Our list of ten ventures started by entrepreneurs under the age of thirty includes men, women, artists, technologists, analysts, fashionistas, entertainers and environmentalists. A never-say-die attitude threads them together. Their youth fuels their passion. They are unique innovators with original ideas. These young men and women, some just barely out of college, have been bitten by the startup bug. This article provides a glimpse into what drives South Asians to starting companies and why, despite long odds, relentless working hours, and dragged out incubation periods, they persist in walking that cobbled road to success.
At a time when youth employment is double that of all Americans, these intrepid South Asian entrepreneurs are taking risks and looking beyond the security of a steady job. They are making VC pitches, putting together Powerpoint presentations, raising seed money and sacrificing bar time for boardroom time. They are not afraid of rejection, and are reinventing the coolness factor of “nerd.”
From the popularity of yoga to the mainstream appreciation of Indian cuisine, and, not to forget, the critically acclaimed and celebrated film, Slumdog Millionaire, Americans are starting to take notice of the growing presence of South Asians in the United States. The cultural implications of this can hardly be ignored. The previous connotations of being an Indian in America included being either a computer software grunt, a7 -Eleven owner, or, occasionally, a doctor. Even outside the American stereotypes of Indians, it was hard to look around and see little more than jewelers, motel owners, and engineers. But that has been increasingly changing as young Indian Americans are breaking the mold to expand into other areas and industries.
Technology is a sector that naturally draws South Asians, but entrepreneurship in the arts is fast gaining traction among this community. When asked as to what prompted them to take the risk and pursue their ventures, the resounding answer I received was that they were influenced by their families and family friends. According to Jesse Pujji of Ampush Media, “Just the fact that our parents left India and came here to start new lives is rather entrepreneurial. It has set a great precedent for us to follow.” “Use the Indian perspective that you’ve gleaned from your parents and families, by which I mean being entrepreneurial in whatever endeavor you pursue,” said Ik Jagait of Playground Pictures. “[Creative arts] is still a new field for Indian Americans, and it is a little scary to explore that territory, but I would encourage you to invite your family and your community to be a part of the process.
You’d be surprised as to how supportive they might be,” said Negin Singh of cARTel.
There is definitely something remarkable about being inspired by our parents, but to have their support is quite a blessing. Anuj Verma of Thirst Labs gave some great insight on the matter: “Indian parents are encouraging their kids to pursue other ventures, an option they sometimes wish their parents had given them.” Everyone I have had the privilege of speaking with has reiterated the fact that their parents have been great supporters of their work, despite the stereotype of Indian parents expecting and supporting only a triad of engineers, doctors or lawyers. This has resulted in some amazing and groundbreaking ventures in all sorts of new fields, many of which have been led by Indian Americans under the age of thirty. Ten such ventures, covering a breadth of areas such as technology, entrepreneurship, media, and the arts are showcased here.
Founded by former investment bankers, Jesse Pujji, Nick Shah, and Chris Amos, Ampush Media was created with a simple goal in mind: to help advertisers find new customers online. With the growing trend of embedded online advertising on sites like Facebook, it became seemingly difficult for advertisers to count on conversions. This is where Jesse and Nick saw an opportunity. “Using our quantitative skill-set from investment banking, we were able to navigate through the clutter, and successfully provide the best results for our clients,” they said. Their proprietary analytics and automation tools help convert a click into a tangible action, whether that be a lead, a like, a sign-up or an install. By deploying advertising campaigns on Facebook Ads, Ampush Media helps large advertisers find new customers.
Wanting to stay true to their vision, and to stay lean through the startup phase, they decided to stay away from initial fundraising. “American Express was our largest lender,” they joked. “I stayed with Jesse’s parents and enjoyed their home-cooked meals for a couple years. It was a bit of a challenge, coming off of a six-figured Wall Street salary,” said Nick. But they wouldn’t trade their experience. Within a few short years, they’ve been able to take their startup to an eight-figured company, and now employ forty people and boast a roster of over one hundred clients. But this is only the start for them, as they hope to reshape the online marketing industry by delivering the best solutions to their clients through technology, rigorous analytics, and a dedication to learning.
In a business ethics class their final semester at U.C. Berkeley, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were fascinated by an interesting prospect their professor mentioned: mushrooms grown from coffee grounds. Independently, they emailed their professor about it, and ended up getting connected through him. Taking ten paint buckets full of coffee grounds, they used their spring break to see if mushrooms would, in fact, grow out of them. They came back to a single bucket having produced anything, and immediately took it to a local gourmet eatery, Chéz Panisse. The chef gave them his nod of approval, and from there, with a $5,000 grant from the U.C. Berkeley Chancellor, they decided to pursue their venture as urban mushroom farmers.
