This post is a reprint of an in-depth profile by McKinsey & Company on Phalgun Raju, the CEO & Founder of expertDB.
Phalgun Raju divides her time between her startup studio Morph Ventures and her philanthropic projects run through Morph.org. Her goal? To make a difference and have an impact in the world.
This is the twenty-second in our ‘Focus on Founders’ series of articles about alumni entrepreneurs.
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Like every true entrepreneur, Phalgun Raju (CLE 99-03) enjoys trying to solve big problems.
Her startup studio Morph Ventures builds mobile and internet products and services, creating teams to scale them as separate entities over time. Its main three priorities: solving problems through digital marketplaces, using cloud services to host innovative applications that tackle specific issues, and re-engineering industries.
Morph Ventures is currently focused on the recently launched expertDB, a marketplace helping companies find and hire the right experts for their business while helping experts get discovered and grow their professional network and reputation.
The target audience includes both companies and individuals. “Our clients are F1000 companies, investment firms, and large consulting firms who are looking to find and hire the right subject-matter experts for very quick insights, data, or short-term or long-term projects. On the other side experts are looking for clients, which is very word-of-mouth today. We have seen a tremendous number and range of projects to date — everything from clients hiring data-science experts to come up with algorithms, to engineers to solve design problems, to industry and functional subject-matter experts for multi-month projects.”
“I want to have an impact now”
But Phalgun is equally interested in social ventures. “I didn’t want to be one of those folks that says, ‘Hey, I’ll wait till I’m 60 and retired and then I’ll start giving back.’ I want to have an impact now while I have the energy,” she explains.
With her husband, fellow alum Nick Nash (NYO 00-02), she created the philanthropic foundation Morph.org. The organization generates ideas for social ventures and projects in India and other emerging markets, funding and building them through key partners.
Key projects to date include the Ramanujan Project, sponsoring exceptionally talented low-income students of mathematics in India, and DonorFind, a location-based mobile application for registering for blood and bone marrow donation.
The Ramanujan Project is named after famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, who made outstanding contributions to mathematics in the early years of the twentieth century despite coming from a very poor background.
“Ramanujan happened to get discovered by the right people,” says Phalgun. “He went to the United Kingdom and the rest is history, as they say.”
“If you look at a country like India with over a billion in population, I’m sure there are plenty of children who are severely under-privileged but are brilliant,” Phalgun adds. “We wanted to figure out how to give them educational opportunities. So we’ve partnered with some programs in the US that are top mathematics programs for pre-university students who are at International Math Olympiad level or beyond.”
She isn’t limiting her efforts to India, either. “What’s interesting is that we’ve got a lot of interest to now expand this into Pakistan as well as Indonesia. So it’s a program that we think is serving several purposes. Number one, it’s creating educational opportunities. But number two, we want to create an active alumni group over time of these really good students for them to stay connected.”
With DonorFind, Phalgun has turned her attention to the area of healthcare, leveraging her background in mobile technology. Described as “the Uber for blood and bone marrow donation,” DonorFind is a simple location-based mobile app where people can sign up as a blood, bone marrow, plasma or platelet donor, or all of the above. “After that, anyone from patients, hospitals or blood banks can send notifications when they’re in need, and the app can connect them,” says Phalgun.
She was inspired to create the app by seeing urgent Facebook messages from concerned friends and family members of people who need bone marrow of a certain type.
“If you look at emerging markets like India or elsewhere, the issues in finding blood are even more severe,” she explains. “In India, hospitals will routinely run out of the different blood types. And they’ll pretty much leave it up to the patients to go figure it out.”
“DonorFind is a very simple matching system,” Phalgun says. Simple, but startlingly effective. In 2015 DonorFind won the 2015 GMIC [Global Mobile Internet Conference] Social Innovation Award. “This year we’re looking to scale it up in terms of getting a lot of donors and blood blanks on board,” she adds. Her dream? “To reach a million plus donors within the next few years.”
A passion for entrepreneurship
After leaving McKinsey, Phalgun worked at Nokia, Google, and mobile ad network InMobi (founded by fellow alum Naveen Tewari). Throughout this period she remained passionate about entrepreneurship.
She explains: “Within all of the companies where I worked, I would go out of my way to find opportunities and roles where I’d be literally building businesses from scratch or from a very small base. I was just naturally always excited and interested in doing entrepreneurial things, even if it was within a large company.”
“Even at Google I developed a bunch of completely new businesses,” she says. “I was always doing things like that. So once it came to the point of actually starting my own, I’d kind of seen it all in a sense.”
She knew exactly what she was getting into, too, having experimented with entrepreneurship early on. “I had tried doing a startup once, right after business school after I left McKinsey. That didn’t work out, but I had a taste of it. And I knew how to scale – what not to do, things like that.”
