I’m Anu Sridharan, Co-Founder of NextDrop, and this is how I Lead from Within
Anu Sridharan is the Co-founder of NextDrop.
NextDrop improves access to water for residents in urban India by providing access to timely and reliable information about piped water supply, and establishing a feedback loop to inform better water management for the water utility. Residents like this information because it takes away the stress of guessing when the water will come next. Utilities like it because they can, for the first time, make data-driven distribution decisions.
As a Civil & Environmental Engineer, Anu is passionate about providing more reliable government services to citizens. Anu has also been selected to the Forbes “30 Social Entrepreneurs Under 30” list.
My professional journey is pretty short lived. I basically had a graduate student project that turned into something bigger. After undergrad I went straight to grad school. In grad school, one of my friends Emily kind of said, “Hey, we have this idea called Next Drop and we want somebody to do a pilot in India.” I said, “Sure, if it’s interesting I’ll go.” I went and that’s when I realized I didn’t really want to be at school anymore, so I left graduate school a bit earlier. I started working at a startup but realized pretty quickly that either Next Drop is going to die or I’d have to quit my job. Luckily, I thought I was terrible at that job anyway, so I picked up and moved to India in 2011 and I’ve been here ever since.
I think it’s probably just listening to your own gut and doing what you think is right despite what anybody else has said. Had I listened to most other people, we would not be here today. Some would call that stupidity, some would call that stubbornness, some would just call that listening to your gut. I don’t know, whichever one you want to choose.
I value freedom, respect, and responsibility pretty highly.
I really value freedom, the freedom to choose, the freedom to do what I want. I think I took a lot of that for granted because I was born and raised in the U.S. Coming to India really put that into perspective for me. When I don’t have choices I get really upset.
On the flip side of freedom is responsibility. I look at that responsibility at different levels – responsibility to society, responsibility to your family, responsibility to your friends, responsibility to your city, the responsibility to play whatever role that you play in life. I think with those freedoms comes that responsibility – they are two sides of a very similar coin.
The third is just respect. I think it’s important to just respect people, respect people’s time, respect people’s ideas, respect people’s opinions, and give people space to be who they are.
Lessons from My Entrepreneurial Journey
It’s been a process of trial and error. Peter Thiel, says in his new book, Zero to One, that entrepreneurship can’t be taught. Entrepreneurship is a very individual thing and you have to figure out what that is for you. I think that’s incredibly true but also scary. It’s scary because that means there is no solution, there is no template, there is no cut–copy-paste that you can do to guarantee success. That is scary, but also empowering once you embrace it and say okay, there are no answers, I just have to figure this out for myself.
One thing I’ve learned is that you’re always going to make mistakes. That’s unavoidable. I think the biggest thing that separates successful entrepreneurs from the not so successful ones is how you get back up again. I think the more successful ones recover faster and keep going and fail faster and fail more often.
The other thing I’ve learned is that, hands down, the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur, at least from my journey, is maintaining your own mental sanity. It’s something that nobody in entrepreneurship talks about. It’s one of those taboo topics. I can’t say I’ve successfully figured out how to navigate it but I think one thing is to just make sure you don’t lose perspective. You can’t make any one thing your entire life because your life consists of different parts. You are the sum of many parts. You’re not defined by just one thing. Sometimes you forget that because you feel like your whole life is about this one thing and it’s very easy to believe that. But once you believe that, that’s a very dangerous downward spiraling journey to nowhere good. If you can keep things in perspective, that’s going to help tremendously.
What I get complimented on the most is my enthusiasm. I can honestly say I really enjoy what I’m doing and you have to really enjoy what you’re doing to go through the grind of what we go through on a daily basis.
I’ve been told I have a lot of energy. That, in fact, is a super power. And, I’m ridiculously optimistic. I think those are my two main ones.
I think the only reason we’re here today is because of our mentors and advisors. Having people who believe in you and what you do can make all the difference in the world.
The key is not be afraid to tell people, this is what I’m looking for, this is my idea, and ask, how do I make it better, who can I talk to? Imagine you’re on this quest to find the truth and every person along the way is going to help you find the truth, whatever that truth is and whatever your truth is. Things come more naturally when you’re genuinely focused on that one thing. And, if you could do something for someone else, always do it. It doesn’t matter who it is, or what it is, just do it. If you have that two-way channel, things just fall into place.
On Leading As a Woman
In the beginning, I begrudgingly accepted my title as the leader. I felt I wasn’t able to do it because I’m not like what I see on TV or I’m not like the alpha male. According to the Enneagram personality test, I’m a type 2, which is the helper. My first reaction to that was, “Oh my God, how can a type 2 be ever lead a company, that is ridiculous, that is impossible.” I just wanted to give up. But then, as I was working with our executive coach and experimenting with different things, I realized that every type of person can be a leader. You just can’t do what other people do; you have to do what works for you.
The companies of the future are going to be the ones that can attract and retain the best talent. Unless you are a genius, which very few people in this world are, I don’t think the Steve Jobs style of leadership is going to work. The world is changing and it’s shifting towards knowledge workers and people who have a lot more skills, so it’s less about “I’m telling you this and you must do it” and more about “let’s figure this out together, let’s co-create together.” That’s exactly the sort of environment that is skewed towards women. I do think women are poised to be leaders in this new age of startups, this new age of technology, and this new era of knowledge workers. It’s an exciting time to be a woman, difficult but exciting.
I think you just focus on yourself and ask, if you couldn’t fail, would you still do it. If the answer is yes, then figure out what’s the risk? What’s the worst that could happen? Everyone will have a different answer to that. Say, if you’re married with three kids, that’s a lot riskier than it was for me, who had nothing and nobody. I literally just sold all my stuff, and said, “Okay, worst case I come back in six months and I’m back to where I started but at least I would have tried. At least, I would rule one more thing out on a list of things that either makes me happy or doesn’t make me happy.”
On Work-Life Balance
I think at different points in your life different things inspire you. Back when I was in the U.S. I loved basketball. I would play basketball 10-20 hours a week. Here in India as well, I like physical activity, so gym, yoga, dance classes, all of that helps me.
My roommate has a dog Charlie. I love Charlie. When I come home, he usually likes to play dead. I have to scratch him all over. He sleeps on my bed and every morning I basically give him a massage.
I’m also trying to learn French, because that challenges a completely different part of my brain and my grandfather lives there so I when visit him, I can actually speak to people. I also love reading; it’s my favorite thing to do. Basically, just things that have nothing to do with work help.
A Typical Day
I wake up anywhere between 6am to 8 am. If I get up early I usually try to do yoga, or go to gym. Then, I basically get to work. After work, if I haven’t gone to the gym in the morning, I’ll usually go in the evening or I’ll go to dance class. Then, my roommate fixes us dinner. We eat dinner, watch some TV and then go to bed. That’s pretty much my day.
My Female Heroes
I just have the most respect for my parents because they somehow did a fantastic job of raising two kids in incredibly uncertain and crazy times. They have always been there to support me, which I’m sure is difficult especially when you think your child is doing something ridiculous or crazy.
That being said, I just love funny women. I’ve always loved the whole genre of comedy. I think Tina Fey is amazing. I love that she doesn’t focus on the fact that she’s a woman; she just does what she does and she’s just good at it. She’s not afraid to be herself. Mindy Kaling is great too.
My Personal Vision
I really love startups and I really love technology but what I want to do is push the boundary on how technology can interface with government and what the role of startups can be in that intersection. That’s what we’re doing with Next Drop and I absolutely love it. Right now, I’m focused on Next Drop, but eventually I want to come back to the U.S. and do something either in healthcare or unemployment in the startup technology space, working with the government.
Recommendations for the Shenomics Community
I have a long list of books I can recommend. I read close to 60-100 books every year. We have this unprecedented opportunity now because information has literally been democratized. I would say that books and Google can be the best resources for most of your problems. My top 5 recommendations would be: