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Silver Linings and Sisterhood: Apoorva's journey of embracing tech

There aren't many things which Apoorva Singh has left untouched when it comes to tech. You name it, she is there. Hackathons, Learn IT Girl! Scholar, Western Digital Scholarship, Microsoft, MIT India Initiative, She++ Ambassadors Programme....the list goes on.

So how did she pull everything off? Read all about her inspiring story.

I distinctly remember the day in Class X when I was supposed to fill the application to opt for an elective in the 11th and 12th standard out of Computer Science, Economics and Biology apart from PCM. I liked Biology and was pretty good at it, but was fascinated with CS. As an unsure and anxious 16-year-old, who had always excelled at academics, I weighed the pros and cons. I sat down to picture a coder. The image was that of a boy, with headphones on, coding for hours late at night. Due to the conditioning by social media and films, it was hard for me to break past this visual and picture myself pursuing CSE, no matter how curious I was to explore it. However, with a little push provided by my parents, who believed that CS is going to be the future, I decided to go for it.

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To my utter dismay, all my apprehensions and fears came back to haunt me on the first day of 11th grade, when I saw that in a class of 45 students, there were just 9 girls. The numbers spoke for themselves and ingrained in me the belief that perhaps I’m not meant for CSE, and that this is and will remain to be a male-dominated field. This affected my confidence and as a result, I struggled to perform well in this subject. Another thing that troubled me was the lack of a support system in my class. Since girls were a minority, I believe we should’ve been more supportive of each other. But the reality was far from it. After two years of battling with my decision of taking up CS, I got my board results, and CS was the subject in which I scored the lowest. Even though the score was decent, my love-hate relationship with CS by now was set in stone. Having secured a decent rank in my entrance exams for engineering colleges, I secured seats in the CSE branch of IGDTUW, and some other not so popular branches in relatively better colleges like DTU, NSIT, NITs, etc. I was again at a crossroads. My past demons came back to haunt me; Will I ever be resourceful in such a heavily male-dominated field? After introspection and long discussions with my parents, I decided to abandon the myriad of self-doubt I carried and chose to go for it, given its scope and growing popularity.

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When college began, I was completely clueless about how to make the most of my college life. I had the zeal to work hard but my efforts lacked the right direction. In school, the idea of being a minority affected my confidence, however, in college, despite being surrounded by hundreds of girls pursuing CSE, I felt lost. There was no active forum that bridged the gap between seniors and juniors on campus. The coding culture that I was hoping to become a part of was almost non-existent. People were doing great things at their end, but there wasn’t an active exchange of ideas. During the end of the first year, I came across a book, Lean In Women, Work, and, the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, which I believe has been the most influential piece of writing I’ve come across. It has, quite literally, changed my life! I discovered the power of communities, peer learning, and women leaning on each other to rise and thrive together! Through the insights gained from the book, I decided to rebuild my life.

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With a renewed perspective about diversity in tech after reading the book, I was adamant about starting a club that would help establish an Open Source culture in college when my second year began. Coincidentally, I came across a registration form for mentorship in the 'Lean In' chapter of my college. I didn’t even know that Lean In IGDTUW existed. I was beyond excited and after interacting with the then president, I founded the Open Source Circle under Lean In IGDTUW. We circulated the forms for students to become a part of the Open Source Circle as mentees, and overnight we received close to 100 registrations. I was ecstatic to see the response and could sense that it was not just going to be a circle, it would go on to become a movement! I was also a part of the Core Team and actively participated in the Competitive Coding Circle as a mentee. The year that followed changed me as a person! As a mentor, I got a chance to help my team mentees learn version control and submit their first pull requests. I motivated them to apply to prestigious Open Source programs like Google Summer of Code. As a Core Member, I helped overlook the operations of regular sessions of various circles and invited many accomplished guest speakers to share their experiences in their respective fields, exposing the students of my college to immense possibilities. As a mentee, I learned how to tackle problems and come up with optimised algorithms to solve them. I had gained a strong sense of self, found mentors I trusted and had given back to my college which was very fulfilling for me. After being associated with Lean In IGDTUW for 2 years, I am now heading the chapter on campus as its president. With 300 students as mentees in various circles and 23 mentors, the chapter is thriving and reaching new heights. It’s been a privilege to witness Lean In IGDTUW flourish so beautifully into the movement that it has become. I can say with absolute certainty that the learning environment on campus has seen a drastic change. What we set out to do in October of 2017, has surpassed all our expectations. From being a reluctant and unsure fresher in my first year to becoming an advocate for diversity in tech 3 years down the line, this transformation is what I’m most proud of, and I attribute a big part of it to Lean In IGDTUW!

