Focus is good, but keep a pulse on the world around you. My first start-up was an interactive television games channel. But because I stayed solely focused on that, I feel like we missed an even bigger opportunity to create online games — Facebook games were just getting started (such as Farmville) and we were right there, with the right team. Sadly I failed to see the opportunity.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sangita Verma, an entrepreneur, founder, CEO, advisor, and instructor. After a decade in the gaming industry helping companies establish new divisions, she started her first venture-backed company in 2003. Since then she’s secured over 33M dollars in funding, started-up or led five companies, taught over a hundred students in advanced entrepreneurship programs in Silicon Valley and London, and advised a variety of start-ups ranging from gaming, video, cannabis, AR/VR, robotics and eCommerce.
Sangita is now the CEO at GiftSuite and embraced the challenge just as COVID-19 was changing our lifestyles because she saw the way we gift needs to change with it. Her mantra is “Everyone has a superpower. Your life becomes exponentially better when you find and embrace yours”. Sangita’s superpower is her ability to connect dots between events, technology and human behavior. She’s also always been an awesome gift-giver — and feels right in her element with GiftSuite, helping others do the same.
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?
Thank you, it’s my pleasure! I started my first company in 2003, so I could have a more flexible schedule with my kids. Little did I know it would lead to five companies and over 33M dollars raised. I’m currently the CEO of GiftSuite because I was inspired by COVID-19. My business partner and I realized that we could use this company to do good in the world right now. GiftSuite creates gift boxes for companies to send to their employees who are working from home or sheltering-in-place. The items in the gift boxes are sourced from small businesses with an emphasis on start-ups, BIPOC, female-led and LGBT businesses.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s been really interesting setting up a new business during COVID-19 because everything from incorporation paperwork to receiving merchandise has taken longer. For us, setting up a business bank account took surprisingly long because the bank we wanted to use was closed for shelter-in-place (SIP) but they needed to ID us in person before they could open an account. In the end, we had to go with a different bank.
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?
I’ve always been a go-getter and a creative problem solver, so I like taking on the challenge of creating new businesses and bringing new products to the market. Being a CEO, founder, or division head allows you the freedom to do this.
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?
For me, being a CEO is like being the head coach of a team. You determine the winning strategy (vision), you work with the other coaches (exec. staff) and team members to make sure everyone is aligned on the vision and have what they need to hit their targets — so the company can hit its targets. But, as we know, things change, so you also have to modify the tactics, be a cheerleader, and make the tough decisions as needed.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
For CEOs, it can be very lonely and at times, very stressful, which is why it’s important to have good outside advisors and a strong daily routine to keep yourself grounded through activities like meditation or exercise. I remember a particularly stressful time during our Series B fundraising when it was taking longer than expected to close the round. We had just moved into much larger, beautiful offices and I remember telling my assistant, “Don’t schedule any board meetings here, Paul (our lead investor and chairman) can’t see this place until after we close the round!” It was also an act in diplomacy to keep my team aware of our fundraising progress while not alarming them about our dwindling bank account. So yes, there are definitely lonely and stressful times. But luckily we closed a 12M dollars Series B round, it just took us a couple of months longer than planned.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO For me, the biggest myth is that “Your employees work for you.” In reality, I think the best CEOs know that they work for their employees. Hitting company goals is a team effort and it’s a CEO’s job to help clear the path, so their teams have the resources and support they need in order to be successful.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Questions like this are hard for me to answer because I’ve never been a male CEO. The challenges that the stats show: representation, being heard, salary disparity are all very real. But additionally, I think, we (women), spend more time worrying about how we are perceived, especially in the workplace. Women executives can be quickly labeled bossy, or another B-word, or demanding, whereas the same traits in a male executive are labeled as “go-getter” or “leader.” As a result, we may soften our communication and management style which then feeds into the not “being heard” category and other challenges I mentioned above. It can be a vicious cycle.
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?
I think it varies depending on the industry and size of your company, but three traits that are important for any executive, regardless of industry or size are
- Good listening skills,
- Empathy and
- The ability to motivate and inspire people. Additionally, for early-stage start-ups, I think that you also need these four traits:
1. Tenacity, 2. Flexibility, 3. Being comfortable with uncertainty or at least be willing to embrace the unknown (this includes the uncertainty of getting a paycheck!), 4. A ridiculous amount of faith and optimism!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Honestly, this advice is good for any leader, I’ve just noticed that women are more likely to take advantage of it: Every team has a different dynamic — you should always spend some time understanding your team’s dynamic. This will go a long way in building a stronger, happier, and more productive team. There are a variety of ways to this, here are a couple of suggestions:
- Dedicate a team lunch or relaxing offsite afternoon to talk about and determine your values as a team and individual “best ways to work with me” guidelines for team members.
