Engineering is a field that is barely explored by women. Only around 9.7 percent of women enrolled in engineering schools in 2017, many of whom still switch out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concentrations to pursue academics elsewhere.
But one trailblazer named Rudmeela Nawsheen dared to dream of a career in electrical engineering – a STEM field that seldom sees women succeed. She grew up seeing a map of Silicon Valley in her father's office, with all the giant tech companies marked by their logos.
Little did she know at the time that one day she would become the owner of two robotics-based tech companies in the very heart of the global tech village.
Originally from Bangladesh, Rudmeela went to the US for undergraduate studies after finishing A-level from Scholastica. She enrolled in the school of electrical engineering at San José State University, California.
The tech entrepreneur ventured into robotics due to her passion for the sciences. She started her own company called ConfigVR in 2017, from which stemmed her second venture ConfigRbot, which also soft-launched in Bangladesh.
Both her ventures explore the robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), content industry and are located in Silicon Valley.
ConfigVR works around interactive visual experience, and is building on the evolution of mobility,3D modelling and game development. It explores the world of augmented, virtual and mixed reality.
ConfigRbot, on the other hand, deals with work surrounding robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, chatbots, cyber security, internet of things (IoT) and skill development courses.
"I have always been fascinated with robotics and gadgets since childhood, and always wanted to launch a robotics company. I started with my AR/VR company first, built on it and then launched ConfigRbot," Rudmeela said.
"My interest in electrical engineering started to grow when I was in third grade after I visited the Museum of Cosmonautics in Russia with my family. There I saw many electronics, and its bits and pieces used for space travel. That is when I figured that this is where my interests lie," she recalled.
"At home, I used to be the one to fix any broken piece of simple electronics such as telephones, fans and VCRs. I would unscrew them and take a look inside to figure out what the components were. I also dismantled circuit boards to see how they worked," she added.
For Rudmeela, becoming a tech entrepreneur was a given as she grew up in a household with parents who also were tech entrepreneurs.
Rudmeela nurtured an interest in machines from childhood, but it was her father who pushed her to pursue a career in electrical engineering long before she knew how much impact the field possessed.
"I lost my Dad in 2016, but he paved the way for my success before he left. I owe both of my companies to his guidance and even though he is not here to see me climb up the ladder, I crave for his presence every day," she said.
"I had to set aside my creative side so I could make sure my academics shone through. But I was lucky enough to be able to pursue both my passions and now, I am happy with where my career has taken me."
After completing her bachelor's in electrical engineering from San José State University, Rudmeela wanted to venture further into her other passion and decided to pursue a master's in software development with a specialisation in digital design and multimedia communications.
She graduated master's summa cum laude and recently became the head of production for a California-based media company.
Her vision is to promote Bangladeshi content such as movies, animation, documentaries, web series, etc. on Netflix and Amazon Prime. "As I have strong professional connections with these streaming platforms and also with the Bangladesh media industry, I want to leverage that as an opportunity to build a bridge between the two countries."
Her production company is also planning to release a Silicon Valley tech podcast.
But what prompted the switch from engineering to media studies? Rudmeela is a tech entrepreneur and a creative personality at the same time. Arts and culture are as close to her heart, as are the sciences.
"I am a classical dancer and I used to sing. I also used to play the piano, tanpura and harmonium. I paint and travel a lot globally," she answered.
"I always aspired to be technical and creative. Electrical engineering educated me with the technical and hardware knowledge to build a system, whereas my master's degree taught me how to develop and make it work," she told The Business Standard.
"With both my companies, I can be exceptionally technical and creative, and it gives me the freedom to explore the tech field through my adventurous experiments," she added.
Rudmeela aims to promote business developments between the US and Bangladesh by utilising her global professional network. Her teams are trinational – based in the US, Europe and Bangladesh.
"My mission is to give people the power to build the infrastructure and community to bring the world closer together," she told this correspondent, adding that she wants to implement AR/VR for training, and manufacture local smart devices and robots to create a global brand name for both Bangladesh and the US.
On asked if she wants to integrate her work with the Bangladeshi tech field, she said, "Yes, even though both my companies are based in California, I have offices in both countries. I want to utilise our youth's talent to build the tech future of Bangladesh."
She plans to have a manufacturing plant in Dhaka for building smart devices and robots locally.
A common misconception about Silicon Valley is that it is too difficult to penetrate into, especially if you are a non-American tech buff. Fortunately, Rudmeela has debunked this myth by entering Silicon Valley with both ConfigVR and ConfigRbot.
Speaking about how she tapped into the global tech capital, Rudmeela said that she was fortunate to receive a positive market response soon after launching ConfigVR. Support flowed in fairly easily as people want to see diversity and women leaders succeed.
"But leading a start-up has always had its challenges, even under the best conditions," she told this correspondent.
As advice, Rudmeela said, "Founders need to quickly master a wide range of skill sets, from building a great product and nailing the go-to-market efforts to raising money and managing the company, all while figuring out hiring, culture and compensation. Starting the company was also a lonely endeavour, one that forced me to make difficult decisions every day with imperfect information."
While triaging these challenges, every founder eventually runs headfirst into a problem they have not experienced before, she said. "The kind of problems that leave them unsure of where to start and my story was similar. That is part of being an entrepreneur and I take it as a learning process."
Given that Silicon Valley is the world's most competitive tech industry, Rudmeela had her share of hardships which she overcame with persistence and hard work.
"I hope to see the logos of my two companies on the Silicon Valley map one day," she hopefully said.
Robotics is still uncharted waters in Bangladesh, although it is becoming more and more of a household name in many parts of the world. Where does Rudmeela think robotics will stand in Bangladesh in the next five years?
"In the next five years, I aim to see robots, or at least components, being manufactured in Bangladesh. Industry 4.0 demands skilled tech labour to develop and maintain automated factories," Rudmeela voiced.
She also thinks that focusing on training the youth can unleash the untapped potential, and high-tech manufacturing will naturally flow in.
"I want to see Bangladesh foster more tech firms providing custom factory automation design and integration solutions to anyone in the world," the bright entrepreneur added.
Needless to say, the tech in Silicon Valley is light years ahead of that here in Bangladesh. However, Rudmeela thinks that this gap can be reduced to a good extent by making it easier to start a business here and to trade across borders.
"Overall, our ease of doing business ranking needs to be more competitive with our neighbours. The tech labour markets of the world are barely keeping up with the pace of development," she said.
Outsourcing work from Silicon Valley is an opportunity for Bangladesh. One of Rudmeela's goals is to help bridge this gap so Bangladesh can emerge as a go-to tech hub.
"We are already stepping up to the world stage with skilled tech labour. We should keep our focus on quality and innovation and carry the momentum forward."
She also strongly urges the Bangladeshi youths to pursue degrees in the technical fields if they are passionate about it.