The Vishipedia Show Transcripts: Ria Shroff — On Breaking Glass Ceilings, Identifying Your Core Skills, And Navigating Through Self-Doubt (#13)
Please enjoy the transcript of my interview with Head of Human Capital at Blume VC, Ria Shroff Desai. The transcripts may contain a few typos—it’s hard to spot all of them in episodes that are over an hour long. Have fun!
You can listen to the interview here, or on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.
Vishal Kataria: What’s up ladies and gentlemen, kittens and puppies. Welcome to another episode of The Vishipedia Show where I deconstruct the rituals habits and mindsets of artists, entrepreneurs, and experts, and distill their wisdom in ways that help you become a better version of yourself.
My guest for this episode is Ria Shroff, the head of Human Capital at Blume VC. As Blume builds the ecosystem to support Indian startups, Ria supports the founders to build a great team internally that powers this engine, as well as a progressive workplace, driven by ownership, innovation, commitment, and purpose.
Ria has done things that a lot of people would call unconventional in her life. For instance, she started working in the not-for-profit sector as the Executive Assistant to the CEO at Teach for India before moving to the private sector at Sula Vineyards as the Chief of Staff, and eventually becoming the Associate VP of People Operations, and then moving to Blume VC. She has left a powerful mark in predominantly male industries like wine and Venture Capital and her insights, especially on social media are often on how to get things done, a theme that deeply resonates with me as well.
Ria is on LinkedIn as Ria Shroff Desai and her Twitter handle is at @riashroff. I’ll leave all those links in the show notes as well.
In this episode, we deep dive into topics like how she broke the glass ceilings repeatedly in her career, how she overcame self-doubt and became comfortable with herself, how she identified what she truly enjoys and built the requisite skills to do it, why she can’t do without four large cups of black coffee a day, and more.
I hope you enjoy listening to this as much as we did recording this conversation. So without further ado, Hi Ria. Welcome to The Vishipedia Show.
Ria Shroff Desai: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Vishal: And it’s my pleasure to have you here as well. I’ve been following your work on LinkedIn for a while, and it’s very interesting to see the transition in your career. What has the personal growth been in you over the years and what your learnings have been in that?
Ria: So I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t call it a transition because that would mean that I knew what I was doing and [laughs] knowingly moved on to something else. I think it’s been a series of wonderful coincidental opportunities that led me to where I was. And I think it also sort of signifies growth and change in what I believe to be important work to be done.
I think every role that I’ve done alongside my career has been defined by what I thought was the most important impact I could make given my skills at that point in my life. I did go through similar questions and dilemmas that I think any young professional goes through as they’re trying to figure out their space in the world, what they’re good at, what they can contribute.
Vishal: What do you see as the talents and opportunities that have intersected to make you the professional you are today.
Ria: One of the most pivotal times in my life was when I was 16, the time when I went to an international boarding school. First time away from home…
Vishal: Where was that?
Ria: I went to an IB school just outside Pune. This was a United World College. The UWC movement is a global movement. The precepts of that came actually out of the Second World War. The idea was, can we get people from different backgrounds to come together and create a model of coexistence, so that when these individuals grow up and potentially become world leaders and game-changers in their own right, they know what problem-solving and healthy conflict resolution looks like. And so it literally is a series of boarding schools across the world where you have 100-200 students living together, and they purposely used to bring students from different backgrounds, different geographies.
I ended up there because in 10th Standard when I was sort of evaluating what my next steps were, I was very reluctant to pick the Arts, Science, or Commerce model. I was very hesitant to pick just one thing and the way education had been planned out for us you picked this and that’s it. It defined your life, your career, all the choices that you make from it. Maybe because of my upbringing and the ability to choose options in my life as a kid from my parents, I couldn’t see myself and just sticking to it.
I’m very glad that world has changed today, but in 2003 when I was trying to figure out what to do next, I started looking at different options together with my parents, and this model, this school, had just come into India. The system was fairly new compared to the proliferation of IB schools that you see today, and we decided to go for it. It was supposed to be multi-disciplinary, it was supposed to be community driven. You were supposed to work in a community and make an impact. And at that point, those aspects did call out to me.
I think a big takeaway from those two years was, one, the immense sense of empowerment that young people got. I wouldn’t say kids because they were treating us like adults at 16 and 17, which people do that all over the world. You know, you have people taking significantly large life decisions.
The other principle of United World Colleges is that anything you do has to be for good. We had conversations at a young age about how to balance that with capitalism, idealism, greed, society. But it was intrinsically driven down that whether you decide to go work at the UN or in medicine, or whether you decide to be a scientist, you have to contribute back to society. I can’t think of any stronger principle that has sort of governed my decisions and my choices.
