Divya Menon of CTRL-F: “Female tech leaders are a community unto themselves”

Female tech leaders are a community unto themselves. When I first started CTRL-F a year ago, I was more clueless than I am now. Hearing my frustration about how marginalized I felt, Ori Inbar recommended the names of a few female founders whom I should reach out to. These women understood me and I am […]

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Female tech leaders are a community unto themselves. When I first started CTRL-F a year ago, I was more clueless than I am now. Hearing my frustration about how marginalized I felt, Ori Inbar recommended the names of a few female founders whom I should reach out to. These women understood me and I am so grateful to them for giving me a place to belong. Generally, I have found female founders to be helpful overall and there is a tighter bond in our AR/VR niche because there are so few players.

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewingDivya Menon.

Divya Menon is a NASA kid turned tech founder. Having grown up in a family that sent missions to the Moon and beyond, Divya rarely felt intimidated by her own imagination and set out to create ctrl+f for real life. Today, she works on CTRL-F, a software application leveraging evolutions in spatial and cognitive computing to digitize a user’s memories and make them accessible like files on a computer.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in Clear Lake. Clear Lake, at that time, was the hub for space innovation. It was not uncommon that I would look up at the sky and spot a plane flying straight up into the clouds, perfectly perpendicular to the ground, most likely piloted by one of my neighbors. People always swoon over my memories of astronaut neighbors but they were common in Bay Forest, our Clear Lake subdivision. On one hand, we all ate spaghetti at Frenchie’s like every other American family, but on the other, our dinner conversations were about how it felt to see the Earth from 300,000 miles beyond the ether. Moonshot ideas were a part of my formative years and that never left me; everything seems possible when you are raised by a community that frequently invalidated the word “impossible.”

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

America did not (and arguably still does not) have many Brown women depicted in television or film. There were Black women and White women but not much in between. In 1992, X-Men: The Animated Series aired in the U.S. after school. That is where I met Storm and her fulminating eyes, on our state-of-the-art television that I had to hit for it to work. As a pre-teen desperate to see myself as a part of American popular culture, Storm looked ethnically ambiguous enough where I could pretend she was Desi. That entire cast of mutants would become my gateway into the idea of augmented humans; and when I first closed my eyes to contemplate what CTRL-F would look like, it was very much how illustrators depict eye powers in comic books. Inspired by that imagery, CTRL-F’s UI gives our users a superhero experience on top of functionality.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

I chose augmented reality for its capacity as a medium for eyesight. In developing the basic idea for CTRL-F, I remembered something Lauren Jarvis, Head of Content Partnerships at Spotify, had said to us during the Pulse Conference at UCLA: she thinks of what she does as audio, not podcasts or music specifically. I thought of CTRL-F as a vision product and needed a medium for eyesight. Prior to CTRL-F, I owned a marketing agency with an office at Upload VR in The Marina. Somewhere in a space that housed a dozen VR companies strewn about a Duffy London, King Arthur Swing Table and a volumetric capture room, I had made a friend who was developing smart eyewear, Juan Jackson. I asked her whether smartglasses could handle a software that would identify, catalog, and recall items that a user sees and she said they could.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

This is more of an interesting fact than an interesting story. In order to create CTRL-F, I have had to learn a tremendous amount of neuroscience as a part of understanding human memory. One of the things I learned is that for every bit of information that your eyes relay to your brain, your brain is relaying 10 times that back to your eyes. Your brain is constantly telling your eyes what it expects to see. There are some wild stories about Alcatraz prisoners in solitary confinement who have the most realistic hallucinations due to sensory deprivation, because, at that point, feedback is the only thing running without any sensory input.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Based on some of the prototypes I had seen in my friend’s office of what she was building, I was under the impression that AR eyewear already in-market would look fashionable and have full functionality. Imagine my surprise when Kyle, our technical co-founder, hopped on Zoom wearing something that could only be described as deformed bifocals, bulbous and with a display that was colorless and could barely tell time. That was when I first realized AR hardware is not as advanced as I thought and that I had a lot of research to do on the hardware side of spatial computing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My “baby” cousin Vishnu “Vish” Nair. He has not only researched and helped build the product but also tested co-founders and played a significant role in my growth on what to expect of a technical leader. As an American woman, I am underrepresented in technical fields and, therefore, find it difficult to identify and vet technical co-founders. Vish, a recent Brown computer science graduate currently getting his Masters at Tufts, worked in a junior role at CTRL-F and knew not only which engineering skills were required for CTRL-F but also what he required in a mentor. He would tell me if someone was absent, arrogant, unprepared, or unskilled. He would also tell me if someone was kind, knowledgeable, and helpful.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on CTRL-F, which will bring the ctrl+f function to real life. There are obvious benefits to it but another is within the AR industry itself. AR eyewear is pricey. Big Tech and other hardware manufacturers will find it challenging to sell smartglasses without everyday functionality underpinning the technology; and the price of smart eyewear will only decline if there is a critical mass of user adoption. CTRL-F will be as essential to that movement as Maps was for smartphones — people will wonder how anyone found things before CTRL-F the same way we wonder how any of us got around before Google Maps. Already, we have a waitlist of almost 1,000 people who have said they need CTRL-F for everything from finding remote controls hidden by a runaway toddler to managing memory issues related to ADHD and brain trauma.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

  1. Augmented humans: Augmented experiences provide a heightened and surreal feeling to the common human experience; a user will very much feel superhuman. Superhuman eyesight is what CTRL-F and Big Tech are working on. AR can also enhance auditory experiences, which is what Bose is working on. There are others, like Dr. Brennan Spiegel, augmenting mental states, like altering a schizophrenic patient’s “voices” to make positive, encouraging statements.
  2. Death 2.0: One of our technical advisors, Sudip Mishra, founded a project in augmented eternity. Augmented eternity, he explained to us, is digitizing an individual’s thoughts, behaviors, actions, etc., so that her/his imprint can live-on even after biological death. Cool stuff.
  3. Alternative methods of relaxation: VR has tremendous application in the space of mental wellness. One of my favorite applications is TRIPP. There are also VR experiences that patients find more effective than opioids.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

  1. Privacy: Individuals will likely wear smartglasses/lenses for most of the day, eventually replacing smartphones completely. As a software company in that same space, we realize that we are privileged to data that our users would not want anyone to see, much less exploit for commercial decision-making. There are two methods that we are looking into as a remedy.
    -The first is the idea of democratizing privacy. We feel that privacy is unique to each person. For example, I have a neighbor that wears open-back underwear on his balcony but I have another neighbor who never so much as opens his curtains. Their values on privacy vastly differ and technology, to be effective and desirable, must have elastic boundaries to meet diverse needs. We plan to hold forums with our users each month to ensure their privacy standards are met and will also allow them to vote on privacy measures rather than CTRL-F making unilateral decisions.
    -The next method, which is not mutually exclusive from the first, is to employ blockchain technology (especially smart contracts). Blockchain, because it is distributed amongst peers and decentralized away from us, will 1) make our work and policies transparent and 2) put power to control privacy measures into the hands of the public, giving them an equal footing in conversations with us. Right now, privacy policies are lopsided in favor of those who hold power.
  2. Competition from the CCP: In 2017, China formalized their plans to become the world’s greatest economic power by dedicating themselves to the development of AI. The policy is called “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan”. China, a country that has typically lagged in technological advancements compared to the U.S., has already beat the U.S. by leaps and bounds in AI. In 2017, while they set up their development plan, the U.S. cut funding to government research in AI. Since AI develops exponentially both algorithmically and industrially, it is no surprise that China now leads in this category. AI and quantum computing are both vital to the betterment of VR/AR/MR.
  3. Big Tech Monopolies: Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy and if Big Tech monopolizes this fourth paradigm in computing, we could see bottom-up economic stimulation snuffed out. Every year, it gets harder for startups to compete against Big Tech. For example, it is impossible to find technical co-founders, because FAANG will buy top talent with extravagant salaries but demanding hours. Similarly, hardware development is next-to-impossible without large investments and Big Tech, between both their talent and money, leaves very little space for small business competitors. I have watched talented AR eyewear startup teams fail and sold for parts in the past handful of years.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