Moving forward with the initial grant, Back to the Roots raised nearly $150,000 by winning business competitions, and saw their vision come to life. “We wanted to make food personal again,” reflected Arora. Taking what would have become urban waste, Back to the Roots Ventures creates self-contained home-grown kits for oyster mushrooms. It’s a great way for mushroom lovers to grow and enjoy gourmet mushrooms in an entirely self-sustaining way, returning the soil in the kit back to the ground after the mushrooms are harvested. “People don’t have to worry about having a green thumb, or a big back yard,” Arora added.
Long term, they wish to expand this venture into other foods, and give people an opportunity to connect with their food again. “We draw our inspiration from Apple, which has taken technology from that geeky and nerdy field to a mainstream one, combining innovation with ease-of-use. We hope to do the same with food,” said Arora.
Software engineer and entrepreneur, Poornima Vijayashanker started BizeeBee as a means to help membership-based small businesses to retain their customers. The endeavor came about when Vijayashanker found a lack of software solutions in researching ways to help local yoga studios maintain their memberships. “Seeing the pains of running a small business and retaining members is what inspired me to launch BizeeBee,” she said.
“My mom has been an accountant for a variety of small businesses for the past 25 years.
She has taught me a lot about how small business owners think and adopt technology, and has even given me ideas and directions for market segments to look at for BizeeBee.”
The result has been a well-thought-out solution that allows clients to set up an account, adding customers who can purchase and renew their memberships with relative ease. It records various data and creates reports that give insights into trends in attendance, instructor performance as well as revenue. It also tracks the memberships, and accordingly reminds customers to renew online, thereby taking the load off business owners on following up. Bootstrapping to get BizeeBee up and going, Vijayashanker did not go through any fundraising for the first year and a half, at which point she sought out support from angel investors. “The key to funding is being credible, something that can be shown by past success, building a prototype, getting traction, and establishing relationships with fellow entrepreneurs and investors,” she added. As for her long-term vision, she sees BizeeBee “becoming an easy-to-access resource for any small business owner, helping them start and grow their business.”
Sisters Riddhi, Manshi, and Siddhi Khara grew up in a home full of women who appreciated Indian fashion and apparel. Being able to borrow from each other constantly, they were used to having an arsenal of clothes at their disposal, and this is what first inspired them to create an online portal for renting out Indian clothing and accessories. “We realized there was a market of people in the U.S. ready to try out traditional clothing for special occasions but who didn’t necessarily want to own such elaborate attire and spend a fortune doing so,” said Siddhi. After doing their market research and procuring their supply of clothing from India, the Khara sisters launched the website last year.
Adopting a Netflix-like model, Borrow It Bindaas rents out sarees, salwars, peshwaris, and more, including some men’s items, for very affordable prices, giving customers an option to buy. They mail out the items along with a “‘Bindaas Kit,’ a complimentary supply of safety pins, bindis and a pamphlet with instructions on how to drape a saree,” as well as a prepaid shipping label for returns. With a vision to “become the ultimate haven and one-stop shop for affordable and trendy South Asian fashions,” Siddhi offers this advice for budding entrepreneurs: “Build your network and partner up with people whose skills complement yours. When starting a business, you won’t find yourself an expert in every aspect of it overnight, so it’s good to build a team of mentors through your own network. Whether it’s a friend who is in law school or even a past professor, you’d be surprised as to how many people are willing to help!”
“Art is about pushing boundaries, and creating works that people haven’t seen before.” These are the words that Negin Singh first spoke to me, when talking about her unique and creative venture, Collaborative Arts LA, or cARTel. While still at U.C. Irvine, Singh wanted to air some of her frustrations with the artist community, and to get other artists involved in the process. Led by this desire, she formed cARTel to provide artists of different backgrounds a space to come together, to converse with each other, and feel the freedom to create and express themselves. It didn’t matter what the medium was, as long as people were coming in with the mindset to lose themselves from everything but the creative process. “You would have a film person come in, then an artist, then a musician, then a photographer. They would find themselves conversing, and out of that came a new and beautiful thing, a collaboration that none of them could have individually envisioned,” she said.
cARTel started out with shows in public places–in parking lots, at the park, or at the beach–places that required no money to put on a show. The response they got was incredible, finding that they were selling out of tickets even at those venues. They have since been able to move to more professional locations, but they try to stick to their roots. “Every year, we do a ‘Living Room Tour,’ where we take a play that’s been written for us, and perform that in fourteen living rooms across the state.” Part of her vision for establishing cARTel was community involvement, and she has actively seen that through. Going door to door, she garnered support from local companies who were interested in the project. Initially providing non-fiscal support, they have now partnered with cARTel to help build what Singh started. In four years of being active, cARTel has built up quite a following, having recently been featured on the White House blog.
With quite an impressive resumé under his belt, Rahim Fazal used his previous entrepreneurial skills (having sold his first company for $1.5 million, while a senior in high school) as well as his M.B.A. from the Richard Ivey School of Business to launch Involver along with co-founder Noah Horton in 2007. In five years, it has grown to become the premier social marketing platform for over one million brands and agencies, of which Facebook, Best Buy, and Target are just a handful. Creating the world’s first Social Markup Language (SML), Involver created a tremendous platform for companies to develop and market custom applications on social sites like Facebook.
When asked about his experience in the industry, and especially as an Indian American, Fazal responded that “the biggest thing an up-and-coming entrepreneur can take advantage of is the resourcefulness of the [Indian] community. I’ve found other South Asians always willing to pick up the phone or answer an email to help me out.” He also advised that “raising money always takes longer than you think. In the early stages, make sure you have at least a year’s worth of savings in the bank.” This, of course, comes from their experience in launching Involver, not having gone through their first round of fundraising until the fall of 2008. All-in-all, Involver raised nearly $11 million in three rounds of fundraising, and have more than lived up to expectations. In the long run, Fazal wishes to see Involver become the largest social media marketing platform.
Pooja Sankar was one of only three girls in her class at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Looking around, she saw that her male peers were able to collaborate with each other, and that benefit translated into better grades. She suffered from not being able to study with the boys. It was an obstacle she had to overcome. From this experience, she was moved to help women find themselves in traditionally male fields. “When I really started thinking about it, I understood that my experience as a woman from rural India made me particularly sensitive to a problem that’s faced by many to some degree or another,” said Sankar. With this in mind, she launched Piazza to be “the social learning platform for anyone on earth who wants to learn or teach.”
Piazza works as an online study-group, constituted of students, professors and instructors, as well as teachers assistants. It’s a convenient mode of learning and studying, no matter what the hour. Any student can ask a question, and whoever is online at the moment can answer them. The activity remains in the “class” for all to see. Some students are spending as many as four hours a night logged into Piazza. It is solving the very problem that Sankar encountered all those years ago at IIT. It is currently being used by students and faculty at many world-renowned institutions, including U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University, Georgia Tech., and more.
When starting out, Piazza had a timetable for when and how they would raise money. With the help of their advisors, they were able to do so smoothly and efficiently. Sankar’s advice “for any first-time entrepreneur is to seek out mentors who have been through the process before. It can be a terribly scary process, and from the outside it can be very demoralizing to see all of these companies getting funded when your company isn’t.” The key to fundraising, according to Sankar is to ask a lot of questions and embrace humility through the process.
Led by brothers Palvinder and Ik Jagait, Playground Pictures is a full-service media and entertainment company. Both brothers were naturally drawn towards the creative arts, and combining with their entrepreneurial drive, they decided to launch their company with just some basic equipment that would get the job done. “Technology has become so inexpensive that you can do without fundraising to get into a creative field like ours. It’s not like a decade ago when just twenty minutes of taping cost hundreds of dollars in film,” reflected Ik Jagait.
Four years later, they run a growing company that provides an array of creative services including film, music composition, television commercials, photography, and graphic design.
When asked about Indian Americans branching out into the arts, Jagait said, “more Indians are starting to realize that an opportunity in the arts is something they can pursue. They don’t have to fit the traditional mold anymore—they have more options.” This opinion, he explained, was formed by the support of his parents who encouraged him and his brother to pursue their creative expressionism from the very beginning. As for the long term vision of the company, he explained, “We started out making short films, and we find ourselves circling back to that. We often find ourselves saying that we would like to make a feature-length film some day.”
Anuj Verma started Thirst Labs along with co-founder Kunal Modi as a means to address an important issue: language processing in an age where one hundred and forty characters have become a popular mode of communication. “Most language processors, before we came along, were meant for long articles, like in the New York Times. But with restrictive status updates, it becomes harder to understand the context, and thus harder to pull out keywords associated with those updates,” Verma explained. To solve this issue, they started out with the most restrictive of social media, Twitter. Introducing their app of the same name, Thirst successfully navigates through the clutter of jumbles, misspellings, and more, in order to deliver content based on choice keywords. Utilizing the iPad interface, the app creates a rich experience for users to browse through tweets based on topics and relevance.
When they graduated from U.C. Berkeley, where they first came up with the idea, Verma and Modi presented their prototype to angel investors and venture capitalists, who contributed the $950,000 that Thirst Labs raised in their first round. Using that funding, they were able to develop their idea further, leading up to the release of the aforementioned iPad app. “It’s so easy to sketch out an idea today; it is a necessity when you’re presenting an idea to investors who may have been presented with a hundred other ideas that week. I don’t think we would have gotten our funding if we had shown up with a powerpoint presentation,” Verma reflected. He also expressed that the API’s that currently powers their app may eventually be licensed out so that others wanting to utilize a more flexible language processor might be able to do so.
Having gone through even a single move, one will agree that the procuring and discarding of cardboard boxes for the process is tedious and wasteful. It was this very experience that led Ash Sud to start his company of reusable moving boxes for rent. Having gotten the idea from an organic grocery’s delivery protocols, Sud found a great solution for the problem that plagues the nearly forty-five million Americans that move every year. “The old way of getting boxes was to go down to your local U-Haul or Home Depot, spend about $3 per cardboard box and $3 per roll of tape, somehow fit it all in your car, and then drag them into your new place. It was not an easy process by any means,” Sud reflected. It was about time someone came up with something better.
ZippGo allows people to rent reusable plastic moving containers through their online portal, or by phone. Delivering it to the customer for a flat fee, the service allows them to keep the boxes for two weeks, with the option to hold them for an additional week at approximately a dollar a box. Each of the four options (ranging from one bedroom to four) comes with box labels and zip ties, and the options for two-bedrooms and up includes a dolly as well. At the end of the two weeks (or longer), ZippGo arranges for a pickup as well. “Our customers are our biggest marketing tool. Once they use ZippGo boxes for their move and realize how much easier it makes moving, they swear by our service,” said Sud. Currently offering service in the San Francisco Bay Area, ZippGo hopes to launch a Los Angeles location this summer, and plans expanding into major metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Dallas in 2013.
These are just some of the ventures being led by Indian Americans today. But there are so many others that are making great headway into non-traditional fields. PopVox, for example, co-founded by Rachna Choudhry, is “an advocacy platform that meshes legislative data with personal stories and public sentiment.” A venture in politics, PopVox is quickly and successfully accomplishing their vision of “putting a human face on complex policy issues.”
Another success story is Tavant Technologies, led by CEO Sarvesh Mahesh. Providing innovative technology solutions throughout the United States, as well as internationally, they have received high marks from industry giants such as Electronic Arts, New York Times, and TiVo amongst others.
Foursquare, co-founded by Naveen Selvadurai, is a social networking tool that allows users to check-in to various locations, and see who else is around them. Users unlock deals as they check-in, saving money at their favorite locations. Blissmo, founded by Sundeep Ahuja, is a service that curates and provides discounts on organic and eco-friendly products, with a goal to assist customers who wish to use products that are better for their bodies, their families, their communities, and the planet. Saavn, co-founded by Vin Bhat, Neal Shenoy, and Paramdeep Singh, is an app that provides Bollywood and Indian music streaming services on iOS devices. ReTargeter, founded by Arjun Arora, is an ad solution company that uses a simple code to display a company’s ads throughout the web experience of the audience that’s visited their website.
These ventures and more are reshaping the areas they’re innovating in. In fact, the number of Indian American ventures being funded are also increasing. In February, it was reported that Indian startups raised over $103.25 million. There are several avenues of going about raising funds. Angel investors and venture capitalists are certainly the most obvious choice. For Indian Americans, TiE Angels are a great resource for fundraising. Applications can be submitted monthly, and selected companies can present to the entire group to get a chance at raising up to $500,000. Starting in July of 2010, they currently have a roster of about fourteen companies, and they’re adding more regularly. If fundraising is essential to your startup, that’s a great place to start.
The recurring message from these young entrepreneurs was that money should not be a factor that stops you from pursuing your venture. “If you can, bootstrap as long as possible,” advised Jesse Pujji of Ampush Media. Ash Sud of ZippGo reflected those thoughts, adding “If your startup involves a lot of research and development before a product can be released and sold, venture funding may be your only route. However, if your startup can generate quick cash flow, bootstrapping is definitely a viable option.” People are impassioned by a strong vision, and that can be a far greater motivator to launching your venture than funding. “Artists sometimes think that they need to raise money to get their work into a big venue, but that isn’t a requirement to express yourself. Throw up a sheet at your local park, and invite friends and family to come check it out. Start there, making do with what you have,” encouraged Negin Singh of CarTel.
Indian Americans are showing a lot of progress in fields like advertising, social media, creative services, the arts, politics, entertainment, and more. It’s an amazing time to be an Indian American, receiving the support of not just friends, but also family who want to see us succeed. To sum up the advice from all these entrepreneurs: follow your passion, stay true to your vision, and commit to seeing things through. Even though it’s easy to get caught up in all the little things, they tend to line up when you follow the guidelines above.
Arpit Mehta is a graphic designer and photographer based in California with an interest in politics and entrepreneurship. He hopes to be directly involved in the political system one day.