I loved talking to entrepreneurs, I loved figuring out how I could add value, I loved beating out the guys from Sequoia on a deal and having an entrepreneur choose me … then the whole part of being on the board and facilitating, helping the company in whatever way possible. That's really how I see myself, as somebody that is a coach, a therapist, a facilitator, business development person … I don't work for the company but I strive to act like that and really be a support for the CEO in any way that I can. I love that part. - Sarayu Srinivasan
Sarayu is a venture capital investor and executive with a special focus on sector-agnostic technology and technology-enabled companies in the US and emerging markets.
Sarayu has had a long career in technology as an investor, operator and founder helping young companies grow and innovate. Prior to serving as a Fellow, Sarayu was the Founder & CEO of KAARGO, a mission driven consumer-to-consumer transport and shipping marketplace. She also held a Visiting Scholar appointment at the University of Edinburgh, a visiting EIR/VIR at Arizona State University, and is a guest lecturer at universities worldwide.
Earlier, Sarayu was with Intel Capital investing in high-growth companies across technology sectors and stages in the U.S. and the emerging markets. Sarayu deployed Intel’s first $250M emerging markets fund in India, making seminal investments across the region and internationally. Exits include Comat (acquired by Glodyne) and the second largest B2B marketplace in the world, IndiaMART (NSE:Indiamart). Prior to Intel, Sarayu was a venture partner and headed a growth accelerator.
Prior to her investment career, Sarayu held senior operating roles at several successful early-stage software and services pioneers and was also a brand manager at Pepsi where she ran two $300M brands. Sarayu also held a research fellowship at Harvard Business School and was invited to join the PhD program based on her work.
Sarayu has authored a range of academic and practitioner’s literature including in Forbes, WIRED, Fast Company, National Academy of Inventors Tech & Innovation Journal, and various Harvard Business School publications. She is a frequent speaker on VC, technology, international business, and entrepreneurship. Sarayu holds a BA in Architecture from Barnard College/Columbia University, an MBA from École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Certificates in Medieval European Studies and Shakespeare from Cambridge University, and held a pre-PhD fellowship at the Harvard Business School.
Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to BRAVE. Be inspired by the best leaders of Southeast Asia tech. Build the future, learn from our past and stay human in between. I'm Jeremy Au, a VC, founder, and father. Join us for transcripts, analysis and community at www.jeremyau.com.
Hi, Sarayu. Good to have you on the show.
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:00:32] Thank you, Jeremy.
Jeremy Au: [00:00:34] Yeah. Really excited to share your personal journey. You've had lots of experience across the world, and across technology, across so many different stakeholders. I'm excited to get started.
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:00:46] Sure.
Jeremy Au: [00:00:47] Sarayu, for those who don't know you yet, could you share a little bit about yourself starting from university?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:00:53] Well, I graduated from Barnard College, which is part of Columbia University, with a degree in architecture and minor in Shakespeare and English.
I knew pretty much before I got out that I didn't want to go into architecture and the reason being, is that architecture is the type of career that you do if you're not capable of doing something else. It's pretty abusive when you're in it and pretty taxing. I kind of somehow knew that before I graduated.
Ironically, well interestingly, my closest friends that went on to mostly go to top architecture schools like the GSD, and Princeton, and places like that ended up actually somewhat regretting their decision, so it's sort of funny that I had that sort of foresight back then.
So I knew that I needed to do something different and I wasn't quite sure what. I did spend a year working in architecture for the great-grandson of Stanford White, who is one of the preeminent architects of the gilded age in the United States. I not only had a year of experience doing that just to make sure ...
Because architecture's not an ordinary degree. It's sort of like a trade degree, right? It defeats the purpose of a liberal arts education and you end up really focused on all your architecture type courses versus taking a little bit of English, and chemistry. I did want to give architecture a little bit, time. That experience allowed me to understand that I truly did not want to go down the path of architecture and also exposed me to the history of our country, the United States.
One of the things that did stay with me of that time is when I was leaving ... The Harvard Club in New York City was built by the great-grandfather of the founder of the firm that I was at. This was, again, Stanford White. The day that I was leaving my boss at the time, his great-grandson, Sam, took me to lunch and we talked about careers.
I remember saying to him, "Tell me about your career. Do you love architecture? I remember he said to me, and this really stuck with me, his wife was a publisher and he said, "You know what? When we get home at the end of the day we both did the same thing in our jobs. We're both sort of drumming up business."
That left a real impression on me because I thought okay, he's the head of an architecture firm, she's the head of a publishing house. Neither of them is doing what I thought they'd be doing during the day which is drafting, and maybe writing and editing respectively. They were out drumming up business, and so I thought well, if that's the end game, why not just go to business school?
My mother was a very early MBA in this country, in the United States, and so she also encouraged me and said, "Look, it's a general all-purpose degree. Can't go wrong if you go to law school or business school." I applied to one business school. I had a French boyfriend at the time and as an architect, was so interested in all things french, and also as an artist, and ended up applying to Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in France which is one of the oldest grand ecoles started by Napoleon, went over there.
That was a very critical decision actually it turns out, because they were using the internet. That was not happening in the United States at that time. They were using the Minitel to make online reservations, and book theater tickets, et cetera. That's really where I got my first taste of technology in a utilitarian environment. Sent really my first emails and things over there.
I also spent my summer actually working on one of the first e-commerce sites in Asia, in India, and did my summer job there. Then came back and our system was a little bit different in France, you'll come back and you'll write your equivalent of a thesis. I wrote it on the commercialization of the internet and at that time got tapped to be a research fellow at Harvard Business School.
That was an easy decision because my mother was a professor there and lived in Cambridge, so while I was working on my thesis I came home and entered Harvard Business School, and started working with head of the accounting and control department and a few folks in finance, and started doing research for them which was doing a lot of foundational research for books, writing papers, writing a lot of cases.
