Yes We Can
A recurring series presented by Cloudflare Co-founder, President & COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech.
This week's guest is Mythili Sankaran. Mythili’s 25+ years of experience spans R&D, product management and general management in tech companies as well as nonprofit organizations. Previously, Mythili has served as CEO for startups in technology and in event management, and has also led regional operations for the U.S. India Business Council and the American India Foundation. Earlier in her career, Mythili spent several years in research and product management at IBM Research Labs, AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent, eVoice and Palmsource. She is currently an active angel investor and a member of several women-led investor networks that invest in women entrepreneurs and an independent board advisor to early stage startups.
Mythili serves on the Regional Board of Room to Read, is a mentor for the Duke Technology Scholars program, and a Global Advisor for How Women Lead. She has a MS degree in Physics from Texas Tech University and an Executive MBA jointly offered through the AT&T School of Business and the Wharton School.
To watch more episodes of Yes We Can — and submit suggestions for future guests — visit cloudflare.com/yeswecan
Great. Welcome back to this week's episode of Yes We Can. I am just so honored to have Mythili here today.
And welcome Mythili. Thank you so much for joining us on Yes We Can today.
Thank you. Happy to be here. That's great. Well, for those who are tuning in live, it's the Wednesday before the long weekend in the United States.
So it's the Wednesday before Memorial Day. So Mythili and I were just trading our weekend plans and looking forward to an extra day and really excited to have this conversation this morning.
And so Mythili, I thought we'd start by telling the audience.
I mean, you've had such an incredible career and you've done a lot of different things.
But one of the things you recently are really passionate about that you've created in the last two years is an organization called Nethri .org.
And so maybe you can start by telling the audience what is Nethri and how it got started.
Sure. And by the way, Michelle, you pronounced that great. So Nethri.org is a 501c3 nonprofit that was launched a little over a year ago.
Our mission is to advance a global community of South Asian professional women of all backgrounds and experience and who are really committed to helping each other succeed.
It sounds trite in some ways, but it has been fascinating even in the short journey that we have had so far.
We are a nascent organization, but growing very rapidly into a very vibrant one.
Our aim essentially is to create a community for South Asian professional women.
And the emphasis is on professional because I discovered over the past few years, as well as connecting with other that we didn't have a forum of this kind.
And so the aim here is really to collaborate, to share knowledge, to share resources, and help each other grow and thrive.
It's a cross-generational, cross-industry, I'd say cross-functional area community, where we foster dialogue and leadership development, whether through events, through connections, mentoring, and just learning and support.
Sounds amazing. I mean, I feel like in a world, especially the last year where we haven't been able to see people, this word of community made me really lean in.
It's like, it feels good to be part of something and to be connected with a community that you can identify with.
And so where do your members live and how are things going? I mean, it's a fairly new initiative.
How are things going with it? It is going, as I said, very well, very quickly.
We have become this vibrant community. We are about 1,800 or so members today across the world, representing 14 countries, I believe, all of which has grown very organically.
We started out really in our living rooms, to tell you the truth.
And it started out as conversations that I would host in my backyard, in my living room, and so did one of my other co -founders.
And then we realized the importance of creating something like this.
For me personally, the impetus was I had been absolutely enjoying the collaborative environments that I'd been part of.
And as a woman in tech, I'd never been part of all-women teams.
But over the past few years, I got increasingly involved in various women's leadership forums.
And there were two distinct aha moments, not moments as much as realizations.
For me, one was I absolutely enjoyed the collegial, as I said, highly collaborative environments in these networks.
Especially having never worked in all-female-led teams, there are all these perceived notions one has, right, that women cannot work together or these myths about that.
I felt nothing of that sort. I had nothing but very positive experiences.
But what I realized, I mean, and this was sort of the second realization, was that very few women in these networks, at least that I was part of, looked like me, or sort of represented the background that I came from.
