Ep. 191 – Zainab Ghadiyali of Airbnb & Wogrammer on Ignorance, Curiosity, and Persistence

Ep. 191 – Zainab Ghadiyali of Airbnb & Wogrammer on Ignorance, Curiosity, and Persistence

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, Brian Ardinger, Inside Outside Innovation Founder,  sits down with Zainab Ghadiyali. Zainab is a product lead at Airbnb. She used to work at Facebook, and she’s the co-founder of Wogrammer, a nonprofit showcasing amazing women in technology. We talk about the power of curiosity and persistence in building a career in today’s environment of change.

Zainab Ghadiyali. Zainab, product lead at Airbnb and co-founder of WogrammerWe talk about Zainab’s journey from coming to America with $107 in her pocket, to working some of the best and biggest tech companies in the world. And we talk about the power of finding mentors, telling diverse stories and the new trends that you’re seeing in the world of technology. Let’s get started.

Interview Transcript

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of Inside Outside.IO, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption.  Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Brian Ardinger:  Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today with me is Zainab Ghadiyali.  She is an amazing woman who came out to our IO Summit. She works at Airbnb currently, but has had an extraordinary career and we’re excited to have her on the show.  Welcome.

Zainab Ghadiyali: Hi. Thanks Brian.

Brian Ardinger: Hey, I’m excited to have you back on the show. You were one of the first persons I thought of to bring out to the IO summit last year. I saw a blog posts written by First Round Capital.  It was basically an interview with you talking about curiosity and the secrets of designing a curiosity-driven career. And after I read that and got in touch with you, I said I had got to have her at the show. You’ve had a pretty amazing career. You came to America with about a hundred bucks in your pocket and have managed to work at great places like Facebook and now Airbnb. You started great programs like Wogrammer. Why don’t we talk through what it’s like to come to America and kickstart a career?

Coming to America and Kickstarting a Career

Zainab Ghadiyali: Yeah, absolutely. You know, one thing that I talk about a lot is the importance of ignorance. For me, for example, I had no idea what living in U.S. Would be like. Of course, I was familiar to some extent, based on media outlets and looking at life, watching Friends or Seinfeld or like, you know, some of the more famous American sitcoms. I’m like, that’s America. Cool. Once I landed here in a small town in South Carolina, obviously a very different world, but I could not have been more excited. For me, it was just such an adventure. I had no idea about how anything would be.  No expectations, which meant it would be hard to get let down. On hindsight, had someone told me about the challenges of like, Hey, a hundred bucks doesn’t go a long way, which in India, that’s a lot of money. So for me, that was like, Oh yeah, that’s like one month expenses, and then I’ll figure it out.

Had someone like told me about that and some of the other challenges along the way, I would have probably been apprehensive about, oh my gosh, there is no way I can do this right. When someone tells you this and they’re well, meaning, but when you learn about these challenges, about like how they find it hard or they could not do it, you start telling yourself that story, that you can also not do it, or you start validating and saying yes.

Brian Ardinger: And you have managed to build a career in technology. Maybe tell the audience about how you even got involved in your first hack-a-thon.

Finding a Path to Facebook

Zainab Ghadiyali: When I thought about my career. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do, like what role I wanted to do. I knew that I’m someone who is very curious. I like to learn about new things. Like I’ll read anything, even like I’ll sit and read like something on a cereal box. I’m constantly reading, and I know I’m like very curious. I knew that as long as I was learning new things, I would be happy. And the second thing I knew was that I wanted to have a lot of impact in people’s lives. Like I wanted to my world to reach as many people as I possibly could. And do as much impactful work as I possibly could.

I knew these two things, but I didn’t know what role I should really do. I signed up as a theater major. Cause I just love arts and I love acting.  It’s more of a hobby than thinking of my career. And then I also signed up for the biology program because one idea was just something my parents were really excited about was me becoming a doctor. I started those tracks, realize that really like being in a theater major, like it’s quite expensive with like you have to buy the props and the equipment, and I was like, I have no money for this. Doing theater was just not a realistic option at that point and continued along with biology, chemistry. I loved our chemistry department so much. I love the professors there so much that I decided to take on the chemistry courses.

I did that. I realized that, you know, I wanted to get some more hands on experience and working in a hospital. I learned that to apply to medical schools, you needed to have volunteer experience, have some experience working in hospitals. But I did not have a car or any means to get to a hospital. I was like, well, how will I do this? And I was also working as much as was possible. And I was also taking classes and I was feeling burnt out as well, three years in. So long story short, I found an opportunity to go and work in Germany on research projects with doctors there. And I thought, well, this is cool.  You know, I don’t have a car to get to a hospital here.  Maybe I’ll just stay in Germany and go work in hospitals there.

