Sabari Raja: “Leading a virtual team”

Given my background, growing up on a small farm in India, I lacked the opportunity and confidence to speak in front of people. When I was at Texas Instruments, my first corporate job, I remember being in meetings and wanting to share my thoughts. However, I lacked the courage and confidence to speak up, and […]

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Given my background, growing up on a small farm in India, I lacked the opportunity and confidence to speak in front of people. When I was at Texas Instruments, my first corporate job, I remember being in meetings and wanting to share my thoughts. However, I lacked the courage and confidence to speak up, and the meeting would end before I found a way to say anything. I knew that if I was going to take leadership roles, I had to get over this fear. I enrolled myself in toastmasters for four years and diligently worked on public speaking. As a CEO now, it seems all I do is speak in front of people everyday and be the face of my company.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabari Raja. Sabari is the co-founder and CEO of Nepris Inc, a cloud-based platform connecting industry and education, providing real world relevance and career exposure to all students. She has worked in education technology for 20 years leading product and content strategy, business development, publisher relations, and emerging market growth strategies. She is passionate about working with educators to translate their needs into scalable technology solutions. Sabari has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from India, Masters in Computer Science from Louisiana State University an Executive MBA degree from Cox School of Business, at SMU. She lives in Austin, Texas and is also a busy mom with 2 boys in middle school.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up on a coconut farm in rural, southern India, worlds apart from technology and engineering. When in high school I had an opportunity to see Biocon, India’s largest biopharmaceutical company. I was awestruck that this sprawling company was founded by a woman, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. I was so inspired by her background and the heights she had reached in a traditionally male-dominated industry. This was the first spark that led to my goal of becoming an entrepreneur.

My first job out of college was working for a Fortune 500 company in the education technology group. As I travelled around the country working with students, teachers and education stakeholders, I realized that even in the United States many kids like me did not have the exposure to exciting careers because of who they are or where they lived. I wanted to do something about this. I co-founded Nepris (with Binu Thayamkery) with a mission to use technology to bridge this gap. Nepris levels the playing field by bringing real-world relevance and career exposure to all students. Today we have virtually connected more than 450,000 students across the country with industry professionals and role models from around the world. We are creating millions of moments of discovery for every student enabling them to dream of a better future!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I got invited to attend a STEM education gathering in the Dallas area in early 2013. I had some conflicts and I showed up to the meeting 15 minutes late. You know the worst thing that can happen when you show up late is that someone calls you out. On this day, the speaker stopped talking and pointed right at me and said “you there who just walked in late, come on over to table one.” Table one was all the way at the front so I had to make my “walk of shame” to table one while the whole room stared at me. But, here is the amazing part.

At table one was an executive from a Fortune 100 company (Kent), a high school CTE teacher (Pam) and a school district CTO (Sam). We had a productive day discussing the benefits of connecting industry and education. That same night Binu (co-founder) and I came up with the idea for Nepris, which would help scale the education-industry connection. During the next few months, I spent countless hours in Pam’s classroom and met with Kent to get leadership advice. Sam introduced me to his wife who was an education visionary. These three people that I happened to meet at an event — that I almost missed — turned out to be key influencers in getting Nepris off the ground. Kent became one of our early investors. Pam became the first teacher to use the platform. Sam helped sign our first district-wide pilot. My walk of shame turned out to create the biggest opportunity of my life.

My lesson learned from this experience is that you must follow through with people who share your passion. Invest time in getting to know them and why they share your passion. Never hesitate to ask for advice or help from others who know the industry well and who can fill the gaps in your own skills and knowledge.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

Honestly, I didn’t intend or aim to become a CEO. Many years back, one of my wiser colleagues warned me that the startup CEO’s primary job was fundraising. I thought to myself, how awful. I would never sign up for that job! After six years, I realize that it has given me unbelievable personal and professional growth opportunities. I have become a better listener and have learned to surround myself with people whom I trust, admire and who provide help when I most need them.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Obviously, a startup CEO has to ensure that the company has funding and the right people to do the work and to drive growth, but as an entrepreneur, you must handle internal operational responsibilities and external responsibilities. Internally, you have to know the financials, product, sales and marketing, and also drive company culture, manage customer and investor expectations and create an environment where all employees have an opportunity to thrive and be fully committed to the company’s mission and vision.

Externally, you have to be the face of the company which means getting in front of people on a daily basis to share the company’s vision and mission, to inspire people to get on board and to believe in the problem that you are solving and your solution. The unique problem here is that most people, including executives tend to be oriented toward internal operations or external relations. The startup CEO has to be comfortable doing both.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

From a personal standpoint, I am most proud of how this journey has affected my family in a very positive way. Some might think that running a company pulls you away from family. For me though, it has pulled us closer together. My proudest moments are when my two boys brag about their mom the entrepreneur. They want to be entrepreneurs. They’ve heard me talking with colleagues and investors for years. At 9, they were asking me what valuation means. My eldest wrote in an essay once that his hero was Bill Gates because he gives all his money away but in the very same sentence, he said “But my mom inspires me the most because she taught me how to launch a company.”

What are the downsides of being an executive?

A difficult part of my job is letting people go. We get close to everyone on the team but sometimes you have to let people go for the good of the company.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I have learned to be wary of people who put so much emphasis on the job title instead of the job itself. Being a CEO or VP is not about having a corner office, taking expensive business trips or telling people what to do. As a startup CEO, you may have to go for years without taking a market salary. You might have to use cheaper airbnb’s or stay with your long-lost friends on business trips. You also have to roll-up your sleeves and do the work yourself. But, in all these cases, you earn the respect of your team and your peers. There can be no assumptions that being a CEO means your job will always look like “this.” You have to forget about the title and just focus on doing whatever it takes.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One well-meaning investor once advised me to bring along my male co-founder so that I would have better credibility when pitching for investment. Data shows that women founders are not as successful in raising as much money as their male counterparts. In 2018 only 2.2% of all VC dollars went to women led companies.. While many organizations are working to bridge this gap, it is still a work in progress.

I have made sure to only work with investors who respect me and my background and this has served me well. We have a network of investors who see Nepris’ mission and are more interested in how the business will meet that mission. They respect me as a professional. Our investors put equal attention to financial metrics (ROI) as well as impact metrics (ROE — return on education). They are investors who know that their money is being put towards a change agent, that Nepris is not just an education technology company but a social impact company as well. My advice is to always make sure your investors align with your mission.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

In my actual job I spend a lot of time preparing for funding rounds, pitching to investors and other stakeholders, preparing for board meetings, speaking at events and conferences, listening to issues from team members, planning for the next 18 to 24 months and constantly putting out fires! I thought my job would be mostly about defining product and road-map but the actual job is more about people than about product.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

Being comfortable speaking in a public setting is an essential skill. Because I was raised on a farm in south India, I didn’t have many opportunities to build my confidence in this way. I made an intentional choice early in my career to become comfortable in public speaking. I attended ToastMasters for four years. I registered for every conference speaking proposal I could find. I made sure that I had overcome this limitation so that when it was time to launch Nepris, I was never uncomfortable speaking to a group, being on camera, giving a keynote or a TED talk. A CEO has to be able to communicate their mission in an authentic, real, and personal way regardless of the size of the audience or the venue. You have to be a compassionate listener and be wholly inclusive on every level of your interactions with everybody, all of the time.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Build a diverse team, surround yourself with people who inspire you and also who question you. Be sure to find investors who believe in your mission.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I am especially thankful for my co-founder, Binu Thayamkery. Binu and I have very complementary skills and it was easy, right at the start, to establish our respective roles in the company. Yes, there are times where we have our disagreements but because we have mutual respect and trust for each other, we are able to turn these into productive conversations. I have also learned a tremendous amount from watching his work style. His support was crucial every step of the way.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At Nepris, we are leveling the playing field by creating equity of access for all students. 62% of the students we reached and connected in 2018 were on free and reduced lunch (economically disadvantaged). We are helping bridge the opportunity gap that arises because students simply don’t get to see the countless number of careers open to them. When they talk with someone who flies airplanes to make maps, or who designs roller coasters, or who studies endangered animal species, they begin to dream about possibilities about their own lives. This is what Nepris is all about.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The importance of public speaking — Given my background, growing up on a small farm in India, I lacked the opportunity and confidence to speak in front of people. When I was at Texas Instruments, my first corporate job, I remember being in meetings and wanting to share my thoughts. However, I lacked the courage and confidence to speak up, and the meeting would end before I found a way to say anything. I knew that if I was going to take leadership roles, I had to get over this fear. I enrolled myself in toastmasters for four years and diligently worked on public speaking. As a CEO now, it seems all I do is speak in front of people everyday and be the face of my company.
  2. Hiring good sales leaders — This is the one thing that has surprised me the most and was the biggest “ah ha” moment. As founders with tech background, you put all your focus on building the product and I wish I’d known to find and hire sales team leaders early. We wasted a lot of time scaling up sales and finding the right people. I also wish I’d known how to find sales leaders who had experience in startups and rather than those from larger operations.
  3. The importance of after-sales — In tech and especially in education tech, which is the space for Nepris, I wish I’d known that the sale is only the beginning of the relationship. Beyond implementation, the market requires ongoing and constant attention with existing clients, which is a resource allocation that CEOs need to budget for. Keeping the client, keeping them engaged with your product is as important as making the sale in the first place.
  4. Leading a virtual team — When you start as CEO, everyone talks about culture. How it’s important, how to build it. But no one talks about how to do that with a remote team. In tech, we hire talent and accommodate the geography. No one tells you how to build or manage culture with a team that may not all be physically in the same location.
  5. Impact that I have on others — When I started the company, my two boys were in elementary school and it’s been a nice surprise to see them grow to be interested in business and entrepreneurship. Now, they both want to start their own companies. We talk about valuations, investment, capital, product, pricing and sales. I didn’t expect that but it is very rewarding to me.

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

My mother told me, “You need to work hard at school or you’ll end up back on the farm!” This is a bit humorous really because I love the farm and I go back there every chance I get. But her point was meaningful in two ways. First, education is your path to success, you need to work hard to get what you want and you need to set a strong goal, only then can you aim to reach it. And — perhaps this is a point about being an entrepreneur — I think that entrepreneurs and CEOs have a strong sense of place. We are anchored in something bigger than the company we are trying to create. Perhaps this anchor allows me to step out and be the leader in charting a new path.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi Co, is someone I greatly admire. She is from South India, from a Tamil-speaking family like me. I would love to meet her and talk about our lives growing up in India. I suspect that we share many experiences that shaped our lives.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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