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'The Startup Wife': She built a brilliant new social platform. The men around her broke it

Published 6th October 2021
Credit: Scribner / Simon & Schuster, Inc.
'The Startup Wife': She built a brilliant new social platform. The men around her broke it
Written by Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN
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In "The Startup Wife," when Asha Ray, a gifted coder and MIT dropout, sets out to build a new social media platform with her flighty, spiritual husband and his best friend, a WASP with a trust fund, she thinks she's living the dream.
She's young, madly in love, and totally immersed in launching "WAI," an app that provides bespoke ritual ideas (including non-traditional weddings and pet funerals) to its community of subscribers. So immersed that, from the shiny Manhattan offices of an exclusive tech incubator aptly named "Utopia," Asha is unable to foresee how quickly things will unravel.
Through Asha's journey, Tahmima Anam's latest novel takes the age-old cliché of a woman being undermined by men at work and places it in the center of a modern, satirical story of a startup idea that goes horribly wrong.
Months after the platform's launch, things start to change: Asha's husband, Cyrus, is made CEO and the face of the brand, and as the company grows, the initial concept begins to balloon into an idea that, to Asha, now seems ethically dangerous. At one point in the story, she makes an appeal to her male colleagues to slow down, to not take the platform any further. But her concerns go unheard.
"What I was trying to say with this book is, Asha has every reason to win at life, and to own her power -- she's so smart, she's so confident -- if she can't do it, it means there's something really corrupt in the system," said Anam during a video call from her home in London.
Tahmima Anam, author of "The Startup Wife."
Tahmima Anam, author of "The Startup Wife." Credit: Abeer Hoque
Anam, a Bangladesh-born British writer, made her debut in 2007 with "The Golden Age," the first in a trilogy of novels that tell the story of three generations of a Bangladeshi family, from the time of the nation's 1971 war of independence to present day. Drawing on her family's heritage and her background in anthropology (she earned a PhD from Harvard), the books that precede "The Startup Wife," are very different in tone and subject matter. As Anam sees it, the first three novels were her "inheritance," because they felt like they were "given to her." The new book, she said, is "from her."
While "The Startup Wife" isn't autobiographical, Anam is in fact married to a tech CEO, and she said Cyrus is in many ways based on her partner (though "only the good parts," she noted with a smile). The story takes its cues from the experiences she had while sitting on the board of his company for 10 years.
Asha's character was born out of the dissonance Anam said she witnessed between a world that stands for advancement, and the reality of the tech startup space -- where women often are still treated differently than men.
"I'd go to a lot of board meetings and investment pitches with him," she said, "and I just found that startup culture so fascinating (because there was a) disjunct between the way that people talked about the culture -- which was that it was disruptive and revolutionary -- and the reality on the ground, which is that all the structures of power that we have inherited for millenia are still there."
"The Startup Wife" is out now. Below are Tahmima Anam's tips for the best films, books and songs about women at work.

Add to Queue: Women at work

Watch: "Working Girl" directed by Mike Nichols (1988)
Anam: "This classic film is still my favorite portrayal of what it's like to be a woman in the corporate world. The shoulder pads may not be as rectangular these days, but precious little has changed since Melanie Griffith fought her way to a corner office."
Watch: "Late Night" by Nisha Ganatra (2019)
Anam: "I adore this film, written and starring the luminous Mindy Kaling, because the main relationship at its heart isn't between a romantic couple, but between Kaling's character, the ambitious, yet awkward Molly Patel, and Emma Thompson's spiky Katherine Newbury. How the two women learn to work together is a love story of sisterhood."
Read: "The Female Persuasion" by Meg Wolitzer (2018)
Anam: "Another story in which the mentor-mentee relationship takes centre stage, Wolitzer's workplace satire is all about the clash between generations of feminists, and what it means to take up space in a man's world."
Anam: "If you ever need to walk into a meeting, a conference, or some other social situation that makes you sweaty and nervous, play these two songs on repeat. Chika's raspy voice is all confidence, swagger, and calling things out for what they are when she says, 'I've been counted out for too damn long.' And Beyonce: 'shine already, it's time already' will make you feel like you can take on anything."