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❝Thinking small is not in Shilpi’s DNA❞.

3.2

According to Openstax

❝Social Enterprises, that is orgs with a purpose for social good only make 3.2% of all entrepreneurial enterprises.❞

❝Meet Shilpi Agarwal; her name literally stands for sculptor in Sanskrit, a person who creates, molds, and builds three-dimensional structures from sheer imagination and grit.❞ ~ Susanna Raj

❝It is no wonder that she is naturally inclined towards arts and even calls it a constant in her life. But what is remarkable is her non-linear journey from engineering to marketing to teaching to building accelerators for non-profits, to her current mission to sculpt scalable social impact on a global stage❞ ~ Susanna Raj.

❝Thinking small is not in Shilpi’s DNA and that became quite evident to me when I met her last year❞ ~ Susanna Raj

The Sculptor of Scalable Social Impact.

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In the realm of onomastics; which is the study of names, Shakespeare’s stance that a rose called by any other name would smell just as sweet does not have a lot of backing. In their etymology,  names call out the attributes of an entity and are used as tools to predict the desirable. If anyone is in the quirky pursuit of collecting evidence (like me), anecdotal at best, to prove if any of this is true; I can tell you it’s quite rare for you to come across objective proof like this one.

Meet Shilpi Agarwal; her name literally stands for sculptor in Sanskrit, a person who creates, molds, and builds three-dimensional structures from sheer imagination and grit.  

It is no wonder that she is naturally inclined towards arts and even calls it a constant in her life. But what is remarkable is her non-linear journey from engineering to marketing to teaching to building accelerators for non-profits, to her current mission to sculpt scalable social impact on a global stage.  

Thinking small is not in Shilpi’s DNA and that became quite evident to me when I met her last year. As she explained the foundational 12 pillars of her grassroots philanthropical org to me, I  realized that each pillar was one org by itself and she was trying to roll 12 into one like a potter slapping layers of clay to mold a large vessel.

Apparently, that is because she is a sculptor by training, known for fusing different materials cohesively into one!

Everyone knows that the issues around the ethical use of data is an ocean, and most people are happy to swim in one corner of it, but not Shilpi. She named her org DataEthics4All – and she means it.  

LITERALLY.

“Every single piece of data anywhere and every single person who ever touches data must cross paths with ethics.” Shilpi Agarwal 

That is DATA. ETHICS. FOR. ALL. An ambitious mission for anyone but for Shilpi, manifesting the impossible is possible, for she passionately believes that when you stand for something, the universe stands with you. She believed in the “build it and they will come” philosophy – and built a platform overnight and a community of a thousand global leaders came to roost on it a year later!

 

THIS IS HER STORY. A FOUNDERS JOURNEY

Globally there are 163 million female founders and out of those social enterprises, that is organizations with a purpose for social good only make 3.2% of all entrepreneurial enterprises. Yet women lead 45% percent of the world’s social entrepreneurial organizations. But how many of us know their stories as well as we do the stories of the Marks, Bezos, Jobs, and Gates of this world?

I thought it was time to tell their stories.

Here is one.

The adages that entrepreneurs love to challenge the status quo are comfortable in ambiguous waters, can shapeshift at a moment’s notice – are all true in the story of Shilpi. A serial entrepreneur.

Born in the City of Dreams, Mumbai, and raised in the City of the Sun, Surat, Shilpi was destined to think big and build big from a young age.

Shilpi-Agarwal-with-elder-brother-Vivek-Agarwal

Shilpi with her elder brother Vivek (on the left in the picture above)

Thanks to the influence of her father Banwarilal Agarwal, a spiritually inclined businessman who encouraged her to think bigger than herself. To move away from the narrow scope of mind tethered to materialistic successes; to focus on lasting impact instead.

The ability to see beyond yourself only comes after seeing the power of your singular efforts on the world before you. It is known in psychology that children build their internal self-esteem from external validation. Shilpi was no exception to that.

With an innate drive for excellence, she still remembers her first taste of validation for it in kindergarten. When the awards were announced at her school’s annual day function, she was called to the stage for winning one. As she happily received the award and exited the stage, her name was called out again. Then again. Then again. Then again. And again. She was asked not to exit as she had won all 7 awards in all the categories that day! Unable to hold her trophies by herself, her mom had to come to the stage to help her!

