In ‘The Startup Wife,’ Tahmima Anam Satirizes Tech Culture And Boardroom Sexism : NPR
Simon & Schuster
What happens when a woman conceives of and creates an app — and then her husband becomes the face of the startup that monetizes it? That’s the question Tahmima Anam set out to answer in the satirical novel, The Startup Wife.
The novel centers on Cyrus and Asha, who co-found a social media platform that customizes ceremonies and rituals for people who aren’t religious. Asha came up with the idea, but it’s Cyrus who’s credited as the visionary behind the company. The novel was inspired in part by Anam’s own experience as a tech outsider who unexpectedly became immersed in the world of startups.
“My husband and I were going to be academics. I mean, I was going to write novels and he was going to be a professor of Chinese philosophy,” she says.
Then Anam’s husband invented an app and launched a music tech company. “And I feel like the whole journey has been one of discovering the world of startups, sort of from an outsider’s perspective,” she says. “And that’s exactly what Cyrus and Asha do.”
While writing the novel, Anam had fun imagining a range of far-fetched tech startups — including a company called “EMTI” which sends subscribers an empty box which they then mail back with unwanted items. She even had a friend create a website for the fake company.
“Occasionally, when I’ve been talking to people in the startup world, as a joke, I will just give them the website address and not tell them that it’s fake,” Anam says. “For some reason, [EMTI] has been the one that people are most interested in investing. That’s kind of like a little joke that I sometimes like to play on people.”
On the company Asha and Cyrus create, which helps design rituals for nonreligious people
Abeer Hoque/Simon & Schuster
The platform is called “WAI,” … which stands for “We Are Infinite.” And what it is, is a way for people to connect via rituals. So you go on the app and you tell it the things that mean something to you, your favorite cartoons, the food that you love, what’s meaningful to you, important experiences that happen to you in childhood. And then you ask for a ritual. You say, “I want to get married.” For instance, in the book, there are these two classicists that get married. So they have a Homerean wedding ceremony and that’s what the platform gives you. And then you get to connect to other people via those rituals. So it’s kind of an anti-social media [company] — “social media” in the sense that you’re not talking about superficial things. You’re connecting via the rituals that give your life meaning. …
I’m not a religious person myself, but I can see how having a kind of organizing construct can be so relaxing in the world where there are so many uncertainties and giving people something to hold on to, giving [them] these kind of moments of punctuation in your life where you’re looking forward to something, the baptism of your child, a bar mitzvah. … So I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could give atheists the same kind of scaffolding that religious people have?
On her protagonist Asha making her husband the CEO, which makes him kind of a prophet
There is a real irony there, because people are obviously joining WAI because they want an alternative to organized religion, and then there they are worshipping a male visionary messiah, [a] prophet, basically. And I think the other irony is that Asha … who creates the app and who does all the coding, and it’s really her idea, when it comes down to it, she says to Cyrus, “No, you be the CEO. I’m just a coder. I’m going to sit in the background,” and she lifts him up and she thinks to herself, towards the end of the book, “I literally created a platform that makes the entire world worship my husband.” She does that. And this is an exaggeration of what we all sometimes do when we love someone, we lift them up. But she just does it to an absolutely intense, kind of huge, massive, exaggerated scale.
On the way some tech founders see themselves as visionaries
I think the tech world promotes the idea of the male visionary. If you think about all the people who are now basically in charge of our lives, it’s mostly a series of white men, whether it’s Elon Musk who’s going to take us to the moon and create all the cars that we’re going to be driving in the future, or Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, we may not worship them as people, but we’re so dependent on them. And when it comes to male founders raising money when they’re in front of the venture capitalists, I do think that there is a strong bias towards the male visionary CEO.
On being on the board of her husband’s startup
I’ve been on the board of the company from the very beginning, and I obviously had no experience of the boardroom. And I really enjoyed thinking about writing this book the entire time that I was on that board, because one of the great pleasures of being a writer is that you get to put all of your experiences somewhere. So anytime someone cut me off or ignored me or didn’t take me seriously, I thought, I’m going to write that down. So it was a way of processing that experience, which was very new for me and sometimes quite challenging, because the other half of my life was sitting quietly in a room and writing books, which had nothing to do with the startup world until I wrote this book. … Imagining this novel was a great way of processing the actual experience I was having, both sitting on the board watching people interact with me, but also watching the changes that my husband was going through as he went from being a sort of quiet academic to being everyone’s boss.
On calling out sexist and racist language when she hears it
There is so much sexist language embedded [in the business environment.] … So, for instance, men will commonly say, “Well, they’re already pregnant, they might as well have the baby,” when they’re talking about someone who’s so invested in you, they’re just going to give you more money or something like that. Or they’ll say, “We should open the full kimono,” which is both sexist and kind of racist. … I think we need to be able to say out loud that language means something and a joke, even in the most kind of flippant way, is a representation of our actual values. So I hope that I can be more like Asha and less like the me that was just silently filing things away from my book.
On growing up in Paris, New York, Bangkok and Bangladesh
If you had asked me this, I don’t know, 30 years ago, I would have said it was really awful because I could never maintain friendships for more than a few years. I think looking back, it was such a formative experience for me. And I would say the experience that was the most meaningful was when we moved back to Bangladesh. … We were living in all these countries and [my parents] kept saying to me, “We’re just going to go home. We’re not going to stay here. We’re not going to stay in New York. We’re not going to stay in Paris. We’re going to go home. We’re nationalists. We have to go back and do something for our country.” And when I was 14, we did exactly that. We went home and my father started an independent English daily newspaper, not politically affiliated, which was very unusual at the time. … So it was very tricky to not ever be in one place for very long. But I think it certainly had a lot to do with why I became a writer.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.