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Women-Led Wednesdays: Leadership Lessons and Venture Turning Points

By Lex Schroeder, Senior Writer

Women-Led Wednesdays: Leadership Lessons and Venture Turning Points

As we continue our interview series on women founders in the Harvard Innovation Labs ecosystem and across Harvard’s 13 schools, we take a look at the winding, sometimes unpredictable paths of entrepreneurship. With all of the challenges of a global pandemic, how have these founders pushed forward? What enabled their ventures to grow? What didn’t they expect to happen that opened up new doors and opportunities? What makes each founder’s leadership story unique?

The founders you meet below represent a wide variety of industries, areas of expertise, and different lived experiences. For more on gender equity in entrepreneurship, check out Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers that Still Hold Women Back at Work by Colleen Ammerman and HBS Professor Boris Groysberg as well as the Protagonist of Color Collection from The Harvard Business School Gender Initiative, in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing as well as faculty and staff at HBS. We will continue to update this edition with new founder interviews in the coming weeks.

Read more Women-Led Wednesday interviews here.

Nikita Roy: The NRI Nation

Nikita Roy (Harvard Extension School, Class of 2023) is Founder of The NRI Nation, a media organization that aims to be the news network of the Indian diaspora (NRI stands for Non-Resident Indian). The NRI Nation’s goal is to bring the stories of this subculture to the mainstream. Nikita reminds people that the Indian diaspora is a subculture of scattered communities across the world. “Unfortunately, mainstream policymakers often sideline us as nothing more than a cash cow or loyal workforce,” Nikita says. “Left to fend for ourselves, we, as a community have been successful in surviving all odds.”

Participants in the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program since Spring 2021, The NRI Nation is focused on amplifying the voices of the NRI business community. Given that the pandemic has had significant impacts on trade between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), Nikita and her colleagues recently commissioned a new study to understand how the GCC business community views the opportunities in the Indian market and vice versa. “As the region works on improving its bilateral trade relations, this study is vital to understanding how the GCC and Indian business community view each other’s market opportunities,” she says. The NRI Nation has also partnered with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to be their knowledge partner for the 5th India-GCC Industrial Conference in November.

How has your venture grown in unexpected ways?

“A significant turning point in our growth story was getting accepted into the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program. Suddenly, I was able to get top-notch experts to help me find solutions to every problem I faced. Whether branding, technology, legal, or accounting, their experts help you figure these things out. Assistance pours in from many quarters. Being paired with my mentor was also invaluable. Within a short time, The NRI Nation found wings, and we are going places. I’m surrounded by people and organizations here that are dedicated to my success. The i-lab is undoubtedly an innovator’s paradise!”

How would you describe your leadership path as a (woman) entrepreneur?

“I’ve been fortunate to have grown up at a time where I had role models of women in leadership. When I was at the University of Toronto, I was often a voice for the international student community at the highest level of governance. Through positions I held on boards and committees of the Governing Council, including the Academic Board of the University of Toronto’s Governing Council and the Committee on Academic Programs and Policies, I brought my community’s concerns to decision-makers. As an International Student Ambassador, I met the then deputy premier of Ontario, Deb Mathews, and the Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Laura Albanese, and discussed these issues. I also developed and coordinated a Peer Mentor Program for students who had English as a second language and required help in Academic English. Now I’m excited to work on leading the subcommunity of Indian origin startup founders at the i-lab. Looking back, I have always been keen on representing my community and now I am proud to represent the voice of the Indian diaspora through my venture.”

Listen to Nikita speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.


Rana Irmak Aksoy: Timble

Rana Irmak Aksoy (Harvard Graduate School of Design, Class of 2022) is Co-Founder alongside Ajit Manuel of Timble, a startup which aims to enable slow fashion practices such as repairing, recycling, upcycling, resale, and made-to-order clothing. The app and website bring together fashion designers, textile manufacturers, thrift shops, and tailors where they can match for fabric sourcing and production needs. It also creates a way for brands to reach customers with specialized shopping filters.

A participant in the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program in 2021, Timble’s larger goal is to create transparency and accountability as companies work to become more sustainable (or position themselves this way in the market). “Buyers want to know if clothes are sustainably and ethically sourced, whether there was labor exploitation, whether the brands are owned by women or BIPOC communities, and so on,” Rana says. “We wanted to combine an e-commerce app with a networking platform where users from different parts of the fashion supply chain could connect and form a transparent and circular fashion network.”

How has your venture grown in unexpected ways?

“The pandemic has shown us that we’re at the limits of the current system, and we need to search for alternatives. A viable alternative is the circular economy: designing in terms of lifecycles and repurposing. Another approach on the rise, as international circulation is becoming more difficult, is the repair economy… Small businesses have also taken a hit with the pandemic, which has created more awareness and empathy for small business in customers. All of these factors have pushed us to transform a venture which was initially focused just on creating garments from fabric waste into a circular supply chain platform that supports small businesses practicing sustainability.”

How would you describe your leadership path as a (woman) entrepreneur?

