At IIT Bay Area Alumni annual conference, resilience and reinvention were the buzz words

Ritu Jha–

With Resilience & Reinvention: Thriving Through Turbulent Times as the theme, the Indian Institute of Technology Bay Area Alumni (IITBAA) conference on September 16 in Santa Clara turned out to be a vibrant engagement not only for the former students, but also startups and aspiring entrepreneurs from various American states. And just as significant was artificial intelligence, and its impact on business.

IITAA president Nidhi Kannoujia spoke to indica about the conference and its takeaways, and how the fundamental theme itself is so relevant. “From November 2022, the tech sector began their layoffs. A lot of professionals are going through a difficult time. First, there was Covid-19, and now the layoffs. There’s a lot going on.”

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Kannoujia, an IIT Roorkee 2003 alumna, said the layoffs could mean that some people may end up leaving the country. “From the economic perspective, sometimes, here is no way to avoid it. You need the strength and resilience to go through the experience. We wanted to make sure that we address that topic,” Kannoujia told indica.

She felt that at most such events, success stories dominate. “The real inspiration,” she said, “comes from the failure stories. We all fail but we don’t talk about it openly. Listening to people who have gone through that path, and who have built great things is important. We need to bring those ideas and experiences to light. The goal of this conference was to talk about both successes as well as enduring failures. It’s an act of courage to stand up for yourself when no one is supporting you. We have had several such stories at the conference.”

The key people who organized the IITBAA conference in Santa Clara

Though the conference discussed success and failure in-depth, a large number of people — more than 1,000 — who attended exemplified positivity and optimism. Kannoujia, who took over as president in 2021, said, “We had 20 startups and six sponsors. When we started our registration process, we knew it would begin slow and then catch up, that’s why we had planned to host at least 1,000 participants. We truly believe this conference brings value to the community.”

She added, “Once you build a strong community with purpose, you don’t have to go and sell yourself. We proved last year that we can do this well. Last year, we received encouraging notes from sponsors. They loved it and we had a returning gold sponsor.”

Kannoujia said that an equal voice for all sections of the community has been one of her key contributions after taking over. “We have 15 members on the board, 50 percent of whom are women and from the LGBTQ community. It’s a diverse team, with a diversity of ideas. In the previous term, we were a nine-member board. We have nearly doubled that because we want to build bigger initiatives and you need a team to do that. We have tripled the number of ongoing programs.”

She said IITBAA has connected with 20,000-plus IITans in the Bay Area. “I still don’t think we have reached every single one of them. Our focus is on making it meaningful for them so they feel valued to be engaged with us. We have also reached out to IITs in India because we are not stopping here. We have been speaking to IIT directors in India and we are making sure that we start building those bonds and making those meaningful connections now. We are providing the IITs in India a window to Silicon Valley.”

This year’s conference also focused largely on Generative AI (GenAI) as the next frontier. “Technology is always evolving, and then there is one tech that cuts across every industry. That’s what Gen AI is. Be it the health, security , or longevity, GenAI is the next frontier. Even though there was no intention of making this a GenAI conference, it organically became a dominant topic of discussion as scores of IITians have invested in this technology.”

What is her personal view on AI, indica asked. “I work for a security company where I lead the products. From a security perspective, privacy compliance and governance are the big considerations in GenAI. These considerations are very important because no technology works in isolation. It is eventually affecting our lives. This is one of the reasons why the California Consumer Protection Act came into force to protect privacy, which means that my consent is needed for access to my data. I need to say yes, my silence is not a yes. I think that is a very big deal in the security industry. AI has multiple facets, one of them is security and that is going to be a very big deal.”

On concerns about the security aspect of AI, she said: “President (Joe) Biden had issued a directive on security in 2021. It’s called Zero Trust. Every company has to comply with the Zero Trust rule. That being said, the areas of concern also represent an opportunity to solve a problem. We need to focus on solutions. For someone who builds security products, I would think of it as a big opportunity to solve those problems, because we don’t have an option. If this is coming, you have to be smarter and bigger than the problems.”

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