Breaking the Patagucci Ceiling

Arjita Sethi: Founder of Equally


In India, you get to choose from a handful of “successful” careers, such as law, engineering or medicine. I chose the medical path and got my degree in physical therapy, but I was only able to impact those who could afford to see a physical therapist. I wanted to have a bigger reach, so I decided to pursue education and ended up teaching for seven years. Every time I used technology in the classroom, the kids would sit in the corner and not explore or interact with each other. It was such a passive learning experience and it broke my heart. As a teacher, you want your students to be more interactive and that just wasn’t happening.

I wanted to build a product that enables children to use a device’s camera to learn from their surroundings. I moved to San Francisco five years ago to pursue my master’s in social entrepreneurship. I had been talking to my now co-founder about my idea. We fell in love bonding over our passion for bringing literacy and equality to everyone, got married, and founded Equally, an augmented reality (AR) based social network for children. After four years and reaching twelve thousand children in five countries around the world, we’ve finally turned our side hustle into a full-time job.

I thought moving to the US would mean moving to the land of equality and women’s empowerment. After getting here, I started unwrapping the onion of the status of women in tech and the gender pay gap. In India, we talk a lot about women’s safety, but in corporate environments, you don’t see these kinds of issues discussed at such a massive scale. I am in a place where there are not a lot of people who look or talk like me. People here don’t expect women to have original ideas. When I walk into rooms, it seems like the decisions have already been made and my job is just to nod in agreement. I was never brought up like that – I was brought up to build things and think on my own, and that surprises people. The good part is that my input is always taken positively, but the fact that it’s so rare in the US is shocking. I feel lucky because, despite all the gender disparity I’ve seen, I’ve found a board of advisors consisting of mostly men that are extremely supportive of my talent.

I love the Patagonia brand but tease my husband all the time because he’s always wearing his vest, and it’s such a quintessential startup uniform. You see these guys in Silicon Valley wearing their Patagonia vests (“Pataguccis,” as they call them) with a button-up shirt and jeans and they are immediately perceived as the “startup men.” It’s interesting how a man wearing this outfit is assumed to be a potential innovator or changemaker. When you enter the startup world as a woman without that look, people perceive you as someone who runs a “cute” little company, whereas the men are seen as the next Steve Jobs. When people find out I am running an AR company, I always get a “wow,” immediately followed by a “Who can we discuss the tech with?” It is discouraging sometimes to see people label me as someone who can’t carry a technical discussion. Venture capitalists are always looking to invest in formulas that have worked in the past. We have to change the formula and show that it’s not just white, Patagonia vest wearing, Ivy League dropouts who can innovate. I want to show that men and women from all different kinds of backgrounds have the ability to innovate at scale, and the only way to do that is by doing it myself.