“Entrepreneurship starts with a pressing question that inspires you to take action. As an architect, I’ve practiced at the intersection of design, tech, sociology, ecology, and politics… My concern for global issues combined with being an architect has pushed me to be proactive about issues that concern me. When I worked on international design projects, I always asked where, how, and by whom are these buildings getting built? As I did more research, I came to see design not only as buildings or objects but as a sociopolitical agent. Design is a global tool of impact; it is also collaborative at its core. The challenges of today’s society require this type of collaborative, interdisciplinary, creative and critical thinking to tackle complex global-scale issues.

As a leader, I am encouraged by my peers’ success instead of seeing them as competition. This has allowed me to make many inspiring connections across the globe. The perspective they brought into my life allowed me to become a proactive global citizen. I also try to empower and inspire other women to show their strong identities, take risks, and bring their ideas to life.”

Listen to Rana speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.


Lisa Zhu: Helthy

Lisa Zhu (Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard John A. Paulson School Of Engineering And Applied Sciences, Class of 2021) is Founder and CEO of Helthy, a grocery shopping app for individuals with diabetes. Zhu, whose mother has Type 2 diabetes, was inspired to start her venture by a desire to make it easy for family members to choose the right foods to eat. It all started during Lisa’s IDEP (Independent Design Engineering Project) as part of Harvard’s Master’s in Design Engineering program (MDE) where she got to explore root problems in the diabetes space.

After participating in the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program this past year, Helthy is focused on product development and building new partnerships. Their product is now compatible with Whole Foods, Walmart, Instacart, Krogers, and H-E-B, Zhu says. This means they are able to provide simple visual cues that overlay on grocery store product pages for users to know which products fit within their healthy eating guidelines.

How has your venture grown in unexpected ways?

“It’s been interesting the way we’ve grown our team. We had some trials and errors and big learnings with regard to figuring out who would be the right fit for this venture. Right now we’re a team of five. We’re very lean, and everyone is exceptional in their domain. We have a great group who believes in this venture and who all want to make a social impact. I feel lucky to work with genuine and kind people, and I’m so proud of our team.”

How would you describe your leadership path as a (woman) entrepreneur?

“As a trained architect and designer, I learn through doing and building. This is also how I lead as a woman entrepreneur. Focus is key. I stay focused on hyper-empathy and care towards my customers and users, for example, and on a genuine belief in the product and the company. I stay focused on my drive to make Helthy a success… I also ask for help because there is a lot that I still don’t know yet. I rely on my team, they rely on me, and we have amazing advisors. My advisors from the Harvard Innovation Labs give me tremendous guidance and support. Staying thankful is part of my leadership path!”

Listen to Lisa speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.


Aeshna Prasad & Ambika Malhotra: Sahayak

Ambika Malhotra (Graduate School of Design, Class of 2020) and Aeshna Prasad (Graduate School of Design, Class of 2021) are co-founders of Sahayak, a startup with a mission to connect local industries, skilling agencies, and unskilled labor in rural regions of India. As urban designers, Ambika and Aeshna aim to improve the synergies that need to exist among these groups. Sahayak has two core goals: a) Ensure that unskilled labor in rural India obtains employment closer to home and b) Prevent mass migration to megacities.

To address the labor mismatch and employability rates, Ambika and Aeshna plan to implement location-based strategies through data collection and analytics at granular levels. They are building relationships with key stakeholders, especially at the grassroots level, and using technology to help enable outcome-based decision-making, supported by standardized data and clear metrics. “We aim to make sure that an unskilled daily wage laborer from a small Indian village has access to the right job within a certain radius from his home, can send his children to school, and help his family grow financially…” they say. “We aim to make sure that the time investment from this person and the monetary investment from the government lead to a fruitful outcome for all.”

Still in the early stages of venture development, Sahayak was the winter 2020 recipient of the Mittal Institute Seed for Change competition as well as a 2021 Spark Grants recipient. Participants in the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program since Fall 2020, Ambika is currently working out of Delhi and Aeshna is back on campus in Cambridge. They believe Sayahak has the ability to positively impact over 100 million potential migrants.

How has your venture grown in unexpected ways?

“We initially shied away from technology as our primary means of creating a change, going for a more grassroots approach. What started as an earnest idea to stop mass migration has organically became a business venture to address the skill and employment mismatch that exists in India. Our idea is unique because we come at it from a different angle. On-ground data collection has also helped us tighten our work and make it more practical for the Indian skill development ecosystem… One key insight we gained along the way? We initially planned to focus on the Ganjam District alone as our pilot site. However, our on-ground explorations uncovered that industrial growth in the district, a pivotal factor in our idea, was only on paper, thereby different from the data we collected through remote research.”

How would you describe your leadership paths as (women) entrepreneurs?