Shilpi holding prizes at age 5

(Shilpi holding multiple prizes at age 5)

It was a pivotal moment of joy for a 5-year-old to see her entire school and the parents of all the kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, stand and applaud her achievements. A moment that is still etched fresh in her memories.

That drive to excel was both naturally channeled and externally propelled in Shilpi who came from a society that undervalues the achievements of female children. Determined to prove herself, she raised her hand for every opportunity that came her way. And she excelled in all of them.

Studies were just one of them.

Although she was gifted in both math and sciences, her first choice was not engineering. She listened to the calls of her creative soul and wanted to go into architecture. But the university she got into was not in her hometown, so she decided to stay closer to home and enrolled in Computer Science at the prestigious NIT (National Institute of Technology) in  Surat, one of the top engineering universities in India.

It was meant to be because that is where she met the love of her life,  Rohit, who happened to share the same last name as hers!

Shilpi-Agarwal-with-spouse-Rohit-Agarwal

Shilpi with spouse Rohit Agarwal

As the classes were structured by roll numbers based on last names, Rohit and Shilpi were always placed together. Shilpi was impressed by Rohit’s casual attitude towards exams, as it was the first time she came across someone who didn’t prepare fanatically for hours before an exam like her! During one such exam, Shilpi had a doubt on how the question was framed, and she asked the examiner for clarity. Not knowing the answer, the examiner permitted her to ask one of her fellow students. She turned to Rohit and he not only explained the question but proceeded to give the full answer to the question in front of the examiner, who, apparently, was not sharp enough to catch it!

That incident was the start of a lifelong friendship and love that has lasted 24 years and is still going strong.

But their paths diverged after college, as Rohit started working right after graduation. Shilpi, on the other hand, wanted to buy time from the ultimate Indian society’s pressure of getting women married by a certain age. So, she proceeded to try her hand again at a Design Degree. This time, she applied for a competitive Master’s in Design at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Mumbai,  another prestigious university in India.

She took a highly competitive Common Entrance Exam for Design (CEED) for getting into IIT in which she placed at the 94th percentile, out of thousands who appeared for the exam worldwide.

Coming from a tech background, she lacked the rich portfolio of designs that most design undergrads would have, but that didn’t stop Shilpi. She improvised by curating newspaper ads for Airlines and redesigned them for her application. The panel of admission interviewers were impressed by her innovative approach and granted her admission alongside only 14 others!  Yes, this Program was that competitive, with only 14 seats.

Armed with dual degrees in arts and analytics, married to the love of her life, she moved to America, the land of opportunity.

There began her journey into motherhood, which became the catalyst to her entrepreneurial pursuits.

Like any new mom, she documented the precious moments of her children growing up with a  camera. And caught the shutterbug big time which led her to study photography for two years.  As anyone who catches that bug eventually finds themselves with a boatload of pictures that they don’t know what to do with, so did she!

But unlike most of us who just shove them into the black hole called storage; she saw an opportunity to curate them and create personalized albums for parents and schools.

Let Memories Roll was born. Her first social entrepreneurship.

Shilpi-Agarwal-at-a-booth-in-Art-Festival

 

It was a labor of love that she ran on her own power, hand drawing every page with love – until she couldn’t. She dissolved it with a heavy heart, but not before deeply embedding the lessons learned from it; to be sustainable, it must be scalable.

Therefore, Shilpi honed her skills as a growth marketing consultant, working with companies big and small. She used her data analytics and design thinking skills in creating strategies to increase their revenue and promoting their brand awareness. Helping them grow and thrive.

So well known for her knowledge in this area, that when one of her friends, a lecturer, was asked to develop a course for UCSC on this topic, she recommended Shilpi for that. She ended up teaching all 3 courses taught by her friend. From there, Shilpi was asked to teach at UC Berkeley and was then invited to teach at Stanford on Social Data and AI for Marketers.

From an entrepreneur to a consultant to an instructor, Shilpi was not done morphing. The circle was incomplete.

“Consultants make the best instructors! When you teach somebody – you validate ideas,  and thoughts; you know your concepts better.” Shilpi Agarwal 

With actual professionals from top tech companies in Silicon Valley as her students, Shilpi’s lesson plans were not theory, but actual insights that she was known for, in translating data to create personas for buyers and brands – a fact not lost on one of her students from AutoDesk who gave her the biggest compliment by saying he will take this knowledge back to his company to lead his team with it.

Teaching gave Shilpi the confidence as well as the desire to give back to the community. She mentored many organizations. Including being a mentor at MIT’s $100K launch.

