Charging Towards Change

Khushboo Shrivastava’s bold attempt to improve electric vehicle charging is a call for the world to pay attention to women in tech


Author: Zoya Khanday

“You have to get your hands dirty”, Khushboo Shrivastava recalls her father saying as he handed her a wrench to dismantle an old bike in their family garage. Growing up an only child in Indore, in Central India, she credits her curiosity to solve problems to her father’s insistence that she dismantle appliances around the house.

Khushboo is the co-founder of Coulomb AI, a cutting-edge enterprise offering innovative climate solutions, including predictive battery analytics software for electric vehicles (EVs) to boost their performance and extend their lifetime.

Charging Towards Change
Khushboo with her husband and Coulomb AI co-founder, Shantanu, in their home office, virtually connected with the rest of the Coulomb AI team. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

EVs play a large part in decarbonizing road transportation and contribute to the net zero agenda, to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero to solve the climate crisis. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021 (COP26) more than 20 countries pledged to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2040, while  30 countries have agreed to work together  to make zero emission vehicles accessible, affordable and sustainable in all regions by 2030 or sooner.

As the world moves more aggressively toward EVs, Coulomb AI aims to solve a problem that has so far hindered the transition to EVs: battery lifecycles. Coulomb AI has developed analytics software that provides real-time analysis of battery performance, increasing the time efficiency of the battery and reducing the total cost of ownership. The company offers complete data transfer services (often from manual bookkeeping) to the software, with the promise of improving battery health and decreasing failures and downtime.

As she speaks, Khushboo is planning her day, scheduling work calls, and instructing her domestic help, in her quiet home office in Bangalore’s Whitefield. In between this she adds, “I have always been interested in solving problems that bother me. It all starts from looking at the very basics and solving from the ground up”.

This attitude reflects in how Khushboo builds her team, “we are not in the business of just creating a product, this is also about solving a real problem”, she said. “Everyone here is committed to the cause, there is a sense of ownership, we believe in what we are trying to create”.

An explainer on battery health monitoring
A battery health monitoring data visualization, generated by the Coulomb AI dashboard. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

After being a part of several accelerators and consortiums in India, Coulomb AI was selected for the prestigious Y Combinator cohort of 2021, securing a place as the only woman co-founded tech business in the cohort.

This was not a stand-alone experience for Khushboo, in a batch of sixty, she was one of three women who chose to specialize in automotive engineering. This mirrors a global trend; women represent only  28 per cent of engineering graduates, 22 per cent of artificial intelligence workers and less than one third of technology sector employees  globally.  Even the small Coloumb AI team is largely male, consisting of her co-founder and husband, Shantanu Mondal, and their team of AI experts and technical engineers- at least for now.

Khushboo Shrivastava
Khushboo Shrivastava. Photo: UN Women/Zoya Khanday

The gender gap often widens when women look to become technology entrepreneurs and Khushboo highlights the need for mentorship for women in the start-up space. “No one really knows what it means to be a founder unless you are one yourself. The journey is exhausting and having someone point you in the right direction is hard to find”. Through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women’s Investor Consortium, Khushboo was introduced to Hanisha Vaswani. “People had been dead ends, making empty promises under the pretense of investment. Hanisha wasted no time, she immediately started connecting us with customers”, Khushboo added.

Hanisha Vaswani has more than two decades of experience in the start-up space, she is the founder of the Majority Fund and a former mentor in the United Nations Investor Consortium. Looking back at her journey with Khushboo, Hanisha reflected, “In her [Khushboo] I saw someone who was not afraid to roll up her sleeves and put in the hard work that is required to create something new”. She is now an Advisor at Coulomb AI and has made a small investment in the business, “It’s somewhere between a friendship and a professional relationship, and it’s not one-sided. We discuss product, new hires, employee issues, in both our companies but calls always tend to go longer than scheduled”, Hanisha added smiling.

Khushboo is currently a part of several mentorship programmes, but she declines most invitations to host talks for aspiring entrepreneurs. “If it’s not a sustained interaction, it does not work”, especially for women. Structural biases and stereotypes act as hindrances and need to be addressed by people who have had experiences overcoming them, she adds.

Stereotypes about who is and who is not well suited to STEM fields play a major role in the low percentage of women working in these fields. These beliefs become a self-perpetuating cycle: girls are not encouraged to enter STEM fields and so girls are less likely to develop necessary knowledge for it — thus making them less likely to express interest in STEM careers.

Her family’s early rejection of gender roles created a shield against these social perceptions. When she was 22, Khushboo’s father’s car was totaled in an accident. She spent months rebuilding the entire body of his car and gave it back to her father. After all, she adds coyly, “When a car stops working, the solution can come from anyone”.

A before and after picture of Khushboo’s father’s car
Khushboo’s father’s car, damaged in an accident (left) and several months later after Khushboo rebuilt it (right). “My father still uses this car. It still gears up great!”, she added. Photo: Khushboo Shrivastava 

This story was funded in part by the Government of Australia through the WE RISE Together programme implemented by UN Women