Using AR and cognitive computing, CTRL-F not only has personal use cases but professional ones, as well. Imagine you met someone at a conference. A year later, as you walk into a café during lunch, your smartglasses spot her at a far table eating alone. You have asked CTRL-F to always highlight instances of people you might know from work, so CTRL-F highlights her in your glasses, alerting you that: someone from your work life is nearby, her name is Sara, and she is the VP of Operations at Big Co. You walk up to her, say hello, and begin a conversation, quickly learning she is hiring for a role you would be interested in. Of course, there are also more mundane instances of how to use CTRL-F at work, like remembering where you read something, who said what, where you left your lunch bag, etc.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

CTRL-F’s main focus is finding lost or misplaced items. The idea started when I had lost a cheat sheet that I needed for a job interview. I wanted to just ask out loud, “where is my cheat sheet” and see this paper illuminated somewhere in my vision. However, all we had were modern versions of LoJacks and audio searches that made me feel more like a bat than a human. CTRL-F is using AR to create superpowered vision where you can use visual search when looking for an item around your house and the item will illuminate once it is found.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

There is a night and day difference when I speak with male versus female tech investors. The latter are much more understanding that a woman has likely not had a previous working relationship with her technical co-founder but men have not fully appreciated that struggle. I would like to see co-founder-related investor questions shift from quantifiable, “how long have you worked together?” to qualifiable, “how do you both complement each other” or “what have you accomplished together so far?”

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

Our promise is bigger than what we can deliver. Basically, if I could sum up our industry as a meme, CTRL-F very much included, we would be the expectation versus reality meme.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Female tech leaders are a community unto themselves. When I first started CTRL-F a year ago, I was more clueless than I am now. Hearing my frustration about how marginalized I felt, Ori Inbar recommended the names of a few female founders whom I should reach out to. These women understood me and I am so grateful to them for giving me a place to belong. Generally, I have found female founders to be helpful overall and there is a tighter bond in our AR/VR niche because there are so few players.
  2. Create non-traditional, technical roles for yourself and other women to work with technology directly. Women are getting more creative about how to gain access to tech roles without an education in technical fields. Allison Ferenci, co-founder of Camera IQ, helped me let go of the notion that the only way to be a woman in tech was to do tech. There are unique possibilities for roles in ideation and oversight that we could develop, roles that would not require tremendous technical skill but still have meaningful impact on invention/product.
  3. Women have a shot at gender parity in spatial computing. Because the technology is being developed, that means the parts and languages are also in development — women would be studying languages at the same time as men. Further, nobody has established a name for themselves in this field because of its novelty, which means women can enter the space without a needing lengthy tech résumé.
  4. Female engineers are coveted by FAANG more than any other segment. Hiring females in tech is near impossible because they either have business ideas of their own or FAANG is hiring them. As a result, female founders with AR/VR tech startups are leading all-male or largely male startup environments.
  5. You can make up for the lack of a technical background by having a strong point of view. The common thread I found with all women in tech who do not possess a technical degree or experience is that all of us know exactly what we want to accomplish with technology. Technology is merely a vehicle to accomplish a mission and not the mission itself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am also working on ideas that will reshape the inequities of urbanism and housing. Across the globe in superstar cities, housing has shifted away from consumption and into speculation. In turn, prices of homes have skyrocketed while incomes have barely budged and families have become enslaved to rent and mortgages. Governments do little to stop this other than creating Affordable Housing for those who fall victim to the system. Very little innovation occurs in the space and you’ll find that it is riddled with natural monopolies. We must all ask ourselves who is benefitting from this system the most and was 2007/2008 just a small part of the problem rising to the surface?

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Cathie Wood. Is she an actual genius? Does anybody know? I want her to advise me on everything from markets to business to beauty. She is living the dream and I don’t know if she needs an assistant but I would like to apply for that job and learn everything I can from her.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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