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Q&A with one of Canada’s 50 most inspiring women in STEM

A conversation with Aashni Shah, CEO of non-profit Elixir Labs and a software engineer at Square

Aashni Shah.

Aashni Shah is one of eight University of Toronto alumni named in the inaugural “Inspiring Fifty” women in Canadian tech and innovation. Photo courtesy of Aashni Shah.

Earlier this month, it was announced that two U of T computer science alumni Inmar Givoni (PhD 2011), an autonomy engineering manager for Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group in Toronto, and Aashni Shah (HBSc 2016), were among the 50 Canadian women celebrated as part of an “Inspiring Fifty” group of women in the Canadian tech and innovation sectors.

Inspiring Fifty is a Dutch organization that launched its inaugural national event in partnership with Canada’s Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and with the support of the Senate of Canada. Annual Inspiring Fifty cohorts have been named in Europe, the Netherlands and South Africa.

U of T’s Nina Haikara spoke with Shah about the honour and why she chose to study at U of T.


How do you feel about this recognition?

I’m honoured and extremely humbled. I thought it was an incredible opportunity to be nominated.

I don’t think the magnitude of what Inspiring Fifty is doing fully registered until I saw the profiles of the other women on this list. The realization that I’ve been named is still sinking in, because I’m just at the start of my career. I’ve actually met some of the women on this list, and have been inspired by their work for years. I hope that other girls and women see these names and aspire to pursue their own passions.

Why do you think it’s important for Canada to promote the advancement of diversity in the STEM fields?

Canada is a stable and powerful first world country, with a huge percentage of the population being immigrants or first generation settlers. The country thrives because it accepts and celebrates people with different backgrounds, ideas and beliefs. Canada is also a leading country with many innovative technological programs, such as the Canadian Open Data project. One of the most powerful outcomes of diversity is the introduction of different ways of thinking and therefore better and smarter innovative technology.

I’m a huge believer that technology gives us the ability to make the world a better place, and by promoting diversity in STEM, we’re increasing our odds of finding stable and sustainable solutions that will help Canadians and people all around the world.

Why did you choose to study computer science at U of T?

When it came to choosing a university, I knew I wanted to attend a well respected university that’s integrated into a busy city. It was also extremely important that the people I would meet came from diverse backgrounds. I was an international student with a passion for travelling and learning about other cultures, and knew that that would be an important part of my studies as well as my future. U of T and the city of Toronto fit these requirements perfectly. The added bonus: Toronto has become a huge tech hub, which meant that I could start mixing and integrating with professionals in the industry through hackathons and technical events, really early on in my studies.

You were very active in student life at U of T – president of the Computer Science Student Union (CSSU) and founder of UofTHacks, Canada’s first student-run hackathon. What motivated you to start a hackathon at U of T? How did these experiences enrich your academic experience?

I sometimes joked I had a full-time job on top of school with all the extra-curricular activities, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

University hackathons allow students the opportunity to create a project over a weekend. They gave students a chance to learn new technologies and find ways to “make it work” in a short amount of time. It also provided students the opportunity to interact and network with students from other universities and colleges, and often from other cities and countries. Students would also meet professionals from the tech industry by way of our sponsors.

They were gaining popularity in the U.S., and I saw no reason not to have one in Canada as well. I pitched the idea to a few friends, convinced the Department of Computer Science to get on board and began planning an event that has changed my life in many ways.

Planning these events taught me about organizing and creating teams, working with volunteers, how to handle problems as they arose, marketing, finances – which I still don’t like doing – and so many other things. It was like running a company while studying.

It also opened many doors for me in the tech scene. I was invited to speak at events about my work as a hackathon organizer, as a women in tech and as a woman in a leadership position. I became a respected member of the hackathon community both in Canada and the U.S.

Being the CSSU president and founding UofTHacks gave me a chance to learn about things that are not normally covered while sitting in a classroom and think it’s made me better all-around person.

You’re currently a software engineer at Square, and CEO of Elixir Labs, a nonprofit that builds websites and applications for other nonprofits, for free. What drives you to continue your work with Elixir Labs?

From a young age, I’ve always been involved in philanthropy – it was a huge part of how my family raised me. It was also a big part of the type of activities I did in high school, where I hosted events that raised thousands of dollars, which we then used to support numerous projects from the OVH Feeding Program, to rebuilding schools and libraries. It should come as no surprise that technology is one of my other passions. Technology gives us the power to make the world around us a better place and I’m in a place in my life where I’m able to give back.

How do you find the time to be a software engineer and a CEO?

It’s definitely not easy, and takes a lot of testing and tweaking. When people ask what I do, I answer that I’m a Software Engineer at Square by day, and a CEO of Elixir Labs at night. That’s how I find time. I treat Square as I would any other full-time job. With Elixir Labs, it’s mostly meetings to get people on board, and less of the day to day coding – though I still dive into the code when I get a chance. I also strive to balance my work life with some social time, as well as some “me” time.