We are pleased to welcome Mala Kumar to our Board of Directors. Mala’s career has focused on applying technology to the public good, with her expertise in UX research and design, open-source software, and AI/ML. She has led initiatives that have impacted over 50,000 individuals worldwide and contributed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In this Q&A profile, we talk with Mala about her career journey, joining our Board, and the intersections between technology and the narratives that shape our world. Join us as we learn more about Mala.
Your career path blends technology with solving social and development challenges the world faces. What early experiences led you to pursue this direction?
I had two key experiences that ultimately led me to my career. The first, quite simply, was visiting India as a child. I couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair it was to have such extreme quality of life differences between there and the United States. So from an early age, around eight years old, I decided I would focus my career on correcting those imbalances.
The second experience was in grad school, where I studied international development. I wrote a pioneering thesis on economic, social, and cultural (ESC) human rights and the tech industry in India and Senegal. Through my research, I demonstrated that while there was ample business opportunity, there was also a negative effect on ESC rights from tech business process outsourcing (BPO) in India. Therefore, if Senegal replicated India’s BPO success for the Francophone market, it might lead to financial gains for a select few people, while having a net negative effect on ESC rights of the general population. Nowadays, this idea commonly surfaces in terms of the tech industry gentrifying and raising the cost of living. Back then, it was a novel concept. The great recession happened while I was in grad school. It was a dark time for millions of people. After graduation, the only job I could get was in generalist IT consulting. Fortunately, the market picked up slightly a year later and I landed my first full-time job at the UN working on a climate change initiative. I worked directly with our software developers on a proprietary desktop tool and I led most of our front-end work online. Through that job, I realized that I could channel my talents into using tech for a greater social good, instead of only focusing on how to reign in “irresponsible” tech. Since then, my entire career has been devoted to some aspect of tech for social good.
From the UN to GitHub: Your career has touched diverse facets of the social impact landscape. What common threads bind these experiences and shape your approach to driving social change?
I’ve spent about a decade working in the UN and other international development organizations, and about six years in the private sector, four of which were at GitHub. I have a series of videos that explain some of these common threads and approaches in more depth:
- Throughout my entire career, I have believed that digital technology products, platforms, tools, etc. are not the answer, at least not on their own. The world needs fair and just policies, laws, and societies to progress. I’ve spent my career figuring out how tech can facilitate, support, and not sabotage those things.
- In any situation, I’ve tried to take the best from all sectors in which I worked. Many private tech companies are great at figuring out their market value add, how to pivot their products or strategy, and how to get people excited about what they build. Nonprofits and the greater social sector are way better at maximizing budgets and understanding the societal effects of what they do. In every job I’ve had, I’ve tried to bring in both perspectives to get the best results.
- Knowing when to be specific and when to paint a broad picture has been critical. It’s better to speak more generally when laying out a novel concept, a new theory of change, or creating a narrative. But for a product, solution, platform, or community to make a positive change, it’s really important to know what specifically needs to improve or how to figure that out.
- Cliché as it sounds, I am always learning new skills, remastering the basics, and figuring out how and why a technology, solution, or problem excites me.
OK, Why did you agree to join our board, and how do you foresee Radiant Earth’s initiatives making a tangible difference?
Radiant Earth’s approach is very much morally and ethically aligned with how I think, and I believe in its two core initiatives. Back when I worked on that climate change initiative at the UN, cloud computing was in its infancy. We just didn’t have the technology we needed to meet the data availability, data integrity, and data usability requirements for such a computationally intensive, high-stakes solution. I think Radiant Earth’s Source Cooperative could have filled that gap. Climate change has already increased the frequency of volatile, catastrophic weather events that negatively impact lives, so organizations like Radiant Earth are more critical than ever.
Can you share any hard lessons that have shaped your journey?
The hardest lesson has repeated this past year, during which more than a million people in the tech industry have been laid off. A disproportionate number of those people are leaders in social impact. Despite the majority of Millennials and Gen Z-ers demanding their employers invest in “for good” initiatives, the hard lesson is that the tech industry still largely sees these as optional, nice-to-haves. That creates unnecessary instability for organizations that work with the tech industry, places an unfair financial burden on those already working in tech and social impact, and it’s discouraging to those who want to use their tech skills for social good in the future. It also erases gains and institutional knowledge.
The older I get, the more I push against building a product or program for the sake of having something new. When I launch a new program or work on a new product, you can trust that I have done the research and am addressing a real need. Private sector tech companies, including start-ups and individual entrepreneurs, launch new things because they think they can create or corner a new market and attract investments. A lot of social sector funders also mostly invest in new things because of the (perceived or real) reputational gains. In reality, more needs to go into how to improve and build off of what already exists.
Related to the point above, the newest type of technology can deflate other great work. Right now, there is so much focus on GenAI that other important tech work is being ignored and/or losing funding. This also happened with web 2.0 / social media, the smartphone / app revolution, and the cloud. And it will probably be the same when the next emerging technology, like quantum computing, becomes a reality.
Your forthcoming novel explores themes of survival and resilience. How does storytelling intersect with your work in technology?
Aside from my career in tech, I’m an internationally recognized published novelist. My second novel is titled What it Meant to Survive, and will be published in October 2024 from Bywater Books.
My work in tech has influenced my writing career in practical ways. Because I worked in UX research and design for years, I was able to collaborate with my book cover designer at a deeper level than the average author. For both of my books, I have maintained a strong online presence. Last September, I was on a panel at a South Asian Literary festival in NYC, and I was the only panelist who could answer a question an audience member asked about GenAI.
While tech themes certainly play a role in both of my novels, fiction writing has mostly been a healthy outlet away from tech. Having an identity as an author has kept me grounded in my primary professional career, especially in times like these when morale in the tech industry is low.
Are there any books (or really any kind of media) that have been particularly meaningful to you and shaped your career?
- I have to shout out Amy Sample Ward’s and Afua Bruce’s book, The Tech that Comes Next. It has a straightforward way of explaining the state of tech and nonprofits. They cited the work I did at GitHub on open source software in the social sector several times.
- The Berkman Klein Center at Harvard has published a lot of (to me) mindblowing blog posts and papers in the past decade.
- I have learned a lot from the half-dozen or so events I attended online that were hosted by DeepLearning.AI.
- Linda Raftree has been hosting a great meetup called Tech Salons that I have been attending for more than a decade.
- Participating in Art-a-Hack’s summer 2016 cohort was the first time I got to lead a team of smart people to just think and create something to express a relationship between tech and society. Read about that here.
- While I was at GitHub, I worked with quite a few researchers at Microsoft, who are publishing papers on topics most people don’t know exist. Their depth of knowledge is incredible.
- As an intellectually curious New Yorker, I am often at a talk, play, event, or conference that helps shape my career. Fortunately, I am told I have done the same for others in my many conference talks over the years.