And I found this opportunity and applied. And became one of the few research scientists chosen from North America, and that’s where I learned that I don’t necessarily enjoy the life of a doctor. Instead of being the one on one with patients, I wanted to do things that would reach more people, and so I thought maybe public health might be a good option then. Because then you’re building programs and you’re thinking about how you help a wider population. And I started volunteering and working with a nonprofit and after I graduated, worked with them full-time to build business models in some of the remotest parts of the world. Like this was in South America, in the Andes, remote parts of South India.

I realize two things. One is to make a difference in those communities, felt like there was a need to have power or influence in other words and/or money. And then I didn’t have any of the things. I thought, well, if I really want to have an impact and maybe I have to figure it, how can I influence and how can I build something that will reach more people and actually have meaningful impact. And so then again, I started researching. And I knew that technology was changing people’s lives and that networks were very powerful. Even when I was on site, the community leaders were really influential.

So when I think about influence, there’s like your family. But then there’s also these leaders who the community accept as the source of truth and the go to place for guidance on how to do things. So in partnering with these community leaders, we had these network effects where the community leader would work with their network to help us with our public health programs.

So I thought, well, if networks are powerful and if technology is, changing people’s lives. Can we have large networks? Like what about the largest network and how can we use that for social good? And that’s when Facebook came to my mind as like the world’s largest network at that time. And I thought what if we use Facebook for social good? So then I became quite like obsessed with, Oh, how do I get into Facebook and how do I figure it out? How can we use social networks for social good? So that’s when the hack-a-thon came into my life. I visited a hack-a-thon and started meeting more recruiters and employees from Facebook and trying to understand what would be the process for me to join the company.

Wogrammer: Telling Stories about Women in Tech

Brian Ardinger: Technology has become a bigger part of your life, obviously working at Facebook and now at Airbnb and that, but also through that path you created a nonprofit with some folks called Wogrammer. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and how it’s telling stories about women in technology?

Zainab Ghadiyali: Wogrammer is a nonprofit that my co-founder, Erin and I started when we were at Facebook. When I joined Facebook, I was one of the first female production engineers there, and I got asked to talk at events a lot. Initially it was very exciting because I was new to the field. I didn’t know anyone, nobody knew me, and I was being asked to speak at events and I was like, wow, how flattering, right?

This is amazing. And then soon I realized that it wasn’t so much about me, it was more about my gender, not for all the events, but for a lot of them. And I started thinking, well, logically it doesn’t make sense because nothing about my gender effects my ability to write code. And I was very surprised at why my gender all of a sudden, which had never been something that was brought up or thought of, is now become the center of what I do and how I’m known.

And I shared this with Erin and Erin who, she’s an amazing engineer. She worked at NASA, she’s built rockets, she’s built amazing products at Facebook. And she told me about her experiences growing up as an engineer and not feeling always that she belonged in that field, which was very surprising to me because here is Erin, who’s like my role model and she’s such an amazing engineer.  For her to not always feel like she belonged took me by surprise. And you start thinking, well, how frustrating it is to be talking about agenda in a field where we want to talk about technology, and we want to talk about the impact of technology in people’s lives.

We started thinking about how in the media there is a lot of representation around women in tech, but it’s mostly focused on the negative side of things, which is around the wage gap, the gender gap, the harassment, things that are important to talk about and are obviously issues that, you know, collectively, as the tech community we need to work on and we are. But also, that there are amazing women doing amazing work. Why don’t we talk about that as well?  The idea being that, you know, we can’t bridge the gender gap if we are asking men and women different questions, we have to treat them really the same. When you’re interviewing men and you’re interviewing women, ask them the same questions.  Ask them about their ambitions, ask them about their life and balancing time.

If you are a young girl and are researching women in tech online or like careers about women engineers, you’re not flooded with just negative stories. You also have role models that you can look up to and get inspired. Since we started the project five years ago, we’ve showcased over 250 women engineers from all over the world. We have 4 million readers, so it’s been a great journey, and we recently got acquired by AnitaB.org which is the world’s largest women tech nonprofit. Joining hands with them we can just do more and amplify our mission of info.

Ignorance and Curiosity

Brian Ardinger: It’s a great resource out there. Some of the other things I want to talk about you mentioned this idea of ignorance in your career and being naive to certain things in that, what other skill sets helped to propel your career or the people that you’ve worked with or talked to.

Zainab Ghadiyali: The number one thing I think is being curious or like willing to constantly learn. It doesn’t matter which field are given sort of the growth of technology in the last 25 plus years. The way we work, how we work, what we value in work is like changed so dramatically than it ever has in any decade in human history. As technology continues to evolve and change the way we do work, I think it’s really important to have this mindset of like, Hey, I’m going to constantly learn from things, and if you have that sort of mindset, it doesn’t matter even if you fail because the mindset is, Oh, I’m curious, so I’m going to figure it out what happened here and I’m going to learn from it. And if you learn from it, then you know, I think you’ve succeeded by default.

