Shreeti Shrestha: Setting an example to promote women in science and technology in Nepal

Shreeti Shrestha. Photo: Aryan Dhimal
Shreeti Shrestha. Photo: Aryan Dhimal

Shreeti Shrestha works as a software engineer at Cotiviti, a multinational healthcare analytics company, for the past three years. However, her life is different from other software engineers.

A native of Palpa, Shreeti Shrestha was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease when she was 12. Yet, despite being wheelchair-bound, today, she has made herself an inspiration for many women and youth with a disability to come forward and pursue their careers in the field of technology, which was traditionally considered a masculine field that requires physical strength. Yet, as she recollects her memory, Shrestha remembers the journey so far has been full of struggles and achievements.

Problems with possibilities

Soon after her birth in 1996, Shreeti Shrestha’s family shifted to Kathmandu. 

As per her mother Anita, she crawled very late. “We didn’t realise that there was some problem as she used to sit in a place and play. We thought that she was a very wise child,” the mom shares, “But, as she could not walk properly when she was one-year plus, we became worried and began visiting doctors.”

Shreeti Shrestha’s father, Kiran, himself was a surgeon, hence the family immediately took the problem into notice. Then, the parents first took her to Patna when she was five. However, the effort turned futile as the doctors there could not diagnose her problem. It was only in 2008 in Bangkok that the doctors recognised she has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

After teaching her basic alphabets at home, her parents searched for a school where there would be very few students so that she could receive enough care and support. And, they found one too. 

“My school, Ikeda based in Ravi Bhawan of Kathmandu, was more like a family than a typical school,” Shrestha, an all-class topper at school says, “My friends were also very supportive and my teacher encouraged and supported me a lot in my studies.”  

Shreeti Shrestha. Photo: Aryan Dhimal
Shreeti Shrestha. Photo: Aryan Dhimal

Yet, the infrastructure of the school was not disabled-friendly per-se, says Shreeti Shrestha. Infrastructure-wise, it was like any other common house. Only because everything was on the ground floor for the primary level, thus, she did not face any hurdles. For the secondary level, the school authority shifted the classroom to the ground floor just for her. 

“My school also assigned people to support me in need. So, I didn’t have much problem during my school years,” she shares, “Till grade seven, I was not in a wheelchair, but I did need some kind of support to walk as this disease. You know this problem is age-progressive; the severity goes up as you grow up.”

There is no cure for this disease yet. There are some treatments that can minimise weaknesses, but they are not available in Nepal. Also, it is very expensive.

During 10th grade, Shreeti Shrestha had to undergo spinal surgery. In the next two years, she could not go to school due to the surgery’s side effects. Yet, her parents arranged for some teachers to visit her at home.

Fascination towards computer

Over the years, if anything attracted Shreeti Shrestha, they were computers.

“I was in grade two when my father bought a computer. I began learning to use computers in the fourth grade,” she says, “Since then, my interest just grew forever.”

As the school would teach her how to make PowerPoint presentations, she would practise it at home by assisting her dad. “The more I started using computers, the deeper my interest grew.”

Recognising her interest, her teachers also focused on programming from an early age. They would give her problems so that she could explore more. She also self-studied many things about computers. She chose physics as a major in her final school years as she, by then, was committed to venturing into the IT field.

Shreeti Shrestha. Photo: Aryan Dhimal
Shreeti Shrestha. Photo: Aryan Dhimal

Subsequently, Shreeti Shrestha enrolled at Pulchowk Engineering Campus in 2014 for a BE in computer engineering as the family found there were disabled-friendly infrastructures and she could comfortably study there.

“A few people tried to treat her like a burden indirectly and discourage her, thinking they had to do an ‘extra’ arrangement for her. But, there were are many who motivated her in her path,” Shrestha’s mom remembers the campus visit. Shreeti Shrestha also remembers, “The dean also motivated me to take the entrance examinations. He assured me of his support in the best possible way.”

“They never discriminated against me intentionally. But, I observed some little things such as women befriending only women and men with men and the stereotypical mindset that women or girls are not good in IT,” Shrestha shares about her college experience, “Many women underestimate themselves. But, I wanted to break that and I believe I managed to do that somehow.”

Shrestha is proud that she even became able to do drawings required for her studies although her muscles were weak due to the disease. “I didn’t know how I would manage all this. But, my worries vanished as my friends helped me.”

An exciting career path

After completing the bachelor’s degree, Shreeeti Shrestha took a break for six months and started working in February 2019.

“As there was no provision for work from home then, I had to think a lot before applying for any job, mainly about how accessible or convenient the company’s office is to me,” she shares, adding she could not join many jobs due to the same problem despite being selected.

Then, she got an opportunity to work for Dallo Tech on some projects started by her friends. She is still there as a co-founder. 

Shreeti Shrestha does not have any accessibility problems as it has a lift. “Also, the team supports me as it has made some necessary changes including installing ramps in the canteen.”

However, for the past two years, the team is working remotely due to the Covid-19 crisis. Before that, her father used to help her commute. It has been the same from school to work.

Now, Shreeti Shrestha wants to do a master’s to take her career ahead. You should not underestimate yourself; as long as you aim and work hard, you can do it. There is always a way out,” she says.

Her mother is happy that she has been successful in her career so far. “When she was a child, we used to carry her from one floor to another and one place to another. As per her need, we modified our house structures including installing lifts, ramps and all. But now, she has made a career on her own. Isn’t it something to be proud of?”

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Budhathoki was a correspondent at Onlinekhabar from February 2020 to February 2022.

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