Ep 17 – Bringing Data Discipline to DEI



Aparna Rae is a multi-startup founder, working at the intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity (DEI). As an award winning entrepreneur, Aparna understands the complexities for small and medium businesses working to have a positive impact on the world.

She’s the Founder of Moving Beyond, a startup building solutions to solve complex DE&I and people challenges using real-time Employee Voice & Impact data, experiential e-learning and an innovative lab approach grounded in human-centered design.Prior to Moving Beyond, she grew Firki, India’s first online teacher education platform supporting teachers in 10 states, and in 2019 she launched Future for Us, a platform to advance women of color at work and grew a professional community of 11,000.


How do you take an important but noisy subject like workplace equity and move it into the realm of data, discipline and impactful action?

How do you stay true to mission while staying solvent AND relevant to your paying clients?

How can you find the right markets to serve so you can deliver impact AND grow at the same time?

In this episode, Aparna Rae, entrepreneur and founder of Moving Beyond, talks about how to bring substance to organizational change initiatives, how to develop and effectively sell an impactful, science-based offering, non-obvious factors to consider in crafting your funding strategy, and much more.

Episode Highlights

  1. How to tap opportunity when the time is right
  2. How to bring discipline and data to a “fluffy” field
  3. How to find the power levers to make data impactful to an organization
  4. How to create a compelling service offering that can demonstrate immediate impact
  5. The secret to finding and pitching the right B2B customers for your business service offering
  6. How to leverage your service business to build a scalable product without outside funding
  7. How to select the right source of funding for your business
  8. The challenges of getting angel investment
  9. How to make the tough decisions when mission conflicts with economics
  10. How to build and nurture investor networks and relationships for long-term success

Links and Resources

Moving Beyond : The DEI analytics company that Aparna founded

Firki : India’s first online teacher platform

Interview transcript

Shubha Chakravarthy: Good afternoon, Aparna. Welcome to Invisible Ink. We’re so happy to have you here today.

Aparna Rae: Thanks for inviting me.

Shubha Chakravarthy: I have a bunch of questions for you because you have such an interesting background. So, you’re an entrepreneur now, you’ve been an investor, and you’ve done a ton of social impact work.

Tell us about the journey that brought your entrepreneurship.

Aparna Rae: The answer, for most entrepreneurs, is that we see a need in the world, and we notice that other people are either not working on it or not prioritizing it. And we jump right in.

Ten years ago, I started my first company, a nonprofit organization that upscaled immigrant and refugee women specifically to go work in the food industry. It wasn’t like there weren’t other programs that were working to upscale people in the food industry specifically, but none of them were working with immigrant refugee women.

None of them had this point of view that looks like these are actually experts in a way, right? These are the “aunties” that are making food for hundreds of people for big parties in their communities, and they’re just not commercially licensed. That was my first, and I think people either love entrepreneurship or they hate it.

I’ve loved it. It’s fun to solve problems, and it’s kind of fun to be the boss as well.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So you started this nonprofit and then what happened? Did that kind of lead you into a for profit or what happened next?

Aparna Rae: So, up until that point, I had worked in the social sector.

I was a public school teacher. I went back to graduate school. I launched a lot of education programs in South King County, which is like South Seattle.

Then I launched this nonprofit organization, which is, by the way, still around. Then I had a chance to go to India and help launch India’s first online teacher education platform. That was also really fun.

And when I came back to Seattle in 2017, the landscape had shifted. There was an appetite for workplace equity. There was kind of a natural entry for me to start doing work that I would say is a little bit cross-sector.

I do a lot of work now in the private sector, but not exclusively.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Moving Beyond, I know this is a for-profit business. It works at the intersection of DEI and business. What does the company do?

Aparna Rae: So when I started Moving Beyond, it was right before we went into lockdown.

Early-ish pandemic days I started it because I knew that there was an appetite for workplace equity work and a lot of it was training, and I think all of us have gone to our fair share of unconscious bias training and nothing changes. We go to them, we sit through them, we make fun of the things that happened to them, and then that’s kind of it.

I knew that I wanted to do work that was data-informed. I knew I wanted to do work that addressed organizational systems and processes and not just a fixation on giving people better language.

It doesn’t necessarily end in changed behaviors. Four months ago, we launched a public beta of a design and identity assessment tool that looks at both individual factors.

Like the things that I can control, and organizational factors, like what my employer controls. And it’s things like a performance management system. It’s things like what the compensation philosophy is and looking at how people are experiencing companies, there are some big differences.

And we know there are some really significant differences in how different demographic groups experience an organization and building, building the technology as well.

I think just better science so that we have a really great sense of what’s true today so that we can build a strategy and we can make investments that are going to move the needle. We’re not just continuing to do training when our people are telling us that that’s not a thing that works.

The other thing that’s really relevant is that people typically want better paid leave. People typically want more vacation, and what companies want to invest in is ERGs.

And that’s a mismatch. So I can have a women of color employee resource group, but what I really want is six months off when I have a baby. It’s important to have high quality data, and that’s really what we do.

