I stepped into WeWork office space in New York City on Park Avenue on a cold rainy Friday morning to be immediately energized by the entrepreneurial vibes from many millennials passionately engaging in discussions over colorful tables, talking on their headphones, sitting or lying on a huge couch dedicatedly typing on their computers. After settling down and working on my laptop for a while, I was warmly welcomed by Deepti Sharma, a Forbes 30 Under 30, a mother of two, and the founder of FoodtoEat, a concierge catering service company based in NYC that champions small business owners. The now-31-year-old CEO with seven years managing her own business, in her very start-up outfit of a feminist fleece that read “The Future is Female”, black jeans and silver sneakers and down-to-earth authentic style shared with me her beautiful stories and wisdom on entrepreneurship, equality, purpose, parenting and work-life balance.
ABOUT FOODTOEAT, ENTREPRENEURSHIP & LIFE PURPOSE
Amy Nguyen: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Deepti Sharma: As a kid, I definitely remembered saying those shiny things like an astronaut or a ballerina as any other kids would do. My parents suggested I be a doctor but they did not reinforce the idea. I loved Science and Math but wasn’t sure it was the direction for me when it came to building a career out of it. As I volunteered to help disabled kids at schools, I felt it was so strange to see kids with cerebral palsy as I had never seen such young kids dealing with disabilities. I then realized that these people needed someone around to help them. The experience fueled my ambition to run communities with underprivileged people. Therefore, when growing up, I planned to go to laws school with the belief that it would make me intelligent enough to do the job well.
Amy Nguyen: What do you think is your life purpose? And how does FoodtoEat connect to it?
Deepti Sharma: My life purpose still well connects with my childhood experience as a volunteer. Also, being a child of immigrant parents gave me more reason to care about social inequities since young. I, therefore, grew up believing my life purpose is to help different communities by figuring out ways for them to scale their businesses, make more money, and be smarter about it. For now, I focus on the food community. When I started FoodtoEat, I talked to many food vendors who did not consider themselves as small businesses. I also found out that they lacked the basic technology to address operational and marketing problems, so it is important for me to teach and empower them. When the company is well established, I want to run for office. Although I am currently not clear about which capacity I would be involved with, I will be back to politics at some point.
Amy Nguyen: What was the biggest challenge about getting FoodtoEat off the ground?
Deepti Sharma: The hardest part is to convince people. When I talked to food vendors, I had neither a website, business background nor credibility. The way I battled was I would tell the food vendors, “I am not charging you. I am here to help and please give me the chance.” They like the honesty and the humility so they accepted.
Amy Nguyen: What are the challenges you have as a very young female entrepreneur with Asian origin in the US? And how do you overcome them?
Deepti Sharma: When I started out, there were people who asked me, “How old are you?”, or “Are you doing this as a college project?” I simply told them that I was running a company. Regarding origin, there’s still discomfort for a colored woman among white ones as we, as a society, still have stereotypes. I do feel uncomfortable as I don’t look like them but it’s not a problem. I brought my uniqueness as a South Asian woman to the table. I met with someone who inappropriately asked when I planned to have kids. I said I started my company and I would not let it go. It’s my child. I also told him that it was none of his business and the question was not necessary. It’d better be straightforward about who I am and what I stand for so I don’t have to come up with another reason. I would encourage women of different races to use what makes each of us different to bring some light to the room and educate people as everyone has a wisdom to share.
Amy Nguyen: How do you manage the competition?
Deepti Sharma: Although it’s good to understand about the other competitors and the overall landscape, I don’t really spend time thinking about the competition. I spend time focusing on my own business and how I could better help bring immigrant women’s businesses and their stories behind the food to the world. I am a strong believer that if we do what we do really well, everything will follow.
Amy Nguyen: What is your favorite part about being an entrepreneur?
Deepti Sharma: It is the freedom to make my own decisions. Also, it’s also the ability to directly see the values of the work I do every day and how they affect the community.
Amy Nguyen: What has been your biggest career accomplishment so far?
Deepti Sharma: Making the business profitable. I understand that some other businesses keep raising funds so I am pleased to see that my company is able to bring about profits.
Amy Nguyen: What is your advice on hiring and managing a team?
Deepti Sharma: In terms of hiring, I want to hire people who are smarter than me as I need different strengths and talents to build up the company. Treat them as equals and listen to them as everyone comes in with different backgrounds. The reason we have Monday morning meeting is I want to understand my team’s ideas and challenges and put them into effect. I don’t want to underestimate them because they are fresh graduates. I want to give them the freedom to make mistakes as long as they fix them, learn from the process and don’t repeat. Respect is very important and I also encourage my team to speak up. For those leaving the company, I still continue to build the relationship with them as the world is small.
ABOUT WORK AND LIFE
Amy Nguyen: What’s an average day like for you?
Deepti Sharma: I set priorities weekly and daily and review them at the end of the week. On a daily basis, I get up at around 6 or 6.30 with my son. I then get him ready before we drop him at my parents’ place and go to work. I also used to start my day by running. Now as I am pregnant, my husband dresses up our son on my behalf and I am currently putting a pause on my running ritual. I reach office at around 9 am. Coming in, I would see what we have on the table, and the rest of my day is about trying to sell, speaking at events about who I am, why I do what I do, and researching new ways to serve new clients or marketing tools. I also set a time to check in with the tech team during the day.
Monday is different as I have a team meeting to look at what we have achieved the week before, the challenges we have ahead, and how we would help each other to reach our goals.