And it was very stark, to tell you the truth, that I felt.
And the reason I felt that was stark was because I was enjoying this so much.
And I felt I was bringing a certain lens to the conversations and the dialogues, and also, of course, getting a lot out of it.
I felt I wanted others like me to contribute as well to these. And when I did see that, that was sort of a large white space that presented to me.
It got me wondering.
And then I know, secondly, in my own personal networks, there were plenty of amazing South Asian women.
So I wondered why I wasn't running into women like that in these networks.
And so that's what sort of got me really thinking, you know, why don't we have?
So by the way, just as sort of a comparison, I don't know if you're familiar, but for most of us in Silicon Valley, have heard of TIE, the organization, right?
TIE is as a large number, of course, it's sort of morphed beyond just Indian or the Indus network of folks to, you know, becoming a lot more people, professionals from across, you know, all backgrounds are part of TIE, which is wonderful.
But it's very, very male centric. Extremely male centric organization.
And so for most of us, we didn't feel like we had a home there necessarily.
And so it felt it was about time that we created our own seats instead of asking a TIE or anybody else for that matter.
And this is not in lieu of participating in say TIE or other women led organizations.
But in fact, I feel a very addictive component, right?
We just become better in the other communities that we partake.
And so that's what sort of led to the creation of this community. We, as I said, you know, we now are all over the world, so to speak.
And I think COVID had a large role to play in that, because the global in our tagline suddenly took a meaning.
We launched in March 2020, Michelle, and then the world changed in front of us, right?
We had no idea what was going to hit us. We had to quickly pivot, quickly change trajectory, so to speak, and go all virtual.
But in some ways, there was lots of silver lining.
I think it helped people from across geographies to start to, you know, attend events to start to connect as a community.
Yeah, no, I love, well, I think that one of the things that technology has showed us the last 14 months, when we couldn't see each other physically, is it does help us connect with each other.
And it's, you know, it's different, but it's also powerful.
And I think NITRI is a great example of 14 countries, 1800 members in a relatively short period of time.
Like that is a lot of growth, as you said, organic growth in a short period of time, and that, you know, your members can discover it and join and collaborate and get something out of it is pretty amazing that you've been able to, that you first identified it, and then you did something about it.
Because I think sometimes we all wish, oh, I wish this was there. Why doesn't this exist?
We kind of just talk about it. But the fact that you did something about it is truly the definition of entrepreneurship.
So congratulations to you and your co-founders.
It's really amazing what you've been able to achieve in a very short period of time.
Thank you. How did you find the name? What is, what does NITRI mean?
And how did you come up with the name? Oh, that's interesting. It wasn't easy, I can tell you, because, you know, when my co-founders, Chitra, Shruti and I sort of sat down to come up with the name in the early stages.
We didn't have sort of, we didn't really know where NITRI was going.
And so we came up with acronyms that, you know, very sort of simple name, because at that time, we really envisioned it to be very local, to tell you the truth, starting really small, didn't expect this sort of explosive growth, and so on.
All three of us knew that we wanted a Sanskrit or an Indian origin name, for sure, if possible, that was somewhat phonetic, and easy to pronounce for by a global audience that wasn't, you know, too much of a tongue twister, because Indian names can be and represented what we did, and was unique.
So lots of parameters to optimize right there.
But I think, you know, one night, I do remember, I was putting over the Sanskrit to English dictionary online, and, you know, trying all kinds of permutation combination, when, you know, this name came up, and it said, it means female leader or guiding light in Sanskrit.
This is perfect. And of course, I looked to see if there was, you know, any other organization was a trademark, you know, all of that good stuff, and realized this was ours for the taking.
I mean, that's almost like it was meant to be, it was meant to be because, you know, what had happened was, as we went through lots and lots of names, two of us would agree, one would not care as much.
And so there wasn't, you know, there were very, very few names that all three of us would agree, as one would expect.
