Vidhya Subramanian: “Your right is only to perform your duty”

Many others have advised me to be prepared for anything. In a start-up environment, not all days are going to be the same. When I was in my corporate world, there was more predictability. I had my role, and my team. My yearly strategy was set, and I knew the projects I was working on. […]

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Many others have advised me to be prepared for anything. In a start-up environment, not all days are going to be the same. When I was in my corporate world, there was more predictability. I had my role, and my team. My yearly strategy was set, and I knew the projects I was working on. There are always uncertainties in life, but relatively speaking, that was a stable environment. Working for large companies, there was a lot of predictability in my life. That has completely disappeared for me!

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vidhya Subramanian.

Born in India, Vidhya Subramanian is a strategist, technology leader, founder and CEO of Zymmo — an innovative new app designed to bring local freelance chefs into foodies’ homes. A self-made entrepreneur, Vidhya previously held prestigious executive management positions at Goldman Sachs, Target and JPMorgan Chase & Co., delivering technological advancements to run successful global businesses. After years of providing solutions for corporations, Vidhya sought to develop a dining solution for local communities. Her creation, Zymmo couples chefs with food lovers for unique culinary experiences.

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?

I joined the startup ecosystem in 2019, after two decades as a technology executive in the financial and retail industries.

I held leadership positions in technology at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Target. These roles weren’t in food tech, but they gave me a strategic perspective on how technology can empower people, organizations, and cultures.

Managing large global teams and budgets of several million dollars was quite different than running a start-up, but that experience was invaluable in showing me how technology can enable profitability, efficiency and great customer experiences.

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

Historically there has not been a meaningful way to connect foodies and the chefs directly. When we think of chefs we think of restaurants, or private chefs, who one assumes are only for the wealthy or a different class of people.

Zymmo breaks these barriers by connecting foodies and chefs directly without a middleman or a delivery network. It’s about democratizing good food, whether you’re simply ordering ready-to-eat, or booking a chef for your own private event. Now anybody can do this using Zymmo, so it’s going to be a huge disruptor for anyone who eats.

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?

I have absolutely made mistakes that are probably funny to other people! Before Zymmo had even written a single line of code to build the app, we hired an influencer. Looking back, that was just so premature — a typical newbie mistake. I was anxious to get the brand out there, but there was nothing to back it up!

Despite my seasoned career experience, I’m a first-time founder, so there are things I’m continuing to learn. Our influencer created our social media accounts, and started posting about food, but that was it! Week after week, we were saying, “What do we post? What do we talk about?”

We’d barely finished with the product design and there were only 4 or 5 of us at Zymmo. When I look back at this, I see it was clearly a mistake. What was I trying to influence people to do?

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?

I have been fortunate enough to work with great people like Al Mellina, who’s not just an investor but someone who gives me valuable feedback and input.

I also have Silvia Baldini, who has been a priceless addition to the team. She is a former ad executive and my first board member. She’s a key advisor and has really opened up my world. I don’t have a background in food or food tech but Silvia’s skills compliment mine. One of the reasons I invited her to join Zymmo was that her background was so different from mine, which is more at large companies doing tech and product. Silvia also brings a unique marketing perspective and counsels me on how to think about PR.

Another person who has supported me through this journey, and who has invested in Zymmo while mentoring me, is Rabih Ramadi. He works at another young company; a really great place called Unqork. They are a more mature startup than Zymmo, having finished their Series C. Rabih has a senior role in Unqork, and he was one of the people to join there early. He continues to inspire and motivate me and he’s always been there for me from day one.

Frankly I’ve been overwhelmed by the support of co-workers and school friends from my prior life who still encourage me to keep moving forward. I’m thankful they offer such support and continue to motivate me.

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?

If you think about Apple, when Steve Jobs came out with this touchscreen smartphone, that is a disruption that’s definitely benefited humanity. There are also models like Airbnb, which has challenged the hospitality industry in a really unique way.

The one thing about life we all know is that change is the only constant. I believe change in general is a good thing. I fully endorse any disruption that benefits the planet and the community and makes things more equitable. But not if it’s taking us in the opposite direction; benefiting a select few, or excluding a certain group, or impacting our environment negatively.

One negative example I can think of is plastic. Decades ago plastic started replacing almost every other material. But now we’re dealing with that disruption in a very negative way. What I’m saying is anything disruptive also needs to have a long-term view about what the planet is going to look like down the road.

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

As an early-stage start up, you need to make every dollar go a long way. It’s kind of intuitive, but many have helped me to keep this in mind every day. Being thoughtful about where we spend the money and what we are getting for it — I think is the most important responsibility for a CEO.

Another good bit of advice is to be nimble and have the ability to pivot quickly. When I worked at large corporations, it could be kind of like turning a ship. As a small company, you need to be like a speed boat, not an oil tanker. You should be able to turn quickly, and should be able to react instantly to what’s happening.

Many others have advised me to be prepared for anything. In a start-up environment, not all days are going to be the same. When I was in my corporate world, there was more predictability. I had my role, and my team. My yearly strategy was set, and I knew the projects I was working on. There are always uncertainties in life, but relatively speaking, that was a stable environment. Working for large companies, there was a lot of predictability in my life. That has completely disappeared for me!

