Photo Credit: Jayms Ramirez
For years, Komal Shah wore the cloak of computer geek well. The moniker fit her then as well as the vibrant designer gowns she now dons at galas.
Though she was born and raised in Ahmedabad, a western Indian city famous for its textiles, to a textile trader father, Shah had no interest in what should have been an obvious career choice. She opted instead for something completely opposite, becoming so smitten with programming in the eighth grade that she learned enough to teach computer classes two years later.
She’d go on to help rewrite Oracle’s database for the Solaris operating system, assist in growing Netscape’s application server business tenfold and run product management at Yahoo — all before discovering that at heart, she’s really a nerdy fashionista with a craving for contemporary art.
“There’s a side of my brain that I had not exercised for 40 years,” says Shah, now 44, as she sits in the living room of the art-filled Atherton home she shares with her venture capitalist husband Gaurav Garg, and children Bijoy, 12, and Elina, 10.
As a little girl, she made doll clothes using fabric samples from her father’s business. Computers, perhaps, buried that creativity. After studying computer science at a university near her family home, her father encouraged her to earn an advanced degree in the United states. She took his advice and arrived at Stanford to work on her Master’s degree in computer science in 1991 at the age of 21.
“I called up my parents six months later and said, ‘This is my home. I’m not coming back,’ ” she recalls.
Though she had found her new home in northern California, it baffled her. In Ahmedabad, she was one of five women in a class of
60 students studying computer science. At Stanford, there were three females out of 90.
“I was surprised,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘This is the U.S. They’re a lot more advanced, a lot more egalitarian. What happened here?’ ”
Shah is cognizant that the number of females studying computer science has risen but still deems them too low, targeting gender bias as the problem.
“I’m just surprised at the amount of gender stereotyping we do in this country. Boys can’t wear pink; girls have to be pretty and not so assertive. There are challenges with liking math, so there are girls who will dumb themselves down, which I find really surprising and sad in this country,” she declares.
Spend a few minutes with Shah and you’ll soon know her opinions — she’s not afraid of holding back.
As confident as she is petite and graceful, she chalks up her confidence to working in the tech field. After graduating from Stanford, she landed a job as an engineer at Oracle before gravitating toward project management. She got married and earned her MBA at Berkeley, which Oracle funded. The stress of studying and working full-time forced her to do some soul-searching, leading her to the realization that she had given the wrong impression to her first husband.
“I was sort of this very sweet, obedient wife in the beginning,” she confesses before adding, “Then I discovered that is not who I am.”
Though her personal life faltered — she soon divorced — Shah’s career continued to ascend. She joined Kiva, which was eventually bought by Netscape. She calls her two and a half years at Netscape — whose business grew from $10 million to $120 million during that time — “a totally wild ride in terms of growth.” In 1999, she gave marriage another shot, marrying Garg, who spent 11 years at Sequoia Capital before starting Wing Venture Partners with Accel Partners’ Peter Wagner last year.
Shah worked at a few start-ups, stepping away from her career twice — after the birth of her son then again while pregnant with her daughter — before joining Yahoo’s product management team. Eventually, she realized her children needed her far more than any company did.
“I felt that I did the right thing,” she says. “Being an engineer, surrounded by men, I sometimes didn’t realize that there are things only a mother can do. I’m sure fathers can do it as well, but in our case, I realized that I needed to do it for me to feel good about our kids and our family.”
Her family isn’t the only beneficiary of this decision to leave the tech world. After she quit working in 2008, Shah and two other women raised around $3 million for Maitri, a Santa Clara-based nonprofit organization that primarily helps families from South Asia facing domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, human trafficking and family conflict. In the last couple of years, she’s become involved with the Feminist Majority Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health and non-violence. She also raised another $2.8 million as president of the Las Lomitas Education Foundation, a nonprofit for the
public school district.
“It was tremendously satisfying,” she says of being able to give back to the school. “I could use a lot of my business skills.”
When she gave up her career, she traded in the Armani outfits she wore to work and “really started having fun” with colorful clothes. “I don’t think I could have imagined seven years ago that I’d be so into fashion, but somehow it’s very instinctive.”
As Shah rediscovered her passion for fashion, she was introduced to the art world. She marvels at artists’ creativity and is energized by the education she receives going to studios, galleries and art fairs. She’s a trustee of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and also sits on the Tate Modern’s North American acquisitions committee and the accessions committee for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“[I’m doing] things I didn’t know I was capable of,” Shah says with a laugh, tossing the enviable mane that earned her a spot on one magazine’s ‘Best-Tressed list,’ adding, “I have no background in art in terms of education, so it’s great to start learning
about it now.”
Photo Credit: Jayms Ramirez