And then we tried it out with a small test group that we had set up as well, like different people, because we want to make sure they could pronounce it, they like the sound of it, or someone there would shoot it down.
But Nethri just resonated with everyone.
And so Nethri it is. Oh, wow. It's like when it fits, it fits.
I love that story. Sometimes you realize, like, it just feels like the world works in interesting ways.
Someone really was right there. Good. That's, that's a great story.
You know, one of the things that I love about Nethri is that you, like you said, it's cross-industry, it's cross, you know, stage of your career.
So you have both women, South Asian women who are early in their career, as well as very late in their career, but you're all one group, one community.
It's not just reserved for the executives or, or, or for new grads.
It's both in the mixing, which I think is really interesting.
And so do you have any stories about how the community has cross -pollinated, like by stages?
And then what, how do you help somebody early in their career as a community versus later in their career?
I imagine they need different things. Oh, absolutely. You know, I'd probably put it out there, you know, first by saying we absolutely pride ourselves in this sort of cross -generational, cross-industry approach.
And we're very, very intentional.
I mean, if you look, we sort of walk the talk. If you look at our founding team, Chitra and I are, you know, what one would call the more sort of seasoned veterans, have plenty of gray hair.
Whereas our third co -founder Shruti Ramaswamy is a millennial.
I have known her since the day she was born, actually, literally, she's closer to my daughter's age.
But I met her when I was thinking about Neethri, wanted to get her input, because to me, having two girls myself, I always envisioned this as a cross-generational platform.
And I met her to get her input in, because I've known her, we have had plenty of professional sort of discussions, and I valued her input.
And she just jumped at this thing, I want to be part of this, I want to help build this and sort of bring that millennial perspective.
So it started from day one, it's very much ingrained in the fabric of what Neethri is.
In our programming as well, because we're very, very intentional.
So Shruti leads a lot of our young professionals, or what we call our early career programming, we sort of segment our members into these three distinct categories, the early career young professionals, under nine years of work experience after an undergrad, the 10 to 19, or what we call the mid career, and then the senior professionals, typically director level, at least and above, but typically more VP level and above.
And of course, the needs of these three segments are distinctly different.
There is some overlap when it comes to just connecting. And so for the early and mid career, we offer a variety of educational workshops, right areas such as communication strategies, negotiations, managing up networking efficiently.
We've also done sort of smaller, intimate sessions where senior leaders will meet with our young professionals, and talk about and share their leadership journey, and, you know, some of the challenges that they overcame, and you know, what they did.
We've also done, for example, events focused on balancing career and family, which is very important for some of the younger professionals, as they're just starting to think about all these things.
And Neethri offers that safe space where again, they can relate the cultural challenges of doing this that are very uniquely South Asian.
Okay, of course, you know, as women, we all have challenges as we try this balancing act, but then you layer on the nuances, the cultural nuances, it adds increased complexity, right.
And that's where hearing stories from women who have sort of gone down that path earlier, who deal with, you know, having in laws living with you, which is very common in our culture.
So just those kinds of conversations become very relevant and important.
For us seniors, as I said, you know, typically VP level and above, we have piloted board readiness training workshops.
Yes, we also do a lot of, you know, we have an opportunities board, both executive and non executive, where we share opportunities that, you know, come to the network.
We've actually seen some interesting matches happen.
We've also had, we piloted another very interesting program called the Senior Executive Salon, which is a curated group of eight to 10 senior peers who essentially become the personal board of directors and meet at a regular cadence to forge deeper connections.
So that's sort of, you know, that's just an example of a few programs and initiatives that we do that serve the different segments.
I love it. You know, your passion and your warmth for this community, it just, it like oozes through you.
And, you know, this is something that I've seen with a lot of women that I've had on Yes, We Can, where they're just so passionate about what they do.
And they're just so proud. And they're so excited that it's hard not to like, I just, I find myself leaning in more and more.
And I, you know, your passion for what you're doing is really...
