.” It is inconceivable to many that women, especially young women or women of color, can build successful companies. It can feel like we’re invisible.

All of these barriers and microaggressions make raising venture capital funding as a woman of color, and UC Berkeley student, very hard.

Across the tech world, those gender gaps are real.

While nearly 30% of U.S. startups have female founders, only 2% of venture capital funding actually goes to woman-founded companies. Even less goes to founders who are women of color.

So, I wanted to share my story because in the tech industry, I truly believe that representation matters. And that despite the barriers and challenges, other young women can and should break that mold.

CHildhood photo of Amrita Bhasin and her brother selling lemonade.

Amrita Bhasin’s first business venture, was a neighborhood lemonade stand with her brother in Menlo Park. (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

As a child growing up in Menlo Park, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. The original Google Garage, Facebook headquarters and venture capital firms, like Sequoia Capital, operated out of offices just blocks from our house.

I remember being in middle school and flipping through the pages of Entrepreneur Magazine in search of the latest innovations from startup companies and founders around the world. Seeing how these companies could make a difference in people’s lives was inspiring.

From then on, I was obsessed. For me, Silicon Valley was like Hollywood.

My parents are immigrants from India and London, but both trace their family roots to Punjab in pre-partition India.  My father, a computer engineer, and mother, an attorney and chef, were supportive and, as a high school student, allowed me to skip school to attend tech conferences like TechCrunch Disrupt and Startup Grind. I also got to visit tech headquarters like Uber, Google and Pinterest and, during the summer, intern for local startup companies.

Amrita Bhasin posing with her brother as children, and parents in front of a rocky formation.

Bhasin said racism against her family was “often subtle and covert.” (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

While Menlo Park was a very safe area to live, it was not a very diverse place for my brother and I. My neighborhood and schools were majority white and wealthy families, and also very Christian. Looking back at my old elementary school and soccer team photos, it’s revealing now to see that I was the only or one of very few children of color.

We grew up shortly after 9/11 as a practicing Sikh family. And in an affluent suburb with a highly educated population, the racism is often subtle and covert.

I would get into arguments with students at my school who would ridicule me and my family for not going to a Christian church and for not looking like them. We also often experienced racist microaggressions from other students and community members.

While these experiences were troubling, it really gave me something to fight back against at a young age. I feel like I developed some perseverance, as well, something I have used not only as a student, but as a female founder and entrepreneur fighting to break into a space that wasn’t built for people that look like me.

I founded Sotira with my co-founder and Berkeley alumni Gary Kwong, as a second-year student, right before the summer of 2021 to provide small business owners a more customized software tool to streamline their profits and organize their finances.

A white and green Sotira billboard add over the Bay Bridge.

A billboard ad for Sotira running on the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

Our aim is to assist digital business owners that traditional financial systems have failed to support.

With Sotira, we have created personalized financial tracking templates specific to where each individual small business owner sells their products. Whether they sell on Etsy, Shopify or eBay, we help users define their business goals by showing them what adjustments need to be made to increase their profit margins.

We are currently a free product, and many of our users are women-owned businesses. And we have business owners of all ages, from stay-at-home mothers with multiple online businesses to part-time independent contractors trying to take their side hustle full time and new small business owners trying to follow their dreams.

In a year and a half, Sotira has grown to include a designer, developers and interns recruited from Berkeley’s SkyDeck program.

Bhasin and her fellow Sotira employees accept an award

Bhasin accepting the second-place award with judges at the SCET Silicon Alliance Startup Competition. (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

I’ve realized, though, that raising venture capital funding and striking partnerships is often more about networking and having introductions to the right people.

When I am in these rooms with venture capitalists as old as my father, I sometimes get frustrated. As a founder trying to describe how my company is disruptive to the industry, I get questions like: Why don’t you just start a small business? Do you know that starting a startup is actually really hard?

I know this question would never get asked of a man.

Female founders, like Sophia Amoruso and Emily Weiss, are often torn down in the media and held to higher standards and levels of responsibility than male founders. If a female founder has a public scandal or does something unethical or illegal, it is unlikely she will raise venture capital funding again. If a man does this, he is handed $350 million dollars, as seen with Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork.

That misogyny, I think, is more systemic than situational. The predecessor to Facebook was a hot or not list, and Snapchat was created to send nude photographs. Given the origin of so many successful startups, combined with founding teams and early employees that were mostly men,  a culture of misogyny and sexism definitely does permeate.

Female founders have been blacklisted by venture capital firms, hacker houses and tech parties and have been cyberbullied and harassed on social media for reporting inappropriate comments and advances men have made toward them. Again, similar to Hollywood.

Man wearing a black shirt with his back to the camera.

UC Berkeley’s startup and entrepreneurship culture is the best out of any university in the world, said Bhasin, “because there is a focus on building, creating and innovating.” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

I chose to come to Berkeley not only because the innovation and startup culture is proven to be the best in the country, but because of the diverse perspectives and sense of belonging I feel here.

As a big public university, Berkeley’s startup culture can be very competitive. But there is a nontraditional and interdisciplinary approach to entrepreneurship here that has supported me. At Berkeley, I major in sociology, and that has really shaped my worldview and given me a better understanding of the problems people face every day.

I am passionate about finding the answers.

Berkeley’s network of alumni entrepreneurs and founder ecosystem is also like no other. If you go anywhere in the world, there’s going to be Berkeley alumni who can help connect you to resources, support or just offer knowledge and advice.

In the startup world, when you say you’re from Berkeley, that clout opens many doors.

A crowd of people outside of the BBH building.

Over 250 people networking on campus at the grand opening of Berkeley’s Bakar BioEnginuity Hub, a building that will house and support startups with the latest innovations in STEM. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Berkeley’s SkyDeck incubator, classes at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology and events on campus have provided unique networking opportunities with alumni and founders from companies like Google, Lime, Oculus and Tesla.

I’ve had the opportunity to also be actively involved in blockchain, specifically initiatives for social good. I was one of two American college students selected as a scholar by the Ethereum Foundation and have traveled to conferences in Colombia, Portugal, Denver and New York City. In those countries, I shared my ideas on how blockchain can disrupt traditional financial institutions and capital lending providers that disproportionately fail to provide equal access to women — especially women of color — to start their own businesses.

Plaque of Sotira's Big Ideas award.

Sotira won the Binance-Lift Initiative Award at last year’s Big Ideas competition. (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

In whatever aspect of tech I am in, I always seek to fight for ways in which tech can promote social good.

I think, out of any university in the world, Berkeley has the best entrepreneurship culture because there is a focus on building, creating and innovating. As opposed to just entrepreneurial theory. I can read as many books as I want about how to start a company, but that will never compare to even just one day of actively building one.

So, I think there is a Berkeley mindset that encourages tenacity and grit that has been really valuable for me as a student and founder. Faculty, staff and students really value and encourage disrupting the status quo.

When I graduate this May, I will be continuing to grow and scale Sotira. We have ambitious goals to partner with fintech giants and ecommerce platforms and to grow through those partnerships. And to help more people.

Amrita Bhasin smiling

“In whatever aspect of tech I am in, I always seek to fight for ways in which tech can promote social good,” said Bhasin.” (Photo courtesy of Amrita Bhasin)

My motivation as an entrepreneur is not just to make money, but to find meaning and purpose in building a company and product from the ground up. I’ve always wanted this, and I kind of feel like my dreams are coming true.

I hope my journey here at Berkeley inspires other young women and people with nontechnical backgrounds to realize that you don’t need to be a young white male computer geek to be a startup founder. No matter what your background is, if you want to, you can do this.

And I think I am proof of that.