We help organizations gather the right data and build a strategy to move the needle in areas that need work.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So it sounds like what you’re trying to do is to really bring the discipline of empiricism and data to what can be a very fluffy, feel-good topic.

How did you come up with a product design and ensure that you could kind of really help organizations drill down and bring the disciplinary data?

How did that whole process happen?

Aparna Rae: Why do we think employee experience is fluffy? Why do we think that? What about it being fluffy?

There’s a perception that it’s fluffy because the investments that people have made in the name of DE and I have largely been like, “Let’s come to this training and let’s think about our biases and let’s see how we can do better.”

And that feels really fluffy, but is having really good data about who works in your organization that fluffy? No company should be doing that anyway.

Not only should you know, but your employees should know who makes up the company. But it’s this super secret thing.

I mean, we know today that 2% of companies that are in the Fortune 500 even share demographic information. They’re legally mandated to share their demographic data with the government. This is not a secret. You have to submit something called the EEO-1 report every year if you have more than a hundred employees.

So why are you not doing it? When we think about equity and inclusion, a part of equity is who you promote and how often—that’s hard data, right?

Are we getting promoted at the same rate? Are we getting promoted at the same rate as a white man in our organization?

None of that should be perceived as being fluffy. If you are going to boast as an organization that you have an incredibly diverse internship class of summer of 2002 or that your entry-level employees are really diverse, but then I look at your leadership team, or I look at your board, and I see a bunch of pale, stale, male faces, then somebody somewhere hasn’t been paying attention.

A lot of the work that we do is quantified. Both perceived fluffy sentiments like fairness and belonging, as well as how people experience the most tangible aspects of their organization, are quantified.

How do they relate with their managers? Do they feel supported by their managers?

Is there pay equity and pay transparency? What about performance evaluation? What about recruitment?

Do you know how compensation decisions are made? Do you know how to get a promotion? And if the answer is no, then going to unconscious bias training or being a part of an ERG group is really not going to fix it.

These are institutional drivers. And look, I’ll also say that the leaders of companies are not stupid. They’re really smart by putting the DEI focus almost entirely on interpersonal issues.

What they’re saying is, “Hey, this is, you know, like, DEI, is how you all talk to each other. DEI is, are we running good meetings?

The truth is that, like the bulk of DEI’s work, it is systems change work. It’s change management work, which means the company has to take responsibility for doing it. And it’s much easier to say, “Are Aparna and Shubha getting along? If not, let’s send them to this training so they can uncover their biases.”

But what’s probably happening is that you’re getting promoted way faster.

And I’m looking and saying, “Hey, what do I have to do to rise?

They’re like, “It’s based on merit”.

And I’m like, ” Well, what is it, though? Because, like, we do the same job, but her bonus was 30,000 more. Does that make sense?”

These are all things that are happening all the time.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So you have this idea. It’s clearly compelling. Walk us through the product development itself. You have to make this a tangible and compelling proposition to, as you say, very smart business leaders. How did you do that?

Aparna Rae: We’re still figuring a lot of it out. No leader wants to collect data that’s going to make them look bad.

This makes doing any equity work really difficult in organizations because the minute they can smell that you’re asking them to gather information that’s going to make them look bad, they don’t want to do it.

So, for product development, a lot of this has been really organic.

I started getting approached by companies, I would say more progressive companies, that already bought in.

I wasn’t convincing them. I was getting asked to help them do some kind of a workplace equity assessment. I think the first couple, I hacked it together. I did some cursory research and I said, “Here are the kinds of things that we can look at.”

And then last year we said, “Look, a lot of these tools were developed by white guys in universities researching students. They weren’t even researching employees like workers and companies.

The second thing that we noticed was that there’s a world of things that you could measure and nobody’s measuring them together. We’ve taken the strengths finder or DISC assessment, that’s like our personality, but then there’s the employee engagement survey, which asks questions about managers and performance evaluation.

Then now you have your inclusion survey that’s asking questions about belonging and fairness.

Well, our work life isn’t discrete.

How do we know what impacts other things? Our research was like a pretty big effort to bring together 20 different constructs, individual constructs.

Like, who am I? What do I think? Organizational constructs, inclusion constructs, all in one place. And we tested it with  thousands and thousands and thousands of real workers. These constructs, a lot of them, were designed in the nineties with a really white workforce or a really white college-going audience in the middle class.

But that’s not really who’s coming to work now.

What about immigrants? They experience work completely differently.

What about women of color? There are many more of us now than there were 30 years ago. What about first-gen folks? What about lgbtq+ folks?

In our research, we also intentionally over-index those groups.

So whatever we were going to develop was going to be not only relevant, but it was going to be valid for measuring the experience of those populations. And then we did a bunch of real-life testing with real organizations. And that’s all the things that we did before launching our beta in April of this year.

As we were developing the product, one of the things that was clear to us was that data literacy is really low. Even for very senior leaders in very large, fancy organizations, data literacy tends to be pretty low.