I was responsible for things like the case on Donna Karan, and the Enron case, and Olympic Financial which was about subprime lending. I also was responsible for helping put together, this would foreshadow the rest of my career, I didn't know it at that time, a program run by the professors bringing leaders to emerging markets, so C-level executives and exposing them to markets like India and Southeast Asia. I was helping put that program together. This was in the mid, late '90s.
I ended up being so good at my job and taking to it like a duck in water that they kept asking me to stay. Eventually both the finance and accounting faculty approached me and asked me to start thinking about the DBA program, which is HBS's version of the PhD.
I started down that path but I come from a 5,000 year old line of professors and scholars. I also saw what my own professors were doing at school. Then I saw my friends that were graduating from the MBA program and coming back. They seemed like they had great jobs and lives in New York City. I was sitting in Morgan Hall and I was like, "Well, I'll see you guys next year when you come back to recruit."
I think that just stirred something in me. I just thought, maybe I can always come back to doing this but I won't have the opportunity to go out into the real world and get some experience. I went through recruiting and I got recruiting and I got recruited by Pepsi. They made, I think, four offers that year on campus and I was one of them.
I knew that I wanted to be a marketer because I knew that I was really good at marketing, and I was good at communication, and wanted to apply to something. I looked at music actually first. Interestingly enough, a little side thing, my first job offer actually was to manage Metallica.
That's a whole nother story. That was a job that I created and became a little celebrity on campus amongst my friends and also outside of my friend circle. I didn't really wait for that job to come to the job bank, I created it. I used the tools at school and created that job, but in the end I ended up going to Pepsi.
Again, that was a very critical decision because two things, it really taught be a lot about manufacturing of food, and how food gets to our stores, and all of the issues around that. It taught me about process, and hierarchy, and brand management. There are only four or five places you go in the world to be a top brand manager, and Pepsi's one of them.
It's also the place where I built the very first two brand websites. This sort of technology was new at the time. There was not even a Pepsi.com, believe it or not. This was 1998, '98. I happened to sit next to the web developer that they just hired so we started working on that on our own time.
I happened to have an immediate, I was hired by the CMO but I worked for somebody else, and that person did not really see the importance of the internet so we ended up working on the website on our own time and then launched the website for my two brands which were Mug Root Beer and Slice orange soda. I managed two brands that were about $600 million worth of business, launched those two brands. Then the rest of Pepsi actually used those sites as templates.
While I was there, one of the brands that I managed moved from number three to number two nationally. Part of that was a result of a competitive claim that we ran. If anybody remembers the Pepsi and Coke wars, it was actually an HBS case as well, that's a big deal, we repackaged and repositioned the brand, so lots of interesting things happened that year. We were one of the few brands that finished in the black that year.
What happened was, I realized that I really wanted to be in technology, right? I'd written my thesis on the commercialization of the internet. I had worked in Asia over the summer on one of the very first e-commerce sites in the world. I was now at Pepsi where I had built the very first website.
Let me also go back to HBS, when I was at HBS computers, the first computer lab had just been installed while I was there by the dean at the time that was very forward looking. The first wave of internet companies were my class and the class before. Many people I knew founded companies and went on to sort of define categories at that time.
I left Pepsi and I ended up going to work for a series of software and services firms in New York. I chose them because I was very passionate about the technology and the market. Again remember, this was way before there was the whole startup culture, but it was very exciting. People were jumping ship to join startup companies within a couple of years.
Interestingly, every company I went to go work for, they ranged from contextual advertising to converged communications provider, to a defense technology company, they all ended up being successful by a financial metric. That made me think maybe I had a knack for choosing companies.
Remember, I was choosing them because I was incredibly passionate about the technology, to the point where I was undertaking sometimes a two and a half hour commute. I lived in New York City so I was doing the reverse commute, which was pretty brutal, on public transportation. I was choosing them because I was passionate about the team and the technology.
I feel like I was already thinking like an investor. At that time I thought, it's really sort of a roller coaster ride to be at startups. You go up and down, and your heart goes up and down with it. What if I move over to the investment side? I ended up jumping to a small partnership, because it feels like you could work with a lot of different technologies and founders, and be a facilitator which I found that I was good at.
Versus having one shot at the brass ring which happens when you're at a startup, right? It's life or death. You drink the Kool-Aid. There's probably a good chance you're not going to be successful, but as a venture capitalist you work with multiple opportunities and really have the chance to also work with amazing entrepreneurs and help them be successful.
So moved over to a small partnership back up in Cambridge and Boston, which was actually situated on the campus of MIT. What we used to do was go into technical situations and laboratories and cofound companies with scientific founders. You would go into the laboratory, look at a particular science, kick the tires. We thought that we could commercialize it, we would help bring it out of the university atmosphere along with the scientific cofounders and then come on as the C-level executives and build the company around them.
In that way we had five or six companies that were invested in, in the series A by top tier venture capital firms like Intel Capital, Polaris, Matrix, Kleiner Perkins. They worked on all different kinds of sciences, biological, one of the companies came out of the Harvard physics lab and discovered a material called black silicon which had applications in gaming and warfare.
That was really interesting but that also still felt like a startup because we were working on one or two companies at a time and at a very different pace than at a traditional venture firm since we were basically cofounding companies. At that point I got tapped to go to Intel Capital and because I was new I think I didn't know any better they said, "Hey, want to go to India?" I think that was probably because they couldn't get anybody to go at that time, so this opportunity sort of fell into my lap.
I was able to take it because I happened to have a mother that was teaching both in the United States and all over the world, including India, who happens to be of Indian origin. She immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and was one of the first women on Wall Street actually in America.
She had been on the boards at some fairly large companies in India and she had been telling me for a decade to get over there, so I took her advice not knowing what I was getting into. I did not have experience living on the ground there and working there in this sort of role, very high profile, impactable role.
I jumped in and it changed my life. Helped launch our first $250 million emerging markets fund, invested in sector and stage agnostic companies. I was responsible for the second largest B2B marketplace in the world today, called IndiaMART. They just went public about two years ago, which if you know anything about Indian markets, it's a very big deal.
I was a generalist investor. I also invested, looked at Southeast Asia, Japan, Europe, and the United States, so basically outside of China in Asia, and Europe and the US on a case by case basis. My first deal was actually a US company. I loved it. I started our CSR committee, it was fantastic.
Anyway, I ended up leaving Intel Capital to come back home because my family was here, but I got a taste for Asia and I got a taste for being outside of the United States, and actually had every intention of turning around and going back. Actually, wanted to be in Southeast Asia, wanted to have a foot in Southeast Asia, a foot in India, a foot in America, and a foot in Europe. I just wanted to taste it all.
What happened was, I had a former entrepreneur of mine approach me. He had a sports company that, it was about a $30 million top line company in sports tech. I had a lot of connections in the sports space in the United States. He did not have any contacts in America and I had helped him with his board, I had introduced him to my mother who had taken a board seat, and the CFO of Major League Baseball, and the CEO of Pepsi, and folks like that, that could raise his profile and actually provide some growth advice on the board.
He offered me a role to come to New York and set up the US arm. I kind of went dragging my feet but I went because I thought it would give me a platform to really think about getting over the Southeast Asia and India. I ran that, and of course to quote the great Sean Penn, "If you want to hear God laugh, whisper your plans in his ears."
I actually ended up deciding to start my own company after that year, an idea that I'd had for about 20 years, a C2C marketplace for shipping, transportation, and logistics. Of course at the time that I thought of it there was no Uber, there was no ride sharing, you would not get into a car with a stranger, that was weird.
I started thinking about it because I thought, we've got this resource, Americans talk about green environment but we love our cars and no one's going to give up their car, so why not use somebody's car and where they're going to send something in the same direction? Or if they happen to be going to Ikea or Lowe's, get them to shop for you and bring it back.
I was actually looking to invest in such a company and couldn't find something that I felt comfortable with so decided to start the company. It was called Kaargo. Raised funding from folks that knew me well. I decided not to go the institutional route at first. My strategy was I'd let them come to me when we were successful.
I did want a particular type of investor, so I went to folks in my circle, the CEO of Intel, the CEO and chairman of the Loews corporation, and folks like that, and raised money that way. Built a company with a remote team, 50% remote and 50% with me in New York.
Did that until I suddenly got tapped to come to the government. I knew that we were going to wind down our company not because there wasn't a market ... By the way no one has still cracked that market, but I realized very early on it was going to take a huge company like an Amazon. In fact, Amazon entered the space and didn't make it. I think that they're restarting their efforts, but my investors wanted to continue to put money into this company but I really felt that we needed to get acquired to have a chance of making it versus trying to do standalone.
My thesis was coming out to be true because we started to see competitors in the space going under with significant amounts of funding. While I was looking for an acquirer I was approached by the government to go be their DC PE expert in residence at NIST, on the Lab to Market subcommittee. I took that job. I love teaching. I teach in different universities and so I felt like this might be a teaching job, and after a startup, you know Jeremy, it's not always the easiest thing, I was ready for a slower life and not having all the responsibility.
I came to the government and it was phenomenal. I worked with all of our agencies, the DOD, all of our national laboratories, Sandia, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, the USDA, DARPA, NASA, the SBA on basically taking federally funded innovation and speeding it to market by connecting it with venture capital and private equity because American innovation actually powers most of the advancement in the world, whether it's drinking water, or tin cans, or aviator glass, or Roma tomatoes, also the internet, and Google, and GPS. Apple as well got funding from the federal government.
There's been an initiative, that's a nonpartisan initiative, that's gone on across administrations where all of the agencies, it's called Lab to Market, are working on this. I spent the year doing that. That was phenomenal. Then I got tapped to work for the deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget to help her set up a center that will help government work better by tapping private sector expertise and resources to apply to very large management and operational problems.
That's what I've been doing. I just stepped off my detail at the end of last year. Sorry, I've been talking a lot but that is, you probably don't have any more questions for me, but that is the journey.
Jeremy Au: [00:19:16] Well, I've still got lots of questions. No worries about it. You've done, obviously, a ton of decisions from starting out in the academia space, to Pepsi as a marketing side, to startups as operator, to VC, to being a founder, and then now on the government side. You've probably taken on every hat, actually, in the innovation ecosystem, right? Would you say so, Sarayu? Is there anything I've missed out?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:19:44] I probably wouldn't agree with you. I think there's a lot I haven't done, but I have worked across a few different sectors.
Jeremy Au: [00:19:51] Yeah. Let's talk about your time really at Pepsi and the website, right? Why were you sitting next to the web developer? Was it because it was the junior corner of the office? Why were you sitting next to the web developer?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:20:09] I never looked at it that way, but you're probably right. We all came in right out of business school as assistant brand managers. Interestingly, he happened to be the best friend of the son of the CEO of Pepsi at the time. I think that's what his entree was, so he was given a job and he ended up just being put in the cube next to me.
We got to be very good friends. I remember I said to him, we were kicking around ideas and I said, "We should really build a brand site for Mug around the five senses," because Mug was a root beer. Sorry, non-Americans won't know this but it's a root beer and the positioning is about the five senses. You smell it, you taste it, brings back memories of sitting with a grandpa on the porch, so we built a site around the five senses. Yeah.
We thought it was really exciting to do that at the time. I remember how excited and amped we were to put up this website, and how the man that I worked for at the time was like, "That's not a must do. That is a fun to do when you have time. You need to be focusing on your brand." Yeah. Our ultimate vindication was that the rest of Pepsi thought it was great and bigger brands were stealing our template initially to build their brand sites out.
Jeremy Au: [00:21:28] Could you describe what the website looked like?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:21:31] Oh, I thought it was great. The Mug website, this was in 1998, was about the five senses. We put a game on there and each one had to do with the senses, so touch, smell, taste, that tied into Mug. It was beautifully made. It was just games that people ... Mug and Slice were brands that were focused on children. The repositioning of Mug was actually to focus on mothers because we figured we needed to get the gatekeepers to give their kid soda, right, Pepsi.
One of the pluses of Mug is that it didn't have any caffeine. The website was kind of tongue-in-cheek, and it was geared towards being a website for children to play on it and their mothers to be okay with it. It was kind of like Candy Land, nothing controversial type of games.
Then the Slice website, Slice had gone from 20 different flavors to one which became orange Slice. I feel like that was about, and the commercials were about how edgy Slice was. The other interesting thing is, those two brands had absolutely opposite demographics. Slice orange soda was more urban and so it was being sponsored, we were targeting more urban market. The Mug Root Beer was more of the Midwest, so the things that we were tying in was like the Worldwide Wrestling Federation and we were always in the Midwest for that.
The websites also reflected that a little bit. I think the Slice website was a little bit more edgy and also probably had some interaction and games, but it was important, I remember even in those days that we were thinking that we'd get people to interact online and get them to start thinking about this brand in a way more than, "Oh, I'm just going to go out," remember this is the very beginning of the internet, to want to come back and play those games again and again with their kids. That's what we were thinking at the time.
Jeremy Au: [00:23:36] Okay. You released it, they were skeptical. Why did people or how did people suddenly get converted from skeptical or distant to actually saying, "This is a good idea," what was that process like?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:23:49] It was championed by people that were not my boss, who were higher than him. That was one thing. I think that people just recognized there's this new technology and wow, maybe we need to be thinking about it. In Pepsi's defense, my big boss, the CMO that had hired me originally from HBS, was already looking at things like online couponing.
He'd done a back of the napkin deal with somebody for online couponing. That was already going on in 1998, where we were allowing them to download coupons. There was a digital component. Again, this was the very early days, and I think that all of the other brands were thinking about how do they incorporate technology and digitization into their brands to help drive their businesses.
I think we built a really great website, but I also think that the timing was right. People were really looking for different ways to engage their brand so it was just sort of a no-brainer. Mountain Dew and Pepsi, which were the flagship brands, actually looked at this and used it as a template for their very, very first websites so we felt sort of vindicated about that.
Jeremy Au: [00:25:08] Why did you leave Pepsi to join the startup and be their director of marketing?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:25:13] I knew that technology was the future and Pepsi wasn't moving fast enough. I also just, I'd spent a little time there, I figured out what the business was like, and I thought it was time to jump into technology. I didn't quite know how it was going to be in my future but I already knew that it was going to be in the future.
Remember, I wrote my thesis on the commercialization of the internet in 1995. I knew something was coming. Around the same time friends of mine and ex-boyfriends from HBS had started companies that within a year were getting purchased by Amazon, and Amazon was still in its infancy. It was still a book and records type of thing, starting to branch out into other things.
So there was clearly this excitement that something big was coming. When somebody starts and sells a company in eight months, I mean it's not really a company I would argue, they probably have some assets that were acquired or they have some people that the acquirer wants, but I guess the point is, is that a rising tide lifts all boats.
There was just this excitement and New York was hopping. I also didn't like, Pepsi was a long commute too. It was like a two and a half hour commute, and I lived in the middle of The Village, and I was like, I really want to find a job like five minutes away.
Of course the next job that I found was also a two and a half hour commute because I just loved the technology and couldn't turn the job down, but I did have opportunities around me that I could have gone to. People were jumping ship left and right. I remember, this was the days of Pets.com and Toys.com.
People were leaving Goldman Sachs and McKinsey to go become, they didn't have what was called product managers them, but to become a marketing manager, or do something on the business development side, or operations. It was a super exciting time.
Jeremy Au: [00:27:07] That makes a lot of sense. Then you are, you've done four or five years as an operator on a marketing side, then you suddenly make a decision and you're like, "Great, venture capital." How did that work? How did you make the switch from being an operator to become a venture capitalist?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:27:28] I would say two things. First, the environment. As I said, this was sort of the rise of web 1.0 so there was a lot of frenzy around investing in companies, right? I also saw that bubble. Then I saw the downfall in 2000, so this kind of culture that we have today was just getting started.
By the way, let me back up. Silicon Valley started a long time ago. Venture capitalists have been around forever, but the kind of consumer focus on venture, and startups, and this kind of mythology now that we have and that everybody wants to be in a startup really started around that time.
There were the traditional venture firms that were the top tier firms. People weren't really starting venture firms but there's just a whole list of names that were sort of tried and true folks that you would go to for capital.
You would basically read that people were getting funding. Also there were so many companies that were out there raising funding, and their pink slip parties, I remember that too. That was a big thing in New York because companies would go out of business or fire people. That was the environment, number one.
Number two, I happened to go work for companies where, remember I told you I was a marketing person, where I thought that they were going to be really successful. That was something that was gut. There wasn't a lot of data to look at, right? Online, converged communications, there wasn't a lot of stuff that you could look at to figure out what the trends were.
It was more a gut instinct for me that, wait a minute this company is going to allow people to ... At that point cellphones were becoming big, people were still faxing as a way of communicating, there was email that was on the rise and I'm like, wait, you can get all of this stuff on one device? A company's going to do that? That's great. I'm going to go work for them.
I happened to choose companies based on my gut and those companies ended up being very successful by financial metrics. Not one of them shut down. They were all acquired. That made me think, all right I'm picking things because I think that they're going to be successful and they're clearly being successful so maybe there is a different thing that I can do here that is not as painful as being at a startup 24/7.
That turned out to be venture capital where you're working with multiple opportunities and you're working with phenomenal founders, you're in the background facilitating. That's how I ended up jumping to the VC side of things.
Jeremy Au: [00:30:07] What was it like being in VC in those early days?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:30:11] I really loved it. I think venture is a great job. I also think it's a great job for women. I realize that women are underrepresented in venture, but I think that if you can get in it speaks to all of our skills. I always say, hey I think it's great being the only woman in the room actually because people don't forget you and people are going to return your calls.
It was just phenomenal. It's for me like teaching. I really love the opportunity, I love every part of the venture process, of finding those deals. When I happened to be, for instance, at Intel Capital it was a very, very, very hot market. It was very difficult to get into deals. I loved the challenge of competing with all of the other top tier investors plus the private equity firms, right? In Asia the markets in those days weren't as deep and so you have KKR and Blackstone competing for the same deal as Intel Capital and Kleiner Perkins.
It's the same players that are trying to invest so I loved when, for instance, I won the IndiaMART deal that had been around for 10 years and they'd refused to take institutional capital. I was sort of a legend after that all over Southeast Asia and India. People were like, "How did you ever get into that deal?" I love the competitive process of trying to get an entrepreneur to take my money.
I love being a facilitator on the board and helping them with everything from recruiting the correct board members, which we did with IndiaMART, we wiped the board clean and actually brought in folks together which is very unusual, and helping them with whatever they need, entering new markets, making the correct hires, sometimes just being a shoulder to cry on, helping them with exit opportunities when the time is right.
Every part of my job really appealed to me. Then, the other half, which is again in markets that are not so deep, part of my role was ecosystem building so I needed to get out and do a lot of public speaking, writing, judging business plan contests, teaching, all of that stuff, I felt that was part of my job.
I think some of my partners didn't feel that way. They were more, just different approaches, very, very focused on deals. They were veteran deal makers, right, and had been in the industry forever. For me, I really felt a responsibility to get out there, press the flesh, talk to people, make myself available, also really respond to everybody that reached out to me because it's a nascent market.
There have been business communities again in India for 5,000 years. It's just that private equity and venture capital wasn't institutionalized, so educating folks, "Don't send me a 100 page business plan, make it 10 pages," just basic stuff like that because you don't know what you don't know. Yeah. I love every part of my job and I still think it's the greatest job in the world.
Jeremy Au: [00:33:02] Awesome. You mentioned something interesting, you said you were the only woman at the table. Tell us more what that was like. You said there were upsides to it, you made the best of it, so what was it like especially in those early days as well?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:33:15] Jeremy, to be honest I never really thought about it. As I mentioned, I had a bit of a groundbreaking mother. I have a younger brother and also a lot of adopted brothers and sisters that my mother was bringing in throughout the years, but my mother and I were treated exactly the same, same moral standards, same expectation to perform, all of that stuff so I really never thought that something was done or wasn't done because I was a woman.
I think to some extent that mentality's protected me because even today if something happens that's negative I almost never think it was because of my gender. I always think it's something else. I'm like, did I say something to him or did I do something, what happened? It's never because I was the woman in the room.
That's actually been a very safe place to for me, I think, psychologically. I've also ignored the times when I did realize maybe someone said something and also just never took it to heart. I ignored/didn't acknowledge, didn't see it, but I also really owned the power that I had a woman in the room right?
I would go to the NVCA meeting and I would be one of three women in the room. That was great because everybody wanted to talk to me, everybody wanted me at their dinners, people wouldn't forget me. I made friends with all the top tier GP's but I wasn't a GP myself. I mean, it was actually an advantage.
I always just thought of it as something that actually was a great thing. I think in all of my years there was one time when I was in kind of a village somewhere in Asia and talking to an entrepreneur in a rural area, and he actually just said, "I'm sorry. I really haven't talked to a woman doing this job and it's just making me nervous."
I did not take that personally at all, and I don't think he meant it in a personal way. I said, "Okay. Well, I don't bite so you can talk to me or you can talk to the other guy and he can tell me what you're saying." We just turned it into a funny thing. I just realized, maybe people like him hadn't ever seen somebody like me. Yeah. It just wasn't something that played a huge role in my consciousness.
Jeremy Au: [00:35:48] What was it that made you say like, "I like this job?" Was it the moment where you're just hanging out with them and you enjoy the moment, the flow of it? Was it more like being in the moment or was it more like the intellectual pursuit? Where was it that you were like, "Okay. I got into VC," which is one part of it, but at what point were you kind of like, "Oh, I like it enough to keep going?"
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:36:13] I would say probably from day one, to be honest. I just loved every part of the job. I loved sourcing the companies, I liked doing the due diligence, I liked negotiating with the entrepreneurs. Intel Capital is unlike other CVCs, we function actually like, at that time it was run by a very successful financier who turned it into what it is or what it was.
We would look at all different kinds of deals that a lot of people would say, "I don't understand what this has to do with chips." I'm like, "Neither do I but we're still going to invest in it." I mean, all joking aside there was always a strategic connection but that connection could be making an eyes and ears deal to see what was happening in the market, or it could be to extend our geographic reach.
We were looking at deals like financial investors and also with a strategy but it was a very broad kind of mandate. I loved talking to entrepreneurs, I loved figuring out how I could add value, I loved beating out the guys from Sequoia on a deal and having an entrepreneur choose me, or getting my foot in the door in a really hot deal which I was able to do again, and again, and again, and again.
That became sort of a superpower that people would, even when they were right about to turn around the term sheet, would be willing to come in and take my meeting. That was great. Then the whole part of being on the board and facilitating, helping the company in whatever way possible.
That's really how I see myself, as somebody that is a coach, a therapist, a facilitator, business development person. I mean, I don't work for the company but I strive to act like that and really be a support for the CEO in any way that I can. I love that part.
Of course I love when there's a phenomenal outcome, right, when there's an exit. You feel pride. I mean, still to this day I have so much pride for the companies that made it and even the companies that didn't, right? Because as you well know, Jeremy, the entrepreneurial journey is not easy. I know we've glamorized it, and Shark Tank makes it feel like, "Oh, I'm going to go and pitch ..."
It's tough. There's a lot of sacrifice involved, especially in emerging markets and so I have so much respect and I feel super honored to work with these folks. Yeah. I love every single part of my job.
Jeremy Au: [00:38:36] Yeah. I guess you also have a lot of empathy now for the founders side because you were a founder yourself. I mean, just quickly before we go into the government side of it, but I guess at that point now you had done the VC, you had been an operator, you chose to be a founder. Was it shocking, was it surprising to be on the other side or maybe somewhere in the middle of the sandwich?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:38:59] No, it wasn't surprising. I will say that I never worked harder in my life than when I was building our product, and I loved it. I had a remote team so I was basically up 24/7. My dev team and CTO were sitting in India. My CTO, shout-out to him, he headed a division of Microsoft in APAC and he came to be my CTO. Then I had designers and folks out on the west coast so I was in between in New York, and so I basically didn't sleep.
I lost an entire summer, actually. I did not go outside of my apartment in New York. I had a nice apartment so it helped, but I literally just sat in my apartment building the product and it was the happiest and most productive summer I think I've ever had. I literally lost all my friends and just didn't leave my apartment.
There weren't too many surprises on the entrepreneurial side. I knew that it was going to be tough, tougher I think than being a VC. I also was very clear that even though people were like, "It's so great to be your own boss," I'm like, "Actually, no. I now answer to 100 bosses. I have my investors who put the money in because of me, to be honest. I was a sole founder. I have people that have come to work for me, certainly not because I was paying them market salaries, we're a startup. I'm very clear about that." I didn't take a salary myself.
People were coming to me because they believed in the mission of the company, and they were excited about who was invested, and they wanted to learn, and they wanted to be a part of a team. That's a lot of pressure when people have given up opportunities with salaries, and benefits, and when they have families. They could be doing a lot of other things and they've come to work for you.
That was something that was very difficult because I did take that very, very seriously, and did lose sleep over things. There's always a fire to put out. There's always somebody coming to you with some operational issue or, "I think I should be a cofounder," whatever.
You're dealing with a ton of different problems. At a small, lean company the buck stops with you. There's no go to HR, well I'm HR, or go to finance, well guess what, I'm finance. I wouldn't say that this was unexpected but I would definitely say that yeah, I used to long for my VC days when I was an entrepreneur sometimes.
Jeremy Au: [00:41:32] That makes a lot of sense. I think that's interesting, which is you made a decision to join the government and the White House as a Presidential Innovation Fellow. Obviously that was a new opportunity coming in, but before we turn to that, what was it like feeling that about winding down Kaargo, did you feel grief? How did you feel about it? Was it a very simple decision? How was that decision for you?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:41:58] Very difficult. I almost immediately saw the writing on the wall when we launched and I started to see what the dynamics were. I thought, "Oh shit." By the way, before I started it I went and I talked to a lot of people. I talked to the folks that founded things like eBay. Clearly I have, what was it called, Opendesk? I forget. I went and talked to founders of a lot of C2C marketplaces. I clearly have a lot of contacts that invested in those companies.
Pretty much every single person said to me, "Sarayu, you're really smart. Do you have any other ideas to do for a startup? Do not do a C2C marketplace. You're picking the absolute worst of the worst thing to do," but my view was, this was an idea that had been burning in the back of my head since I was hanging around MIT, so quite a while.
I was like, wait a minute, I want to solve a hard problem and if somebody should do it we should do it, right? I was certain that no one knew the space better than me and that we knew back and forth what we needed to do. I think I might have been stumped once during the pitching process by one question. That was by the legendary Allen Patricoff who founded Apax Partners and as a friend I'd got to raise money from him.
He asked me some question, I don't remember what it is, but I literally didn't have an answer for him. I was like, oh crap. I remember I went home, thought about it, and emailed him the answer the next day.
But I pretty much very quickly saw, this is going to be very hard for a startup to pioneer. For it to organically happen we need to funded for a very long time. I started to see, there were companies around us that were raising significant amounts of capital. My investors wanted to put more money in. I kept saying, "Just hold off."
Again, I had a fiduciary responsibility to these people and in my particular case not only are they investors, I personally know these people. Right? I know the CEO of Intel. He's a friend of mine. He's a very good friend of mine today and was a friend of mine then.
These were very difficult decisions, taking other people's money. Everybody was like, "We got money," so I had a very opposite problem. What happened was, I started to see the companies around us start to falter. There was a company called [Sidecar] which was backed by some phenomenal investors, I think probably somebody that like one number on the Midas List at the time, and Richard Branson, and they went under. They had $50 million funding and they went under within a very short period.
When that happened, and they were a two-sided marketplace, I thought, yeah, right, this is what we're up against. I just sent a note to my investors letting them know, "Just want you to know, this is what's going on in the space. This is what I'm trying to tell you. We need to get acquired because we need the resources of Amazon. $50 million, even if you gave that to me today, which the company was so early it didn't warrant it, but even if you gave, I don't $50 million, I need like $200 million to make this work."
As we were having that conversation I actually ended up in the hospital. I had a surgery. By the way, with the startup, let's talk about hard times, I had a broken engagement as a result of it. As I mentioned, didn't leave my apartment literally for three, four years.
My philosophy is you put your head down and work so I wasn't interested in going out and speaking about the company and getting press. I thought we built a beautiful product and I wanted our customer base to speak for it so I was very focused on that. The only thing I really did outside of that was teach because I love teaching.
I ended up, I think the stress drove certain things to happen and I ended up in the hospital. I had a surgery. It was really when I was sitting in the recovery room I was thinking, I love this company, I still believe in this idea, but I'm now at 85%. I'm not at 150%. As anyone who's done a startup knows, if you're not at 150% you should probably hang up your hat because there's no end to the problems and you really have to be in it to win it. That was really the time when I thought, we need to really figure things out.
By the way, there were a lot of challenges where I had to fire lots of people. We had to change course. There were many things that we needed to do that were not always pleasant, but I would say that confluence of ending up in the hospital, knowing what I knew ... I mean, it's a different kind of problem when people really want to put money into your company and you're saying, "I don't know. This is going to turn into a lifestyle company." I think it just wasn't in me after the hospital.
