Q&A with The Violet Society's Shriya Nevatia

Shriya Nevatia is a Product Manager at GLIDR, based in San Francisco. She is also founder of The Violet Society, a sisterhood for future female and non-binary founders.

What drew you to the startup and entrepreneurship world?

Because the college I attended was not known for tech, I was determined to foster my interests by venturing into Boston. I attended tech meetups, hackathons, and other events where I was surrounded by inspiring and accomplished individuals. Through obsessive research, I found Project Breaker, a social entrepreneurship program for students; it was an amazing opportunity for me to spend my sophomore summer in New York City learning about design thinking and startups. I was inspired by the young founders I met during that summer through General Assembly, Girl Develop It, AOL Ventures, and more.

My first tech internship was at Her Campus after they won MassChallenge. Seeing the young female founders’ day-to-day work, I thought to myself “I definitely can do this, too”. So many entrepreneurs that I met had an energizing combination of creativity, enthusiasm, intelligence, and earnestness. I felt like I fit in to the founder community and knew that this was what I was meant to do.

You've been a Community Manager, UX designer, and Software Engineer. Now a PM at GLIDR, how have these prior roles helped develop you into a leader?

As a leader, the more you can empathize with and understand the constraints of everyone’s jobs, the better you are at yours. I purposefully sought to grow my skills across design, business, and engineering for this reason. I think this worked really well for me, but as a warning to other young people, I am still a generalist & my job searches over the past few years have been chaotic.

This cross-functional knowledge has also translated to my role as as a PM. Because I know what it’s like to have my performance and contribution measured by different things for different roles—for example, impressions and user engagement for marketing, efficiency and code quality for engineering, or empathy for users and a data-driven approach for UX design— I understand the mindset of the people I’m working with better.

This empathy was critical as I started multiple meetups, created Facebook groups, and ran large-scale events. I’m always hunting for resources, advice, and ideas to share with members of these communities. Having experience in different positions allows me to be a more helpful community organizer.

What is The Violet Society? Who should apply to join your next cohort? What is the ultimate goal?

The Violet Society is a 12-week program for aspiring & very early-stage founders who are female & non-binary. It’s part-time, in-person in San Francisco, and doubles as an accountability group that meets every Wednesday evening. I highly value having open applications rather than referral-based networks (which reinforce privilege), so we have a live online form that anyone can fill out. Members can be anywhere from pre-idea (but want to get started when the program begins) to post-launch (but haven’t raised a round of institutional funding from VCs). I think other existing accelerators and programs do a fantastic job of serving founders who are later in their journey, but I created The Violet Society specifically for people who are very early-stage and still figuring things out.

The ultimate goal of The Violet Society is to empower more people to take charge of their careers by starting companies. We’ve all seen the dismal statistics of the low percentages of women & non-binary people who found companies and even lower percentages who get VC funding. We need to reach talented under-represented people who don’t even realize that they have the skills and abilities to start a startup and give them the resources to get started. The Violet Society addresses this through a serious and ambitious peer group, close personal access to talented founders and VCs, and awareness of the many resources that exist for budding entrepreneurs.

For members, there’s no expectation to quit your job immediately or even create a venture-backable business (if that’s not the right path for you); the main goal for members is to make more progress in 3 months than you would have without this support system, meet potential co-founders or early hires, and leave feeling empowered that you are equipped to start a high-growth company. Our first cohort in the summer was full of amazing women at different stages in their startup journeys who have gone on to do things like win a social entrepreneurship competition, secure more funding, and leave their full-time job to focus on their profitable business.

We all know the statistics but why do you think it's been such a challenge to fund female founders? Is it a pipeline problem? Lack of mentorship? etc.

I think the “female founder” problem is very intertwined with the overall “women in tech” problem, and neither has a silver bullet. I am very grateful for programs like #BUILTBYGIRLS that match high school & college women with professional role models. My personal belief is that mentorship and “paying it forward” can take us extremely far. I encourage every successful founder, female or otherwise, to offer their time and guidance to aspiring female founders.

Right now, it feels like being a “female founder” is very trendy. When I started The Violet Society as a college student in 2013, this was not the case. In recent years, there’s been an explosion in resources, mentorship, and general help for female founders. More of my peers see themselves starting companies because it’s such a highly publicized path to success. But trendiness is a double-edged sword. When we have “rah rah female founder” fatigue, do the numbers drop even lower? I hope it’s not a passing phase but instead is a lasting wake-up call for the industry.

Talk me through The Violet Society's workshops. Where are you drawing on inspiration for these sessions?

The core of The Violet Society sessions is a classic mastermind group. Each member has 10 minutes to share a challenge they’re facing this week, professional or personal, and the rest of the group provides feedback, encouragement, and advice. When people in the first cohort had very tactical questions about, for example, building out a marketing plan or hiring their first engineer, we ended up with lists of 20+ tips that were shared online with the whole group so people could refer to it later. For more open-ended questions, the group can feel like a support group or therapy session, which is by design. Deep, co-founder-level relationships can’t be created in an instant, which is why The Violet Society is meant to foster close friendships and connections in a supportive environment.

In addition, in the first cohort, each member led a 45-min workshop about a topic they were well-versed in. Based on feedback from those members, I’ve decided to invite founders and VCs to lead these workshops instead, while still keeping it much more intimate than the typical event in SF since the cohorts only have 12-14 people in them. The open-ended nature of these discussion sessions was inspired by Rise, a retreat created by Erik Torenberg and the co-hosts of Breaking Into Startups that I attended earlier this year. We spent a weekend leading “unconference” discussion sessions in a big shared house in Tahoe and learned so much from one another. I hope to bring that intellectual curiosity and deep communal respect to our meetings.

I loved seeing the photos and videos from Violet Hacks! As someone who has spoken at a number of workshops and events with the likes of She++ and GitHub, how did you thoughtfully curate your keynote speakers and partners?

I’ve been attending and hosting events quite consistently for 5 years, and the difference between a great and terrible event is all in the details. For Violet Hacks, I wanted to spend money, time, and energy on the things that really mattered for attendees. The organizing team and I tried to think of the experience holistically and mentally walk through the all-day event to make sure that it fit together and “made sense."

For the venue, my friend Stacy was the point of contact at Domino Data Lab. They had hosted a hackathon before (Spectra), had a beautiful layout, and were a fast-growing startup that was hiring people in our target audience. Our company partners were all places where female friends & contacts said they felt welcome and respected, including Pinterest, Palantir, and Zeus Living.

The speakers, panelists, and judges were accomplished founders & VCs who could share their wisdom and provide inspiration to attendees without being unattainable. I was careful that we only invited people we knew beforehand who would be honest and down-to-earth. In podcasts and founder interviews, super-successful entrepreneurs often start with the very scrappy early days, gloss over the middle, then fast-forward to today. We wanted to provide a space to talk about the middle, and I think we did that, especially with our keynote speakers—Lucy Zhao, cohort 1 member and co-founder of Honeydew, and Ashley Wellington-Fahey, co-founder of The Relish.

What major lessons have you learned as the founder of The Violet Society?

One huge thing that I learned was the true meaning of hustle. I’ve done both scalable and extremely not-scalable things to connect with high-profile women, get more applications, sell hackathon tickets, advertise events, raise sponsorship funding, and more. I reached out to so many people through cold messages that both Facebook and LinkedIn rate-limited my account and thought I was a bot—it took over 3,000 LinkedIn requests to hit the limit!

The other major lesson is that I shouldn’t hold myself back because of my own “realistic” expectations. When I first started The Violet Society, I had so little experience that I was afraid to think too big about what the organization could become. It took so much work to create something that looked simple and bare-bones. Since then, I’ve gained a lot more confidence that I can do things that scare me. My friends & peers have encouraged me every step of the way and I’ve rarely heard anyone say my big plans are delusional. People like Arlan Hamilton have inspired me to confidently tell people that I want to raise a fund alongside The Violet Society to invest in our members as a formal accelerator. It’s very exciting to realize that your only real limit is your own determination.

What advice would you give to young women interested in being founders?

First, you can accomplish much more than you realize by having tons of grit and hustle. You will hear plenty of “no”s, feel like you’ve exhausted your options, or simply feel like you’re at your wit's end. If you are willing to ask people for help, Google things until you understand, and keep pushing through, you will accomplish much more than you thought you could.

In addition, don’t be afraid to think big (very big)! If you’re looking for VC funding, read up about “venture math”—they’re truly only looking for companies that could be absolutely massive in the future. Don’t hold yourself back from dreaming up what the most extreme, massively successful version of your startup could be. A common refrain I hear from VCs is that women under-sell themselves and their company. Don’t be that person!

Stop worrying about if you’re “ready” or “qualified” and focus on solving the problem that you set out to solve. I’ve read countless stories of non-technical founders who hacked together a “software product” through a spreadsheet or Airtable. Facebook groups are an amazing resource for filling in your knowledge gaps by asking people with other backgrounds for help. If you are passionate about the problem you’re tackling and have validated that there’s a real need, you already have what you need to start.

Rapid fire 🔥

Mobile app you can't live without?

Facebook Messenger! It’s my primary communication tool for friends, peers, and intros.

Product you wish you'd created?

Sounds silly but LinkedIn. My first job was working on a “more modern LinkedIn” and I still think there’s potential for them to be disrupted!

Your North Star?

How many people I’ve helped & to what degree. I’m constantly meeting people for coffee, taking phone calls, sharing advice on Facebook groups and over Messenger; I think the best thing we can do for the industry is pay it forward.