This year, I’ve been working with BEMPU Health, a for-profit social enterprise that develops and commercializes medical technologies for newborns in low-resource areas. We are a tech startup. Most people think of tech and startups as very male-dominated spaces. My experience at BEMPU has been unique, however, in that despite having more men than women on our team, I’ve found that my female colleagues have been the most instrumental in shaping the direction and success of BEMPU. I wanted to shine a light on some of my colleagues here; they are inspiring, supportive, and incredibly good at what they do at BEMPU.
Mona Sharma is the Head of Product Design and Customer Research at BEMPU. That’s her official title, but she does a bit of everything here. She has helped with sales, government work and strategy, makes calls and visits to mothers using our device, and has helped with some of our clinical testing; she is an amazing mentor and a natural, extremely respected leader on our team; and, first and foremost, she is an incredible product designer. She is the brains behind the design of our award-winning and life-saving BEMPU Hypothermia Alert Device and packaging. I have learned so much about design-thinking and problem-solving simply from hearing her think through challenges, and I think she is one of the smartest people I’ve met, consistently able to leverage her empathy for the populations we serve and her strategic design thinking to help BEMPU achieve its mission. I had the chance to interview Mona, and wanted to share her responses.
Q: Tell me about yourself.
A: I graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 2004. Then I went to IIT Bombay for a research fellowship for a year, and then I did my postgraduate degree course in Product Design at IISc in Bangalore. I have been working in various companies for eight years. I come from Jabalpur—it’s a small city in MP—It’s small but pretty important. The first time I left home was to go to IIT Bombay, and since then I have been living away from home. My dad was a civil engineer in Military Engineering Services (MES). My mother was a homemaker and I have three siblings.
Q: What drew you to design?
A: It was more of a discovery, rather than being very clear I wanted to design. I did mechanical engineering, which is not a traditional space for girls, but right from the beginning, I knew that if I was going to do engineering, I wanted to do mechanical rather than computers or electrical, which was where more girls were going. I couldn’t understand anything I couldn’t touch or feel with my hands. I was always interested in automobile engines; I knew I wanted to design engines that could fuel some of the ideas I had in my head and bring them to life. I had these ideas of things I wanted to create to use myself—for example, I wanted to build something which would allow me to walk on water; I wanted to feel water on the soles of my feet. I thought that engineering would allow me to create things I could imagine.
When I moved to IIT Bombay, I got exposed to the field of product design. My professor from IIT Bombay and my friends there helped me understand what you could achieve through product design. That gave shape to a lot of the very vague ideas I had in my mind and I realized that if I wanted to design experiences and bring my ideas to life, I could do it through product design. So I decided to go to IISc for my postgraduate course in design.
Where I am now though is really far away from where I started in product design. I used to think I’d never want to work in medical technology—I thought of the medical design field as just hospital beds, lab products, and things like that which aren’t interesting to me. I didn’t realize that product designers could create surgical devices or implants. I was very clear on three things:
- I wanted to design products that solved problems;
- I wanted to design things that make people’s lives betters;
- I wanted to make things that make the environment more beautiful.
My first job was with Crompton & Greaves—they make consumer appliances. I thought this would be a good balance of creating things that are useful but also are beautiful. I was designing kitchen appliances, lights, fans—things like this initially. I thought it was a good balance at first, but I got bored after six months because it didn’t involve a lot of problem-solving. At that point, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do, so I became a freelancer so I had the freedom to choose and reject projects based on my liking. A few friends of mine from IISc and I started freelancing together so that we could explore the field and better understand what kinds of projects we liked.
We did all sorts of projects—we did one for Titan where we had to uncover hidden needs and product opportunities in six cities. We also did some branding projects with GE Lighting. While doing all this, I came across a client who wanted us to work on certain medical device products—when we started doing this one, I discovered that this is what I liked the most. I engaged with this client on multiple projects for almost three years. Then I was clear that medical devices was the field I wanted to be in. I started designing implants, systems to prevent counterfeit medicines, drug device combinations, and more.
Q: What brought you to BEMPU?
A: After I decided to focus on medical devices, a bit of serendipity happened, and the friend with whom I was working knew Ratul [the Founder of BEMPU]. Ratul was looking for a designer to create some prototypes. My friend actually met him and they worked on something together. Ratul actually asked my friend to come on full time, but he was not ready to leave freelancing, so he told me about the opportunity, and that’s how I got connected to Ratul and came to work at Bempu. I was the second employee at BEMPU.
Q: How do you see yourself at BEMPU—tell me about your role.
A: My role started as a product designer and customer researcher. My first few months were spent solely doing research in the field, running clinical studies and data collection, and putting prototypes on babies. In fact, in my first few months, I didn’t do much designing at all. I actually hate hospitals, but when I had to go do the data collection and put prototypes of the BEMPU Bracelet on babies, it was extremely helpful for me to understand who I was designing for and understand the constraints and needs. It helped me to quickly create a list of what would be essential in our product—within six months, we had the product ready which was safe, technically sound, and could be put on babies’ wrists. We moved quickly and built 10-12 protoypes within 4-5weeks. The first year was mostly about product design, and later on I moved on to vendor identification. I’ve also worked in other functions like supporting sales in the field and at conferences. After that first year I actually felt like I wasn’t just a product designer. My role was to increase sales in the private market and implementation in the government market, I was involved in the government pilots, creating marketing material and identifying new products. Now we have two new grants, so I will be designing those products this year.
Q: How do you feel about being a woman in the tech space?
A: Well if you just see by the sheer number of men and women, you’d think this space is male-dominated. I’ve become very accustomed to it—I’ve always been surrounded by more boys—from school for mechanical engineering to my postgraduate work. In IISc, there were two of us girls and 14 boys. Then at my first job, it was me and four other designers, and they were all men. And even at BEMPU, I was the only woman for a long time. It doesn’t even strike me anymore as odd, but it is a very male-populated space. Medical devices are closely tied to engineering, which is not as popular amongst girls. I do feel honored to be contributing to a field that women are conventionally not in. But, I like to think of it as male-populated not male-dominated.
I have noticed small things at conferences, or in some of our work in hospitals, though—even though I’m the Product Designer, people sometimes don’t take what I say as seriously as when my male colleagues say it. Even in conferences I’ve seen some of the doctors, especially the ones from small cities, they are more receptive to when my male colleagues are talking to them.
At the same time, I feel that especially in medical devices, and especially devices for women and child care, women have a lot of potential to make a difference, especially because they have more capacity to empathize with the end user. I think that empathy is much higher amongst women, especially in this space.
Q: Do you have advice for other women who want to be in the tech space or in the social enterprise space?
A: One thing I would say—since I come from a small town, the exposure is limited. Many times, people—especially girls—are not as aware of some fields or domains even existing. It actually comes back not just to women who want to be in this field, but the type of education that prevails in small towns that is very focused on having kids graduate but doesn’t give them a wide perspective and a belief that they can achieve whatever they want. Where I am and where I started is a result of a series of events. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t go to IIT Bombay. Most likely I would have ended up at an IT job in my hometown. I would say to be open and connect to as many people as possible to increase your chances of discovering what you really want to do, and then when you do, to work hard until you are there.