The other thing I will also add, huge issue we had, was hiring. Huge issue. I could not find somebody to take the burden off of my shoulders. I think I found maybe one or two people over the course of a few years that I felt comfortable enough to say, "Take a piece of this." When I say this I don't mean running a different group or anything, but really, essentially taking a lot of the responsibility off my shoulders and helping co-run the business with me.
My CTO couldn't do that. Our community managers couldn't do that. Our business development folks couldn't do it. That was also another big issue for us, and because it was a very hot market and folks were looking, and we're a real startup which means there's sacrifice involved. That's been lost, I think, on the entrepreneurial community, that startup doesn't mean you go out and raise a billion dollars and buy a $200 chair for your desk.
Startup is supposed to be scrappy and lean, and you're supposed to reiterate constantly. It's supposed to be tough times. There's a journey involved. Yeah. I would say that it was tough and I think the hardest thing was actually just pulling the plug on the site because I thought we built such a beautiful thing. I'm a tough judge and any time I was not sure of it I would just take a walk through the site and try it. We'd really made the mistake of, as many young entrepreneurs do, building like it was 100 million people that were going to be on it instead of just five.
I was like, yeah we built something beautiful, so the hardest thing was switching off the lights. I remember saying to my CTO, "Can we retrieve this if we need it? Can we retrieve the site in the future?" He was like, "Yeah." By the way, our competitors were copying us too.
It's really funny because my mother called me the other day and said, "Do you know Amazon is going into the space?" I said, "Mom, they've been trying to figure this out for a long time." She goes, "You should try to see if you can sell the technology." I'm like, "Yeah. Okay. Well, let me call Jeff Bezos and see if he's interested." Yeah, that was tough, switching off the lights.
Jeremy Au: [00:48:53] What was it like after that? You switch off the lights, how did you process the grief there?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:48:58] As I mentioned, it was sort of an ongoing process for me, Jeremy. It was just something that I saw very early on. I think one of the qualities that I'm very fortunate to have, I think every ex-boyfriend has accused me of this too, is I'm able to see around corners and I'm a good judge of character. I think I saw all of this very, very early, that this was coming.
I thought we could raise some money, and we'd go on, and we could get lucky but to me the dynamics of a C2C marketplace are different from anything else because there's really 50 moving parts on one side and 50 moving parts on the other. There's only one place in time that you can make money that those two gears have to come together where they fit. You need to spray a ton of money over all of that to make it happen, to build something like an eBay. It's supply and demand and it's at a C2C level, it's not even B2B.
I kind of was processing all along. Really the come to Jesus meeting was being in the hospital and just going, right, I need to just tell these ... My investors were supportive. They were like, "Okay. Whatever you want to do. It's been an interesting journey, whatever." Yeah. I mean, I think it was a process that went really, almost for very early on that I saw what was happening. It wasn't like it caught us off guard, you know?
Jeremy Au: [00:50:27] Yeah. I hear you. You were already processing and then you were already grieving to some extent before the lights were being turned off and so it was almost the resolution of that grief process by turning things off. Is that a fair description, Sarayu?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:50:45] Yeah. Exactly, exactly. I think I would say that it wasn't a grieving process all along, but I was seeing the writing on the wall and having these conversations with the CEO of Loews and men that have run very big companies, CEO of Paramount Pictures, people that had invested in us and saying, "I need to explain what's going to happen."
Convincing folks that had no idea of how this kind of economy worked of, "No, no, no. You don't understand. You can give me $50 million. I'm going to tell you what I'm going to do, I'm going to take a salary because I didn't take a salary. People are going to get paid and we're not going to be scrappy anymore, but I just want you to know that my confidence level of this is more, my sense is that we really need to focus on getting acquired and pioneer this with a Amazon backing us because they have the dry gunpowder, they have the resources. They can fight the good fight."
This was just my honest opinion. Remember, I'm an investor. This was sort of my thesis after doing this for a few years. I would say it was just a slow kind of, here's what the thesis is. Yeah, I think that's right. Yeah, I think that's right. Oh yeah, Sidecar just went out of business. Yeah, I'm right but let's keep going. Oh, I found this great person to come work for us but I still ..."
It was just coming to a natural conclusion where it was like, yeah, I think I'm now at 85% and I'm not at 150%. There's no way you can do a startup unless you're at 150% and so when I was sitting in the hospital at 85% I thought, yeah, right, it's time.
Jeremy Au: [00:52:27] Yeah. Slowly coming towards the last chapter here, you went out to join the White House to become a Presidential Innovation Fellow, right? Then you touched a whole ton of different agencies. What was it like? I mean, it was the Trump era at that time. You were joining, did you feel like there was an insulation? Did you feel like it was distant? What was it like?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:52:54] One of the things that you have to remember is regardless of the administration and whether you like a particular administration or not, the work of government goes on. There are thousands of people that are civil servants and also frankly political appointees.
When I went to go work for the deputy director of OMB, she was actually a Democrat who was a political appointee. She ended up leaving during the COVID time to go back to the private sector, but the work of government moves on regardless of who the president is.
It was just a phenomenal and a fascinating experience. My father actually was the head of reactor safety for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the '70s and '80s so I grew up in Washington DC. Ironically, I did not have a ton of exposure to government. I think I interned on Capitol Hill for a senator and worked at the National Zoo. That was sort of my "government experience."
This was coming in in a different way, right? I think I might have cried my first day at NIST because I was walking down the hallway and seeing the faces of these people, these scientists, men and women that had created so much and done so much to drive science, and technology, and the underpinning of our economy, and national security, and everything forward that I cried.
In fact, my escort was like, "Are you okay?" I was like, "No, I'm just so honored to be among this crowd. I can't believe I'm here." It was just a phenomenal experience. Really, really enjoyed working in government. Gave me an insight to what government employees do. Also allowed me to view VC from a different perspective.
