Thru Shivakumar of Cohesion: “Trust your gut”

Trust your gut — You’ll encounter challenges everyday — big and small. Many of these will test you to your core. It is important to stay confident in yourself and your judgment and always go with your gut. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thru Shivakumar, […]

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Trust your gut — You’ll encounter challenges everyday — big and small. Many of these will test you to your core. It is important to stay confident in yourself and your judgment and always go with your gut.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thru Shivakumar, CEO and Co-Founder at Cohesion, a real estate software company that creates intelligent buildings and enhances human experiences by connecting people and systems in a single, comprehensive platform. She is responsible for leading Cohesion’s alignment and execution of its strategic vision, as well as, delivering shareholder value. Thru has 15+ years of experience in private, public, and civic sectors of the economy holding positions across finance, business strategy, M&A, entrepreneurship and business development. Additionally, Thru is the founding board member of Current, a water technology accelerator focused on advanced research and market-driven innovations. Thru holds an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a B.S. in Finance from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She serves on the boards of Current and Working in the Schools (WITS), a Chicago-based literacy non-profit. Thru has been recognized for her accomplishments throughout her career and was recently listed in Crain’s Chicago Business 40 under 40 list, which lists proven leaders in Chicago.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My first real job was working at Carson Pirie Scott in the shoe department. I was making something around 5 dollars/hour but got commission for selling more shoes. So, I hustled. I was 15 when I got that job, so my parents had to drive me to and from the mall. They didn’t make me get a job, I just wanted to make my own money and feel independent even back then. I have always been a hard worker. I learned that if I worked harder, I would see more success — both from setting the sales records of the month and being recognized. That lesson can be applied to entrepreneurship, too. There is a lot of responsibility in running a company and what you put in is what you’ll get out.

My career isn’t what I planned it to be early on. I was on a very traditional route — work hard and climb the corporate ladder. But at every new job I got, I found myself creating, innovating, asking questions. I constantly thought about work and how I could make things better. My sisters told me that I was destined to run my own company one day. I guess it was just in me.

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

As a startup founder and a first time CEO, the most interesting and most scary story is learning and reacting to a global pandemic. I’m pretty sure there is no playbook for that whether you are a startup CEO or a Fortune 100. This was a shock to all of us.

But because of the pandemic, we shifted priorities. Building health became a major problem in the industry and we quickly pivoted and moved up a roadmap item. We prioritized educating ourselves on a topic that only a few of us were familiar with. We were a smaller team at the beginning of the pandemic and we grew our staff by 75% during the pandemic.

The pandemic taught us to be able to take a totally unprecedented situation and turn it around. We focused on the biggest problem in front of us and went heads down. In the process we proved to ourselves and to our customers that we were capable of pushing boundaries.

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?

The funniest mistake I’ve made is telling myself that the journey of a startup CEO wasn’t going to be hard. It’s funny now, because I was so naïve back when I left my very safe and amazing job to start Cohesion. It’s the hardest, yet most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I worked on a lot of tough projects throughout my 20s. For example, when I started my career in finance at a large hotel real estate company, I had to manage 400+ budgets and we didn’t have a financial planning system. Without a system, it’s really difficult to manage 400+ budgets. So, my boss told me to learn how to write macros in Excel. I had NO idea what I was doing. I would be up until 4am running these macros and crying. It was 2005, so nothing was fast, and if the macro broke in the middle of the night or I had fallen asleep, I wouldn’t be able to fix it until the morning, which meant I lost a day.

But I figured it out. And I got a seat at the table because I never said no and I always delivered. I didn’t say I couldn’t get it done because I needed sleep. I would just drink extra coffee the next day.

I think every entrepreneur thinks about giving up at low points. But we quickly come out of that because we remember that if it was easy, everyone could do it. I’m not different. I get the drive to continue because I know what we are working on is going to make the world better. We are fundamentally disrupting a legacy industry that has profound impacts on society, the economy and the environment.

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? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful to my family as a whole for always supporting me and listening to me. I’ve always been someone who likes to talk things out to get to a solution and they would always listen and provide support. My younger sister in particular has always been my sounding board for everything in my life –whether it’s work, life, wellness or even face product recommendations.

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

I’ve always liked this quote from Steve Jobs: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

This past year, during quarantine, we’ve all realized how important our work is to us. We spend so much of our time on work and with our coworkers. So, it is important to love what you do and who you’re doing it with.

We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

The commercial real estate landscape has seen a significant change over the last year. The industry is seeing reduced utilization due to health concerns. The hybrid workforce is reducing average space requirements per lease but demanding more from landlords. And landlords are facing enormous social and regulatory pressure to reduce their building’s carbon footprint. There is no holistic solution that leverages data to address the industry as it faces unprecedented challenges. That is where Cohesion comes in.