Thank you. And we have lots of non South Asian women join us, serve on panels.
So it's not what I would call an exclusive community in that respect at all.
We welcome. Welcome lots of people.
Welcome everyone. It's great. And you know, you, what you were saying about women earlier in their career, saying, how do you balance having a career and a family and being able to ask those questions?
I think that those are sometimes questions people don't want to talk about at conferences, on stage, but people want to know.
And, and if, where do you go unless someone starts a blog or a newspaper talking about it, you need to be able to have those conversations.
And I think that's, I love that phrase.
It's so, it's so true. Cause sometimes that one conversation is like, oh, it kind of demystifies it.
Okay. It is possible. And well, that's how you handle that.
Or how do you manage the in-laws living with you? I was actually talking to a woman last night who said my in-laws are moving in with us.
And I was like, oh, wow. So I think those are very, very real, real life, like very practical.
So good for you. Yes, indeed. Yeah. My in-laws have lived with me for 23 years now.
I don't even know life without them anymore. Wow. 23 years.
Okay. Well that we could have a whole other segment about that because I like have so many questions just about that.
That is lots of leadership lessons. I can tell you right there at home.
That's nice. That's good. That's great. Okay. So in addition to this amazing community that obviously you're so passionate about, you've grown and you and your founders, and I love that it's a diverse founding team and that you've grown it.
Like, it's just incredible. You've also decided to start a venture fund.
Like that wasn't enough. You're like, oh, and by the way, we're also going to start an investment fund.
So maybe in addition to nithreed .org, there's a venture fund where you're investing in startups.
So maybe you can tell us a little bit more about the, about the fun part of this initiative as well.
So when I was thinking about this, it is, I would call, you know, a sucker for punishment.
That's how it's sometimes, but jokes apart, it clearly, it feels like four full-time jobs, not even two initiatives.
I'm trying to juggle at times.
So native futures fund is a sister organization to nithreed.org. And it's hard sometimes for me to tell, honestly, Michelle, which came first in terms of what I wanted to do or set out to do.
Was it nithreed or the fund? Because the fund idea was something that was percolating in my head for a long time.
And I felt that it was important to get the community going before the fund.
So which is why nithreed.org came first and the fund sort of came a few months later.
But as I said, there's lots of overlap and synergy between the two.
The fund's mission is essentially to position South Asian women as key stakeholders and investors in the fund and really to include them in the venture ecosystem.
If a look at data, right.
And there's plenty out there about the venture ecosystem and the gender gap there.
Women are such a minority when it comes to partner level positions or even decision making roles or as first-time fund managers, etc.
So there's plenty of data.
But then when you scratch beyond that gender disparity and you look at representation, most people think, gosh, South Asian women are everywhere.
What are you telling me?
Are they even a minority? The fact is, they are a distinct minority even within that gender lens.
And so I felt, again, that this was a huge untapped potential.
Because as I said, I knew myself lots of women who had the resources and the domain expertise to add tremendous value to this ecosystem.
And I think it was important.
I'd already, you know, we are with the fund leveraging the SEC structure, as I mentioned to you, that allows us to have 249 investors.
And so my intention was to start very modest, to tell you the truth.
When I set out creating the fund, we were thinking $3 million, perhaps 100 investors, if we can even pull that together.
Because this demographic, I can tell you, is very risk averse.
Decisions, especially financial decisions, investing decisions, in spite of the women being financially independent, are not made typically by the woman.
Most of the women I know, even in my own network, these are, you know, VP level women, will always tell me, oh, I know nothing about finances in my home.
I don't even know how to log into my bank account.
I mean, this is not atypical, I'm telling you.
It's shocking. It sounds shocking. I mean, it's shocking to me, but that's typical.
And so I felt this has to change. And, you know, this benefits both, right?
It benefits, you know, the venture ecosystem to have this representation and this diversity of, you know, the operator investors.
