Fashioning the Future With: Nitasha Syed
Are you prepared to be unlabeled, uncategorized, and unlocked from any specific check box? Then bouncing beignets, this is the interview for you — we have Unboxd founder Nitasha Syed on the blog today.
Unboxed is the "Vogue for STEM," an amazing platform that's helping close the gender gap in STEM by highlighting awesome women in tech, medicine, business, and more. Unboxd includes awesome photography of these rad ladies along with their insightful interviews. It's an eye popping website that changes peoples' impressions of what #womeninSTEM look like. Nitasha coined the apt term 'STEMfluencer' to describe these wonderful women, and we look forward to Unboxd's next STEMfluencer interview!
Unboxd also includes podcast and product recommendations from female-founded companies and has info about upcoming STEM-related events. It's just the resource we need today — so things will be better for women in the tech world tomorrow. Not only that but Unboxd helps move that 'tomorrow' date up a little sooner with every interview and recommendation.
Nitasha, herself, is, of course, an amazing STEMfluencer — she has a Computer Science degree and works as a Product Manager in addition to running Unboxd. We were thrilled to ask Nitasha our pressing questions about how Unboxd came to be, what her philosophy as a STEMfluencer is, who inspires her, what some of her favorite female-founded companies are — and more. Meet Nitasha Syed, founder of Unboxd.
What originally drew you to STEM?
My father. He was a computer scientist and I was always fascinated by his work. I remember I would always play around with his laptop and try and figure out how it worked. I learned SQL at a very young age (he was a database programmer) and I found programming to be more of a language skill than a math skill so I was just drawn to it. I, unfortunately, ended up losing him to brain cancer in my last semester of college so it’s quite unfortunate how the man who inspired me to pursue STEM never got to see me actually pursuing it.
Do you have a personal philosophy as a STEMfluencer (we love that you coined that term by the way!)?
Anybody that has interest in STEM, can succeed in STEM. There has been a stigma around STEM that only a certain ‘type’ of personality has the ability to succeed in this field and that’s not true. You could be at the top of your dance class, or the best player on your basketball team and a top-notch heart surgeon. You can spend half your life on the space station and the other half as a cast member of Hamilton. Don’t allow society to box you into a stereotype!
What is your favorite part about being involved in the STEM community?
The willingness for people to help! The STEM community is so collaborative, people are willing to spend their personal time trying to help you overcome a hardship (whether that be personal or even technical in nature). At the end of the day, people in the STEM community understand that it’s not about an individual person and we cannot solve the problems in this world without a collaborative mindset!
When did you get the idea for Unboxd?
From a documentary called CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. There is this one scene where it goes to young girls in the US and asks them what they want to be when they grow up. These girls answer with a wide range of things, and one common theme is that they are not wanting to go into STEM. When they are pushed on that and asked why they wouldn’t consider being an engineer or scientist, they reply by saying ‘oh we see those women in the media, and they are very nerdy and anti-social, and we don’t want to grow up and be like that’. I was literally taken aback, because I realized my narrative was being written for me and that it was preventing girls from pursuing STEM careers. I wasn’t just going to sit still and let that happen. Science and Technology pervades every part of our life and if we don’t have equal representation in rooms where billions of dollars are being spent to solve real-world problems, then we’re building solutions that won't work for half the population and that’s no good.
How did your original idea evolve to the awesome platform that Unboxd is today?
The original idea was just to have a ‘Humans of New York’ style blog, but for women in STEM. That was pretty cool (I even had girls reach out to me saying they switched their majors in college after reading some of the stories I shared)! The transition from blog to platform started when I began after a couple of years into interviewing when I realized that there is no media brand out there that young adult women could relate to. If you look at the media brands that young women follow you see names like Vogue, Cosmo, Refinery29 etc. But when you look at STEM media brands, there is nothing like that out there that looks like a brand that young women would follow. I had more than enough content, I needed to add the visual element, I needed to create the Vogue for STEM. A media platform that not only highlighted the amazing work for female engineers and scientists but was visually appealing to look at. Something that gave girls and women not only inspiration but practical product recommendations that are backed by science and technology or books/podcasts that they should be listening to (or even events that they should be attending).