Cohesion is the leading smart building SaaS platform that leverages the most comprehensive insights for owners and operators who want to increase their asset value by delivering the best-in-class tenant experience in a green, healthy and operationally efficient building. This technology is the only application that creates touchless access controls for elevators and mobile credentials, arms you with Indoor Air Quality monitoring tools, and streamlines daily operations tasks like work orders, mass communications and visitor management. These are done through a unique combination of native features and powerful integrations with existing building systems. By breaking down system data silos and incorporating occupancy data, Cohesion brings building systems under a single pane of glass and unlocks the building’s full potential.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

While many other companies monitor indoor air quality, Cohesion integrates into the building’s systems in order to also optimize when pollutants rise. For example, we’ve launched Vayu, Cohesion’s Indoor Air Quality program, at 150 N Riverside in Chicago where the program autonomously mitigates harmful air pollutants. In this signature Chicago office building, we’ve observed the following pollutant reductions in just two weeks:

46% decrease in average volatile organic compound (VOC) levels

82% decrease in fluctuation of VOC levels

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re very excited and encouraged by what we’re seeing from Vayu by Cohesion. The world is starting to open up again. Companies want to bring their employees back and employees are ready to come back. Equipping both parties with real-time data on their indoor air quality will ensure confidence in a safe return to the office in a post-Covid world where health is a focus for every part of life.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Definitely not. I don’t know how anyone can be satisfied that only 2.3% of all venture funding goes to women-led businesses. This is such a sad statistic. We need to put more pressure on giving women access to capital. We need to remove bias from funding access — whether that bias is gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or something else. We need to level the playing field so that women have the same access.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I can’t help but think of the Harvard study published in 2020 about the biases in pitching to Venture Capitalists. It stated that investors prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs compared to pitches made by female entrepreneurs — even when the content of the pitch is the same. The first thing to do to address this is to acknowledge that statistic and diagnose the causes behind it. We have to understand what is causing that to be the case in order to solve it.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

What we’ve learned at Cohesion, particularly over the last year, is the importance of being agile and moving fast. When the pandemic hit, we reprioritized the items on our roadmap based on what we heard from the market. Our ability to be flexible and to adapt quickly helped us restart our engines during a time when we were at risk of slowing down or reaching a standstill.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

The real estate industry is highly dependent on relationships. Having worked in the industry for more than 15 years, I’ve been able to leverage those relationships in starting and growing the company. Some of our earliest customers are folks I’ve known for more than a decade. They know me and my work ethic and can count on me to deliver on what I promise. It is important to find customers who know you and trust you and it is just as important to know and trust your customers, too. Once you’ve onboarded the right customers, it is up to you and your team to deliver for them in order to keep them as a customer.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

I’ll point to a few of our company’s core values as they are guiding principles for how we treat our customers but also how we operate the company internally.

  1. Commitment — We take ownership and accountability of our work. We prioritize rapid responses to customers and want them to feel secure that we’re on top of their needs from the product.
  2. Continuous Improvement — We make sure our customers know that we’re always striving to be better, and we want them to share their ideas and feedback in order to make us better.
  3. Ingenuity — We’re constantly innovating and looking at our customers’ pain points from all angles in order to solve them creatively.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

As I mentioned, it is incredibly important for both us and our customers to know and trust each other — and for them to know that they can count on us to deliver. Issues only arise once that trust is broken between the two parties. We prioritize responses to our customers and overcommunicate throughout the relationship.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

Be ready to pivot — Be ready for curveballs from every direction. Some of them will require you to pivot. Those who are agile and flexible in their reactions are the ones who will survive.

Trust your gut — You’ll encounter challenges everyday — big and small. Many of these will test you to your core. It is important to stay confident in yourself and your judgment and always go with your gut.

No one will love your company as much as you do — As a founder and the CEO, I feel an immense amount of ownership over the future of the company. Having built this from the ground up, I feel particularly connected to the ups and downs of the journey. I know that this level of connection to the company is unique to the co-founders and early team members who have been on this journey together.

Stay humble — It is so important to have a thick skin and take everything in stride. When fundraising for your startup, you’re going to hear “no” a lot. It is important not to let that get you down; rather, stay focused and keep your eye on the prize.

Be ready to put in the hours — Success doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen with the limited resources at a startup. Success is a result of the willingness to put in long hours and lots of time and energy — eventually you’ll see the fruits of your labor.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’m on the founding board of Current, Chicago’s initiative for sustainable clean water resources. Supplying clean water resources to people around the world is a very important effort and close to my heart.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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?

Satya Nadella. He is a great leader who worked his way to the top of Microsoft. He has a very honest and compelling journey and it is one to be admired. I’d love to meet him and learn more about his story.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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