Pushpa Ithal may not fit the stereotype of the typical Silicon Valley CEO — she’s female, foreign-born, and a mother.
Nevertheless, Ithal is an entrepreneur, living the Silicon Valley dream of running her own startup.
Like her, many foreign-born tech women are finding a place in the Valley — as tech companies have become more and more dependent on foreign-born workers to create their products and services.
Silicon Valley, the global center for high-tech innovation, could be renamed “Immigrant Valley.” When it comes to technical talent, the engine of Silicon Valley is fueled by foreign-born workers, many of whom are from humble roots. And having worked hard to get here, many have ambitions beyond their day jobs.
One of them is Ithal.
On Sundays, she and her two children, ages 5 and 10, pick out the clothes the kids will wear the coming week. Each outfit is placed on a labeled hanger. Then she does the same with the week’s snacks.
“So there are no surprises for the kids,” Ithal said.
Being organized is one of Ithal’s strategies for juggling parenting and running her own startup. And while that juggle is commonplace in Silicon Valley, Ithal is part of a distinct club — foreign-born women in tech.
Hailing from countries such as India and China, these women make up the majority of all women in certain Silicon Valley fields and are often the only females on male-dominated teams in tech companies.
Their uniqueness does not stop there. Foreign-born women in tech are more likely to be married and have children than their U.S.-born female coworkers.
Born in Bangalore, India, Ithal has worked for big tech companies and startups. Her husband, also from India, has built successful startups. Starting her own firm, however, was a leap.
“I came here all the way, let’s risk it,” recalled Ithal, founder and CEO of a company called MarketBeam, which is an AI-driven social marketing company.
More than 60 percent of tech workers in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, home to Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and other U.S. tech firms, are immigrants, according to the Silicon Valley Institute of Regional Studies. Immigrants work at all levels of the industry. Many are executives, company founders and venture capitalists.
But foreign-born women stand out. In an industry where women make up about 20 percent of the technical workforce, many of these jobs are filled by foreign-born women.
Nearly three-quarters of all women in their prime working year and in technical occupations in Silicon Valley are foreign-born, according to the institute. In computers and mathematics, foreign-born women make up nearly 80 percent of the female workforce.
The numbers surprised Rachel Massaro, vice president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley and senior researcher at the institute. It’s her job to contribute to an annual index of Silicon Valley that looks at housing, transportation and population.
“I double-checked, triple-checked the number just to make sure it was even real,” Massaro said.
Many things contribute to foreign-born women dominating tech — the dearth of women seeking a technical education in the United States, and an emphasis on tech education for girls in other countries, with many seeing technical skills as a path to financial independence and possibly a work visa in the U.S.
There are also stereotypes of what women can and should do with their lives both in the U.S. and overseas.
Working and raising children
Looking more closely at these women, Massaro found a few other surprises — 71 percent of foreign-born female tech workers ages 25-44 are married, compared to 39 percent of native-born female tech workers.
And they are more likely to be mothers — 44 percent have children, compared to 27 percent of U.S.-born female workers.
One of those women is Lingling Shi, who was born in China. She saw studying computer science as her ticket.
“Computer science, for most of us, it’s easier to apply for a green card,” she said. “It’s not my main interest, I’ll be honest.”
But Shi has succeeded in each of her jobs — she brushes up on any new technical areas online in the evenings — and is now vice president of digital banking technology at East West Bank. With her husband, who is also from China and in tech, she is raising her son.
“I guess for Chinese, the family building is most important thing,” she said.
No amount of career success would fulfill her parents’ desire for grandchildren. The message from family is clear, Shi said — “Oh, you are VP of Engineering now, but you don’t have a kid?”
Many women from India and China are “under a set of cultural expectations and norms that they will have a family right away — and they will excel in their careers,” said AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Information, who has written about immigrants in tech.
“These women are really kind of super women in the tasks that they take on,” she added.
As Silicon Valley looks to bring more women into the technical workforce, these women provide a model of how to thrive.