Founder of Consumer Transport and Logistics marketplace, KAARGO,￼ and former Intel Capital VC Sarayu Srinivasan has been named a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF). Srinivasan will be working at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to help the federal government increase private sector investment and engagement to move federally funded R&D-based technologies from laboratory to marketplace.
Sarayu, news of your nomination is causing quite a stir. What has your journey been like from your original MBA studies to today?
When I left École des Ponts I continued on at Harvard Business School as a Fellow segueing into the DBA. I left school when Pepsi recruited me, figuring I could come back to finish, became a brand manager and ran two $300M brands.
I knew however, I wanted to do something in tech. In fact, my thesis at École des Ponts was on the commercialization of the internet based on my summer job.
It was the early days of the internet in the US, most people were not online and cell phones were not pervasive. None of the big ubiquitous internet companies we depend on today, really existed. The internet was a hobby, a novelty. I left Pepsi for a series of startups. The first company, a telecom company, and the subsequent internet companies I worked at all eventually pioneered their respective spaces in the 2000’s and were successful financially.
I chose companies based on my passion for tech, but clearly, they were winners by venture metrics too. That led me to the investment side. I went to a venture partnership cofounding companies alongside technical founders and scientists, and also advised high-growth companies in my next roles.
Eventually, I was recruited to Intel Capital where I helped deploy our first $250M emerging fund in India. I had no real living or market experience in India (except for a summer job and pleasure visits, as my mother is Indian, but because she immigrated to the US in the 1960’s as a Fulbright scholar, our family narrative was more tied to the US) so it was like landing on Mars with no compass, context or background. It turned out to be a phenomenal experience. The markets, the great entrepreneurs, the companies, the cultures.
I invested in seminal businesses such as and Alibaba rival, IndiaMart, run by an amazing entrepreneur, Dinesh Agarwal. I got to experience firsthand the resourcefulness, persistence and financial and social brilliance of Indian founders in a complex, often challenging business environment. I also got to invest in other regions, including the US and greater Asia. As generalist investors, our portfolio had consumer internet, digital media, analytics, semiconductor, hardware and healthcare companies.
I had great latitude, wonderful colleagues and impactful work. It was a very exciting time.
I eventually returned home to the US expecting to return to VC after a break, but was approached by an entrepreneur to set up a SME. His global company was seeking entry into the US market in a space I knew well. That brought me back to NYC.
After much thought and discussion, I then decided to try an idea I’d been thinking about for a decade. The convergence of Uber, the sharing economy and enterprise created the space to launch KAARGO, our shipping platform, the timing was right.
So, I raised money, founded the company and built our product and team. While recovering from surgery, I realized our strategy and course needed to veer significantly.
I simultaneously realized I wanted to pursue other interests. So, we looked for a buyer for the platform. In the interim, I’d received an offer I was excited about when I was tapped for the PIF program. I really wanted to both serve my country and have a broad impact so it was something I couldn’t refuse. And, to my great surprise, the project felt tailor-made for me. It is incredibly exciting.
Who encouraged you to apply as a fellow? Had you been inspired by a previous fellow?
No, I didn’t know any previous fellows. I knew post KAARGO I would either return to tech most likely as a VC or in an operations role. When PIF came along I had to do it. It was the chance to serve and have real impact at scale. I teach but this exponentially extends my impact.
What are the outcomes you are hoping to achieve over the next year in this new role?
I’ll be helping the federal government better engage the private sector, especially venture capitalists, to invest in federally funded R&D-based technologies bringing them from lab to market. The larger goal is to maintain American competitiveness globally, sustain American leadership in innovation
What is your strategy to achieve all of this?
I’m working with NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which was one of the first federal labs, produced at least 5 Nobel laureates and was responsible for American advances in a wide range of areas from dental and x-ray technologies to fire, aircraft and radio standards and tech, to co-inventing closed captioning, early smart weapons, first public data encryption standards and updating building safety standards post 9-11. NIST and the White House are co-leading an innovation initiative, part of the President’s Management Agenda, involving almost two dozen agencies. Our strategy is to engage venture capitalists and the investment community to better leverage important technological and intellectual assets that derive from federally funded research. Prior examples of such inventions, include seminal technologies such as MRI, GPS and, of course the internet – all born out of federally funded research.
Will you be working with the other fellows or separately?
Separately. We’ll be collaborating on certain projects but we are each recruited for a specific background and specific roles by a federal agency.
The excitement of your new role is getting people talking, what would you encourage current participants to do to shape their destiny?
Seize opportunities to learn, grow and contribute; your path grows out of that. Focus on substance (vs for instance, title). What can you learn and contribute?
I would rather take a lower salary and higher growth-potential job than a high-paying stagnant role any day. In the end you will be in better shape, and it will pay off in extraordinary ways. I will also add, as an extremely plan-focused person, that I don’t think you can really plan for life.
It’s good to have a course of action but be prepared to go off it. Always. Lady luck usually also has a say in things. So, you optimize. You optimize to learn and grow as much as you can, with the understanding that in the final analysis little is up to you other than putting in effort. The result of that effort is not truly in your hands.
That doesn’t mean you don’t strive; strive hard but know there are no guarantees. Working hard, striving to succeed and making the effort is just the entry price to get in the door.