Breaking into a boys’ club?
Phalgun received the 2014 Women Super Achiever Award from the World Women Leadership Congress. She often speaks at events about being a female business leader. What is her viewpoint on being a woman entrepreneur?
“What’s interesting is the implication is that there are major obstacles to overcome as a woman,” she says. “I kind of have a bit of a contrarian viewpoint on that. Fortunately in my career, I haven’t really run into issues of people treating me a different way because I’m a woman, that I’m aware of.”
However, she clarifies, “that’s not to say that it doesn’t exist. As a woman in a business environment, I think there are certain behaviors you have to emulate for people to take you seriously as an entrepreneur. For instance, they want to know that you’re driven, you’re in it, you’re passionate and can make the hard decisions. All the things they would want to know from a male entrepreneur – but it’s even more important that women articulate those traits.”
Phalgun says she has always seen herself as someone who would lead a company. “Fundamentally I enjoy leading, building and scaling businesses. I’ve always liked that. What’s interesting is that early in my career I always assumed my eventual path would be a CEO or CXO role at a mid- to large technology company. But working at InMobi and then having the idea for expertDB re-sparked in me this desire to build something from scratch.”
The making of an entrepreneur
What are the character traits that make a successful builder of businesses? For Phalgun the answer is clear: “You have to be tenacious, you have to think strategically, you have to be analytical. And I think attention to detail is really important.”
“McKinsey drilled it into me that you need to be really structured and rigorous in your thinking,” she says. “That is a fantastic skill or background to have. So a big part of my approach when we need to solve problems or we come across challenges is asking what are all the variables, and being very structured and dogmatic about going after that.”
Whether it’s at Morph Ventures or Morph.org, Phalgun’s goal is to make a difference. “The thing that I’m enjoying about all of this is the feeling of knowing that you’re building something that you hope and think will have an impact in the world. I think every entrepreneur when they’re embarking on whatever journey they choose is fundamentally hoping to do that.”
Building a great team is equally important, she believes. “You’re fundamentally building not only the company but also the team and the culture and the people. From your first employee onward you are putting together that fantastic team of folks that have that right combination of entrepreneurial energy and skills. That whole process of building is what’s exciting.”
When it comes to hiring new staff, Phalgun takes a somewhat unconventionally named approach. “I call it the ‘Kick-Ass Framework,'” she laughs: “A for Attitude, S for Smarts and S for Skills, in that order.”
“Number one is looking for the right attitude. In an entrepreneurial setting, that means you need people who are comfortable wearing multiple hats, that are positive despite challenges and who are problem-solving-oriented,” she explains.
“Number two is smart. Are they with it? That doesn’t mean necessarily have they done this task for ten years. It means they can figure things out when everything goes haywire.”
“The last piece is skills. There are exceptions, of course, but most skills, at least at a baseline, can be taught or improved,” she concludes.
The road has not always been easy, of course. “The hardest lesson I have had to learn is not to hire for skill alone,” says Phalgun. “That’s especially the case in an entrepreneurial environment because you don’t have the buffer zone of a large company. So you can’t have anything but the best people working with you.”
“In our case, were fortunate: We have a fantastic team,” she adds. “But in the past I’ve certainly experienced situations – and I’m sure most people have – where people on the team have a poor attitude. Whether it’s on your team or other folks, you see that it’s such a drain on the team.”
“The biggest learning I’ve seen from observing it with other teams is that you just need to make a decision quickly. Far too often you let things continue, hoping for the best. And sometimes that’s just not a good solution for the rest of the team.”
In terms of other challenges, Phalgun says it’s all about classic business building: “How do we scale up? How do we scale up quickly? How do we scale up soundly?”
Her own motivation is clear: “It’s about building things that you hope will have an impact of scale. You have this one precious life, so what are you going to do with it? What really motivates me is that I’m working on interesting, big problems and trying to solve them.”
What advice would she give others thinking of launching their own venture? Above all, to get some experience first. “Experiencing a high-growth start-up environment is a good learning opportunity to test if being an entrepreneur is actually your cup of tea,” she says.
“A lot people think entrepreneurship sounds kind of sexy. But the reality is, once you’re in a high-growth startup you experience the nitty-gritty of having to build things from scratch without a lot of structure around you. It’s a great opportunity to understand whether or not you even like this.”
“It’s like a huge rollercoaster ride,” she warns. “There’ll be huge highs and there’ll be huge lows.”
Phalgun would encourage any alumni reading this to take a look at her startups. “If there are any alumni who would like to be a donor on DonorFind, they can justdownload it from the Google Play Store or visit the website and sign up as a donor. It’s very simple and takes less than a minute. And if alumni would like to utilize their subject-matter expertise by working with top clients, they can join expertDB.”