Building Things, Forgetting Things, and What We Leave Behind
A conversation with Shripriya Mahesh about working and investing in tech
Last month Techstars and Spero Ventures hosted an event for founders and investors in Los Angeles. Techstars is a global startup accelerator and mentorship network that spans 168 countries and has over 1800 alumni companies. As part of the event, Anna Barber, Managing Director at Techstars LA, interviewed Shripriya Mahesh, founding partner of Spero and former head of product at eBay, in true “Barefoot in the Living Room” style. They covered a lot of ground, from the things that make life worth living, to the importance of forgetting the stupid things we’ve said.
When Shripriya was growing up in Madras (now Chennai), India, her father encouraged her and her brother to learn how to code. “He was an engineer who was always tinkering with tech and he realized that computers were the future. This was the 80s and there were no bootcamps back then, so he hired a student from a nearby engineering college to teach us to code BASIC on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.” Later, Shripriya went on to study C and COBOL in college. Shripriya said that, “Learning to code with one of the smartest boys I knew (my brother) and being able to hold my own gave me confidence. I never felt like I couldn’t do anything. The experience made me love tech and it made me unafraid to try things.”
Loving tech and knowing how to build it helped Shripriya break into the industry in the late 1990s. She joined eBay in its early days because she was drawn to its mission of enabling economic opportunity around the world. She advanced to become VP of Product and Product Marketing at eBay, and after a period of working in film, took the leap into startup investing a few years ago. Whenever she meets with the founder of a startup, she seeks to understand the product. “Product is what makes everything work. When I meet companies, I always say, ‘Explain to me how the product works’ because that’s how I find my way to understanding the company,” she said. “Thinking about it from a user-driven perspective is so important.”
Developing a product mindset requires an ability to see things differently. To look at the world as it is and say, “It doesn’t have to be this way. It can be another way. That’s the product person’s view of the world.”
In the past couple of years, a lot has changed in the tech industry. From being a celebrated young darling, the industry is being recognized as wielding tremendous power to influence the real world. “I believe the tech backlash is deserved in many ways,” said Shipriya, who pointed out that, for the first time in history, we now have an American tech company with more than 2 billion users. “With great power comes great responsibility. There is a cavalier attitude in tech like, ‘Hey, we’ll just do it first and figure it out later.’ I understand the need to move fast, but at a certain scale you need to have a sense of responsibility. I don’t think anyone can predict all the bad stuff that’s going to happen, but when you’re aware of it, I don’t think you can sweep it under the carpet, which is what some companies have done.”
She raised the point that there are real world implications to actions taken by tech companies. “You can’t just throw something out there without thinking about the consequences,” she said. “You have to be accountable. Product leadership is actually product stewardship,” which is a value Shripriya has written about before.
That said, Shripriya is very positive about the role of tech in our world and how Millennials and Generation Z think about the future. Research shows that young people from these generations are mission-driven, and many of them have become entrepreneurs in an effort to mitigate massive near-future catastrophes such as climate change. “We are in a moment in time which feels hopeless but there is also a lot of positive,” Shripriya noted. “Instead of sitting back, people are actively engaging… technology can have a huge impact.”
Being a woman or a member of an underrepresented group in tech can sometimes be challenging. You’re often the only person like you in a room. Feeling as if everyone’s eyes are on you can be a lot of pressure. “My advice to young women is, don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” Shripriya said. “You’re not representing all women. You’re just representing yourself.”
She shared an experience from the early days at eBay: Then-CEO Meg Whitman called a group of executives together to discuss a potential acquisition. Shripriya was director of product at the time and the most junior person in the room. At one point during the meeting, Shripriya spoke up to share her opinion. One of the outspoken senior leaders snapped, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Rather than shrink away in shame, Shripriya regrouped. “My instinctive reaction was to stop talking, but I forced myself to continue participating in the meeting,” she says. The experience shaped the way she thinks about leadership and participation. “I guarantee I’m the only one who remembers that meeting. Men aren’t still thinking about the stupid things they said 15 years ago! It doesn’t matter if you say something stupid. Everyone is making mistakes. Make your voice heard.”
What we leave behind
In late 2017, a week before pitching the idea of creating a new fund — what would become Spero Ventures — Shripriya was diagnosed with cancer. It caused her to re-evaluate everything about her life, including her work. She asked herself if starting a new fund was something she wanted to do while she was literally fighting for her life. The answer was yes.
The existential crisis of cancer brought a new clarity to her life and her work. Investing in the things that make life worth living — well-being, work and a sense of purpose, and human connection — felt more important than ever. “I’ve never felt that desperate to live. I want to see my children grow up and I want to see my children have children. I was like, my God, I want this more than anything.”
Shripriya continued to work throughout her treatment and launched the fund a year ago. A few months ago, her father passed away. “He always said, ‘You come into the world with nothing and you leave with nothing,’” she said. “It’s between the coming and the going when you can have an impact. What you leave behind is the relationships you make, the impact you have on people and the world.”
Watch the full interview on our YouTube channel: