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Renewing Your Vows with Women’s History Month

March 24, 2022

This post was written by Stanza Founder and CEO, Smita Saxena, as part of our #PassTheMic series.

People always ask me if I hated growing up in Saudi Arabia. I never really know how to answer. I was a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. I couldn’t judge it as right or wrong because it was all I’d ever known.

I couldn’t drive as a woman. I couldn’t be in a car with a man I wasn’t related to unless I had a written note of permission.

The real shift for me wasn’t one of physical geography but of digital spaces. The internet changed everything. Stanford found me on the internet when I was still living in Saudi Arabia. They recruited me for a pre-college math program. My family was definitely skeptical at first. But it really opened the whole world up to me. The internet didn’t just give me access to information, it showed me alternatives. It told me that my life could be different. That there are people whose lives are different. Representation is what happens to be in vogue right now — it also happens to be everything.

I want to model that in my own life. Certainly, in my own industry. I was born in India, raised in Saudi Arabia. Moved to Canada. I was a math major at University of Toronto and then at Stanford. Forget pattern matching for investors. There aren’t many founders who look like me — certainly not many who’ve had a phenomenal exit. It’s sad to say it out loud. It’s ridiculous, really. This is 2022. The conversations we’re just starting to have now are nowhere near where they should be.

The conversations are too easy to gaslight. We talk about the way things are stacked against women and a certain portion of people are always going to retort, “well if you don’t like it here, why don’t you just move to Saudi Arabia?” Ha. That’s a uniquely insulting one for me to get. I can’t even be in the room with that kind of rhetoric.

Moving with my family from Saudi Arabia to Canada was a stark difference but the reality is that while the gender imbalance wasn’t taken to that totally insane degree, I still watched gender discrimination play out. It was just much more insidious.

My mom was a surgeon and she took more of a backseat in her career so she could parent — not necessarily because those were the choices she wanted to make but because her choices were more limited.

I wasn’t in Saudi Arabia when many of my female relatives asked me why I worked so hard if I was just going to get married anyway. The answer, of course, is so that another generation of girls doesn’t have to put up with such inane questions and another generation of women don’t feel compelled to ask them.

So I think of Women’s History Month as sort of like renewing your vow. It’s a time to reflect on where we are and where we want to be. It’s a time to recommit and to think about what habits and assumptions you should get busy unlearning. It’s when we ask ourselves what we want to model for new generations, and for me, a lot of that has to do with reflecting on the unmet promises of older generations.

I think a lot about my mom. How transformational it would’ve been if just one of her bosses acknowledged that she didn’t have to choose, that her family life and professional life could be complemented and enhanced by each other. What if they hadn’t treated her like her motherhood was a handicap that got in the way? We all have reframing to do. I prioritize that in the work culture I’m building at Stanza. On Women’s History Month, I’d encourage everyone to look to the past and imagine the endless alternatives.