And even my thinking, even as I work with corporates or, you know, for-profit companies. And I think that sort of shaped the kind of roles that I chose to do over there and making a profile, making a set of guiding principles that I felt worked for me.
Vishal: What did you discover the values that drove you at that time when you were studying in the US?
I think the biggest thing that I discovered was I like bringing people together. I realized there is immense value in the power of collective action that guided a lot of thought, that I did a lot that guided a lot of my actions on student activities, events, and then moving on, looking at the kind of first jobs that I would want to go into.
I found I’m probably drawn much more into the community and impact side of things, and really figuring out how can I help do something better. I think I was always in the space where I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I think people are doing great work the world over. I don’t believe in competing for resources, but I kind of wanted to figure out a way to contribute to someone’s great idea.
Vishal: Nice. Now I’d like to circle back to your days at UWC. You said one thing they really taught you was the understanding of good, when they said that you had to make a positive impact on society. How did they define good? And how did they sort of imbibe it in you? How did they convince you of what good really was?
Ria: I don’t think there was one definition of good, right? Again, good is subjective based on who’s looking at it. I think they talked a lot about impact. They talked a lot about recognizing privilege. There was a lot of work that was done in the United may seem like a lot for 16-year-olds sitting together to talk about these things.
But a lot of intentional discussions were had around something like how do we recognize the privilege we have because of the circumstances that we’ve been born in and what can we do to make things more fair? What can we do to make things more equitable? And what they did well as part of the curriculum and from our teachers was just the simple fact that, that there are multiple sides to a story.
So anytime you hear something, anytime you see something, you need to see also what’s not being said. You need to also understand who is not in the room for this discussion and why, and who does this decision impact.
Vishal: Interesting. Do you remember any particular impactful discussion that you had during those days?
The idea of household help in India? The idea of servants, the idea of maids, the idea of drivers… it’s not very common. The idea of household help, the idea of domestic servants was a huge discussion in one of my first years. Folks from Western countries, from America, from Western Europe or anywhere else do not have that.
And for them, the idea of paying someone else to do your work was radical. And it forced a lot of us to find the language, to talk about that and also, you know, go back and think on ourselves, what are we doing? And not did actually question everything. Again, there’s no good or bad, right? Unless something goes into a dangerous ethical area, but those are the kinds of questions we grappled with.
And I think even today, those questions would stand. If you asked a group of friends or you ask a group of folks who met internationally and even people like you and me today would still not be articulate if put on the spot with that question, you know, how do you justify something like that?
So I think those are some of the kinds of discussions that just forced you to think. And I think they force you to own the beliefs and the values that have been passed on to you, but also to be able to openly question that not everything that was done before probably was right.
Vishal: Have you questioned something that you thought was not right before?
I think I definitely grew up as a kid questioning some of the things. I think you have to remember that today we are much more open as a society and, you know, parents or kids are, you know, much more open to alternatives and options. But you’re not even questioning gender play stuff as a kid. Right? I mean, you know, why do girls get dolls and boys get cars, or, you know, why can’t I go to karate class? Or why, why do I have to go to X and Y um, I was very lucky that I did.
My parents didn’t take it from a very negative point. I think they were like, okay, you want to go, you go. And I don’t know how I was lucky to have such great parents, but I think those sorts of things, not everyone probably had the space to openly question. And know that both options are possible.
We grow up with an idea of these are the only options available to me. And then you automatically limit your worldview and your idea of choice within those things.
Vishal: This point you mentioned about, we think that these are our only options, is an interesting perspective because we’re so often grappling with the competition mindset where we’re always thinking it’s this or that, you know. It’s design, the way something looks, or function, the way it functions. It’s dream big, or it’s do something else. It’s good or it’s cheap and so on, but the collaborative mindset and from what I’ve noticed, the innovation or true progress happens when we go with AND.
So when we’re talking about a good design and it’s cheap, or it’s going to impact the masses capable enough of doing so. How do you feel people can imbibe this and mindset where instead of looking at two things as polar opposites, they’re saying maybe both of these can synergize to create something even more beautiful?
Ria: Yeah, I think the one way I tried to do it in my work and I can’t seem to, I can’t say what would work for others, but I started asking myself during these times “What’s the worst that could happen?” We overthink things, anticipating a negative outcome in some areas.
And the way I try to tell myself when I’m trying to figure out something that probably hasn’t been done before is, you know, what’s the worst that could happen? Whether it’s something I proposed to my parents or it’s something I discussed with my partner or a decision that I tried to take at work or exploring a new space. I think I would try and put myself into that mindset.