The other thing is that when you’re bringing in outside consultants, let’s say you’re bringing in a Deloitte or a Mercer, they take a very long time to give you a report of what’s happening, and by the time they give you your data, half of those things don’t even matter. People have moved on, or we’ve had a big school shooting, so now the sentiment has changed, or here’s another lockdown.

In our product, we wanted to address both of those things.

The report is generated for us in real time. You close your survey, and you get your report the same day. We don’t want there to be any lag time. You should have your data right now. The other thing is that we built the report in a way that supports the lack of data literacy in the field, so that people aren’t guessing or having to triangulate different pieces like it’s in front of them.

And the most important aspects of their workforce are laid out very clearly.

Shubha Chakravarthy: It’s fascinating. It sounds like there’s a lot of de novo development of what the theoretical framework needs to be.

Aparna Rae: Mmm-hmm.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And based on that, you develop what needs to be the fundamentals of a really strong product that, frankly, isn’t out there today, which is awesome.

All of this seems to call in a lot of internal resources upon you as a person and as an entrepreneur.

What was that like? What were the challenges? Where did you find the resources and how did you bring all of that to the table? When were they needed?

Aparna Rae: We built everything and paid for everything out of pocket. entirely bootstrapped. I’ve never raised any money. I have some really smart people that I get to work with. Bringing this vision and product to life hasn’t just been my work. It’s been a team of really smart, amazing human beings.

But I think the other thing, and I’m sure you’ve heard this from other entrepreneurs that you’ve interviewed, is that when you are an older entrepreneur, you have some of the basic skills for running a business, you kind of have them.

You understand what it means to have line of sight on revenue. Our approach so far hasn’t been, I have an idea, I’m going to go raise gobs of money and figure out product market fit down the road.

What we’ve done essentially is that we’re developing in this kind of a live environment where a lot of our clients were the testers. So it wasn’t like we were doing user testing devoid of revenue.

We were saying to company X, “Hey look, you pay me $50,000 to do the work that you need to do anyway, but you also test my product”. We did a lot of that last year. I mean, we probably made a half a million dollars doing our work.

We’re getting paid to build and test and build and test and build and test. Now I think somebody might say, “Hey, but you could have raised $5 million and come up with a fancier product. Something with better user design.

Yeah, we could have. And why not? This is a better way to scale. We get to make tweaks in real time. We get to work with real organizations today and understand what the challenges are for implementation. We get to test whether we’re measuring the right things in real time.

Why have a heavy product that is much harder to change three years down the road?

Shubha Chakravarthy: I love this. This is a smart way to do it. So when you approached these organizations, what did you describe to them as your offering? Did you describe it as a product development or did you describe it as a service that you just bringing to the table?

Aparna Rae: We just described it as a service that we were bringing to the table. No company wants to be a guinea pig.

At the end of the day, you kind of need real data from real workers. Where we had longer-term relationships, we definitely said we’re testing.

We know this is like 120 questions on an engagement survey. We know it’s a lot of questions to ask, but are you willing to do it?

And some said yes, which is what has allowed us to go from almost 130 questions to like 40 questions, measuring the same 20 things. I think that we were measuring more than 20 things before, but now we’re really honed in on 20 that are the most important.

I don’t know if we always say that we’re testing or building a product. Folks were coming and saying, “I want to measure what’s happening in my organization. And we’re like, “Great. We can help you with that”.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So you’ve actually given a great answer to bootstrapping. How do you do it?

Because you just told us how you go with a service and then you build a product off of your learning from the service, which is great. Is there anything specific to acquiring customers that would be different when you go in with the intent that you’re going to build a product?

Did you do anything differently versus if you were just a regular old consultant who was going to do this for them for a living?

Aparna Rae: I don’t know. That’s a really hard question to answer. And look, when you’re a consultant that’s working at a big firm, somebody else is doing business development. And you’re coming in to deliver on a really specific thing. The good and the bad about it is that you’re not spending your time doing business development, you’re not having to figure out what the customer needs. Somebody else has done a lot of that work for you, and then you’re likely on the delivery end of things.

The bad part about it is that somebody else is giving you a scope of work. and there are no two organizations that are the same. There are many similarities, but there are no two organizations that are the same. And so what’s the right implementation approach for a construction company in Seattle versus a construction company in Boston?

They could be similarly sized, but you are going to have two totally different organizations. And so the way in which we’ve been working is that we get to undercut the big companies. By a significant amount, Like a Deloitte would charge three, four x what we charge.

We get to do that. And we’re still profitable. because our overhead is negligible. The second thing is that we just get to go deeper with the client because we’re not doing some six-week sprint and then moving on to the next project. We’re in long-term relationships, and change management needs long-term relationships as well.

So we get to build a product that’s grounded in relationships. I would even say, in some ways, it helps us develop better science. And it helps us see the realities of

implementation that you will never see in a six- or seven-week sprint. Or even if it’s a six-month sprint, you’re just not going to see it.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So clearly, you have these one-off engagements where you do a temperature check, you give them the results, and then it’s up to them. But then what you’re looking to do is to build this long-term relationship to say, “Hey, look, it doesn’t cost you as much as it would to get a Deloitte or whatever.”