Now every day is different. It’s not just talking about funding. It’s the excitement of a magazine picking up an article on us, or the app coming together. It’s getting our first order, or having our first customer service issue. Every day looks different. That’s something I was told by other start-up founders. It’s a very different life and a very different mindset. You need to be prepared for it and not make the same mistakes twice. Be courageous and learn. That’s what I tell myself every day!

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

I’m still shaking this one! I haven’t really thought about what’s next. I’m looking forward to growing and scaling Zymmo as a big brand. There are a lot of good ideas in our road map, like onboarding venues, farmers, suppliers, anyone that has a significant role in the food ecosystem. We want to become the Amazon of the foodie industry. That’s our goal. Until we get there, that’s going to be my sole focus. Of course I hope a lot of ideas and dreams will come down the road for me, like traveling all over the world, but that’s a conversation for another day.

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

I know there’s a lot of chatter and media coverage of the issue, but this, unfortunately, is something I’ve lived with throughout my career. I think there are hurdles, especially for a woman of color. There’s even a Ted Talk about the kind of questions that female founders get from investors versus a male founder. The fundraising has been a challenge for me, though Zymmo’s raised 350K in pre-seed, and right now we’re actively raising 750K to help scale the company to the next level.

It’s been a challenge even with companies that claim to support female founders. Sometimes we have great conversations with investors, but we’re not able to close the deal. I’m not saying this is all because of being a woman of color, but with the kind of endorsement we’re getting from my customers, the response to our social media campaigns, and the buzz we’re getting from our circle of friends, I wouldn’t have imagined it would take us so long to raise funds.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

This is going to expose my spiritual side. I read a lot; I am a voracious reader. Lately I’ve not had a lot of time so I’ve switched to audiobooks. Sometimes I listen when I am cooking or doing laundry. I’m re-visiting The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. This book was life-changing for me when I first read it.

Being a founder, you have days when you feel like, Oh my god what am I doing? Whether it’s imposter syndrome, or just the stress, or the fear that comes from uncertainty. This book just grounded me instantly. I loved it so much that I’m listening to it again. It’s a six-hour listen, and well worth the time.

Since I’ve founded my company, I find myself leaning more towards business, start-up, entrepreneurial-type books and documentaries. I’m also finding myself seeking content about being courageous and centered. I am reading more books like that , and I’m doing less and less fiction.

I also enjoy reaching out to others who have gone through a similar journey, and being part of Elpha, a community of females in tech. That’s where I met Ellice Ogle, (my Head of Customer Acquisition and Marketing). More than a year ago I was talking about Zymmo and she was one of the early people who said, “I’m in, I think it’s a fantastic idea, let’s do it.”

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. 🙂

For me the absolute top first thing would be cleaning the oceans. It’s something that I’ve been meaning to influence or impact in a big way, and I unfortunately haven’t figured out what that platform is yet.

At my home, we recycle ruthlessly. On recycling day we’ll be the only house with ten bags out. I’m sure everyone is aware of the Pacific garbage patch — again, we haven’t really found a solution to all the plastic we’ve ended up putting in the ocean. I wish we could spend at least some of the space exploration budget on keeping our current planet clean and livable. I think that may be what’s next for me; something that impacts our sustainability in a very positive way.

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

When it comes to work, I tell myself to take my working career seriously, but not personally. That’s a big one for me. I am very invested emotionally in Zymmo, and I need to make decisions as a leader but without getting too emotionally involved. It’s difficult, because my career is a big part of who I am.

I also remind myself every day to keep things simple. We tend to complicate everything, whether it’s a pitch deck, a social media post, or thinking about a product workflow. I think we as humans we tend to overthink, weighing all possible scenarios.

One reason the book I mentioned (The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer) resonated with me is that it validated these lessons. The book connected me back to one of the big things growing up for me, which was a quote from an Indian saint who asked “Who am I?”

I grew up 30 minutes from where he set up his ashram and we actually know their family. Reading this super-popular book, and hearing Michael Singer, a fellow tech CEO, talk about that concept of being something much bigger than just a body or a mind, really hit me.

As a professional, when I started working here in a western culture, it was easy to get caught in the rat race. But this book brought me back to a quote from Bhagavad Gita, which I’ll paraphrase as, Don’t always measure what you’re getting out of something just do your duty and let things happen. This is something we were reminded of every day in school, and by our parents.

The whole quote is: “Your right is only to perform your duty. You do not have the right to expect any consequences thereof. You should neither be motivated by the fruits of your action, nor should they encourage you to be inactive.”

Start ups are often viewed as a quick way to become wealthy. It may or may not be. That depends on a lot of factors. When I founded Zymmo I wanted to have a mission. I wanted to make sure to impact communities in a very positive way.

Some people ask me, So what’s your plan for Zymmo? Are you going to sell it? I tell them I’m not thinking that far ahead. Yes I’m a strategist, and if you ask me I can tell you the five different paths Zymmo could take. But I’m not thinking about it every day. I’m thinking about how to put out a good product. I’m thinking about how to make the tech work. How to get my customers superior service. I’m thinking about how to keep my team motivated, so to me it’s like every day will bring progress, and I’m not thinking about what I am getting out of it.

How can our readers follow you online

Readers should follow me on LInkedIn. My posts there give an insight into how I see the world! People should follow Zymmo on Instagram (@zymmoeats) and Facebook (Zymmo).

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