Founder and CEO
I grew up in India in a family where women don't work. (...) All my career I've worked with companies or on projects that help create equal opportunities for people.
Charu Sharma is an Indian entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley. She tells us: "I grew up in India in a family where women don't work. I was very sensitive to these differences growing up and, because of that, all my career I've worked with companies or on projects that help create equal opportunities for people." This approach led her, after completing her studies at Stanford University, to start work at LinkedIn, where she developed a mentoring programme for women, before embarking on her own business project. She reveals: "The theme of mentorship has always been recurrent in my life. People have opened doors for me, to get a scholarship and work in the US. I've been lucky, and I want to make sure that such opportunities don't remain accidental." Her business goal – working to give women the same opportunities as men – thus arose out of her own personal story. She founded several startups, two of them while still at university, all of them centered on mentoring. In addition to her main current venture, Next Play, Charu Sharma also founded a non-profit organisation called Go Against the Flow, whose mission is to raise awareness among women all over the world of the opportunities to become entrepreneurs and which has produced a documentary film designed to inspire women to take the plunge. "I want to help accelerate the journey towards equality for women", underlines Charu Sharma.
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Accordingly, in San Francisco in January 2017, she launched her startup Next Play and developed Ellen, a mobile app which uses Artificial Intelligence to help companies connect up their employees in-house. Working in the form of a chatbot, the app identifies the goals and personal preferences of employees in order to provide them with guidance in their work at the company and for their ongoing career. "Talent is equally distributed but opportunities are not", Charu Sharma points out, insisting that providing access to mentoring is absolutely essential in the drive to promote equality. "We want to help companies understand their employees' strengths and blind spots and help them navigate their career at the company", she tells us, revealing however that "in HR, the most common sentiment is fear, because employees leave and we want them to stay longer. So companies want to develop employee retention and help their employees to develop their skillsets so as to do their job better and progress in their careers." Next Play's goal is therefore to build an optimal tool for promoting EmployeeEngagement and helping companies to retain talented staff. Charu Sharma estimates that by 2025, 75% of the working population in the US will be members of Generation Y. Around 71% of this cohort, aka millennials, reportedly say they are not fully committed to their job – the proof of which is that Generation Y-ers stay in a job on average for just three months. Next Play firmly believes that the main reason why Millennials quit their jobs is the lack of opportunities for personal growth at their existing company. For every in-house opportunity they know of, there will be six opportunities elsewhere.
However, setting up your own business is never easy. Charu Sharma tells us of the difficulties she experienced: "It was really tough to find the right co-founder. At the time I was meeting so many people, it was like dating. I met Nawar Nory through a mutual friend. He helped me build my MVP and, afterone month, we continued to work together. That's how he became my cofounder."
on hiring costs and lost revenue per entry- or mid-level employee mentored by someone at their company
"We help companies like Lyft, Pandora, Square, Asurion and Splunk. After 6 months, employees feel 200% better equipped to achieve their goals in their company" is Charu Sharma's proud claim. So the Next Play team, which today consists of just five people, mainly working on the product management and customer satisfaction side, seem to have the wind in their sales. The company does not yet have a Sales Manager, which means that the young CEO has to devote one third of her time to selling the product. She comments: "That's the beauty of entrepreneurship: you're constantly learning, you always have to pick up skills. As a CEO, it's my job to make sure that I'm surrounded with the right mentors." And the results seem to be following suit: Next Play has raised half a million dollars to date, and was named the biggest hustler startup by seed capital venture fund and accelerator 500 Startups. Unlike the very first products that Charu Sharma worked on, Ellen is not targeted exclusively at women. The reason for this, she explains, is basically that "inclusiveness means that everyone is included". This mentoring service is therefore aimed at everyone. Moreover, she stresses how important it is for women to have men as mentors and for men to have women mentors as well. The effectiveness of these relationships can be quantified: 90% of the mentors and mentees stay in contact after their first three sessions, 25% more employees recommend the company as an employer, and savings of some 256,000 dollars are made on hiring costs and lost revenue per entry- or mid-level employee mentored by someone at their company, claims Next Play.
If you want to make a success of your project then you have to believe in it, insists Charu Sharma. She tells us: "I didn't have any salary for several months. Sometimes I only had 300 dollars on my bank account and I didn't know if I was going to be able to pay the rent. Then thankfully a client bought my product." The serial startupper argues: "The Impostor Syndrome (a psychological pattern whereby a person systematically doubts his or her own achievements and fears being exposed - Editor's note) is real and there are more obstacles in the journey of female founders. I don't think entrepreneurship is for everyone but I would like to encourage women thinking about it to think about why she wants to do it and what the world will look like if she doesn't do it." The World Economic Forum forecasts that it will take more than 200 years to close the global 'gender gap' and Charu Sharma certainly had no intention of simply waiting around for that to happen. She has some very practical advice for any and all women who wish to pursue an entrepreneurial venture: "Surround yourself with the right mentors and diverse advisors – people who empathize with you and make you feel validated, and people who will challenge you."
But of course, any business needs capital. "As a female founder, how do I grow if I can't raise money?" asks the Next Play CEO. However, "VC firms are now doing better with women who are building companies", she points out, sounding a positive note on the future: "I'm very optimistic and I think that in 10 years' time we'll be a lot closer to gender equity."