How cool would it be if you could do this on a regular basis? How do you approach that from both a pitching standpoint to the customer and as well as a pricing standpoint?

Aparna Rae: The pricing is a million dollar question that I can’t say I’ve cracked. The customer’s appetite is changing constantly.

In terms of the pitching, we’re not doing a lot of cold calling. It’s just really hard to try and convince a leader, or like, especially like a CHRO, that something’s important. It’s always a much better relationship when they are looking for something and you’re a possible solution.

I’m not working on creating buy-in. We’ve been really careful about not doing a ton of cold calling because trying to convince people is an uphill battle.

And we can, because I don’t have a sales goal that I have to meet on a quarterly basis. The question of pricing, I think, is a really interesting one when it comes to equity work.

You could ask a hundred consultants and you would get a really similar answer, which is that everybody wants to do it and nobody wants to pay for it.

And certainly, we also work with billion-dollar companies whose DEI budget is $50,000. Now, I can tell you that they’re spending more money on swag like mugs and t-shirts and sweatshirts than they’re spending on equity work in their organizations.

In a way, it’s industry agnostic. It doesn’t matter if you’re a foundation, a nonprofit, a big company or a small company, relative to your revenue. Companies are spending minuscule amounts of money on this. And the majority of what they’re spending is actually on marketing. They’re not even spending it on employee experience.

The larger the company, the bigger the chunk of their sort of DEI allocation is to marketing. So, in terms of pricing, we chose to make it the most accessible and affordable for the smallest players. If you’re a nonprofit organization with 10 employees, you’re not going to pay $10,000 for any kind of an assessment, but you would pay $150.

That’s sort of how we’ve been thinking about pricing. Is it accessible for small and mid-size businesses? And we will price it for that.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And in that process, have you found anything, any learnings useful to you in terms of either benchmarking it to a value that they get? How do you do price justification? Because that’s, I imagine, the hardest thing about what you’re doing and selling.

Aparna Rae: Yeah, I honestly think selling into the mid-market is the easiest. You don’t have to justify asking for $10 per head count or $12 per head count because we know that they’re spending roughly three to five hundred bucks per person on things like due subscriptions, SAS licenses, et cetera.

In the bucket of things that we typically fall under, it’s been the easiest to justify. Mid-market is also the simplest to say that size is also the simplest to work in. They have enough employees that there’s richness in the data. You’ve got 10 employees, like two people answer one way and like your score shifts wildly.

But if you’ve got a few hundred to a few thousand employees, you’ve got enough people to have anonymity. You’ve got a richness in the data. And they’re not so big yet that they can’t make decisions, so you don’t have the bureaucracy of a Fortune 500 yet.

The hardest kinds of organizations to justify charging anything at all, honestly, are nonprofit organizations and social impact organizations.

I’m doing customer calls and they’ll say,” Hey, what’s your discount for nonprofits? And in my mind, I’m like, “Well, is it free for me if I come work for you?”

“Does the work happen in some magic realm that doesn’t require my time”? I still have to do it, or my team still has to deliver on it, and I still have to pay everybody to do it.

So, those are the hardest ones. And you know, for what it’s worth, and this is not a popular opinion, I try not to work with nonprofit organizations.

It almost doesn’t matter what size they are. The question always is how to get more done cheaper and faster. And change management just isn’t a discountable thing. This is not buying t-shirts in bulk.

On the whole, we’ve not only been able to justify the pricing that we have in the mid-market segment, but right out of the gate, we have many multi-year contracts where our delivery still makes it profitable.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Which brings us to the question of growth and scaling right now. Clearly, you’re building it off of a platform to be scalable.

You want to move from a service to a product model. Looking forward, do you anticipate that you’ll need external funding? And if so, what’s your funding strategy?

Aparna Rae: We’re definitely going to hit a point where in order to scale we are going to need funding.

Where my mind is right now is that I need a little bit more time to get really clear on the product market fit. How do we justify working with them to our end customer? We haven’t quite honed in on it, and it’s a pretty noisy space as well.

There are lots of products, there are lots of consultants, and so I think by the end of this year, we’ll probably have about a hundred customers under our belt, and we ourselves will have data to make decisions about where to go next.

And I think it’s at that point that I’ll be ready to fundraise and really scale in whatever direction emerges as being the right one.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And do you have any thoughts you’d care to share about what kinds of sources you’d like to tap for fundraising? Are there things you will approach versus things that may not be as good a fit for the kind of organization you want to be?

Aparna Rae: I think for us, institutional is going to be the way to go. I don’t see us raising angel funding. But that’s where I am today. The other way that I’m thinking about fundraising potentially in the future is that we don’t work with enterprises and we don’t want to work with enterprises of scale.

They have plenty of products and their needs and requirements are so very different, like a Microsoft versus a Zillow. You have like almost a million employees on one side and like less than 3000 employees on the other side.

I think one of the, the best ways to, is gonna be through LOI’s and, and having secured some multi-year commitments, with some of the cash upfront to be able to build and deploy rather than raise, venture capital and now you’re in debt because that’s, it’s debt.

You give up ownership, and oftentimes when you raise money like that, you’re also giving up doing the right thing.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Which is interesting because angel investing has come up many times when I talk to people on the supply side of capital as almost a perfect fit for women and underrepresented founders.

And yet, I hear you say you probably won’t go that route. What’s the thinking behind that?

Aparna Rae: Well, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Angel investors tend to want to know what’s happening. They want updates, and they’ll have invested $10,000, and I’m like, for $10,000, do you get a lot of my time?

Do you want to look at my P&L? Well, I don’t think you get that.

So I think that there’s that aspect of angel investing that I don’t super love. But I think the other aspect for us is that equity work is a little bit like education. People really think that they know what the right way of doing it is.

I want somebody to tell me how to build it or do it, because they think they know, and we’re at this moment right now where the bulk of who you hear from when it comes to workplace equity is influencers. There are not people that are doing this work embedded in organizations.

They have never ever done that as a part of their job. They write books, they write articles, and they have a great public presence. And that’s who a lot of organizations and leaders are learning from. And so there’s this idea that, like, anybody can be an expert in this, but I just don’t think that that’s true.

It’s a controversial opinion to have, but passion and interest alone doesn’t make you an expert.

And I think going the institutional route, the chances are that there is a better fit around the kind of technology that you wanna build, the kind of customers that you wanna chase, and better science and much less, much less the opinions of passionate individuals that are giving me $10,000.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Enlightening. Thank you for sharing that. So listening to you, it feels like it’s been a very eventful journey. A lot of learning along the way. You’re kind of discovering your path as you go along. What kind of resourceful person have you found most helpful?

What have you found to be the most helpful that you think would have been definitive and really decisive in helping you accelerate your progress?

Aparna Rae: Well, I don’t know that my progress is so accelerated. We’re not slow, but we’re not fast. We don’t have the speed of a heavily resourced organization.

Actually, what’s helpful is learning from VC’s about what makes or breaks a product. So I lean pretty hard on other investors, like institutional investors, in what they have learned over time from watching similar products either fail or thrive or have just great exits.

These are folks that have been in leadership roles in companies that have built similar things.

So one of the companies that we look at a lot is PayScale, which is also based in Seattle and is learning from their executives, testing assumptions with them, looking at pricing matrices with them.

So what’s really been helpful is having advisors that have experience on the sales and customer success end of things.

But also having people on the team that just have the science chops. We worked really closely with a psychologist in the development of this product. And she has a PhD in Iowa psychology. That’s the right person for us to be working with, and make sure that we’re not making stuff up that we’re, for instance, working with the data scientist.

I think those have all been helpful, but I think at the end of the day, slowing things down and really paying attention to who your customer is, how they think—that’s nothing beats just being in a great relationship with your customer, because at the end of the day, you can raise a lot of money, and there’s no doubt that lots of people raise lots of money. And then re building products, maybe.

Just like I think a few years ago, all of us bought Glossier because Glossier was in our face all day every day. I know I’m not the only one. but I wouldn’t make that choice again.

I’m not going to be a return customer, and yeah, with a product like that, it’s in years two, three, four, and five that you’re making the bulk of your revenue.

I think sometimes going slow to go far has been a thing that’s served me.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So that resonated a lot. Question though, So you said you, you relied on VCs and senior executives. One thing that I think is pretty clear out there from a data perspective is that it’s very hard for people who are not already successful entrepreneurs, especially if you’re not white and male, to get the time of day with any VC.

I doubt if I wrote to somebody at Sequoia or whatever, anybody’s going to get back to me.

How did you manage to break in and how would you recommend that others get access to that kind of expertise?

Aparna Rae: You have to be, I think, a little bit shameless in doing the outreach. I think ultimately that’s the truth.

I wish we lived in a different world. I honestly wish that we lived in a world where if somebody got an email from you at Sequoia, they would at least open it and say, “Oh yeah, like this is an interesting request. I’m going to respond to it.”

For me, as a model that really stands out, and not for everybody, is the way that professors and universities work. And so one of the things that I personally think has been really cool in my experience is that if you read somebody’s paper and you have some questions, we actually do this all the time.

We’ll read somebody’s paper; we’ll have looked at their research; we have some questions; we’ll write to them and we’ll say, “Hi, professor, so and so random human here. Definitely not your student. Can we chat with you about this? We’re doing this other thing that’s connected”, and I’ll say that eight out of 10 times, you’ll get a response back. And sometimes you get detailed notes on the questions that you have.

What if more people worked that way?

Shubha Chakravarthy: I completely agree. I love it. And does that, has that worked with VCs or people in the investment world?

Aparna Rae: No. 100%. So, similarly, somebody at Sequoia is going to get my email and they’re going to be like, “Aparna, who? Delete”. They’re not even going to open the email.