However busy I am, I would take a short meditation at my desk once every few hours with my hands off the computer, my eyes closed, and my lungs inhaling and exhaling with deep breaths. I leave between 6 to 8.30pm to pick up my son and spend time with him. I do not have my computer or phone around when I am with him. I would play games with him or read him books before putting him to bed. My day ends with my me time when I take a bath, do some reading, watching TV or sometimes, hopping back on my computer for some work.
Amy Nguyen: What is the favorite part of your workday?
Deepti Sharma: I love talking to corporate clients and food vendors in order to ensure we give them excellent experience when working with us. With food vendors, I love learning about their journey and what brought them to wanting to start a business. With corporate clients, I love getting their feedback and learning how we are able to help them solve their problems.
Amy Nguyen: Apart from running your own company, you also sit on several boards and have a young kid. How do you strike a balance?
Deepti Sharma: To me, there is no true balance, and each of us can create our own balance. I always have a list of things I want to do, and I try to keep my three priorities which are family, work, and working out. On the days I don’t feel good, I take a rest and give myself the time to heal. When I am tired, I could work from home so I don’t feel guilty about not working. Now I am pregnant, the working out has changed and at the same time, I am more conscious of my health and diet by having sufficient and quality sleep and eat healthily by taking extra 30 minutes to cook for myself and my family.
When I am not pregnant, running without music is indispensable from my routine. The absence of the sound of music from the headphone allows me to be truly aware of the sound of life happening in my surroundings in its full colors. That way, I am able to make running fun by discovering different neighborhoods, new restaurants, and simply enjoying people’s conversations on the streets. I don’t want to get up missing my “being” time, especially in NYC when the busyness could easily carry us away in torrents. So, running for me is really mindful, watching, and zoning out so I could be fully present in the moment.
Amy Nguyen: What do you wake up every day looking forward to?
Deepti Sharma: Seeing how my son changes and discovers the world around him every day! Both of my pregnancies are hard and motherhood is harder. Therefore, I really value seeing the world with my son, who is currently two years old and very active. It melts my heart when I wake up finding him say “Mummy!” I am always interested in the things that he says when he discovers something interesting. I am a career focused woman, but I also deeply care about my family and my children. Although I did not take maternity leave, I am fortunate enough to have a strong support system so I could still be a mum.
For me, it is important to know what’s important in a season of life. As the year goes on, my priorities change so I don’t disappoint myself and those I am surrounded by. Currently, on a day to day basis, it’s my son. I want to be his partner in building his characters as he is becoming an individual.
ABOUT FUTURE PLAN AND THE FUTURE
Amy Nguyen: What’s your professional goal for the next two to three years?
Deepti Sharma: To get my company to the place where I feel comfortable, which means a bigger and more established company with more growth in New York area. We no longer focus on consumers but corporate instead. My efforts will be more on branding, marketing, and growth.
And then, probably within three to five years, I want to run for office. I need to find my path though.
Amy Nguyen: What is your vision of the FoodTech industry for the next 5 to 10 years?
Deepti Sharma: I’d like to see people create companies using technology and serving different communities. The food industry has a high turnover of restaurants. A lot of them are shut down after a short tenure. If we could help our communities to succeed, we are contributing to making our society better as these business owners could send their kids to college.
At the same time, growing up a vegetarian, I want to continue to learn about what our food system is like, and how and what we could do to positively affect it.
ABOUT CAREER DECISION AND CAREER ADVICE
Amy Nguyen: What factors in your upbringing have influenced your decision to be an entrepreneur and your originality, and how do you want to reinforce those in your family?
Deepti Sharma: My parents are open to letting me be who I want to be. Usually, parents want kids to be someone safe. My parents have their own business and my father always treats my mother as an equal partner or even first. They live on equality basis where they see my brother and me equal. I carry that on for my relationship with my husband: we are equal partners. When I delivered our son, it was not me but my husband who took the leave to attend to our newborn. As it’s usually toughest during the first eight or nine months, I felt truly blessed that my husband was willing to support me so generously so I could focus on the critical period of my company at that point. For me, that is true equality.
As I rarely see the men take more than a week off, I want to see more men challenging the system. Indeed, my husband actually told his company that he was the primary caregiver and asked them what they could do to help him. The company then offered him eight weeks of leave. People just assume that women are caregivers so we need to challenge it and ask what policy the employers have to support families.
Amy Nguyen: What’s your best advice for women who are on the border of working for themselves and working for others to have the financial security of a regular paycheck?
Deepti Sharma: Try something on the side first. Get yourself comfortable first. Do a bit of consulting, when you see that side hustle growing then go full time. Being entrepreneur has a lot of ups and downs, so when you have some traction, you know you have the capability. Of course, there are people who could take massive risks and they may want to give it a go full-time without trying. The bottom line is don’t be afraid. See what sets you aside and to your advantage and work on it.
Amy Nguyen: If you could choose a completely different career, what would it be?
Deepti Sharma: Politics, obviously. If I am to pick a fun one, it’d be a brain surgeon.
After completing the interview, I stepped out of WeWork office while the city was still sprinkled with rain and blanketed with a foggy layer in its more than ten shades of grey; however, I had never felt so elevated and inspired as if I had been over the rainbow. I truly hope this article would be of interest to many others who are set to drive their careers ahead and to find true meaning in their lives. Please watch out this space for further uplifting stories of unconventional or courageous career paths from highly respected people who have made it there.