Transcript of the Interview
Shalini [Prakash], mentor/entrepreneur/VC, you've had different hats throughout your career and it's really this mix of different careers and these different roles and responsibilities that you've taken on in the past what we're talking about here today. Can you talk us through the different life and career choices that you've made so far and what has brought you here today?
Shalini: Sure, the Indian startup ecosystem started growing rapidly in the last 5-7 years and 3 years ago, I started feeling that I needed to be on the other side and try to learn what's going on. Initially when I started off my journey with INK about 4-5 years ago, I was learning a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators, people coming from all different backgrounds and interacting with them. It was very exciting to learn about their work.
At some point, I started feeling like the guys that I was meeting were already successful in some sense and I wanted to be in a place where a lot of these ideas are taking off the ground and there's no better place to see that other than an accelerator and an incubator so while I was still at INK, I started working with the GSF accelerator program as entrepreneur-in-residence and the IDEX accelerator program as mentor-in-residence where I was getting to work and learn from different startups and entrepreneurs. It was a great learning experience and that was the time that I started feeling that I needed to be here to immerse myself in terms of learning experiences so I quit my job at INK and I moved on to work with Kyron accelerator where I was looking at their programs, I was getting to go through these startup applications, meet entrepreneurs, host events and while I was contributing to the program, I also got to learn a great deal from them.
It was very exciting and I was able to pick up a few consulting assignments with startups. It was a great experience in terms of creating an ecosystem and environment for these startups to grow and see how a startup really works and thinks. It was about creating the space for the next disruptive startup to be born.
While I was enjoying all of this, I was of course a really big fan of 500 startups, I've been following for a very long time. I happened to meet Dave Mcclure while I was with INK at our conference. Nothing happened then.
But last year, when I happened to meet Pankaj, who is a partner at 500, we had this amazing conversation and I was so excited to learn about the opportunities and things that they are doing in India. I thought it would be a great experience in terms of getting to full circle. I started on the other side of the table, where I was working with startups and entrepreneurs and now to work on the other side of the table, where you're looking at investing these startups. I thought this was a complete circle and I jumped at this opportunity.
I was the first person to join with them in India and it's been really exciting for a little more than a year now. I've had an amazing journey in the last two, three years in the space.
That's fantastic Shalini. What I love is that you have such genuine passion. It's not just the way you speak but also when you read your blogs on Medium or LinkedIn, you find that same passion back. Just for our listeners, in terms of finding that passion, could you talk to us a little bit about that as well? When you were 18 years old, did you wake up and think that you wanted to be a VC? Was there something specific that always drew you to this world?
Shalini: I'm not the best person to be answering this question about passion; you'll know that in a bit when we get to the point. I have always taken up things that I'm really uncomfortable with. For some reason, I love challenges, I love getting out of comfort zones. When you look at my background, I started out as a software engineer at Fidelity investments, it's from there that I moved on to many different roles, so for me passion, really means having a deep connection to whatever you're doing.
For me, the deep connection comes with newer challenges and to see that you're really solving a big problem. That's why I'm so interested in working with entrepreneurs. Or even in some of my writing that I've published recently.
I'm constantly emphasizing that you can not replicate a market, meaning that you can not replicate a model just because you worked in another country or worked in another space in India. Look at how you can be original, how you can have your own line of thinking. For me, that's what's really exciting and that's what I'm really passionate about.
I'm passionate about challenges about creating ways to solve them, giving a fresh outlook to everything that you're trying to do. Be it, as a venture capitalist or be it as a startup founder, whatever it is for you.
And no, I haven't found my passion yet. I don't even know what passion means sometimes. For me it's that super strong emotional connection to whatever you're doing, something that you're very excited.
Right now, venture capital and startups is what I'm super excited about. I think it's an amazing time in India to be in the space and right now this is what I'm super pumped about.
That's exciting. And now that you're talking about your passion, let's talk about your new side project, which is called Find Your Slash. What is the project about?
Shalini: This totally draws from my previous answer where I said I really don't know what my passion is. The platform is really inspired from my own personal journey, especially over the last one year, I've had an opportunity to meet some really amazing people. I've had an opportunity to work with some of the best minds, I love my job. At the same time, there's this constant feeling that there's something that's missing. I need more, some sort of creative energy booster.
And I thought: if I'm feeling like that, think about somebody sitting in a field or posts where they're just thinking of getting through the day. I thought I was in a much better position. So I thought maybe I should form a community for people like that. People who have this burning desire to do more and have this fire in their belly, but are not able to do.
This is not about quitting your job and trying to start something new. Instead, it's about what else you can do, other than your typical day job. If you think of it, in a larger sense, to achieve excellence in one thing, be it at your job as an engineer or whatever you want to be, you can not just think in a uni-directional way. You need to think multi-directional, to think that if you, for example, want to be a successful wildlife photographer, you need to understand wildlife, environment as well as what it means to be an artist, a technologist and a salesman at the same time.
Even to just be good at one thing, you need exposure to different things. This platform is a call for people like that, don't go after passion, especially if you don't know where to find it or what it even looks like. Instead think of ten different avatars that you can be, because tomorrow, when you know what you want to do, all these dots will connect together and you will be super good at that!