But here’s the thing: if I asked someone like John Smith to introduce me to said VC at Sequoia, then they would at least meet me for 15 minutes.

So I think what I’ve done in my shamelessness is keep a pretty tight Rolodex of allies that can make introductions and that will make introduction after introduction after introduction.

It’s important, I think. Underestimated founders, we just have to work extra hard to make that first meeting go really well.

And I’ve done that as well.

Shubha Chakravarthy: At least you’re clear that you’re not raising it yet. Do you do anything to position it so that they know you’re not coming with an ask?

So there’s the old adage that says, “Yeah, if you want money, ask for advice. So how do you position that?

Aparna Rae: That’s the best advice. If you want money, ask for advice. So the other thing that I’ll say, and this is also true, for instance, job searches, If you are only networking with people when you desperately need a new job, these are not going to be great conversations.

Because I have a sense of urgency and I’m asking you for a favor, and it is a favor.

And you don’t have that urgency, right? You’re like, “Sure, I’ll make some introductions”. And three weeks later, you still haven’t made them.

And me, I’m like, “Can you make this thing? Can you make the introduction? Like, I need a job now”.

So it’s similar. If you make networking part of the cadence of just who you are and how you work, you don’t have to think of it as networking. You can really just think of it as: I need to continue building my second-level network. I need to have a lot of people in the know.

If you do that, then the day that you need the favor, well, you’ve already built the relationship. So then you could actually say, “Hey, now I’m thinking of a raise. Who do you think in your network would be the right person for me to connect with?” But I’ve already had four conversations with you over the past year, right?

You already know that I’m not like a dum-dum. You have a sense of what I’ve been working on and it’s not a random ask.

Somebody, a very long time ago, probably 15 years ago, said to me, you should meet three new people a week. It’s a really high number. It kind of shakes out to about 10 people a month, after accounting for holidays and what have you.

Meet a lot of people. But it works. Make it a point to meet people. And to that end, when I get messages in my inbox from early-career professionals or people who want to change directions, I rarely say no.

And especially if it’s another woman of color, I almost never say no.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And to that same point, there clearly has to be some kind of reciprocity for them to continue to talk to you.

What have you found most helpful to make that a two-way relationship, especially maybe early on when you’re starting out and these guys are successful VCs or what have you? How do you make that work?

Aparna Rae: I think that authenticity is the currency. People in big jobs and decision-making roles rarely get to have conversations with someone who is deeply curious and is just being themselves.

They’re constantly having to talk to people that are putting on a face to look good, to look smart, and we all know how we feel when someone does that too. Who likes that? Who enjoys that interaction? Not me, just be real.

I think that the more that we can be ourselves now, the caveat is that some people are going to see that as being lazy or sloppy. That’s a very real risk. I think we have to manage that for ourselves.

I know for me, some of the best relationships that I’ve developed, especially with, I would say, middle-aged white men who hold a lot of the power and a lot of the money have just come by showing up as myself.

Plus, I’ll connect them to people too, you know. Because look, if they’re an investor and they’re trying to diversify their portfolio, they don’t know black and brown people.

And I certainly do!

Shubha Chakravarthy: I love it. So then, through this whole journey, it’s been full of twists and turns, lots of learning, lots of struggle.

Have there been some particularly dark moments that made you come close to giving up or that made you really question yourself? And how did you get over those?

Aparna Rae: Oh my gosh. I feel like every year there is one of those moments. I had one earlier this year where I wanted to shut shop, and there are big shifts on my team.

I definitely went through a phase where I was like, “Why do I have to make all of these decisions? What does it look like for other people to have ownership?

How do you push through? I don’t know the answer for anybody else. I think for me, it comes down to my personal theory of change and what kind of impact I want to have in the world. Am I operating in a way that helps me get there?

If the answer is making the choice to shut my company down or to close out the product, and if it doesn’t help me get there, then I need to go back to the drawing board and figure it out.

And I think there’ve been a couple of times in the last two years where I’ve just felt so underwater and so exhausted from the responsibility of making payroll and customer acquisition and product vision and all of the things where, yeah, I’ve had to go to the drawing board and say, “Is there another way for me to have the kind of impact that I want? Should I go to work at Amazon? Will it help me get there?”

And if the answer is no, then I’ve got to figure this out right here, right now.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And if there was one thing that, somebody could wave a magic wand and have made different for you to either speed up or improve, make more effective this whole process, what would that have been?

Aparna Rae: Money.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So it comes down to funding?

Aparna Rae: It comes down to funding.

I think that and In a way, I don’t know that it necessarily matters, even if you are venture funded, unless you’re some outlandishly well resourced person. Unless you’re Adam Newman, who got a half a billion dollars. And you’ve just got gobs of thrown away money.

Most founders, I think, we look at those outliers, and people assume that when you go out to raise money, you’re going to get hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s not true. Even though I think the pre-seed and seed rounds have been getting bigger and Series A has been getting bigger.

What’s the check size? It’s like in the pre-seed stage, you’re raising a million, maybe 1.2.