After 4 accelerators, 5 courses at 3 major Universities, she came to the realization that nonprofits need accelerators and access to resources like organic and gorilla marketing techniques to scale their social impact. She started her next entrepreneurial venture called Social Strategi. She became a growth marketer for non-profits. A free initiative in which 7 non-profits graduated successfully and it was her first foray into scaling social impact.

IN TRADITIONAL WARLI PAINTING, A FORM OF FOLK ART THAT SHILPI LOVES  TO INCORPORATE IN HER GLASS AND CLAY FUSIONS, IT IS RARE TO FIND A  STRAIGHT LINE

WARLI USES NONLINEAR LINES AND CIRCLES TO SYMBOLIZE THE ENDLESS LOOP OF  BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

Close-Up of Warli-Clay-Art

A closer look at the non-linear lines of Warli Art made by Shilpi

In contemporary career   paths, a non-linear trajectory is not seen as normal or even acceptable.  Society wants to know what box to put you in, and in exactly what order. Beginning and ending multiple paths makes one unfit to climb corporate ladders.

But that does not deter artists, creators, and sculptors like Shilpi from building their own ladders.

“I found a way to make my own mark.” Shilpi Agarwal

In 2018, when the world went shell shocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal; Shilpi, by then, a renowned growth marketer who uses data analytics to drive results, realized the potential for harm and the pilfering of power from people’s hands by  Big Tech. She vowed to give the power back to them.

That is how DataEthics4All was born in 2020.

 

12-Pillars-of-DataEthics4All-

12 Ethical Pillars of DataEthics4All

She formed the World’s First Independent Data Ethics Advisory Council to develop a Data  Ethics and Governance framework for all stakeholders. With 12 Ethical Pillars as the Guiding  Foundational Framework.

She built an online platform for everyone, regardless of their discipline or background, to come to learn, teach, advocate, and listen. She decided to harness the power of crowd wisdom to scale social impact. In spite of a global pandemic that erupted just a few months after her launch, the community grew to almost a 1000 now, with a reach to 60k around in 11 countries.

Shilpi is a force for good. She drives change with her leadership skills to motivate a  community to execute her vision and to dream big. She does this with zero ego and  immense kindness to educate everyone to bring data literacy to the world.” Sudha Jamthe, CEO of IOT Disruptions 

Make a mark she did indeed. As Sudha, one of her peers mentioned above, she did it without any ego.

As a weary traveler to the land of AI Ethics, I wanted to join organizations that had established their roots and were now spreading their wings, under which I can take refuge. So, when Shilpi approached me on LinkedIn with an invite to join the community to contribute, I hesitated, as her org was still a baby. At the same time, I saw an opportunity to grow with an emerging diverse community of leaders. To learn together, to make mistakes together, and to rise together. But I was not sure of what kind of a leader she was, for she was just a stranger on LinkedIn to me.

If it were not for the historic 2020 Pandemic, I don’t think I would have trusted a stranger I met online. Who is she? And what does she want to do? Empower? Educate? Raise awareness? Build communities?

All that and more.

I found her quite down to earth with a willingness to learn and gain from the insights of others. I  also found her to be a die-hard addict to perfectionism when it came to designs and graphics. A  relentless workaholic and an idea machine. Deeply committed to changing the landscape of ethics, with an open mind to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.

SHE WANTED TO BUILD A COMMUNITY. AND SHE WANTED THAT  COMMUNITY TO BUILD THE ETHICAL PIPELINE

Shilpi not only realized the power of empowerment and safe spaces in building a community, but she also understood on a deeply personal level the value of building real long-term relationships over just getting the job done by heaping praise.

She learned that as a class monitor in school. A leadership role that was given to outstanding rank holders in most Indian schools to lead other students. At an impressionable age, when acceptance of adults in authority matters the most to kids, this role is a tryst with power and influence for many children. Shilpi also fell into that trap as she upheld the rules set by the teachers, much to the displeasure of her classmates. She at times, ruthlessly ratted out her classmates for innocuous misdemeanors, earning their wrath and losing their friendship.

She was so filled with remorse and regret about this for years in her adult life, that she decided to spearhead a school re-union and took that event as an opportunity to apologize individually to each one of her old classmates.

