Taking calculated risks and going into the unknown is very important. Earlier in life you can take more risks than later in life. The minute you get comfortable doing what you do you are not going to push yourself. I have taken huge risks all of my life. Coming to US for a Masters in Computer Science with no family here was a risk I took. It had its costs for me as I did not have enough emotional support but it also made me a stronger person. I took a risk at every move in my career, the biggest risk including starting MobileArq and investing a lot of my savings into the venture. MobileArq has had great social impact and continues to generate money year after year for the schools and non-profits.
Isthe American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nirupama Mallavarupu.
Nirupama Mallavarupu is the Founder and CEO of MobileArq, a school communications and collaboration app for parents providing them their school at their fingertips. She also consults for IBM Cybersecurity division. Prior to MobileArq, Niru Mallavarupu led development and product teams at Bluenog and SiteAcuity. She worked in one of the pioneering application server teams during the early days of the internet in Sun Microsystems and as a kernel programmer for the Oracle 7/8i in the Server Technologies group. In her spare time, Niru spends time with her family and likes to run.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Igrew up in Chennai in South India in a traditional middle-class family as the youngest of three girls. My Father worked as an information scientist in a research lab for the government, Memories of my childhood include accompanying my father on his work visits to several libraries. These visits nurtured my love for literature. My Mother was an inspiring spiritual influence in my life, always encouraging us to do our best. Although the Indian society was always focused on getting women married as early as possible, my parents always encouraged my sisters and I to be independent, excel in education and aspire for a career.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
When I was about 12 years old, my Father gradually started to lose his memory and had a grave illness. As my Father’s illness deteriorated, he had to take early retirement and we moved from Chennai to Hyderabad. A couple of years after the move, I graduated with a degree in Computer Science from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), a top-ranked university in India. I took up a job in a local software company working on operating systems.
After a lengthy illness, my Father passed away. While we grieved the loss of my father, my family also felt exhausted.
The software industry was in its nascent stages in India. I was thirsty to learn and grow however the opportunities were few. I also felt very restless with my surroundings. So I applied to pursue a Masters in Computer Science to a few universities in the US. .When I received admission (with a potential to get financial aid) at Georgia Institute of Technology, I considered the opportunity with my family. Friends already in the US told me that with my work experience and coding skills, it was possible to support myself with a coding job off-campus. I had to get all my documents ready to get a visa within 10 days. I managed to get it done — I got a student’s visa to travel to the US. Although I was very sad and somewhat scared to go to a new country, I made the necessary arrangements. My Mother was very brave sending me unaccompanied to the US with not even a telephone line at home in those days.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I took a flight for the first time in my life to come to the US. I traveled to Bombay (now Mumbai) from my hometown by train and took a flight from Mumbai to New York. My Mother came with me to see me off in Mumbai. I cried the whole night before my early morning flight. I was filled with trepidation on what was in store for me.
I arrived at JFK on a crisp fall morning with two large suitcases. It was daunting to change terminals, which I needed to do to catch my connecting flight to Atlanta.
My biggest worry when I landed was whether I would receive financial aid. I wrote to the department a few weeks before I left and they had said they would try their best to find some funding sources. However nothing was guaranteed. I would have had no means to support myself without aid. I was taking a huge risk in accepting this admission and coming to the US on my own. Everything from food, clothes and the way of living was completely different for me.
One of my seniors from Indian Institute of Science where I had done my Bachelors was doing a PhD in Georgia Tech. He arranged for me to stay in the living room with three other South Asian women who had just come to Georgia Tech while I looked for an apartment. I spent most of my first two weeks visiting professors in my department and asking them about research or teaching assistant opportunities. I had signed up for classes but had not paid my tuition yet. I was ready to drop out if I did not get an assistantship. I had almost given up hope, when the Computer Science department offered me a teaching assistantship on the last day for submitting tuition.
It was such a relief and to this day I consider it a major turning point in my life.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am extremely grateful to both M.Chelliah, my senior from my previous school and Professor Mustaque Ahmed who mentored me to getting that teaching assistantship. Another GT professor also helped me was Dr. Prasad from the Aerospace department. He bought my first bed when I got a room in a townhouse — i was sleeping on the floor for many days. He and his wife were very kind and hosted me in their place several times.
They also helped me when I faced a harrowing incident in Georgia Tech. During one spring break, all of my housemates with whom I was sharing a townhouse went home to their families. I was living alone in the entire set of apartments as most of the students had gone away.
Sometime around 2.30am in the morning, I heard a loud knocking on my front door. In those days, Georgia Tech was considered a very unsafe campus. We regularly got campus news about murders on the streets so we never walked alone anywhere at night. I was petrified when I heard this knocking on the door.
Eventually I heard the door broke open and footsteps in the house.
The man came upstairs and opened my bedroom door — I had a heated iron hidden away, just in case. However, he did nothing and walked away. I had dialed 911 for help but the police officers were unable to locate my address for about 20 minutes while he broke in and walked around the house.
The police eventually took the intruder away. I later found out that he was so inebriated that he did not know what he was doing. He was looking for another friend of his who lived in a different townhouse and ended up at our place.
I was completely shaken by this incident and with a broken door did not feel safe to live in that apartment until it was fixed. I called the other professor I knew from an introduction someone had made — Professor Prasad. He and his wife took me in for the rest of the spring break. I will never forget their kindness.
So how are things going today?
After my Masters, I worked in the technology sector for over 20+ years. Along the way, I had got married and had 2 kids. The technology sector was not very kind towards women, let alone pregnant women or mothers. I was laid off from one of the technology halcyons in Silicon Valley when I was on my maternity leave. In my third trimester, I was purposefully kept me idle form doing work by my managers. That can be torture for a software engineer eager to do code. When I left on my maternity leave, my manager did not say goodbye or wish me well or even respond to my email. I felt extremely insecure and stressed out the entire time.
When I was on maternity leave, the only friend I had in the group called me to tell me that she had heard that I had been laid off. However, my manager would not return my calls. In the end, he responded and confirmed the news.
I am telling you this story to emphasize the amount of discrimination and abuse that women have to go through to survive in the technology industry. And sadly, this was not the only incident that happened to me. Almost always, I was the only woman on the team and found that I was shut out of many decisions/meetings. I was also told numerous times that as a Mother I could not be an architect or a manager.
I love technology and that is the only reason I continued to work in this industry out of love of learning new technologies, programming frameworks and innovation.
As my kids were growing up I felt the need to connect with other parents and stay on top of events in the school in a single place. This is why I started MobileArq, an app that focuses on helping parents by connecting them with their school community easily. Parents can call/email/text any parent/teacher in the school community easily, pay for fundraisers, school lunches and sign up for events in one place. On the other end, parent organizations use it to manage everything in their school in a single place.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have used my technology expertise to create an all-in-one software application for non-profits (parent organizations in schools) to manage all the activities in their school community in a single location easily. PTAs and PTOs in schools and districts can post fundraisers, send out newsletters to parents to keep them informed, add volunteering events and manage the entire school directory via MobileArq admin portal.
Schools have raised millions of dollars using MobileArq while parents have sent out millions of messages through the app.
My vision is to make school communities to be more connected and better funded by placing the MobileArq app into the hands of every K- 12 parent. The app provides a lifeline for parents to connect with anyone in school community any time. The app is currently undergoing a complete revamp to present an upgraded interface and to make the user experience even better for all our parents.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Reduce the time to get a green card by removing artificial country-wise quotas.
Help applicants to understand exactly where they are in process especially the estimated time to the next step and the end goal.
Immigrants should be treated with respect as any others. Every time I go through customs or immigration, I feel a hostile environment. That should be changed to create a better user experience.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
The American Dream is to be given equal opportunity to succeed no matter what background you come from. It allows an individual to stretch and reach for the stars. For anyone to take advantage of this opportunity to excel, you still need to have grit, persistence, planning and some luck to materialize your goals.
