Business success is about keeping emotions at bay

Anu Shah, CEO, Rocket Internet

For someone who left home with $ 40 in her pocket to fetch a job in a call centre in Mumbai, Anu Shah has come a long way in her career, overtaking challenges & hurdles, head-on. Her career kickstarted with an FMCG company in Mumbai where she had to demonstrate extreme endurance in blazing heat for over 8 hours a day to cover 40 shops, to earn a commission of mere $10. It was a steep road marked by many slammed doors, extreme gender and pay discrimination in male dominated sales role, unwanted / unusual catcalls and stares from shop-keepers and supervisors, she recalls. Despite this, Anu exceeded her sales target, outperformed her peers, and rose through the ranks to become a Brand Manager in the same organization.

Subsequently she earned an MBA from University of Leeds and worked in M&A, strategy consulting and private equity. In last 7 years, Anu has lived and worked in all the major financial capitals of the world including London, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Boston. In 2017, while she was pursuing a short course at Harvard University the startup incubator called ‘EFI Hub’ was born. She managed to raise over $300,000 for this business and to date, EFI hub has mentored tech businesses in East Africa and India; raised capital in excess of $ 100,000 for one of the startups as well as worked with the government of South Africa on developing technology investment policy infrastructure.

Her current role is that of a CEO for Rocket Internet’s on-demand staffing platform called Ushift. Ushift has over 35,000 subscribers and more than 2,000 businesses registered on their platform in Singapore.

“The experiences and resistance I faced early on in my life have jolted few things within me and it has gotten me more involved in social impact initiatives. I started volunteering with an NGO in Mumbai several years ago. There I led a volunteer team of doctors / i-bankers / marketers / journalists /MDs / COOs to educate children in slums; worked in tandem with psychologists, counsellors, corporate trainers, and education entrepreneurs to spread awareness about child abuse and sexual harassment”, says Anu Shah.

Anu Shah was conferred the Women Icons Asia Award 2018 by BERG Singapore earlier this year. She shares some interesting facets from her journey in this interview below.

Who is your greatest inspiration & Why?
In the past I would have said Golda Mier is a woman I admire the most. Raised in a middle class family she went on to become a wife, mother and a school teacher before she became Israel’s Prime Minister and remains the only female to hold such an office. She was lovingly called the “Iron Lady” before Margaret Thatcher adopted the moniker.

However, in recent times I have come to realize that real heroes in my life are the people closest to me. My biggest inspiration is my uncle, D.R.Shah. His is a classic rag-to-riches story. After several obstacles in life he carved a niche as a noted professional and entrepreneur in London. Inspite of all the hardships life threw at him, he never became bitter. He’s brave, courageous, optimistic, altruistic and extremely emotional about every single family member. I aspire to be exactly like him.

The other biggest source of inspiration is my mother. Though I never admitted publicly out of fear of never being her equivalent in any sense, but the truth is that I have always tried to be her mirror image. At the time when I was 6 years old & my brother was 4, my mother was managing a tour group of 1,200 people and a staff of 200 (only men) in the North of India. We were on the road for a couple of weeks and there were instances when we have travelled alone with my mother in trucks & tempos, to deliver food at the designated location before the group arrived. She managed it all single-handed without getting bogged down. Her astute business sense, leadership qualities and ability to manage hundreds of people at work with boldness and courage has always left me awestruck. She’s the most pragmatic, proud and strong woman I have ever known.

What led you to the path of Entrepreneurship?
I am not as strong and bold as my mother was so I never dared to dream about being an entrepreneur. However in 2016  while I was deal sourcing in Rwanda, I met CEO of a Craft Brewery, run and operated by a  woman. During our conversations, I learnt that she had faced many odds in her life – forced marriage, domestic abuse, and gender discrimination. But through her brewery, she intended to build a livelihood for herself and empower other women in the community – a business that truly spoke to me.

Professionally, I had to turn down the deal, but my interest was still piqued. I decided to consult the CEO pro bono. I assisted the business in closing a crowd-funding drive that raised $ 110,000. The capital was used to build the bottling line and hire 50 women. This success was the most fulfilling of my life; it meant jobs for women without means, jobs for women like me.This experience and all of the past experience of overcoming challenges at work place only remained stand alone incidents until I came to Harvard in the spring of 2017. I found my inspiration, support and mentors on Harvard Campus who motivated me to create something which will generate impact on a larger scale.