It’s not tons at seed. Yeah, I mean, with even big seed rounds, $5 million. Right. And if you do the math, how many people’s salary does a million dollars pay? Not that many. 

Plus infrastructure costs, plus, if you’re now going to market your marketing budget suddenly is gonna become, it’s gonna go from like zero to like 30% of your budget.

Where is that money going to come from? And unfortunately, money is also what helps to buy expertise, right? Nobody with a PhD in Iowa, psychology wants to work for $60,000 a year at a startup when they could be making a quarter million dollars a year working at a Fortune 1000 company.

Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s a great point.

You mentioned earlier that money comes with strings if you go to a VC. So what would’ve made it possible? What kind of money would have made your journey better? What would that have to come with it?

Aparna Rae: I think that had the money come without having to give up equity, that would’ve been great.

I think that money also comes with expertise. It’s one thing to get the science, but it’s a whole other thing to build it in a way that’s appealing to your end customer that’s not interested in science. I think that when you have institutional dollars there, that’s part of what you get is expertise.

You have people that have helped companies build and sell SaaS products and have exits with SaaS products. The things to think about today that I think would’ve made, in fact, maybe even more than money, having that expertise earlier would’ve made a bigger difference.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And in your view, the biggest challenge to, or the barrier to, getting that is?

Aparna Rae: This is like a one-foot in front of the other problem. It’s like, “What moves first? Raising money isn’t like a magical activity. You don’t just say, “Oh, I want to raise money. great. Now I’ve raised it. I remember sitting down to talk with Tiffany Dufu, who is the founder and CEO of the Cru, right?

You know who she is. She’s amazing. I’ve known Tiffany for what seems like a gazillion years, and I remember speaking with her three years ago when she had just finished her like million dollar raise, and I said, “Hey, how long did it take you to get there?” She had already written a book. She already had a significant following.

She was a well-known person. She said to me, 60 conversations, 60 different entities, institutional and individual. 60).

So here’s me. I’m not Tiffany today yet, but if it takes Tiffany Dufu 60 conversations to get a million dollars, how many conversations is that going to take me?

Shubha Chakravarthy: So it’s just the friction and the cost of having to prove yourself over and over and still not get the check. In the average number of conversations, it should Is that a fair characterization?

Aparna Rae: Yeah, it’s also about time, right? It is about time.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And if there were one thing that could have made that process easier, is there something that you’re seeing lacking today that might help others coming behind you? Make it easier?

Aparna Rae: I don’t think that it’s about the people that are coming behind me. The world is full of really smart entrepreneurs who have some really incredible ideas. I think the challenge is a systems challenge. It’s who we’re choosing to take seriously. It’s what innovation is that we see as being important.

And, as long as there is a mismatch between the decision maker and the entrepreneur, we’re not coming from the same place.

And as long as that exists, they are not going to choose us. They’re going to make it harder for us to jump through the hoops. Many of us don’t come from families where money is talked about. You can go and raise a million dollars from friends and family.

I could never ask my parents for money. That’s not on the table. They don’t have investments. This was not right. So what I need to be successful is going to be really different. But when I walk into a room and ask questions about the difference between a priced round and a non-priced round, it makes them think that I’m stupid and they’re turned off.

How is that going to work? The investors and decision makers, they have to do a little bit of the work in educating a new crop of entrepreneurs. We can Google lots of things, but you don’t learn by googling your whole entire life. You learn in relationships. And so, yeah, I think it’s a systems challenge.

How do you change that? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how that shifts because what’s true right now is that investors are willing to give and throw away money to people that will throw away their money rather than give a much smaller amount to somebody who’s going to make it grow.

Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s very insightful. Thank you.

The second time I’ve heard that term, “throw away money. It’s just interesting. So throughout all of this, Really challenging journey. You managed to stay on course. You’re still here fighting, and we’re rooting for you.

Have there been any crowning moments that made it all worthwhile, that kept you going and that inspired you?

Aparna Rae: There’s a part of me that feels like the crowning moment is ahead of me. Yeah, I think if you had asked me like 10 questions, I would’ve come up with like five things that I’m super proud of.

And the older I get, the more I’m like, “Gosh, like I think in some ways the best, most impactful days of my life are ahead of me because every year I have insights about the world that help me be better at the work that I do”. I hope this is true for most of us.

I felt like I was going through a really particularly hard dark spring, and then, I was named 40 under 40 by the Puget Islam Business Journal. That was kind of a moment where I said, “Okay, other people in my community are noticing that I’m doing things that are important”. So that, I think, has been a big win.

But I’ll take it back, you know, at the end of the day, watching your customers change the world  – that’s actually the ultimate flex. That’s actually the ultimate win. And I have won.

Some of the work that, our customers have done over the last couple of years in partnership with us have been game changers. We work with a construction company going on. This is our third year working with them.

So we’ve worked with them right from the very beginning, and I just see the allocation of their project budgets to diverse subcontractors go from single digits to double digits. When you’re a billion dollar company, that’s significant. that’s like hundreds of millions of dollars that you’re pumping with diverse other businesses in your community.