Persistence or Not Having Other Options

Brian Ardinger: The other thing that you talk about a lot is this idea of persistence. It seems like you have this dogged opportunity to continue on through difficult or challenging times. Can you talk a little about how persistence has played a role in your life?

Zainab Ghadiyali: For me, I think some thought of persistence came from originally not having a lot of options, so it wasn’t like I had another option that I could do. I needed to pay tuition. I needed to find a house to live in. I had no other option. It wasn’t like I could go somewhere else or do something else. I tried to think of how much of it was mental, where I believe I didn’t have options where I actually did, or I genuinely didn’t have options. I don’t know that, but I know that for me, the way I perceived it for the most part was like, I have no other option. I need to do this and I’m going to figure out a way to do this. Over time. I’ve built this habit. For me, being persistent is constantly about learning and growing, so I know like, you know, if I fail again, I’m going to figure out what I learned from it and I’m going to apply it to the next thing.

Innovation for Efficiency

Brian Ardinger: You’ve had a chance to work at some of the biggest companies or most well-known startups in the world, Facebook and Airbnb. What are some of the biggest things that you’ve learned from working within those companies that people may not be familiar with or have heard about?

Zainab Ghadiyali: It’s a good question. As technologies evolve and change, it’s very important for the companies to constantly innovate, to stay ahead or stay relevant in the fields that they do. As a result of that, how that translates into how they operate or like the culture is this notion of efficiency and how can we, for example, make our meetings more efficient? How can we look at all the things that you’re doing? That could actually be things that you don’t have to do manually, but you could build a process around it to make yourself more efficient. For example, if I’m someone who writes a lot of introduction emails, let’s just build a template so the next time I’m asked to do it, I just copy paste that template instead of writing a new introduction email.

If something asks him that, to something like, well why should all meetings be 30 minutes or 60 minutes? Well, how about we try a 15-minute meeting, a 20-minute meeting. Can we still get that stuff done? Like just to focus on how can we be more efficient and use our time to think more creatively about the future and how we can use that time to innovate instead of using that time on things that are not really efficient, has been a great learning and also seeing how we could really, irrespective of the industry. I mean, Airbnb is obviously in the travel industry, Facebook is sort of the media. Industry and how they view sort of technology to scale themselves and how you can use technology no matter which industry you are in to amplify your work.

What’s Next?  New Trends

Brian Ardinger: I think it’s interesting you talked about some of the things you learned around Facebook or Airbnb around this idea of efficiency and optimization, and oftentimes we think about innovation as being something creation of new stuff, and you oftentimes think of the opposites of, you know, optimization is innovation. But you’re saying like some of the things that you learned is really that culmination, or how do you create optimization that allows for additional innovation? It’s quite an interesting take on it. The last thing I want to talk about is you’ve had a varied career and done a lot of different things.  What’s next on your horizon or what are some of the new trends that you’re seeing out there that you’re going to be trying to take advantage of in the future?

Zainab Ghadiyali: That’s a good question. I think it’s really interesting right now to see some of the things happening in the technology space. Obviously, I’m someone who’s really interested in the travel industry and how we could use technology to do things that are there, whether it’s trip planning, something that most people don’t enjoy that part. Vacationing and sort of having to plan all the shots. It’s not a matter of could actually. It’s a matter of how are we going to use technology in that space. How are we going to use technology in this space of how can we get people to start getting more like connected or like getting more information in a way that is actually contextual and personalized to them  is really an interesting space because we do have a lot of content online, but how do we find the right content? How do we serve it back to people who need it, who might not find it? I think content discovery is interesting.

How do we apply technology to climate change is extremely important and interesting? Another really interesting area is aging population and how everyone like we are just going to on average, live longer and what does that mean for the labor market? And how can we use technology because people that have 20-30 more years now of working time that they could use. How can we tap into that resource more efficiently and how can we use technology to help the aging population is, I think a really interesting space and a really important one given how everyone on average is going to live longer?

Brian Ardinger: Well, thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation and sharing some of your thoughts, and I’m very excited to see where you go in the future and look forward to continuing the conversation.

Zainab Ghadiyali: Yes, thank you for having me. Thanks Brian.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


Get the latest episodes of the Inside Outside Innovation podcast, in addition to thought leadership in the form of blogs, innovation resources, videos, and invitations to exclusive events. SUBSCRIBE HERE

Share Episode

The Feed

Episode 191

Ep. 191 – Zainab Ghadiya...