Interview: Mal Vivek (Dallas Chapter)

“You miss all the shots you don’t take,” says technology entrepreneur Mal Vivek. Although her comment was about applying to be featured on the Women Presidents Organization’s (WPO’s) 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies of 2023 list, it is openness to opportunities that appears to have colored Mal’s life.

Being ready to give almost anything a shot led to her being featured on the fastest-growing list, and on the WPO’s Women2Watch list for 2023. Now she wants others to benefit as she has, and she is enthusiastically urging “every single woman entrepreneur I know” to apply to be featured on the 2024 50 Fastest list, applications for which have recently opened

“You don’t have to be a WPO member, and you get to go to the WPO conference, which gives you tons of great networking opportunities. Also, it’s really easy to do,” she says.

Mal was a little girl when she took her first steps on the path that led to her taking over as CEO of business technology solutions company Avasoft in 2020 and founding its offshoot, zeb, in May 2023. zeb uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help businesses transform and optimize their operations. It is Avasoft that won Mal a spot on the 50 Fastest list.

“I started in tech when I was about eight years old, doing some functional programming…At summer camps, I loved doing math and programming, and it all kind of snowballed from there.”

By “snowballed”, Mal means that by the time she was 15, she was using machine learning to help a research scientist explore patterns in children’s nut allergies, and, at 17, she was working in computational biology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Center for Molecular Oncology. Computational biology applies techniques from computer science and mathematics to the understanding and modeling of biological systems.

Mal went into Avasoft, which had been founded in 2008 by her father, “right out of high school." She decided to skip the traditional route of going to university before entering the world of work, even though she had loved her work in cancer research. 

“I realized that there were so many other ways to get an education [than going to university] and that if I wanted to do cancer research, I would have to get a PhD, and that would take 12 years. I wouldn’t have time to do other things that I wanted to do,” she says.

Instead, Avasoft sent Mal to Chennai, India, for six months, where she rotated through all of the company’s core divisions, learning by doing. This, along with all the years she spent working in technology beforehand, gave her the knowledge and accolades she felt she needed to lead the company.

After a few years heading up Avasoft, Mal founded zeb because she wanted a more modern digital brand to become the face of the group’s AI-powered digitalization strategy services. The end goal, for zeb, is to use AI to ensure a company’s staff and the platforms it uses to do its work perform at their peak.

If it sounds as though being a girl, and then a woman, working in digital technology has been as easy for Mal as bagging the basics of HTML, that’s not the case. 

Not one to back away from any hurdle, Mal, in 2016 cofounded Girls Make Apps, a non-profit organization that operates across the United States, seeking to connect, empower, and provide programming education to women in computer science and technology. They have handed the organization over to be run by girls who are in high school because they believe it needs schoolgirl dynamism to have its greatest impact.

Crunch time for girls who are interested in technology and engineering is in elementary and middle school, says Mal. That’s when girls get the message that they are somehow not suited for this avenue of interest.

“That’s always stumped me,” she says. “Women and girls are often inherently very good at balancing emotion and logic, and at multitasking. We need those skills in technology. Add in race and lower income levels, and it [the message that technology is not the right fit] gets worse, but that’s exactly when resourcefulness increases, and we need those skills in tech too.”

Better technology is built when teams are comprised of people from diverse backgrounds because homogenous teams inadvertently build in bias that can reinforce stereotypes or simply overlook aspects of other groups' biological or cultural make-up. An example of this is the October 2019 discovery that an algorithm used on more than 200 million people in US hospitals to predict which patients would likely need extra medical care, heavily favored white patients over black patients. The result was that black patients often lost out on critical care that they needed.

Because a large part of using AI to optimize business operations leads to a fundamental change in an organization, the ability to balance emotions and logic is crucial to zeb’s business model, says Mal.

“There is a lot of fear that arises when companies use AI. People worry about their job security, and that is one of the most emotional fears of all. It’s the biggest challenge of change. You can build whatever systems you want, if people are scared of them, or don’t want to use them, you are nowhere.”

What zeb does is assess where AI can aid a company, freeing up human creativity by putting AI to work on repetitive processes that are “wasting human capital”, says Mal. Also, AI can crunch large datasets, identifying patterns humans are simply not capable of seeing. Together, these two functions can help to optimize operations. 

Working in tandem, zeb and Avasoft have their headquarters in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania and a presence in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Toronto, Canada; and Chennai, India. They serve clients across the globe in various industries.

“It’s been great. We’ve grown so much, and we get a lot of referral-based business because of the value companies are seeing in our very industry-specific, tribal knowledge, which they don’t easily get elsewhere. Six months ago, we started zeb with zero clients. Now zeb has many mid-sized to large enterprise clients.”

Being a young woman in business can be tough, and Mal is grateful for the support she receives through WPO, where many members have been in business a lot longer than she has. “It’s hard to find networking opportunities, especially for women, and the women I have met through WPO are super-open and willing to share. That’s rare.”

Mal also likes that WPO chapter meetings are once a month, for two hours at a time, meaning that they don’t take too large a bite out of her diary, and that she has the option of attending in person or via a livestream. “In fact, I like everything about WPO. I can share my challenges and receive empathy and advice, and I can offer solutions to others. It’s great.”

Thank you, Mal!