And that has a real tangible impact. When we think about equity and we’ve only thought about training, we don’t realize that pumping an additional hundred million dollars into your community has a significant impact on the lives of those business owners, their families, their employees, and their ability to win other business.

Those are the kinds of things that I think, at the end of the day, I feel particularly proud of and that keep you in business.

Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s what we want to hear. If you had to give, I don’t want to say advice, but if you had to, give your voice of experience to somebody following behind you or your younger self, who wants to be an entrepreneur who wants to make an impact, but do it in a way that’s far more profitable, value-adding business. What would you say?

Aparna Rae: Oh, what would I say? I would say make other people do the work for you. I’ll say a little bit more. So this is advice that came to me a very long time ago. In the context of job searching, I was doing an informational interview with somebody, and she said, “Look, you can do a tonne of research or every person that you talk to, you can make them do the work for you and tell you X, y, and Z things, because it’s going to take you 10 hours to get there.”

It’s going to take this person, who’s in it right now, 10 minutes to tell you. So ask them. Ask them.

I was like, “What a bizarre thing. Get somebody else to do the work for you. That’s odd”. And I’ve used it. I’ve used it consistently. And so if you want to become an entrepreneur, find a couple of really great mentors and have them tell you what the things are, what the steps are, and ask them to make the connections.

Even if you have to research customers, ask somebody who’s already done it what the right process is.

How do you qualify a lead? Somebody else has already done it. Many people have done it many times, and they know how to do it well. Don’t break your brain on Google. Ask somebody.

Get them to do the work for you. And I think we forget that as entrepreneurs, and especially I think as women, we want to work hard. We don’t want to be seen as lazy. Yeah, And you could still ask somebody else.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Which brings me to my last question. I’m a South Asian woman. I share that heritage with you.

How has this whole experience turned out for you, because you’re South Asian, you’re a woman of color? What have been your impressions, your experiences? Can you talk a bit about that?

Aparna Rae: Yeah, so I’m a South Asian woman who doesn’t look very South Asian. I don’t present myself as being very South Asian, and unless you were South Asian, you wouldn’t know from my name that I was either.

I’ll say the upshot of being South Asian is that our people have built credibility as entrepreneurs, as founders, as hard workers. There are lots of myths in play today that support those of us that are coming up through the ranks. Fewer women, many more men, and lots of South Asian male CEOs.

The downside is that because of the nature of the South Asian diaspora in the United States, there’s an assumption that you come from wealth or that you come from resources because of who we’ve seen rise. This is a double-edged sword. Yes, I have credibility, but you also assume that I have resources, which I don’t.

So how do I school you in a way that doesn’t make you feel bad but that you’re actually going to help me take my next step forward? And with all of that said, I will say that, playing to the model minority stereotype, it makes me feel pretty gross.

The longer I live and the more awareness I have about this country specifically, it’s really gross to me it’s really gross that a South Asian woman is getting opportunities, even if it’s data work, but it’s still equity work that these opportunities are not going to Black women, for instance.

I think it’s a mixed bag.

Shubha Chakravarthy: I’ll leave you with one last question. If you had your druthers and your company became the most successful, what would that vision be? What does that world look like?

Aparna Rae: What does the world look like? I want nothing more than a future of work where policies, practices, and behaviours are driven by human need and not the human capacity for resilience and overwork.

Shubha Chakravarthy: And how would that translate to the organizational context where you do your work with Moving Beyond?

Aparna Rae: If I’m successful, the companies that we work with or like the ecosystem at large, let’s say we are a billion or many billion dollar company. I would love for there to be universal paid leave.

I would love for us to work in an environment where we all make a living wage and. Where salary schedules are transparent.

A lot of the research that we do today is in helping organizations see that, “look, you can say you have pay equity, but if you don’t pay a living wage to two thirds of your population, then you could take your pay equity certification” and, at the end of the day, what is equity?

I think we have to broaden the definition of what it is outside of training and ERGs into, do people make living wages? Is it transparent how those numbers are arrived at?

Are we working in environments where we take care of parents? Are we taking care of birthing people? I mean, one of the stats that really stands out to me is that before the pandemic, early 2020 or at the end of 2019, something like, not quite 50% of companies were offering some form of paid leave.

And that number right now has halved.

Therefore, fewer companies are offering paid family and medical leave today than they did two and a half years ago. To me, this is absolutely mind-blowing. Do we not realize the necessity and the impact? Have we not been in conversation about this very fact for the last two and a half years?

So you saw your parents slog and get broken, and what you’ve decided is that you deserve less or none of it.

So if I’m wildly successful, like hopefully in five years, we’re not even having this conversation, because part of having a workplace experience that works for all people has to be grounded in what those people need. You give me the time, space, and resources that I need to be successful.

Shubha Chakravarthy: This has been fantastic. Thank you very much. Count me a big fan, and I’ll be standing there cheering you on. Thank you so much for your time.

Aparna Rae: Thank you.