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A number of things happened during my journey as a result of finding a community of women who I could trust and seek guidance from. I was one of the 120 women selected from across the world as a Learn IT Girl! Scholar. Learn IT, Girl! mentorship program for women is an offshoot initiative by the Google Anita Borg Scholars, which helps women to excel in coding while doing a project, wherein they are guided by highly skilled mentors who advise them throughout the project. I built a web-extension tool "Pomodoro Focus" that helps users focus on their work by temporarily blocking distracting websites. “Pomodoro Focus" was featured on the official website of Learn IT Girl.

In late 2017, I, along with my team had applied to The Smart India Hackathon, organised by the Government of India. Out of 8,000 entries from across the country, our team was among the top 50 to qualify under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. We competed at the Nationals in March, 2018, and bagged the 3rd prize along with a cash prize of Rs 50,000. I got an opportunity to witness how technology is empowering us in a multitude of ways. Many high-ranked officials saw our project and praised our idea. We had developed a web application “Rakshak Aarohan” for the police of the State of Assam, which aims at enhancing their capabilities by real-time plotting of crimes on map, analysing crime trends, making future predictions and a number of other features. It was covered by the local newspapers.

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I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from Western Digital based on my exemplary academic record, technical acumen and leadership activities towards the cause of promoting diversity in tech. The monetary award of $2000 went towards covering my tuition of 2 academic sessions.

Having worked relentlessly for my goals, I faced a major roadblock when I couldn’t secure an internship on-campus in any of my dream companies. After not being able to clear the online round of Microsoft and getting rejected from the last rounds of Intuit and Goldman Sachs, my spirits were at an all-time low. Hitting rock bottom made me realize the power of having a community of women I had found through Lean In that helped me get past this rough phase and became my support system. I started my preparation from scratch, built my problem-solving skills and practised extensively throughout my third year. The mentors I had found helped me monitor my progress and kept me motivated throughout. One year later, when Microsoft again visited our campus, I was thoroughly prepared. However, destiny had other plans for me. One day before the interview, I was down with 102-degree fever. I barely slept for half an hour the entire night and went for the interviews at 7 am completely exhausted, sleep-deprived and on the verge of breaking down. However, due to my fundamentals being crystal clear and rigorous practice after having solved hundreds of questions, I was able to sail through my interviews easily. Everything came organically to me, and by the end of the day, I was offered the position of software engineer at Microsoft IDC! As I look back and connect the dots, every failure and success has led to the culmination of this one big milestone. I truly believe that earnest hard work coupled with the right mentorship can do wonders.

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With the confidence gained from this achievement, I continue to work even harder and not take it for granted, because it’s through multiple failures that this dream was realised. Recently, I was among the top 300 people selected from across India for the MIT India Initiative. The MIT India Initiative is a not-for-profit effort of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to delve into pressing problems in novel, challenging contexts, and tackle these with technology and design. This was a first-of-of its kind workshop where researchers from multiple departments of MIT and Harvard University worked with talented participants chosen from across the Nation to design solutions and forge a community of designers, makers and thinkers to work towards solving some of our most critical societal issues. I was selected in the Investigation and Journalism: Telling Tangible Tales track. Being able to interact with some of the finest minds in the world in technology and gain mentorship from them was a surreal and eye-opening experience. Held from January 21-25, 2020 in Mumbai, the workshop helped me gain deep insight towards various aspects of technology and design and I will carry them forward to hopefully work on products that have far-reaching social impact in the future.

Another exciting milestone that I have recently achieved has been my acceptance into the She++ Ambassadors Programme and invitation to attend a fully-funded trip to the She++ Summit in Silicon Valley from April 2-4, 2020. She++ is a nonprofit effort by Stanford University that works to empower underrepresented groups in technology by dismantling negative stereotypes surrounding technical careers. Being one of the 11 ambassadors selected from across the world and the only one from India, I feel immensely grateful and blessed. I’m looking forward to leverage the resources and guidance provided by the community to create meaningful impact on campus and connect with fellow leaders from across the globe at the Summit.

Most of the things that I’ve achieved are a result of constant hard work, indispensable guidance provided by mentors and unbreakable conviction. Along the way, I’ve understood the importance of participating in initiatives that work towards creating spaces and support structures for minorities in tech. I turned my setbacks into setups for comebacks and always tried to find the silver lining in any failure. Developing this mindset has been empowering. I hope that anyone who reads my story understands that things won’t always be easy, but if you’re fully invested in the process and are driven enough to steer past the hard times, you will emerge victorious. And when you do, don’t forget to help someone in need! You always learn so much more by giving back.

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