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“Learn about what you want to do.” With Saniya Shah

When I was younger, my family always encouraged me to learn more about entrepreneurship and participate in activities that would allow me to learn more about leadership and innovation. In retrospect, that played a pivotal role in my excitement and confidence to start my own company. That is why, I think it is important that […]

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When I was younger, my family always encouraged me to learn more about entrepreneurship and participate in activities that would allow me to learn more about leadership and innovation. In retrospect, that played a pivotal role in my excitement and confidence to start my own company. That is why, I think it is important that we provide more young women with the same learning opportunities and start instilling them with the skills that they need to feel confident in pursuing their own passions/businesses one day.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Saniya Shah.

Saniya is the CEO and co-founder of travel tech company, Pilota. The company uses emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence, to enhance the passenger experience and keep travelers safe. She has received her MBA from Cornell University and an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Boston University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Myname is Saniya Shah, CEO and cofounder of Pilota. Where we use AI to asses travel risk and have launched a product that helps travelers analyze health and safety risks as they plan their journeys, which has been gaining quite a bit of traction in the current environment.

I am a former founder of a virtual choreography company and have worked in the innovation incubator of Fortune 7 company, UnitedHealth Group where I created and launched new products for the company. I was also featured recently in Forbes as a “Game Changer in Travel.” I have received an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Boston University and an M.B.A. from Cornell University.

Apart from my life as a founder, I have a passion for dance (which is why I founded my last company) and for traveling. I’ve competed nationally for dance and I’ve been to around 50+ countries and was hoping to go to Portugal and add another to my list this summer. I also love exploring the city I live in, NYC, and trying all the amazing food that it has to offer.

My cofounders and I met at Cornell when we were in grad school. As a group that both loves to travel and has an extensive technical background, we decided to do a research project to see if it was possible to predict flight disruptions with artificial intelligence. From there, once we verified that it was possible, we went out and started to speaking with people all over the industry to understand the problem and whether there was an opportunity to use AI to assess travel risk in the market.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The travel industry is extremely fragmented, there are a lot of travel providers that consumers interact with throughout their journey, but it is difficult to centralize the important information that they need from the many providers that they interact with. On top of this, health, safety and passenger have always been a necessity in travel but have typically been hidden throughout the process unless a situation came up that brought it to the forefront. Today, in the post-covid world, travelers care a lot about travel risk and having access to the pertinent information. Our company, Pilota, is empowering users with this information so that they can make more informed decisions about staying safe while they travel. Our product FlySafe, allows users to compare their potential itineraries based on the health/safety factors that matter most to them as they are planning/booking their travel. We are one of the first to market with a product like this and one of the first to provide consumers with this information.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Something that is amusing in retrospect is, when we first decided upon a name for our company, we wanted it to be something very powerful. So, after going through a laundry list of names, we chose the name Skyhawk. At the time we thought it was a good name for a travel tech disruptor. But as we continued down our path, we realized that when people think of our company, we want them to feel safe and comforted. We want them to trust us. However, the feedback we got was that Skyhawk was intense and sort of intimidating. So, we realized we need to change it asap and that is how we became Pilota.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

The mentors that I have, I have found through various founder communities that I am a part of. They have always provided great advice, made great connections for us but where I feel that they have made the biggest impact is in their unwavering support. Founding a company is very exciting but it comes with its set of challenges. These challenges are especially tough because they are unique to your team and it is difficult for others to understand them. Our mentors have always been there to support us through these, whether it is being a sounding board for us to talk through them, providing us with the guidance to tackle them or even just reassuring us of our strength to overcome them. This support, when things are tough, is what has been the most impactful.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

With disruption comes a lot of positives that can benefit and help a lot of people. Many times, it’s a problem that has been difficult to solve or has been affecting a lot of people. However, there are also downsides and unintentional consequences to it, that can negatively affect a lot of people. Take for example Uber. Uber allows users to transport themselves door-to-door with significant convenience. It essentially took the power from the existing providers and placed them in the hands of the users, allowing users to choose their origin point, destination, timing etc. This is great for these users; however, it also has significantly negatively impacted the many taxi/car service drivers that depend on these jobs for their livelihoods. Many of their patrons, moved over to Uber and it’s been nearly impossible to compete with them. So while Uber does present a lot of great changes for the user, it has also resulted in some “not so positive” outcomes for the existing taxi industry.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Don’t build before you test. A lot of founders come in with a strong sense of conviction about their product/idea, which is great, but they make the mistake of diving directly into building the product. Before investing the time and money into building the entire product, create hypothesis out of your assumptions and find ways to rapidly test them. Even if you validate every single one of them, you will learn a lot more about user behavior, user experience and the people you are building for, which will result in a better product.

Build a strong support network. Being a founder is hard and can be very isolating even if you have an awesome team around you. Finding others that have either done this before, are currently going through it or can provide help/advice along the way will be incredibly important on the days that will inevitably come where you are uncertain, facing a challenge or just having a case of founder isolation.

Don’t be afraid of failing. When you are building your startup, you are going to be constantly trying new methods, features, hacks, etc. And 95/100 times, they won’t work as expected. Which is why it is important to not be afraid of failing and to have the stamina and confidence to try those 100 things. Even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot in the process.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

The specifics of this definitely vary on the industry/product/customer of the business. But my overall advice on strategy to build good leads is to conduct a lot of user research up front to narrow down your target customer. This target customer profile should be both as specific/detailed as possible and have a clear reason as to why they absolutely need your product. Once you have this, you can spend more time finding leads that fit this profile instead of casting a wide net.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We are testing some exciting new things at Pilota right now to continue empowering travelers and enhancing their experience. The prioritization of health/safety by travelers as they plan future trips is something that is here to stay and what comes next for Pilota is going to address exactly that! Keep your eye out for it and make sure to download our current product FlySafe to stay up to date on it!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I love the How I Built This podcast. What is great about it is that you have entrepreneurs from all walks of life, who have build all kinds of products, candidly sharing their stories, challenges, lessons and advice. With each podcast that I listen to, I learn something new, get inspired to try something different and feel even more motivated to continue on this journey. I think when people see these huge successful companies or see these large IPO’s, it’s hard to think about the early days of the company and what helped them achieve that success. Hearing about those early days and some the strategies they used to find that success inspires me to try similar things with my company.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

  • Sara Blakley, the founder of Spanx, once said,” “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”
  • This resonates with me because when you are building a startup, there are an infinite number of things that you don’t know. It’s natural and easy to be intimated by this and to constantly second guess whether you are doing it correctly or not. This is especially true because so much of what you do is subjective, and you are constantly going to be getting advice/critiques about your approach to things. However, if there was a clear, “right”, path to success then everyone would take it. Instead you have to trust your own ideas and have the strength to follow that path, even if it’s different from what everyone else is doing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Something that is important to me, that I hope to one day spend even more time contributing to, is empowering women, from a young age, with the tools and skills that they need to pursue their own businesses/startups. When I was younger, my family always encouraged me to learn more about entrepreneurship and participate in activities that would allow me to learn more about leadership and innovation. In retrospect, that played a pivotal role in my excitement and confidence to start my own company. That is why, I think it is important that we provide more young women with the same learning opportunities and start instilling them with the skills that they need to feel confident in pursuing their own passions/businesses one day.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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