The Architects of Empathy

What a Child Bride Can Teach Us About Feminism

My Indian grandmother was born in what is now Pakistan ninety years ago. She was promised to be married at 11, married at 13, had her first miscarriage at 14, her second miscarriage at 15, her first child who passed away at 16, another child who passed away at 17, and then seven children who survived, the middle of whom is my mother.

She was educated only through the sixth grade before she had to leave schooling to be a child bride and to raise a family. She wasn’t Lean In, she wasn’t Lean Out, she was Never Had a Chance to Be Anything But What Men Decided She Should Be.

I recently asked her, through my mom’s Punjabi translation, what age she would have gotten married if it were up to her.

She said 25.

In 1913, one hundred years ago, women in the United States couldn’t vote. In 1971, only 9% of bachelor’s degrees were going to women. In 2013, as of the the 113th Congress, the Senate still only has 20 women. This 20% of the current Senate is almost 50% of the total number of women who have ever served in the Senate since 1789: these 44 brave souls.

Fast forward to 2013, and the majority of graduating seniors from college are women. Those female graduates go out and earn only 82% of what their male counterparts do, and their trajectories further diverge over time, which indicates we still have miles to go and which is why Sheryl Sandberg’s book is timely.

For years we’ve imputed much about our character as a species from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. We have talked less, as a society, about the chimpanezee’s cousin the bonobo — who we are equally closely related to. The bonobo stands alone amongst the five great apes (humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) as having developed a matriarchal society.

While famous for their use of sex as a means of conflict resolution, what I find more interesting about the animal is how their males behave better as a result of female empowerment. While bonobos are not at all entirely peaceful, they show a stronger sense of empathy than their chimp cousins, and as a result they have a much better record of non-violence than any of the other great apes.

Why is this? As a man raised in a strongly matriarchal family (the five family elders were all women, and my mother and sister are forces of nature not to be messed with), I have a straightforward take on this: women make men better. As a society, my belief is we are gradually empowering our women, and becoming much better for it.

For this reason I believe the education and empowerment of women could be considered the top priority for the advancement of our species. I don’t have the research to prove it, but my hypothesis is that the happiest and most prosperous societies in the world are ones where women are the most empowered. Some of the most regressive places in the world are where we are, as my dad puts it, “wasting half the talent of our population.”

In 2010 my sister got pregnant. My grandmother told us that if my sister’s baby was a girl, she would bring with her great wealth. I dismissed this thinking as superstitious.

The first three years of building my company were a grind: I raised $8 million of equity capital over three years from over 100 courageous angel investors. This is an unusually large amount of angel equity capital to raise to start a business, and it was incredibly taxing as the company was almost ninety days from being out of cash for most of our first three years. I felt like I was walking around the country with a tin can. There was simply no belief that a clothing brand could be built primarily online, and were it not for the angels that believed in us that kept us going, we never would have made it.

Then something stunning happened. The day my niece Isabella was born, I was in Palo Alto. Sure enough, two venture capitalists committed to investing $18.5 million into my company that day. The name of the company? Bonobos. The date of Isabella’s birth? The same day my grandmother and Bella’s great-grandmother was born eighty-eight years earlier. The prediction of the prosperity that Isabella might bring with her came true, and it came true on the birthday of the woman who made it.

That evening, I was invited to dinner with one of the angels who had saved the company’s prospects the previous year by investing. We had dinner at his family home around the corner from where the company was launched, a home where my cofounder and I had lived in Silicon Valley at the time of the company’s launch. Though I had run past the street many times, I had never noticed the name. It gave me chills when I realized where dinner was: Isabella Avenue.

When I see my niece now, I think about the world she was born into and how much it has changed since her great-grandmother was born. In the look in my grandmother’s eye, I see so much joy and hope for a bright future for her great-grandaughter.

It is a future my grandmother helped make. She moved to the US when I was five so that my mom could Lean In, and return to work. Without it, my family would not have been able to provide the education that they did for me and for my sister, Isabella’s mom.

And so today I wish a Happy Mother’s Day to the brave women I know:

To my grandmother, my badi mummy: you sacrificed much of your own life to make a family, and you emigrated later in life from your home in India to help your daughters’ raise their children and so that they might have more options than you did. You took care of me when I was young so that my mom could work, and we didn’t miss a beat together did we.

To my mom: you came from India alone at the age of 20. You are brave. You did so to work for the family, to send money back home to keep things afloat while your dad, the sole breadwinner, could no longer make money. You were sad to not be there when he died, I know you still haven’t gotten over that, that you never will, and that we are all so grateful for what you did for all of us. You worked forty years, hard, and you are an amazing leader: tough and kind, empathetic and fierce, a rare mix. I hope to one day be as good as you. You are the best mother that a son could dream of.

To my sister: you are the best mother Isabella could dream of, and her dreams have a lot of hope in the world that you, and our mom, and her badi mummy, have made possible for her. You are the best sister that a brother could ask for.

To all of the moms in the world today: you have the most important job on the planet. You are the architects of empathy for sons and daughters alike, and it is empathy — our ability to understand the world from the perspective of others — that offers hope for our species to bear what it may.