This story originally appeared in Ad Age on December 4, 2020. It is part of a recurring series of Q&As called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series spotlights the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Ashish Toshniwal is the co-founder and CEO of YML, a global strategy, design and tech company. YML creates strategy, design and engineering for digital products and experiences, working with clients like Apple, The Home Depot, Facebook, State Farm, Universal Music Group and L’Oréal. Toshniwal immigrated to the U.S. from Kolkata, India and founded YML in 2009, when he was just 26 years old. Today, YML touts a 60% multicultural workforce.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you first talk to me a bit about your background and how you got into the industry?
I was born and raised in Kolkata in a joint family of 15 people, all in the same house, with one bathroom. Looking back, I guess the shower-shuffle schedule was my first experience at time management. I was surrounded by love but there wasn’t a lot of individual independence or freedom. I was lucky to visit America, right before college in 1999, and it shaped my vision of how I could become independent. I wanted to study engineering, so the U.S. tech scene was already a big attraction. I had no idea at the time that my engineering major would morph into engineering for digital products and experiences, as that business didn’t even exist in 2000. I guess as a young Indian teen, America became my gateway to personal growth and education and, eventually, entrepreneurship. Not to mention the appeal of a long, hot shower.
Talk to me about starting YML. What was your reasoning for doing so?
After I graduated from Purdue University, my first job was working at Dell Computers in Austin. Flashback to 2005 when YouTube had just launched and 18 months later was acquired by Google for $1.6 billion—the opportunity and ability to accelerate from startup to success had a huge impact on me. At that time, many of the companies I admired had either started or were headquartered in Silicon Valley. To me, clearly, if my goal was to succeed in business and in tech, I had to be in Silicon Valley. Back in 2009, when all anyone did with their cell phone was make a call or send a text, YML Co-Founder Sumit Mehra and I saw the phone as a bigger mode of communication through smart, intuitive, powerful and beautifully designed digital products and experiences.
What hurdles did you face starting YML in Silicon Valley during the bottom of the recession?
We actually started YML in March of 2009, at the bottom of the bottom of the recession. It’s funny, my friends now say I had perfect timing. Hindsight. It was actually awful timing for a startup but ideal timing for digital products. Before 2008 there was no such thing as mobile design or mobile engineering. No one knew or had apps. Voice and text were the only forms of mobile experience. Then the iPhone launched, and with that, the Apple App Store. Sumit and I took a risk and put all our energy into building mobile apps, the new gateway for digital experiences. It was a huge risk.
How do you think your early background has helped shape you as a company leader?
I’m an Indian male, born in 1982. I’m not that old but I was raised and taught that speaking about your feelings or sharing your vulnerabilities are signs of weakness. That stuff engrains. It’s the root of unconscious bias. And here I am, an immigrant, a minority, who can factually state that I’ve been on the receiving end of unconscious bias upbringing. After going to college in the U.S. and working with unbelievably talented, powerful and supportive females, people of color and LGBTQ leaders, I am beyond grateful for the many friends, colleagues and clients who have helped shape and form my leadership style. I think everyone at YML is an entrepreneur and a builder. We all have the power to innovate. We’re a very flat organization and we embrace the new and unexpected. I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of each voice to change and influence anything from business to life.
Did you ever experience microaggressions or overt racism in your career?
Like any Silicon Valley startup, early on we tried to raise money. We were declined funding 22 times. I’m not sure, or clear, if it was due to my race, the fact I wasn’t an American, my youth, my inexperience. Who knows? Personally, I have not felt overt discrimination but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.
How are you trying to make YML more inclusive?
Every two years we focus on two major DE&I goals. Frankly, early on I didn’t realize how important DE&I is not only to our culture but to our focus, inspiration and productivity. As a startup, I was just trying to hire people very quickly. In Silicon Valley in the late 2000s, the talent pool skewed heavily male. Our leadership team ended up being 100% men and our staff was only 10% women. We knew that had to change and we worked really hard, and very consciously, to build our women leadership and women representation. Now, YML’s staff is 47% women and we have 30% women in leadership.Our staff is 40% people of color.
Our current DE&I priority commitment is to Black Lives Matter, and building out Black representation at YML. At the start of this year we had 3% Black representation, and we’ve grown that to 8%, with our goal being 10% by the end of the year, which I’m confident we will meet.
How can YML help make Silicon Valley more inclusive?
By example. Being vocal. Being responsible. As an entrepreneur, I had the gift of creating and nurturing YML’s culture. Culture is a very big deal, especially in Silicon Valley. YML wasn’t built overnight but I’m proud that we’ve built a global company with a 60% multicultural workforce, speaking 26 languages, nearly equal with men and women, located on six continents, 22 countries and in 14 states. This year we’ve had over 60% growth and hired 100 people. It’s proof: diversity works.
What do you want to see from big tech overall in terms of improving diversity, equity and inclusion for all people?
Tech companies, better yet, all companies need to be held accountable. Obviously, this is a challenging time for the world and that includes Silicon Valley. However, I feel when there is chaos, there is opportunity. There is a significant dislocation in the market in terms of consumer behavior. There’s dislocation for employees from where they’re working, to some jobs becoming less important and some jobs becoming a lot more important. I feel it’s an opportunity for everyone and a huge opportunity for DE&I recruiting. This has opened up an entirely new pool of talent. Everyone in tech should embrace the opportunity. Big tech should be held accountable for DE&I goals. Every company, tech or not, should do just like we do with our client engagements: be held accountable. That should be non-negotiable.
About Ashish Toshniwal
An expert in mobile strategy, product design and technology, Ashish has been featured on CNBC, ABC News, Forbes, and Adweek as a leader in Silicon Valley. He has his very own TED talk about finding purpose in your work. In 2009, Ashish and co-founder Sumit Mehra saw an opportunity to create a future-forward company that created mobile-first products and experiences to help brands win in a digital world. Nearly 11 years later, YML has transformed to become a digital-first, holistic customer design and technology company. Under Ashish’s leadership, YML has grown to nearly 350 strong, with five locations around the world, and over 30 Fortune 500 clients, including Apple, The Home Depot, Facebook, and State Farm. YML’s work has been responsible for some of the most inspiring digital transformations of this generation.