And that does tend to give you a sense of confidence of, “Okay, I’m playing out scenarios in my head. None of these are earth shattering. They’re different than what has been done before, but you know, we’ll figure it out along the way.”
One of the frameworks, and it’s probably a dangerous one, but one of the frameworks is just to, you know, do something and then ask for forgiveness later, instead of trying to ask for permission. You can obviously do that when you’re probably in a position of power when you do have a little more liberty. But that’s also how folks in power can try to drive change is by taking the position of authority and, you know, taking sort of a calculated risk based on that position, that impact and trying something out. What’s the worst that could happen?
It’s not something that I would advocate if you’re new in a role. And you know, you’ve definitely just been here for one or two months, but when folks do trust your judgment a bit, when you have delivered on a few promises, when you have been able to meet goals, that’s when you automatically get a little bit of implicit trust and implicit faith from the organization that she knows what she’s talking about. That, you know, she is aligned with our cultural values if she says, so let’s try it out.
So it’s not something I would recommend for freshers into a company. But when you have been here for some time, and when you do feel like you understand the ways things work, and if what you’re proposing is just a different way of doing something, not a harmful way, it’s a calculated risk.
Vishal: So what I’m hearing and please correct me if I’m wrong, Ria, is that “ask for forgiveness instead of permission,” it works much better if you’re higher up the corporate ladder. But even if you’re starting off, obviously when you want to build that confidence and you want to build those skills, that sort of stretch you outside your existing comfort zone and your existing abilities, you start off with doing the stuff that the organization is asking you to do so that you understand the way things work there.
Ria: And because they have seen, they probably have some defined parameters of expectation and performance that they want to see you meet. That’s why you join an organization. You are agreeing to conform to a predefined set of principles and you have to sort of demonstrate alignment and acceptance of those before you ask for permission to move outside the box.
Vishal: So that means that once you demonstrate alignment to the principles in particular, even when you move outside the box, bright chances are that you will be aligned with the principles that the organization wants to focus on.
Ria: You both have to have the same end goal in sight. What you’re proposing is probably just a different way to get to them, but your end goals and your long-term alignment and mission has to match. Otherwise why would someone take a risk on you?
Vishal: Absolutely. And one place in the corporate sector where this is pretty rampant, especially when we talk about the youngsters and the veterans who’ve been in the corporate world for long, it’s that they don’t seem to merge when it comes to alignment of what they want to achieve. Have you noticed something like this or is it just a…?
Ria: Obviously I have. I’ve worked in different sorts of organizations somewhere. There’s some that were predominantly dominated by veterans in the industry, or a more traditional way of doing things. I think the big difference here is probably not that they’re not aligned on what they want to achieve, but the expectation of the time, impact, and resources that could go into it.
So I would say they would probably have a different expectation of time, commitment, and input into the work having to be done. I think you’d have folks… You know, my father has been in the same role for more than 20 years. And that’s how his generation expected job and careers and life to be like. It’s only a matter of fact of the world changing and new industries coming up and new roads and new jobs that folks can even begin to imagine that a career could have multiple pit stops along the way and not just one end goal in sight.
So when you automatically see multiple options open to you in terms of your career, you start applying that mindset into what you do in your career as well. When you have been constrained by the fact that I’m going to be a one job guy or a one job gal or I’m going to be here till I die, you may be limited in the kind of approaches you take towards problem solving.
But when your intrinsic DNA that, “Hey, I can do this for some time and then I have the financial comfort, or I have the ability to take a risk and I know I’ll get another job because my skills are more aligned to the sectors that are coming up,” you start applying that thinking into everyday work.
Vishal: Obviously you had your own expectations as well. So what did you do to align with the senior management or the people whom you worked with, the veterans whom you were interacting with so that they built that implicit trust in you, which allowed you to take more risks and build these skills that you’ve built over the years?
Ria: I studied a variety of things in college. I studied things because I wanted to do. An outcome of that was when it was time for me to graduate, if you asked me what I was good at, I couldn’t pinpoint one thing. I typically then ended up getting slotted into those sorts of roles, right? Like few of my roles, even in the US and Latin America, where I took a few years off before coming back to India, I worked in general program operations, working with nonprofits, doing general coordination and that sort of stuff.
And I told myself that was my, my internal voice, my inner monologue, that you’re good at being behind the scenes. You’re not good at, you don’t have that one skill that you’re going to contribute to, you know, with people. So it’s better to be behind the scenes and it’s better to like organize things and let other people do the work.
That also means other people take the credit. I think that’s a personality trait that you’re fine with. Some people are fine and some people are not.
Vishal: You don’t mind not getting the credit.
Ria: Yeah, I don’t mind. I mean, I think when you, it does come the fear of feeling like I don’t have that one thing that I want to be responsible for is probably greater. So I said, you know, I’m fine being in the background and helping someone else get things done.