WHEN SOMEONE IS SO INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED TO RIGHT EVERY WRONG, HER  ENTRY INTO DATA ETHICS, DIVERSITY, AND EQUITY BUILDING SEEMS PREDESTINED

When most organizations were comfortable with releasing a statement of support for the family and the nation, that coiled in unimaginable pain at the senseless murder of  George Floyd, Shilpi and her leadership team looked for a more tangible response, one that addressed the insidious uses of algorithms to push discriminatory and predatory practices against a group of people.

And the Ethics4NextGen AI Hackathon was born.

A hackathon that was shunned by most sponsors for its radical approach. Scorned for going straight to the heart of the matter; systemic racism that uses the new vehicle of technology to perpetuate historic injustices.

The words of a German philosopher come to mind when thinking of the initial response to  Ethics4Next Gen Hackathon.

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently  opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident”. Arthur Schopenhauer 

It was ridiculed for being so radical to be the first hackathon with ethics at its core, to make a  conscious effort to move away from self-forming teams, to aggressively recruit/combine non-technical participants with technical participants, and to include technical Bootcamps to level the playing field.

A Hackathon so revolutionary that it didn’t mince words when it came to describing the inherent racial biases behind its three core challenges: Predictive policing, Criminal justice, and Covid contact tracing. A hackathon that meticulously aligned everything with its core mission,  including the talks at the first AI summit preceding the hack, to mentors to each team during the hack, to the selection of judges.

IT WAS A BOLD MOVE FOR A YOUNG ORGANIZATION TO STICK ITS  NECK OUT AND GO WHERE NONE OF ITS PEERS WENT

4 winners, 5 solutions, 250 attendees, from 11 countries later, it garnered tremendous praise globally and a coveted spot at the prestigious NeurIPS WiML 2020 Conference as a poster presentation.

“I have yet to see another Hackathon that is so ethics focused as this one!” Aishatu  Gwadabe, Grand Prize Winning team member of Ethics4NextGen Hackathon 

Today, it is a self-evident truth that ethical issues in technology cannot be solved without adding diversity and equity into the mix. Adding patches to a broken pipeline will only delay the disaster and not prevent it. Building the pipeline from the ground up was the way to go.

Yet those truths were not so self-evident a year ago.

Shilpi-CloseUp-Clay-Art

A close-up pic of Shilpi’s Clay Fusion Art

As the winding lines of Warli go up and down and around, Shilpi went from engineer to entrepreneur, to consultant, to instructor, to entrepreneur, to an international conference  presenter, to….

…A sculptor of social impact. Scalable social impact. The impact that is too big to miss. A goal so much larger than life. Larger than herself.

When a notification message popped up on my phone in December of 2020 that Shilpi had made an announcement on the DataEthics4All community page, that she was going to provide free  STEM tutoring to 5 Million kids in underperforming schools as part of her three-pillar strategy to build the pipeline of ethical tech. I sat back in shock and I wondered why not start with 50  first? Or 500, or 50k or 500k or even 1 million?

Why 5 Million? For the love of God, can she not announce anything small? But she can’t. And she should not.

When I started out as a student intern at a major tech company, working in a nascent field known as Affective Computing, which is the training of AI agents to recognize human behavior and emotions, I struggled to convey the fact that emotion theories were not directly transferable as measurable metrics as the engineers understood it to be.

One of the lead scientists, who was my manager there used the language of art, one of my other passions, to help me convey it better. She used one of Georgia O’Keefe’s quotes. O’Keefe who was a New York City artist was once asked why she painted such huge blowups of flowers.  O’Keefe responded by saying “Most people in the city rush around so they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

Like O’Keefe, she told me to paint my perspective So Big that they simply CANNOT IGNORE IT.  

When the world refuses to see how the lack of cognitive diversity emboldens unethical tech, it is important to paint your evidence as viscerally as possible.

The fact that even if Shilpi falls short of a million, or several million, it is still large enough to make a dent so big that no one can unsee it.

The definition of a founder according to Merriam Webster is someone who manufactures articles of cast metal, who sends materials down to the bottom of a mold, to fill it, to give it shape.

It is quite fascinating to me that most female founders want to get to the bottom of things, create change at the grassroots level and build from there.

That is also the story of this founder. A sculptor of social impact. A caster of scalable impact. One who was born to manifest her father’s vision of rejecting the narrow scope of mind.

One who is not yet done molding her art… or morphing herself.

Author

Susanna-Raj

Susanna Raj

DataEthics4All Leadership Council, Cognitive Science/ AI Ethics Researcher/ Founder of AI4Nomads/ Artist & Writer