For Nitasha Syed, a San Francisco-based product manager with a software engineering background, it was the tropes about Pakistani men and women that triggered her to create her talk shows. “Both men and women are boxed,” says the 30-year-old founder of the YouTube channel Shaam Ki Chai.
“There’s this stereotype of ‘oppressed women’ and ‘cruel men’ when it comes to Pakistan, and both are unfair descriptions. There’s no third narrative of ‘successful women’ and ‘supportive men’. I wanted to create a new narrative.”
That’s why the Pakistani-Canadian launched her media company Unboxd, where she initially focused on sharing stories of women in STEM fields, and now runs a talk-show with both men and women from the Pakistani diaspora based in North America.
“These are all brilliant people working in some of the world’s top companies. All of them are working on things they are passionate about, and all of them are committed to giving back to their own community. I am proud to see that,” says Syed, who started her career working on the FIFA14 team as an analyst.
Now a senior product manager at Rally Health in Silicon Valley, Syed uses her weekends and free time to create conversations that celebrate her people. Born and raised in a multicultural district of Vancouver, Syed’s parents were her biggest role models.
“They were one of the pioneers of the Pakistani community in Canada. We hosted all the Eid and Ramzan parties, Pakistan Day, and our home was always packed on weekends with people of all nationalities. We educated our friends about our festivals and traditions, and that’s what kept me rooted and connected to my culture,” says Syed.
Her father, a first-generation immigrant, completed his Master’s in Canada and instilled in Syed and her three siblings the value of education and especially science. Her mother was the host of a popular talk show, a community builder and a fashionista.
“She even wore high heels to the airport, her hair was pristine and her fashion was always on point,” laughs Syed, who says she inherited both the ‘left-brain’ tendency of her dad and the ‘right-brain’ of her mom.
Which is why it irked her when systems forced her to choose between the two sides of her personality. “Schools force you to choose between sciences and arts. Why can’t I do both?” she wondered. She also noticed how pop culture promoted this image of one or the other – the nerd versus the diva, with no space for anyone in-between. “When you dress a certain way, guys don’t take you seriously. That bothered me.”
Syed was in her final year of undergrad at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, where she was studying software engineering and machine learning, when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her final semester went by in a blur. She was not yet 22 when he passed away.
“Until then, I hadn’t realised how sheltered my life was. All of a sudden, I had to learn to live by myself, pay my taxes, plan my mortgage, function as an adult,” she says. “It changed me as a person.”
Soon, Syed stepped into her parents’ shoes in her own unique way. She launched a talk show called 'Humans of STEM'. When she ran out of money for full-blown studio shoots, she shifted to a different kind of interview setup, focusing on women in STEM.
“These women don’t get much of a creative outlet so they were happy to share stories from their lives. Imagine these powerful corporate leaders, software geniuses, talking about things like suffering bulimia or having an abortion. It created a huge impact,” says Syed, who was approached by brands to create documentaries on the theme.
Then, of course, Covid came along and Syed had to change gears once again. “This time I had all the filming equipment so I set up a studio of sorts in my own patio, and designed the set around the idea of sharing an evening cup of tea, or shaam ki chai,” says the entrepreneur, who began filming the talk show for YouTube in October 2020.
The videos feature Pakistani diaspora in the US and Canada, and the production is done by teams in Pakistan. Her Instagram page carries teasers for the show with verses like, ‘aankhen Majnu hon toh, chai bhi Laila lagti hai’ (if your gaze is like Majnu’s, even a cup of tea could be Laila).
Syed, who helps early-stage startups out of the US, Pakistan and India on product market fit, user acquisition, retention and growth, has several observations about women’s empowerment in East versus West.
“As desis, we grow up with the narrative that sees working women as selfish. The Western world has its own share of gender discrimination in the workplace – from pay gap to sexual assault – but it’s easier for women to build a career here because social responsibilities don’t all fall on women,” she notes.
As a content creator and a techie straddling both worlds of artificial intelligence and media, Syed is all too aware of the insidious way algorithms work, producing echo chambers of views online and fostering toxic spaces for fake news and misinformation to flourish. “Brands have power but so does the consumer,” says Syed, outlining the ways that hate content can be controlled in market economies.
“Consumers must be careful of what they click on, like or share. We must collect people and build communities to promote healthier algorithms. Media houses that create hate-filled content should have a financial loss in doing so,” she says, adding that emerging and niche content creators can also help by creating alternative spaces for consumers seeking meaningful, uplifting and humane stories.
While the internet has erased physical borders, Covid has changed the way we interact. “People were forced to connect digitally,” says Syed, and that’s good, in a sense. “We now realise we have more similarities than differences.”First published in eShe magazine