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3 Questions: Ritu Raman on the Women in Innovation and STEM Database at MIT

MIT postoc and WISDM founder reflects on her role models and the Institute's innovation and entrepreneurship community.
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Ritu Raman speaks about WISDM, a platform she developed to highlight female speakers at MIT.
Ritu Raman speaks about WISDM, a platform she developed to highlight female speakers at MIT.
Photo: MIT Technology Review
Image: MIT Innovation Initiative

The Women in Innovation and STEM Database at MIT (WISDM) has relaunched in time for Women's History Month. First created by Koch Institute postdoc Ritu Raman in 2018 as a way for women to gain visibility by providing a platform for female speakers at MIT, the updated site, powered by the MIT Innovation Initiative, enhances that functionality on a newly-designed platform offering an online space for community, collaboration, and visibility. WISDM is a project of MIT Innovation’s continuing Inclusive Innovation Program highlighted under the #SheInnovatesAtMIT social campaign. Raman recently spoke about her inspiration and hopes for the future of the WISDM project.

Q: When did you realize STEM was going to be such an important part of your life, and who were the role models who inspired that realization?

A: I grew up surrounded by three engineers  — my mom, my dad, and my grandfather — and they certainly set a wonderful example of what an engineer could accomplish. My family used their STEM degrees to do things like putting up communication towers that connected rural Kenyan villages to the rest of the world and launching startups designing more efficient heat exchangers. From a very early age, when faced with a problem like lack of access to clean water during droughts in southern India, I'd think about how I could solve that problem, and knew that a STEM education was a path towards that goal. But the great thing about my family is that they never limited me to STEM. I was equally interested in writing children's novels, becoming the captain of the Indian national cricket team, and joining the priesthood, and my parents always encouraged these goals. But when the time came to choose a college major, I was a practical 15-year-old who was an American immigrant and recognized the need to choose a major that would lead to a stable job ... and also a slightly less-practical idealist that dreamed of going to space one day and figured a mechanical/aerospace engineering degree was the path towards that goal. To be perfectly honest, I think I chose to become a mechanical engineer at Cornell not because I was hyper-passionate about STEM, but because it seemed like the responsible thing to do. Thankfully, I've grown to love engineering and scientific research and really come into my own in this field. I haven't given up on my non-science dreams — though maybe my cricket career is a lost cause — but I feel a deep sense of fulfillment knowing that STEM education gave me the skills and resources to use science as a force for positive social change in our world.

Q: What were your initial hopes for the database when you started WISDM, and now for its future as a tool for female entrepreneurs/venture founders?

A: Something I've found in my travels around the world is that most people are good and kind and helpful. Most people are more likely to boost you up than bring you down. When I looked at the lack of representation of women as invited speakers at events, on startup board seats, etc., I was deeply frustrated. As I started thinking about the issue a little more deeply, I realized that a lot of the factors at play are related to implicit bias. People often just choose to elevate and promote folks they know, who often look like them and act like them and come from similar backgrounds. Since most people in STEM leadership right now are men, you see a positive feedback loop of men elevating other men. So I figured I'd create a tool for the well-intentioned leaders out there — the people who know that diversity is the key to successful ventures, and who may not personally know a large number of women in STEM. This was the genesis of WISDM, a curated searchable database of women in innovation and STEM at MIT. It's a way to identify, collaborate with, support, and promote women as scientific innovators, researchers, and venture founders. I hope that people at MIT and our broader community will use it to elevate the voices of the brilliant and diverse voices of women in STEM on our campus.

Q: What are your impressions — strengths and areas of opportunity — of MIT’s innovation and entrepreneurship community, and how can students at all levels contribute as you are?

A: MIT's motto of “mens et manus,” mind and hand, says it all! This university is built for those of us who are interested in the practical real-world application of scientific innovation. We want to use STEM to solve the problems we see in the world, and that energy permeates throughout campus and is the driving force of the innovation and entrepreneurship community. I think MIT has the largest concentration of “hustlers” I've met — people who found ventures, find creative ways to fund them, throw out prototypes into the world, and dynamically adapt to changes in their environment. The best advice I can give to students at all levels is to not to focus on “following your passions” or “chasing your dreams.” When you think of life in those terms, you start feeling that your own personal fulfillment is the objective of your life. From what I've seen of the world, I think the deepest fulfillment comes from thinking, instead, of how you can provide a service to your community and what value you can provide to others. When you think about your life's purpose more in terms of what you can add to the world instead of what you can take from it, it becomes a lot easier to feel content and fulfilled at the end of each day. As an MIT community member, you have access to an excellent education. Stay focused on using it to build a better world.

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