It was kind of funny because I ended up giving one of the keynotes at one of the NBCA meetings because we had to reach venture capitalists. Some of my old colleagues were sitting in the audience, from venture. You could just see their mouth fall open because they were like, "You work for the government now?"
People were coming up to me at cocktails and going, "Girl, do you need a job? Have things become that tough for you?" I'm like, "No, no, no. I'm doing this because I want to do it." They were like, "Really?" There's always this tension of, why would you go work for the government, government bad.
What I discovered was there are so many dedicated people, just like our military, that go in day after day in what is sometimes a thankless job and where you maybe see incremental change. The next administration can come in and wipe out everything you've done. They keep doing it because they know that this is actually moving, the mandate of government is much bigger.
It was a very humbling experience. Learned a lot, met a lot of great people, felt like hopefully we moved it forward incrementally. Yeah, felt like just for a moment that I was part of that good fight.
Jeremy Au: [00:55:45] You shared that being in government changed your perspective on VC. How did it change?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [00:55:52] One of the issues I was working on was better engaging VC with federally funded innovation. This is basically our basic R&D that comes out of our laboratories here in America and also universities, right? A third of it is $150 billion a year. A third of it comes from government directly. Two thirds of it is government funding to universities.
The issue today is, that stuff is actually way to early for people like me to go and invest, right? At the end of the day I need to see a return in a certain period of time. If I don't see that return I get fired. I mean, it's really that simple. That's the way that VC works.
The government has these amazing scientists that are toiling away, and doing stuff, and only the government can produce these innovations because they have the ability to work on something for 20 years and not see a return. They have the ability to have seven different people doing this throughout the government, all over the United States, and they don't even know that the other ones are working on it. That's the beauty.
Only the government has this power to fail again, and again, and again, and it doesn't matter. Then the 50th time a bunch of people come together, connect computers, and then 40 years later it turns into the commercial internet. A VC can't do that, so the government plays a very important role in innovation.
The problem is, I can't go in that early. The resulting problem of that is we have people or countries in the world that come in and say, "Oh, we'll give you a term sheet." What happens then? It's obvious. They now have access to our best minds, to our technology, to our innovation. It threatens everything, our national security, our status as an innovation leader. It underpins our economy, right? Silicon Valley is a creation of the Department of Defense.
That's a real issue and so that's why Lab to Market was started a few administrations ago and it's carried through as part of the president's management agenda, right? In the Trump administration, Obama administration, Biden administration, it's one of those 15 priorities the president has.
The tension is getting our venture capitalists, and private equity folk, and industry to wake up and say, "Guys, across sectors whether it's biotech or semiconductors, we need you to come in and put some of your capital and expertise towards something that is against your mandate." Right?
That's a very tough thing. It's kind of like, find a corner in a circular room. That is something that's been going on, and so my take on it and my strategy, which is what they brought me on the Lab to Market subcommittee to do, it's actually an NSDC subcommittee in the White House, was really thinking about how do we bring these together?
My strategy was coming up with different drivers, and going out and pressing the fresh, frankly, and speaking to folks, and letting them know what was at stake because it really is the very health and existence of venture capital is threatened without having a constant stream of government innovation that can be matured into something whenever it matures.
Yeah. I mean, for me it was a really phenomenal experience. I would have actually continued at NIST had they had funding. That's another thing I learned about government, they appropriate often for just a year in advance. I loved my team there. My detail was at NIST because NIST led the Lab to Market subcommittee along with the Department of Energy and the White House. My detail was to NIST but I was a resource for all of the agencies.
I wanted to continue, they didn't have the money. At the same time I got tapped to go work actually in the White House at the Executive Office of the President, which is what OMB sits within. Yeah. I would say that there wasn't ... If you're asking if there was chaos, I didn't really see any of that, again because so many people are working in the government. I think especially in areas of science and technology people continue on with their missions. There is changes in that you have a different agency head who might set a different priority but life goes on.
Jeremy Au: [01:00:16] Thank you so much, Sarayu. Tying things off here, where were you 10 years ago? That is the first of the question. Then, second part of the question would be, what advice would you give yourself? That's 10 years ago, I think you were wrapping up your time at Intel Capital. Where were you? What were you like? Then, what advice would you give yourself?
Sarayu Srinivasan: [01:00:34] To be honest, at that time, Jeremy, when I came back to the United States I remember I looked at my mother, and I'm a super type A personality ... I love India by the way. I love the people, I love the culture, I love the markets, I love everything about it. Super challenge, by the way. If you invest in India and you make it you can invest anywhere in the world. It's hard.
I remember I came home and I looked at my mother and I was like, "I cannot believe I lived in India for five years." My mother was laughing. She's like, "Especially you," because I did fight India for about six months until I realized, I'm losing, this is not going to work, I just need to go with the flow.
I think when I came back it was really sort of, the world was wide open. What advice would I give myself? Gosh. Actually, the first thing I did was go and enroll in some courses in Cambridge University in England because I love Shakespeare, and I love theater, and I love acting. It was just a really fun and great time because it wasn't an insignificant thing to be on the ground in India for that many years.
I took a little bit of time off, I started teaching again. Then I hung out a lot at MIT, which was right before Joi Ito had taken over and I realized that they needed a VC in residence there and so I recommended they find somebody to do that, which I think they did eventually.
I was just thinking about what the options were. I really didn't have a plan. I don't know. I don't think I have any particular advice to give myself. I'm kind of happy with the way that things turned out.
Jeremy Au: [01:02:01] All right. Thank you so much, Sarayu. I really appreciate you taking time to come on the show.
Sarayu Srinivasan: [01:02:06] Thank you very much, Jeremy. This has been really fun.
Jeremy Au: [01:02:10] Thank you for listening to BRAVE. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share this episode with friends and colleagues. Sign up at www.jeremyau.com to discuss this episode with other community members in our forum. Stay well and stay brave.