Ad tech company Drawbridge’s CEO Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan is remarkable in a number of ways.
This year, Drawbridge — which aims to create an anonymized ID to help marketers identify their customers across devices — has become the fastest-growing female-led company in America, according to the Inc. 5000.
Women in leadership roles are rare and even rarer in ad tech. Ad tech company Maxifier identified women account for just 2.9% of ad tech CEOs.
And Sivaramakrishnan’s achievements are rarer still: As a former planetary scientist, one of the instruments she helped design during her PhD is currently on the NASA New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto.
Why so few women are ad tech leaders — the lack of females in STEM subjects and the aggressively competitive nature of the ad tech industry
Sivaramakrishnan is the first to admit that her career path has been unusual. Coming from a discipline of applied mathematics research, she had no expertise in advertising or marketing when she graduated from Stanford University and joined mobile advertising company AdMob in 2007 as the only woman in the engineering department. AdMob was acquired by Google in 2009, where Sivaramakrishnan worked as a member of technical staff for under a year before founding Drawbridge in 2010.
Sivaramakrishnan told Business Insider it became apparent early on, no matter which route she took, that she would be one of the few women in her field. Only around 10% of the women taking her engineering and statistics courses at university were women and that number diminished rapidly as she looked at other technology entrepreneurs. Within ad tech, Sivaramakrishnan says there are women in leadership roles, but most of those are in marketing and sales positions.
There are a few reasons why Sivaramakrishnan thinks this is the case.
She describes the ad tech industry as an “aggressively competitive environment.” That attracts certain personality types.
“If you’re fiercely competitive and you’re male, you tend to attract people of a similar kind, and that can skew the stats,” Sivaramakrishnan said.
There’s also a long-running trend of women not chasing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) qualifications — something a number of companies and governments are trying to address. One isn’t just limited to ad tech, but entrepreneurship in general: “The risk profile is distinct between the way men and women view risk, especially with respect to a work/life balance. It propels [women] towards less risk, especially when large companies offer you less risky opportunities, a steady stream of income, a certainty about what the next month will look like.”
How Sivaramakrishnan uses being one of the few women in her field to her advantage
Sivaramakrishnan said one of the best lessons she learned came early on: “One of my professors at Stanford said: ‘Remember, as one of the few people of your type — women engineers — you stand out. You stand out when you do well and you stand out when you underperform because there’s so few of you. People remember you even if you mess up. And that’s stuck with me for the last 10 years.”
As a result, every time Sivaramakrishnan goes to present on stage, or sits on a conference panel, or enters into a partnership discussion, she is always conscious to put her best foot forward and be very prepared as she is acting as the biggest brand ambassador for the company.
She says she has only sat on two or three panel sessions in her career where there were other women — and even then they were not technologists. But she said that’s not just what has set her apart — it’s her approach to the panels that come from a perspective of technology, mathematics, and data, rather than personal bias.
Not mentioning any names or specific experiences, she said: “I do experience what you might call personalities, and egos — misplaced or otherwise. Strong communicators. Heated debates. I’ve been on panels where you notice the person is trying to wing it. These are the flavours of the realities I experience. I personally … do not shy away from a strong debate as long as it is objective in nature and rooted in logic and data. What I try to deflect is a misplaced sense of ego, or a sense of a personality just for the sake of having one.”
We asked whether this approach, plus Sivaramakrishnan’s gender, can sometimes work as an advantage.
Sivaramakrishnan responded by telling a story of a meeting she had with a big UK agency earlier that day. At the end of the meeting one of the male executives asked: “Can I ask you a question outside the scope of this discussion? There are few women who lead companies and have backgrounds like yours. Can you tell me what it feels like?”
Sivaramakrishnan said: “I was like ‘wow’. He vocalized something that other people had been thinking of, that they want to ask, but some don’t … as I left, the group said I was an inspiration to them. I knew I did not just do right by the partnership but I felt good that I had inspired some of the women in the room. And the person asking me the question was a man.”
Sivaramakrishnan’s advice for other women in tech: “Do your research”
We asked whether Sivaramakrishnan would advise other women to go into ad tech. She explained that while one of the applications of Drawbridge is ad tech, she considers it more of a pure technology company. And instead, she would encourage women to become technologists.
“I think women bring perspective, calmness, and balanced aggression in a positive way. If you’re good at what you do as an engineer or a mathematician and you also have that natural bi-product of being a woman to supplement your work [you’re likely to go a long way,]” she said.
Sivaramakrishnan also shared advice for those other entrepreneurs and technologists who find themselves as the only woman on the panel, or the only woman in a meeting. She said she has always stood out — in a good way — when she comes to the conversation from a perspective of data, mathematics, and logic.
“Logic and sound reasoning and a sense of conviction has played to my strengths. Notice I’m not saying ‘be confident, ‘sound convincing,’ ‘have a positive attitude,’ ‘do your thing,’ ‘be charming,’ ‘believe in yourself,’ ‘have swagger’ — no. Do your research,” Sivaramakrishnan said.
As for Drawbridge, Sivaramakrishnan says her position at the helm of the company has helped the company hire a woman to its four-person engineering team and has increased female participation across the 105-person business.
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