This platform stands for developing those 'slashes'. You can be a blogger/artist/photographer/maker/dietitian, anything that you want to be. The slash essentially stands for all the avatars you can be.
The goal of this platform is to do two things. One is we will be featuring people who have lived their lives by these slashes or they work their way to achieving their slash. When you see the platform, you'll see we have national award winners, an actress, an Indian national rally champion to people coming from different backgrounds, normal people who are leading their day-to-day life but are really strongly connected and passionate about what they do. There's a learning from each of these. They are quick inspirational stories, where you just get what you need in terms of your learning for slash.
Then there's these other small weekend programs which we will be launching as part of this, where we say: "Hey, if you want to develop your slash and you're stuck somewhere, come join our program and we will help you get over the challenge and launch your slash." We're featuring people with slashes for people to hone, nurture and launch their slashes.
This is my personal side project and I'm super excited because we are going to be doing our first program in October in India in Bangalore.
Pritish: Brilliant. We can hear the excitement that you have for this project. Myself being an India, I can totally understand where you're coming from. When we're growing up, we are put in these mindsets that XYZ is what we need to do, doesn't matter whether that's our actual talent or interest. I'm assuming that Slash is going to help a lot of people find out what they are good at or what they can develop as a side hobby or take it up as a full time thing.
Now coming back to your day job and to ask you a few questions around the Indian startup space and what you are learning there. Tell us, now that you work with a number of startups and have the exposure from 500 startups and their knowledge. What does it take to actually grow a startup in India?
Shalini: Top of my head, definitely two things. One is that it's very different from what it was when it started. Entrepreneurs are much smarter now. They know what works and what doesn't work. The industry and the ecosystem as a whole has matured a lot. Two things that I believe are the following.
One is, you can not start off thinking you are going to do something that somebody else has already done. Just because there is another food delivery startup, to think you are going to do the same thing, or a laundry service, there is a point where everyone we were talking to were the same type of people.
All of them were cut short by the market. With 500 startups, we're trying to go to startups which are trying to solve a real problem. A lot of times, you don't know what the problem is you are trying to solve. I'm not saying that this is just in India, I think that's valid anywhere.
You really need to know what the problem is you are trying to solve. An interesting quirk in India there is for instance, your problem can not always be situated in an urban market. I remember I was talking to someone about an app which he was looking to adapt to tier two and tier three markets.
I told him, there is no mobile internet penetration in tier two and tier three markets, how are you going to have people go on the app and order this service? People don't get it. Just because you can go into Bangalore, doesn't mean you can do the same thing in other markets.
You have to really understand how the market there works. What are people like over there? As well as basic things, like internet penetration in those areas. I just feel like when you're trying to solve a problem, you better understand everything around the issue. That's one.
Second thing is, I've met a lot of entrepreneurs who are so in love with their product and strategy around what they are trying to do. They are not really taking the signals from the outer environment. They just stay at what they think is right and just do that.
Sometimes however, it's good to cast the signals outside and keep your antennas outside and change based on the conditions. You need to move quickly and you need to learn how to pivot quickly. These are the two things that I think are very important for any startup to be successful.
Definitely. You're absolutely right. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are absolutely obsessed with their product and even when there are signals from the customers or their surveys which tell them otherwise.
What do you think the Indian startup space will look like in the next five years?
Shalini: I think the Indian startup space in the next five years is going to be even more exciting than what it's been in the last four, five years. Like I said, the whole ecosystem has matured. Startups know what works and what doesn't work. I think a lot of them are very seasoned in terms of market conditions. With all that being said and with the government coming in with the Startup India policy and better infrastructure, it's definitely more exciting and it will be even more exciting to see, especially in the space of F&Bs.
I have the opportunity to see some of these startups come up with new technologies in the whole F&B space, a huge market. Most of these startups are right now catering their business to the urban elites and urban market areas, but there's a huge population, we're talking about 600 - 800 million people yet to be server in some sense and have some of their problems solved.
There's this huge market which is open for all these startups to grab and make use of. The future is definitely bright for the next two years to see how such larger markets will be served across different areas such as finance, education, health tech. Certainly very exciting to see where this will go.
Brilliant. One last question, probably the most important one, what advice will you give a youngster who's in college and wants to be you?
Shalini: If they're still in college, I would say three things.
One, there were a lot of opportunities and things I could have explored while I was in college and I did not, due to a fear of failure or fear of being judged. There were all of these concerns like: "I don't know what my friend is going" or "my friends are going to think I'm weird, so I'm not going to do this." There were a lot of things I wanted to do but did not do while I was in college and I wish I had done that there. I think a lot of these experiences will make you grow into who you can be and what you can be. A lot of these opportunities open up when you try new things.
Even though in my mind and heart I was already very adventurous, I did not do these things. Anything that you think is exciting and is in front of you, you should just take up and run with. Do whatever you can with it. When you give yourself an opportunity to make mistakes, and an opportunity to look a little goofy and stupid, that's when everything becomes more exciting and that's the risk you can take to get to where I am faster and not take so long after college. You can get there faster, if you're willing to give yourself the permission to open yourself to all the opportunities around you.