“As women, we believe it’s our responsibility to make Sahayak an inclusive organization and also ensure that we are taken seriously by all the stakeholders involved… We follow a leadership style that is perceptive, empathetic, and pragmatic. We believe that these are inherent traits we possess to encourage rural women in India to be skilled in areas that they are often shielded away from, such as carpentry and welding, due to cultural stereotypes… We are essentially a women-driven organization. We have local women researchers leading on-ground research by building relationships to connect many rural populations to Sahayak. We hope to develop a level playing field, slowly but steadily, especially in a country like India.”

Listen to Ambika and Aeshna speak about their venture on Instagram and Twitter.


Megan Murday: Metric

Megan Murday (Harvard Business School, Class of 2021) is Founder and CEO of Metric, a fintech company that helps private market investors measure their portfolio’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. Metric supports portfolio companies by recommending ESG KPIs, streamlining data collection, and presenting performance analysis and benchmarks. For investors, Metric provides fund and company ESG analysis that can be used for portfolio management and limited partner disclosures.

Why do metrics like these matter? “Oftentimes investors and operators see ESG measurement as a compliance activity,” Murday says. “However, ESG data is also business performance data that is used to run a company more effectively… If a company is using twice as much water per unit as the industry benchmark, it’s bad for the environment but also twice as costly.” Thinking about ESG early on is a way that companies can create more value and minimize risks as they scale. A participant in the Harvard Innovation Labs Venture Program in 2021, Metric is now preparing for a seed fundraising round in September 2021.

How has your venture grown in unexpected ways?

“When I first explored the idea of ESG measurement software, I interviewed large public companies to gauge their interest and needs since they were facing mounting regulatory and investor pressure. My HBS classmates encouraged me to look at the private market instead, since many private equity and VC funds were receiving questions about ESG practices from their limited partners. Building a solution for the private markets is exciting because investors are deeply engaged with their portfolio companies. They are building fast-growing companies that could become the public companies of tomorrow.”

How would you describe your leadership path as a (woman) entrepreneur?

“Growing up, I thought ‘entrepreneurial’ was a word I’d never use to describe myself. But with the 20/20 vision of hindsight though, I see that founding Metric is really the continuation of a pattern… I started Generation Green in high school, I created a fellowship at Georgetown for students with public service internships, and then at HBS, I founded the HBS Sustainability Club with a few peers. Even within a large consulting firm, I was on a team that launched the process automation practice. I prefer doing something new and leading the way, and I believe that many solutions to the world’s most pressing problems will require new ideas that can scale.”

Listen to Megan speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.


Alicia Tulsee: Moxie Scrubs

Alicia Tulsee (Harvard Division of Continuing Education, Class of 2015) is Founder and CEO of Moxie Scrubs, a medical apparel company that is the first direct-to-consumer brand for nurses. The Moxie team prides itself in maintaining an authentic connection to their customer, from involving nurses in how they approach designing products and in every aspect of their brand to making sure that values like empathy and care (hallmarks of the nursing profession) come through in their company culture. In effect, Tulsee says, most people are surprised to learn that Moxie is still a startup in a 12 billion dollar medical apparel industry.

Among Moxie’s successes since their official launch in February 2021, they recently gained the confidence of the American Nurses Association. “This partnership gives us access to over two million nurses across the U.S., almost half of the nursing population,” Tulsee says. “It’s a huge validation… We want to support the people who come through for us in times of great need: our nurses.” After participating in the Harvard Innovation Labs Launch Lab X GEO program for alumni entrepreneurs in 2020-2021, Tulsee is excited to be closing Moxie’s pre-seed round at the end of July 2021 with $1.2M funding and three offers to be acquired already.

How has your venture grown in unexpected ways?

“During the pandemic, our business unexpectedly catapulted forward. The pandemic highlighted the importance and need for the movement and mission behind a brand like ours: supporting nurses and frontline healthcare workers through community first and wellness initiatives. We’ve been overwhelmed by the amazing feedback and support we’ve received from nurses. As a completely new brand, over 13,000 nurses have joined our movement since March.

Our venture has also grown surprisingly quickly since we launched with over 3,000 transactions and only a 1% return rate. This is unprecedented for an e-commerce apparel startup. Typically, you will see a 20-30% return rate for established brands. We also found that 20% of our customers repurchase within the first three weeks of receiving their initial order. As a founder, seeing how well our product is being received has been an extremely rewarding experience.”

How would you describe your leadership path as a (woman) entrepreneur?

“As a woman founder and person of color, navigating the pandemic and recent political climate has accelerated my leadership path by several years. Undoubtedly, what we’ve built in less than a year could take several years. From raising money, establishing a mature supply chain, setting up distribution, and designing an innovative patent-pending product, to marketing, branding, and building a strong team, along with several significant partnerships, we made it happen. From the strong partnerships that we’ve made in manufacturing through our lead investor, all have been a source of both inspiration and good business!

I feel fortunate to have the support of my immediate team and so many who have put their confidence in me. I especially appreciate it given that my lived experience as a woman founder follows the template where it is more of a challenge to raise money. If I could summarize the journey into one word it would be grit, or Moxie.”

Listen to Alicia speak about her venture on Instagram and Twitter.

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