Through their guidance and funding from my classmate at HBS – Lavan Gopaul and support from other Harvard Alumni (who have joined as advisors) idea of replicating Rwandan success globally, came to form. And I founded ‘EFI Hub’ a start-up incubator with the goal of empowering start-ups in emerging and frontier markets of Asia and Africa. I scored moderate success with EFI Hub. Africa is a very challenging geography and I felt that I was too early in that market and I lack the right skills to achieve the scale as an entrepreneur.It was around the same time I was talking to an old friend of mine who was CEO for one of the Rocket Internet Ventures and he mentioned that Rocket Internet was looking for a Co-Founder / CEO for one of their startups in Singapore. And I looked no further to build my skill sets. Rocket Internet is definitely the university you need to graduate from to build your entrepreneurial skill sets with low economic risk. And voila! Ushift happened.

Tell us about your cherished accomplishment.
There has not been one to mention. I have never felt that I have achieved enough, or I am the best at any point in time. But every time I look back, I do feel grateful that I have come this far in life. At the age of 21, surviving in a city like Mumbai was the biggest challenge. I never thought I would ever make it where I am today.

The journey sure has been gruesome, but I am extremely thankful and grateful to Almighty for all the challenges he threw my way. I have only learned and become wiser from those experiences.

Tell us about the biggest Challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it? Any lessons learnt?
Though I have 12 years of experience, I think entrepreneurship is a different ball game altogether and nothing can really prepare you for that. I still feel I am naïve and inexperienced. Some challenges I faced initially were sourcing for investments, managing the finances and logistics. Though one of the most difficult part is managing people.

Very recently I had to let go a staff member, also a close friend & more like a younger brother; due to his poor performance and attitude. I am an over emotional person so this decision tore me apart and totally crippled me emotionally. I cried so badly the day I let him go that my mom asked if I was the one who got sacked. Days following that were harder and I was filled with grief and guilt; I would cry every night worrying about him. I even asked my colleagues to check on him, to know if he’s doing well. It was the most painful thing yet the most logical decision to go ahead with.I tend to be too trusting especially with people I am close to and in the past I got played out a few times.

Though everything did not go well in this situation, but when I reflect back, I realize that I too had gone wrong in the way I communicated and handled the scenario.The biggest lesson that I have learnt is, as a leader,  you have to take some tough decision and separate emotions from a situation in making a professional decision, yet be level headed & transparent in communication.All these ups and downs that I faced in last 1-2 years in business were all part of my learning and growing up, and it’s what has made me who I am today. I feel that as long as we don’t give up and keep learning, every obstacle will make us a better and a stronger person!

Do you face challenges as a Woman Entrepreneur? Tell us more
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to partner with many entrepreneurs and help foster the growth of dozens of startups for social good. As a woman, the fact that I’m still working in tech, and in a leadership position, is not lost on me. By now, I’ve grown used to being one of the only women in the room.

Hence as a woman entrepreneur, I don’t experience obvious forms of discrimination or sexism. Instead, I face an undercurrent of condescension that leads to a feeling of isolation.I feel, it is tough for women entrepreneurs to get venture funding. Recently when we were downsizing & I had to let go of one of the male employees, the investors walked up to me and said that it would be tough for me to raise funds without a man by my side; they sure were right I realised. The heavy male presence in the private VC process is one not talked about much in the diversity conversation within the tech community. Male VCs invest in male-led startups, then end up on the boards of those startups, which then grow into major male-led tech companies.

However, I don’t get deterred by these challenges. This is part and parcel of the game. Over a period of time, I have learned to circumvent these obstacles by being positive and building my own network and support system of strong female mentors, investors, and peers. These experiences have also bought me closer to my friends and family and in them, I find my biggest support system.

How do you describe your leadership style?
This is my first job as a CEO and I am continuously learning to adapt and change. I have a very pragmatic and practical approach towards business. I believe in leading by example and I am a workaholic.

Ever since UShift started, I have been working 16-18 hours a day and haven’t taken a single holiday or a weekend off. I am totally consumed by my work.I am also quick to admit mistakes and take corrective measures to prevent them from happening further. For example, I am over committed to the projects I take on hand and that makes me quite demanding to my employees too. I am now making conscious efforts to communicate more effectively and embed empathy in my approach at work.

What would you like to achieve in the coming years?
In next 3-5 years, through EFI Hub I want to replicate the Silicon Valley model globally by creating a robust develop a robust ecosystem which will bring the entire mentorship network to support the growth of high potential start ups in emerging and frontier markets such as Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore and HongKong.

However in the long term my goal is to change the way investments are perceived and establish an ‘Investment fund’ investing directly in technology, health care, and clean energy sectors. I will differentiate my fund by establishing a concurrent gender-based index fund designed to track and invest in companies that are leading in their respective industries by placing women and minorities on boards of directors and in senior leadership positions.