Charu Sharma, CEO, NextPlay, Founder, Go Against the Flow, and Sandbox Fellow at Sandbox Network is dedicated to creating effective mentoring programs at scale. Below she shares her personal story of failure, how her mentor 'saved' her career, her passion for wanting to push it forward at scale, how she fought and fought to be able to start NextPlay, and how now, they are making progress.
Charu's goal is to get more champions excited about the mission to help women in the workplace through mentoring.
How mentoring can transform your life
I come from a family in India where women don't work because they're expected to stay at home. I persevered day and night to come to the US on a college scholarship, built two startups from my dorm at Mount Holyoke College and hustled to get noticed by Mike Gamson, SVP Sales at LinkedIn, to recruit me. I didn't really know what I wanted to do for a job, but I did know that I wanted to learn how Mike inspired people to work towards a shared vision, so I followed him to LinkedIn.
I came to LinkedIn dreamy-eyed, but pretty quickly, I fell flat on my face. I started in an entry level sales role, I didn't hit my sales quota for two months in a row, and leaders in the business started telling me that I had a "focus problem" and that I was "all over the place." I was all alone in freezing cold Chicago where I didn't know anyone, learning to live like an adult, explaining to my family why I wasn't not back in India after graduation, and failing miserably at my first job out of college. I was in a sales office, so in that bubble, crushing your quota equaled success, and not doing so equaled failure. It crushed my confidence. I felt stupid and completely lost.
Then, I found Marcella. She was a senior manager in the San Francisco office, had nothing to do with my sales role, and my manager had introduced us given our shared passion for economically empowering women. Marcella took me under her wing, and validated that I was smart, that it was okay to not like my first job and that it was okay to not know what I wanted instead. I had an exceptional manager who has been a fantastic coach throughout, but I was so very grateful to him for everything he had done for me that I wanted him to think that I was quite happy being on his team. On the other hand, Marcella was a safe space who was disconnected from my day-to-day and it was somehow easier to admit to her that I didn't find my job engaging.
She validated that my "failure" was not due to lack of skill, but due to lack of motivation. And given that 71% of millennials feel disengaged at their jobs, she understood that I was lonely and had no one to openly talk to. She motivated me to exceed my quota, exposed me to other teams within LinkedIn, taught me to advocate for myself and strategically chart out my career trajectory at LinkedIn. I found a better fit and stayed for two more years at LinkedIn. This made me feel that I "belonged" at LinkedIn, and motivated me to #ActLikeanOwner. On my own time, I built an internal TED-like storytelling program and scaled it to 15 of our global offices, and I started a global mentoring program for women at LinkedIn.
I want every human to experience the gift of mentorship that I received, so much so that, this January I began working full-time on my tech startup NextPlay to help large companies to connect their employees internally for mentoring purposes to transform their journeys, and in turn increase employee happiness and sense of belonging. Especially, women and minorities traditionally haven't had access to powerful networks, and I want to live in a world where everyone has equal access to mentorship and advancement opportunities in the workplace.
On this journey, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. My first technical cofounder left me half hour before a VC was going to write us a check, my next engineering hire quit within a week because they were overwhelmed by the uncertainty, my following engineering hire also quit within a week because her dad lost his income and she couldn't work on my small stipend any longer. I burned a few bridges at LinkedIn with a couple of people that I really admired. Immigration policies became unpredictable, so I had to quickly start looking into my visa options as well as the other countries I could move to. I had a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, a plan D... I was charting out all sort of permutations.
Moreso, at that time, I had no product to show, and all my mentors and friends seemed to think that technology had no role to play in mentorship and that this startup was my "hobby". After resigning at LinkedIn, I cried myself to sleep almost every night for three months, but stayed laser focused on building my company one step at a time. It's become especially clear to me in the last several months that fortune favors the bold, and if you really truly want to do good in the world, and leave no stone unturned to make it happen, you will find people who will extend their hand and pull you out of the pit you're stuck in.
Fast forward to today, I have an exceptional technical cofounder, rave reviews from test pilots, pending contracts at four enterprise companies already, and there couldn't be a better time to take our product to market because every company is talking about employee engagement & diversity, and we help them scale and measure their impact here.
Let's together create a world where every human can harness their potential through mentoring, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, family income, etc.
Thanks Charu! I hope you guys were inspired and if you'd like to connect with Charu you can find her on LinkedIn.