And so just keeping all of that in mind, the fund was launched.
We are today at, I think, slightly over 6.2 million that we've raised.
So we've sort of doubled our initial goal. 180 LPs, we are still fundraising.
We hope to get closer to that, you know, sort of magical number of the 10 million maximum, which we can raise for the fund and 249 LPs, seeing tremendous interest and have garnered an amazing group of LPs.
65% of our LPs are first time investors.
They've never done this before. Wow. And then is it fair to say this, these first time?
And so the fact that you're getting more people becoming LPs is incredible because you're just widening the pool, which I think is exactly that investing needs.
I would also argue that technology needs that. Like it's not about going from a great company like Google and switching to a startup.
It's more about how do you get more people into the industry?
I think is interesting that you have new LPs coming in.
Are these also South Asian professional women that are part of these?
Yes. 90% of our LPs are South Asian professional women. 10% are, you know, male allies, non-South Asian women, you know, just because we have left that open as well and want to be inclusive.
So yes. Good for you. And of course, many of them are NAITRE members, predominantly NAITRE members.
But again, this is not only with the community, did you see an opportunity?
It's like, well, if we need a way to connect and ask questions and then created it on the fun side saying like, wow, there is not enough, there are not enough women investors and there are not enough South Asian women investors.
And I'm going to go do something about it is really a huge, I mean, a huge testament to you and your leadership, because that is, again, I think that people talk about this all the time, but it's a totally different ball game to actually go do something about it.
So congratulations there.
Is it the same group founders that work on the fund that on the NAITRE.org side?
No, my founders on NAITRE.org are, of course, LPs in the fund.
But no, the fund is, I'm the managing, the sole managing partner on the fund.
And then I have another partner on the investment committee who is also founding circle member at NAITRE.org, of course.
And together we make sort of all the fine investing decisions.
We also, you know, we've set it up really to be almost a community assisted network assisted fund and to leverage that network effect very effectively because we have an investment advisory council at the fund who have committed to bringing deals.
So these are very seasoned VCs, all South Asian women, five of them who have really committed to helping us grow as investment professionals.
Well, that's amazing. This is the power of networks and community and all ties rising.
There's no way I would have been able to do this otherwise, to tell you the truth.
It is that power of that community that is fueling all of this.
I mean, I'm simply taking charge of the baton. That's it. Well, I don't want to, well, let me ask you a question.
And then like when you went, did you go ask specifically to these women investors saying, hey, I have this idea, would you be supportive?
Would you help be good allies? Would you help us propel this forward?
Did you go and ask for that help? That's exactly what I did. That's exactly what I did.
And of course, the fund has evolved, the thinking, the pieces have evolved over the past few months, which has been fantastic learning and education for me.
But that's exactly what I did. I picked, in fact, two of the most seasoned folks on our team and told them, look, you know, we have this amazing community.
And this is, you know, something that has been sort of top of mind for me, I really want to do this, but I can't do this by myself, I need your help.
They immediately jumped in.
I mean, they were tremendous allies. And honestly, if it were not for their support, from the first conversation, there would have been no fund.
So that is the power, I think, of how we can lift each other up.
Definitely. And well, you know, the one the one thing I just want to to maybe speak one more second on, then we can switch gears, we have about five minutes left is just this idea that you went to ask for help.
Because I think sometimes people underestimate how important that is.
It's it's not like they came to you and said, hey, you should go do this, we have this idea, and it's all got the ball on top, it was, you know, you could have said, I see this, you kind of realize, and you went to them saying, is this something that you'd be interested in?
And of course, as they leaned in, that gives you more momentum.
But sometimes I just think coming up with the idea and asking others, whether it's in your network, or outside or reaching out, it's amazing how powerful that can be by just asking.
Last 10 to that. Okay, perfect. And I just think that's something that I probably wouldn't have realized when I was first starting my career, you sometimes have to ask when you do, you're kind of surprised by sometimes the reaction.
What's the worst thing that can happen? Right, exactly.
And so that's a bad idea. Like, okay, well, it was just an idea. So yeah, exactly.
Good. Okay, so we have about five minutes left, and we've covered so much, which is which is incredible.
You know, one of the things I'd love to hear about in the fund.
So what's your investment thesis? What types of companies are you investing in?
And have you made any investments yet? Yes, we are, we've already committed to six, of which four we have, you know, wired the money and two are in the final stages.
So the fund was launched in March, Michelle. So this has all been like March of 2021, like three months ago, like, not 2020.
So that's incredible.
Yes, yes. So fundraising, looking at deal flow, making investment decisions.
So it's all happening in real time. We're stage agnostic. So we'll invest in late seed all the way through pre IPO.
And that is very important for us.
Because of, you know, many first time LPs, we want to see them have shorter runs to return and, and so not investing in just very early stage companies.
We also are not going to be a lead investor in any company that we invest because of the check sizes we write.
So we are partnering, in fact, we have, you know, some amazing partners, angels and top tier VCs.
So we will co invest and write a check alongside them.
It also allows them to sort of ride their coattails in terms of due diligence, and so on, just given how, how resource strapped we are, primarily investing in enterprise tech, software systems, infrastructure, because that's sort of our domain expertise, as well verticals like fintech, edtech, digital health are sweet spots for us.
Series A is a sweet spot. But as I said, fairly stage agnostic, we want to invest in gender diverse teams, an important part of our thesis, which means at least one woman in a decision making role either as a founder on the executive team or on the board of the company.
So that's a broad investment thesis, we hope to make anywhere from 20 to maybe even up to 30 investments.
So we are well diversified. And we want to do that deploy the capital in 18 months to two years, so not sort of sit on it over a long period of time.
Okay, so let's say there's an entrepreneur listening. And, you know, I hear a lot from founders who are now being more thoughtful about looking at their cap tables and saying, Okay, I want to make sure my cap tables are not just men who are Caucasian, maybe I want more diversity, I want to have better representation, I do care about this.
And so let's say they're like, wow, I love what Mithili is working on.
I want Nethri as an investor, what would be the best way for a founder who says who wants to get their opportunity in front of Nethri's fund?
What's the best way to do that? That's music to my ears. Mithili at nethrifuturesfund.com, our website is nethrifuturesfund.com, fairly simple.
We have a founder form that you can submit through that.
Or as I said, info at nethrifuturesfund.com.
All of this works. And we're very responsive. Awesome. You read your emails.
That's great. Perfect. Okay, we have 90 seconds left. And there's one question I ask everyone who comes on the show.
So I want to make sure I ask you is as a woman in technology, you've had an incredible career and these initiatives are just again, so exciting.
Where is the industry lived up to your expectations? And where has it fallen short?
I think it's lived up is just in the pace of innovation.
It's exciting to see right, increasing productivity and so on. And I but I think the downer for me still is how it's still not getting to that last mile to you know, rural areas.
And this is not just underdeveloped countries like India. I'm talking about rural America, mid America, you go, you can get a decent cell phone coverage.
There's still, you know, Internet is really shoddy. And so I feel the benefits have still not gotten to that last mile.
And to me, that is still, you know, a little bit of a disappointment.
I think it behooves all of us as people in tech, to, to, you know, pay attention to that and make that happen.
I love that. Well, I agree that we can't leave people behind.
Like technology is here to stay, it needs to be accessible to everyone, even if you live in a small city.
And you know, I got a small city, small town.
So that really resonates with me where there's lots of benefits there.
Good. Well, this was an amazing conversation. Congratulations so much.
You've had a very busy, you know, 14 months, and just wishing you all the best.
And thank you so much for being on Yes, We Can. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Thank you, Michelle. This has been fabulous. So enjoyed this as well.
Thank you. Great.