- Have your team members take personality tests like Meyers-Briggs or How To Fascinate and then have one or two dedicated sessions to share the results. My teams have absolutely loved these exercises because it helps them learn about themselves and each other. This resulted in deeper bonding, empathy, and higher productivity because they found the best ways to work together while honoring individual personality traits and needs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am so fortunate to have many really amazing mentors that I learn from. I’ll just name three here (not in any particular order):
- Jim Whims. Jimwasanincredible boss, who, through his interactions and the way he treated people, taught me about class and grace in the business world. He also convinced me to take my first VC investment — and he was absolutely right. It opened up new opportunities for my career and learning. Jim is a fantastic example of how a highly respected, white, male executive can help mentor and champion an up-and-coming (in my case, minority POC) female.
- Ruthann Quindlen. Ruthann has been an analyst, VC, and today is a board member and advisor. She recruited me as an Entrepreneur in Residence at SRI International (Stanford Research Institute). She is an absolute force of nature. She is able to connect dots, keep things moving, motivate action but all with an uncanny empathy. It’s a rare combination of skills I’ve been lucky to witness and learn from. I basically want to be Ruthann when I grow up.
- Heidi Roizen. Heidi is a well-known VC in Silicon Valley. She taught me about honesty and vulnerability. Heidi always seems so comfortable with speaking her truth — which was new to me. I grew up in a family where you never talked about anything that was bad, it was always about “putting on a good face” for the world. To meet a powerful woman who was so smart, down to earth, and talked so honestly about her experiences, good or bad, was a revelation for me. I learned it was okay to not “appear perfect”, to be able to honestly talk about my life, good and bad.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m so glad you asked because this was the impetus for GiftSuite. Through gifting, we’re building a virtuous cycle that supports the needs of small businesses (revenue), corporations (acknowledgment and empathy), and their employees and customers (appreciation). Our goal is to create gifts that keep on giving and spread joy. Additionally, because I have such great mentors, another way I love giving back is through sharing what I’ve learned — I’ve been fortunate enough to teach an advanced entrepreneurship class through the TrepCamp organization to over 150 international students.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Great question! Here are five things, not in a particular order.
- Listen to your advisors. Early in my first start-up, I wanted to hire someone. Two of my advisors didn’t think it was a good idea but I advocated for the hire so they agreed to let me try it my way. In the end, they were absolutely right — I should have listened to them.
- Fire faster. Letting people go is always difficult but I learned the hard way that keeping someone in the Company to try and make it work, actually creates more damage and ill-will for everyone. In my first start-up, there were a couple of people I should have gotten rid of faster. By the time I got to my third start-up, I was a pro. We hired an engineer and could see in the first week he wasn’t going to work out, I let him go immediately. In that case, it would not have been fair to him or the Company to try and make it work.
- Focus is good, but keep a pulse on the world around you. My first start-up was an interactive television games channel. But because I stayed solely focused on that, I feel like we missed an even bigger opportunity to create online games — Facebook games were just getting started (such as Farmville) and we were right there, with the right team. Sadly I failed to see the opportunity.
- Learn how to read financial statements. Unless you have an accounting background, chances are you don’t know how to read Balance Sheets, P&L, and other financial statements. I learned this on the job but I do wish I had taken a class. Udemy and others offer courses on learning to read Financial Statements. It’s important to really understand the financial health of your business.
- Stay in touch with your intuition. It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day activities and to take on the energy around you. But when that happens, you tend to lose touch with your own intuition and start listening to other voices around you instead. Take some time every day to journal, meditate, or just reflect quietly. It’s in those still, introspective moments that you can hear your intuition. My best insights have come when I’ve been journaling or in the shower.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This would take a generation or two to really start showing the mass-scale benefits, but I would love to have meditation taught in schools starting from kindergarten on, similar to the way PE is taught. I’m not talking about sitting crossed-leg and chanting OM, but mindfulness and visualization that allows kids to experience quiet moments which are increasingly hard to get in our overstimulated, always-connected world. I think this will lead to greater empathy, connectedness, and a knowing calmness in oneself that will benefit all living things in our world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My personal quote is “Life’s a bitch, so I don’t have to be.” It reminds me that I don’t need to seek revenge or hold a grudge — all of that takes so much energy. The energy that I could use to create more positive things in my life and in the world.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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
If you could make this happen — I would be thrilled! I have always wanted to meet Sir Richard Branson. It feels like if he had lived in another era, he would have been a Knight of the Round Table. He radiates amazing moxie, optimism, humor, empathy for people, and joy for living. I think being in that presence would be inspiring and fun! Let me know when you set it up!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.