Beyond her bubble
Charu Sharma ’14 credits her education at Mount Holyoke for lifting her to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for 2022.
Some people know exactly what they want to do, actively pursue it and then stick with it. Entrepreneur and startup investor Charu Sharma ’14, who was recently named in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for 2022, is not one of those people — and she embraces that.
“To me, it was less important what I majored in or what the first job that I ended up in was. It was more about my process of (a) developing my self-awareness, value system and decision-making frameworks and (b) building my skill set to identify opportunities and open the right doors. Every time I switch lanes or add another lane, it becomes an opportunity to further my self-awareness and flex these skills,” Sharma said.
Sharma, who was born in India and now works in Silicon Valley, credits her time as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke with helping her to develop her self-awareness and think big. Growing up in India, she learned to value education, but the women in her family didn’t work. So when Sharma heard about Mount Holyoke and its liberal arts education, she jumped at the opportunity to study abroad. “It just seemed like a really good chance to see what was beyond my bubble,” she said.
At Mount Holyoke, Sharma found the next piece of the puzzle: mentors. Mentors can be anyone, she stressed, including classmates. She looks back at her education at Mount Holyoke as the catalyst for her trajectory. “My best friends, my roommate, my dorm mates — they were from these countries I had never heard the names of at the time,” she said. “Mount Holyoke made me develop my identity as a truly global citizen.”
Taking classes in world politics, physics, corporate finance and film studies opened her eyes to how much she wanted to learn, she said. “I think that the interdisciplinary approach at Mount Holyoke has really helped me over the years. I’ve become very good at connecting dots that are not easy for people to see. And I think that’s really important to being an entrepreneur, to be able to identify opportunities and see the big picture.”
Sharma had never even thought of being an entrepreneur until she was at Mount Holyoke, she said. It was Mount Holyoke associate professor of economics Steven Schmeiser who encouraged her to participate in the Harold Grinspoon Foundation entrepreneurship initiative for college students. She then developed her first startup idea: a product that paired students with mentors from Mount Holyoke’s robust alum network to practice informational interviews as they prepared for their first jobs out of college.
Sharma switched her major several times, but she eventually decided to pursue economics and physics at Mount Holyoke. But her first job took her in a different direction, and she worked at LinkedIn in enterprise sales and strategy and ad operations. There, she started a women’s mentorship program as a side passion project. It wasn’t only her time at Mount Holyoke that instilled in her this feminist understanding and drive, she said, but also her own upbringing.
“Especially because I come from a family where women were not allowed to work, I didn’t look at my career as just a source of livelihood,” she said. “I wanted to do something bigger than myself. I wanted to sort of live a life of activism and enable huge systemic changes, and I wanted to really believe in what I was doing.”
After working at LinkedIn for three years, Charu built an artificial intelligence startup focused, once again, on mentoring. This time it aimed at pairing Silicon Valley professionals with female students and recent graduates. The company flourished — its clients included Coca-Cola, Lyft and Twitter — but she soon realized that it wouldn’t be able to grow to the extent the market at the time demanded. And so after another three years, she and her co-founder decided to fold the company.
That experience, she said, taught her the value of quitting at the right time and being aware of the opportunity cost of her time. It is a skill that she acknowledges runs counter to the common advice “never give up,” but it’s an essential skill for entrepreneurs and is applicable to both personal and professional circumstances.
“You only get so many shots,” Charu said. “It’s sort of like, ‘don’t be with the wrong partner. Get out of that relationship and be available so you can meet the right partner.’”
By 2020, Charu was mentoring fellow startup founders through the venture capital firm 500 Startups. There she met her current co-founders at the Argentina-based startup Osana Salud. Osana Salud builds software for hospitals, insurance firms, pharmaceutical companies and other Latin American–based health care organizations to digitize the patient experience.
Even though Charu didn’t have a lot of experience in Latin America when she joined the company — she didn’t even know Spanish — she said that teaming up with them felt “very organic” because she deeply believed in its mission and knew that she could add value to the company with her operating experience in startups and her Silicon Valley network.
“Mount Holyoke really nurtures you to appreciate your uniqueness. I just have this belief from my Mount Holyoke training that if I go into a field, I will bring that critical thinking, I will bring my transferable skill set and I will add value,” she said.
Charu said that her best advice for anyone — regardless of where they are going, and even if they don’t know yet — is to get mentors.
“Who knows what you know? The right people need to know what value you can add,” she said. “Surround yourself with a community of mentors who can cheer you on and open real doors for you.”
As for her future, Charu plans on maintaining a foothold in mission-driven tech companies and focusing more on investing in the next generation of startups. This year also marks the first anniversary of Neythri Futures Fund, a $10-million venture capital fund based in Silicon Valley that she helped found, which has 90% female investors, all of whom are of South Asian origin (“Neythri” is Hindi for female friend).