What’s been your favorite aspect of interviewing women in STEM for Unboxd?
Getting to know the women I interview (and especially hearing their WTF moments!) That’s one question I always ask, and every time I hear one, I tell myself that I’ve heard the most ridiculous thing ever and nothing can top it — and then I go into my next interview and get surprised (unfortunately).
What future would you like to see for Unboxd?
I’d love for it to have 2 types of impact. The first one is getting STEM fields at gender parity. That means not only is STEM made up for 50% men and women (through all levels of a company), that it can help create a world where girls and young women feel confident and supported to pursue STEM careers and are equally represented and respected in the STEM workforce.
Secondly, I want it to have impact media but changing the narratives we tell of young girls. We are boxing girls in by creating stereotypes like ‘pretty, popular, girl’ and ‘unpopular, smart, nerd’ (and my least favorite ‘dumb blond’). These stereotypes may help create storylines but they're having a negative impact on young girls' potential and that is not okay. Unboxd is going to work tirelessly to unlock the potential in young girls that they don’t even realize they have by creating more powerful narratives for them to follow.
What’s a day in the life of Nitasha Syed like?
I am very spiritual so the first thing I do is wake up and pray. There’s a sense of calmness I have by knowing that the only thing I can do is my best and the rest is up to a higher power. Then I'm off to work as a product manager at a healthcare tech startup in Silicon Valley called Rally Health. I am a mobile Product Manager on our health and wellness app. As a product manager, my day is completely unpredictable. It can be as micro as triaging specific issues that come in from our customer support team to as macro as understanding where the digital health industry is going and how I can build features into my product that help it stay on top. After work, I put my Unboxd had on and am either interviewing women, sitting down with my creative team to talk through campaigns, or networking and getting the word about there about Unboxd through various online channels.
Despite the hecticness of my days, I’ve made it a point to have a date night with my partner once a week, where we leave our phones at home and are present with each other 100%. This disconnection to work helps me unwind and gives me a much-needed mental break!
Which women in STEM (modern day and historical) inspire you?
Ann Winblad. She’s like OG Silicon Valley and is literally the coolest person. She co-founded Open Systems in 1976 and was the first PERSON (not woman, person) to see the value of investing in software vs hardware (which as you can tell has completely changed the world of technology). They say you should never meet your heroes because you will be disappointed, but I had the honor of meeting Ann once and she was the humblest, kindest person I’ve ever met. The whole time she was interested in learning about me (me, this junior person that nobody really knows about) and what I was trying to do. She has this ability to make you feel like the most important person in a conversation and when you step back and think about it, that’s incredible because she’s probably one of the most influential people in technology.
What are some of your favorite female-led companies/brands?
Elsi Beauty — it’s the first skincare brand where I actually understand the things on the back of the label (and they don’t sound like they will eat my skin off).
StyleBee — literally a Godsend, it’s an on-demand hair and makeup app. The stylist comes right to your door (you can even book only 24 hours in advance), it’s cost effective and they are quick! None of this 'it takes 2 hours to get ready nonsense', it’s all done in a matter of 45 minutes.
Lola — it’s a feminine care brand. This one has a special place in my heart because I think it addresses the overarching issue of women's health being on the backburner for decades. The United States has the highest mortality rate for mothers during childbirth of any first world country. Countless women are giving the wrong medication or treatment (sometimes no treatment at all) because their issues are boiled down to PMS. Even though Lola is in the feminine care space, I think it is starting a movement for expecting higher standards when it comes to women's health.
What advice do you have for young women who want to get into STEM?
Do it. There isn’t a profession out there which will enable you to have more impact in the world.
What are some of your hobbies you enjoy in your free time?
Dancing for sure! I am a huge Bollywood fan and I literally spend all my time in traffic choreographing dances in my head
Do you have any favorite fictional STEM characters in books/movies/other art forms?
Shuri from Black Panther. I remember watching the movie and thinking to myself, finally a woman in STEM that young girls will want to be like!
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
Something that allows me to send and receive knowledge directly to and from the brain.