Being top of the line at one of the world’s largest social networking sites at 32 is no mean feat. But Mahima Kaul has carved her own niche by working her way to the top, becoming the India Public Policy Head for Twitter. A former journalist, she worked with one of the biggest think-tanks in India- Observer Researcher Foundation (ORF) before moving on to the global giant. A keen researcher of internet governance and it’s significance in our lives, she has written extensively on internet governance issues, information and communication technology and cyber security.
Mahima talks to us about what influenced her choices, work decisions, women at the executive and her personal inspiration.
Being Public Policy Head is a socially responsible business.
I feel extremely lucky to be working with one of the world’s best known companies; one that stands for free expression in an increasingly connected and complicated world. When I look around me and think of the incredible changes that Twitter has brought into our lives, it almost seems unbelievable that I grew up in a fairly analog world. Twitter has become extremely central to our online (and offline) lives during emergencies, helping to build a community where we share laughter and tears, and create alternative narratives and promote counter speech.
There are three aspects to my role. The first is to monitor and participate in internet policy debates and consultations with the government of India as it pertains to Twitter’s functioning in the Indian market. This is important because as our government – like many others – seek to regulate a very new and dynamic space for the first time, they look to other stakeholders like civil society and business to provide inputs in order to ensure the policies and laws are progressive.
The second is to talk to our users about Twitter’s own policies, rules and tools, and how they function so that there is transparency and clarity about how the platform operates. The third is working with NGOs and charities under #TwitterForGood.
Mutual benefits with getting on board Twitter
When we take on new roles, we do it to make a difference. Outside of policy, I also manage a program called #TwitterForGood, where I work with NGOs who are doing phenomenal work in the areas of free expression, emergency and crisis response, women in tech, access & inclusion and digital citizenship. Recently, we launched the #PositionOfStrength program in India, where we are tackling head on two pressing issues in this digital age; leveraging the opportunity social media – Twitter – provides us in creating a unique voice to talk about the issues that are important to us, and second, understanding how to stay safe in this new media environment. My own passion, carried forward from the days when I worked with a community media organization called Video Volunteers, has now found a new home at Twitter. I’d like to think it’s mutually beneficial to be able to carry forward this work.
The inspiration along the way
My journey has been amazing and a lot of fun, filled with ups and downs. I started off on the edit team of the Indian Express and was lucky enough to have an editor who really helped me hone my writing skills. I left print for TV, as all young journalists did back then, and ended up doing work for Al Jazeera, CCTV and PBS. Again, I benefitted from working for a dynamic woman who helped me learn the art of producing a news documentary. Over time, I became very interested in one kind of story – how technology impacts society. As a result I found myself doing projects with NGOs working at this intersection. Often this involved travelling to rural India and doing case-studies on websites and mobile phone apps were changing the very fabric of society. Taking all these experiences, I wrote a paper on digital inclusion during an ‘Emerging Leaders Fellowship’ at the University of Melbourne, Australia. I returned to India and joined ORF. What kept me inspired was the work itself , it was intellectually engaging and I constantly met new people who were at the cutting edge of what they were doing, and it made me want to do more with my life!
The learnings at Observer Research Foundation(ORF)
Setting up the Cyber Initiative at ORF, India’s most influential think-tank, was what can only be described as a great adventure. I worked very closely with the Vice President of ORF, a great mentor, and built from scratch a very important platform to hold internet policy debates important to both India – government, business and civil society – and to a global audience interested in Indian views on internet governance. We had tremendous success with CyFy; an internet policy conference which not only hosted senior ministers from India and abroad, but brought some of the brightest academics and industry leaders to India. ORF also gave me the space to grow, publish, and present my views at global forums like the Stockholm Internet Forum, RightsCon and CyFy itself. I’m very proud and lucky to have had that experience.
The inclination towards online privacy, internet safety, and governance.
As a teenager who discovered social media when in college at McGill University, Canada, my weekly routine involved faithfully uploading pictures online after every party I attended. Slowly, one came to understand the privacy implications of putting out information in the public domain. But along with enjoying online personal networks, as an active blogger starting 2005, I experienced the wonderful possibilities of interest-based online communities. In fact one of my first op-eds for the Indian Express was about how the Indian blogging community responded to the government blocking blogger in 2006. I wrote passionately why young people in India wanted and needed the internet — “accessibility to information is key” — and against censoring the internet.
Some of my blogposts were picked up at times by Global Voices Online and Open Democracy, even Huffington Post (before it came to India!). With this exposure, along with my day-job of being a mainstream journalist, I found myself gravitating towards the questions of free expression, privacy, and safety, and my work so far as reflected that interest. By the way, I still upload pictures on a regular basis!
Breaking through the glass ceiling
My mother is a successful lawyer and I’ve grown up seeing her work hard through my life. So, I’ve been lucky to have a strong female role model in my life. And as a result, I’ve always gravitated towards strong women – leaders in the corporate world, politics, NGOs – and if I’ll be really honest, even on TV shows! It is wonderful to hear from these strong women leaders about how they navigated the many challenges of being a woman in the workplace, managing the competing attentions of home and office. I’m inspired by their hard work, dedication, and articulation. There aren’t enough women who get the opportunity and support to reach the top, and I’m very happy that we are talking about this more in India. I hope, in some small way, I’m able to positively contribute to this conversation and bring real change to the landscape in India.
Advice to women aspiring to enter the corporate world
For me, there are three takeaways that I can offer from my personal experience, be it a corporate job or any other. The first is I was interested in a sector where the jobs weren’t obvious ten years ago and often I had to create opportunities for myself by suggesting new ideas and projects. So sometimes the journey is a discovery, and innovation is key.
The second is that people can sometimes try to undermine you simply because you are a young woman with ambition. To that I say, try and work with the best people you know. There are many who help you grow and reach your potential. Focus on them. Do your best, work hard and deliver results.
The third is related. When the Nirbhaya rape happened in 2012, like many others, I felt a strong personal connection to the incident and felt violated myself. But I channeled that energy and reaffirmed to myself that I’m not going to let the regressive and repressive parts of our society dictate my freedom, mobility and life choices. At the time I wrote a blog called ‘they can’t rape it out of me’. Now I recognize that as offering an alternate narrative; trying to find something positive in the negative. If only we could remember that all the time!