1 . Look for opportunities to learn and grow wherever you are and whatever you are doing. I was in a cushy job in Oracle Server Technologies with a steady income, fantastic amenities on campus including a full-fledged gym) and health insurance options. I was comfortable with the coding stack (Unix, C, the Oracle server stack) and I could have continued to learn Oracle technologies. However, the pace of learning was slow. I challenged myself and looked for positions inside Oracle and outside that would help me to learn the new internet technologies (it was 1998 and the internet backbone was just getting created e.g., application servers/web servers). This is how I landed in a pioneering company in application servers who were selling like hot cakes to enterprise businesses who needed middleware to manage all of their transactions.
It forced me to learn not only the entire new stack of technologies to build the internet backbone and new languages (Java/C++) but also participate in the up and coming internet standards like J2EE and CORBA.
2. Have short term and long term SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-based and Time bound). This acronym can be used for other types of goals as well however the intention is to set the goals and measure them periodically. When I was in my twenties, my goals were focused on stabilizing my life — which country did I want to settle in, what type of partner did I want in life and what type of work did I want to do. Also there are some things in life you cannot control for example, immigration status or when your green card process will be approved so that does not mean you don’t move forward with other aspirations. I continued to learn and make progress in my career as best as I could take reasonable risks with my immigration goals in sight.
3. Perseverance is the key to success but perseverance combined with strategic thinking and mentorship goes a long way in achieving goals. For example, if you believe in your business idea, it is important to look at the viability of the idea — the Total Addressable Market, expertise you need to sell in that market and funding needs. I first started a neighborhood network for connecting neighbors called HowdyHood but quickly realized from market research that in heavily populated cities like NYC people may not even want to know their neighbors. Also, it would require heavy funding to take it off the ground. After about 6 months, I moved on and pivoted to a different school community platform.
4. Surrounding yourself with good advisors and mentors is a key to professional success. This is something that I strongly advise as not having supportive mentors has hurt my career. When I was bullied at work and approached women in senior positions for advice and mentorship, they simply turned me away. Once again, the tech companies I worked in were brutal and did nothing to help shy and introverted people like me. Many a time I was the only female member in the entire group and this made it all the more difficult. Nowadays there are ample networks to seek and find mentors so go for it,
5. Taking calculated risks and going into the unknown is very important. Earlier in life you can take more risks than later in life. The minute you get comfortable doing what you do you are not going to push yourself. I have taken huge risks all of my life. Coming to US for a Masters in Computer Science with no family here was a risk I took. It had its costs for me as I did not have enough emotional support but it also made me a stronger person. I took a risk at every move in my career, the biggest risk including starting MobileArq and investing a lot of my savings into the venture. MobileArq has had great social impact and continues to generate money year after year for the schools and non-profits.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
The USA I stepped into in 1991 felt very different from the country I am experiencing today after the Trump era. There is blatant racism but also the “Black Lives Matter” movement that has really taken the country by the horns. The election of the new government and the strength of the ‘Black Lives Matter Movement shows that the majority of the country is progressive and welcomes diversity with immigrants like me. I am optimistic about the future for immigrants of all shades and colors to thrive and shine in the US and leave their mark and make a difference.
While I have personally experienced discrimination as a woman in the tech sector, I am very optimistic for women here to be treated equitably in all professions for the future. If there is a country that can protect women’s rights, it is the United States. With our justice system and more women (and diverse women from all backgrounds) entering the Congress and Senate than ever before, I am very hopeful for the future of women here, especially in terms of support in child care, equity in the workplace and funding for women- owned businesses.
I am hopeful that the US will lead the charge in being a steward for our beautiful planet. I hope the next generation will be able to limit the use of harmful materials like plastic — my dream is for us to do away with plastic completely and use biodegradable materials for all kinds of goods.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Kamala Harris, our VP or Sallie Krawcheck, Founder and CEO of Ellevest who inspire me in many ways.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Readers can reach me by sending an email through our website at https://mobilearq.com. I am also available on Facebook: https://facebook.com/mobilearq and Twitter at https://twitter.com/mobilearq?lang=en
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!