Vishal: Is that what you think imposter syndrome is?
Ria: I don’t know if it was at the very early stages of it, but maybe, and I learned about it, you know, later on in my career. But at that point I was, I would say I was fine being behind the scenes.
And then when I moved back to India I started thinking, you know, what sort of job can I get that fits this description? And I started looking at executive assistant, profiles, but with folks that I wanted to work with and learn with. And that’s how the job came out at Teach for India. And I think a year or so into the job, I realized that by providing an operational support, I had a great opportunity to learn about something, and I felt like I was getting a way to fit a need of, whether it’s about the nonprofit space, whether it was about education running an organization. I think I got to learn a lot.
And the more I started doing that, the more I was able to connect the dots. I was in a position where everyone comes to you, right? You’re a sort of gatekeeper. So I had the opportunity to learn from a lot of the other CXOs in the company, to sit in on board meetings, to work with external stakeholders, do a little bit of everything. I was, I was ghostwriting articles. I was doing conference planning, a little bit of everything, but I think it, it went into understanding at that point, how to make an executive successful.
And then Year Two of that was okay, now that you know what I need let’s work on what the organization needs, right? And then that fell into strategy planning, that fell into sort of strategy and operations. And then I think slowly, that’s when I started to figure out, uh, based on feedback from folks as well, right? Like I think when more people come to ask you for help, that’s when you realize that I have something to offer.
And then I ended up fitting into that role and that space of a very bird’s eye view, being able to connect the dots for everyone, being able to make recommendations based on what I saw were all of the pieces of the puzzle.
I realized I enjoyed that. I realized I liked that. So when I started looking for a next gig, I think along those lines, I said, okay, you know what I like from this part of the job and what do I not like? So I think the next logical step up from being an EA was to be sort of a Chief of Staff work in a CEO’s office.
So that was my next gig at Sula. And then I took the same approach, right? A functional role that lets you learn about the industry. So, five years at Sula two and a half of which were as Chief of Staff, you know, learned everything about the wine industry, everything about a 500 crore business, right? What does it take to run a business? What does it take to set targets metrics, make sure that people can meet them? What does it take to talk about the company, get things ready, right? Everything that went into now, it was more making the company successful.
And partly, almost halfway into that stint, one of the pain points that kept emerging was how do we build a team? How do we keep people engaged? You know, we’re not hitting our targets because people are leaving. We don’t have a clear line of sight and therefore the business doesn’t know how to grow. So that’s what I think sort of realized where people fall into business. It wasn’t sort of an aside.
And that’s why when the role came up about takeover the people team over there, obviously I did raise concerns that, listen, I don’t have an HR degree. I’ve learned everything on the job. I probably am not as qualified as an HR person. The response to that was “yes, but you know, the company. So even if you don’t know HR, you know what the business needs, and you can always find someone who knows HR to sit in your team and to consult with you or to give you the answers. But you need to know all the other parts of the business to know where this fits in.”
And that I knew. I started feeling comfortable, sort of exercising the muscle of how do I leverage people to meet business goals. And I think all of the steps along the way helped me to that point to start feeling comfortable on that.
Obviously there was a lot I had to learn, you know. I did do a couple of certification courses. I did continue to educate myself to expose myself to, you know, what are people doing in the industry? What are they doing?
But along the way, I did also realize that at least for this role, there are people who are unwilling to break out of the mold. And I realized that because when I started to talk to people across the industry in different functions, I wasn’t finding anything innovative. I wasn’t finding anything, why are you doing it like this? Why are you doing that?
And it was just that’s how we’re doing things. That’s how performance management is. That’s how the corporate management is. And I think that’s when I sort of realized that, okay, I would, I would like to probably delve deeper into how can I do this better? But if I have to sort of rewrite the playbooks of that a little bit, I was, I was willing to sort of push myself and challenge myself to figure out how to do that.
But I think all of those, all of those milestones, all of those sort of stops along the way in that journey helped me uncover and get more comfortable with what I was good at.
And one of the biggest learnings along the way has been listen to what people asking you to do. You know, you may come in for X role and if you find that people are asking you increasingly for A, B, and C, see if that’s something you can add on to your profile. See if that’s something you can find ways of doing, or see if that’s an actual transition for you to do.
We underestimate ourselves. We always think that, oh, no, that was just like advice I give, but I’m not good at it. Because we expect being good at something to equate with having a degree, having past experience, having a sort of label on using your qualified for X, when I clearly wasn’t when I came into the role, but I think it’s… again, the end goal was building a great team. The end goal was contributing to the success of the organization by people and therefore, I think when I realized that that North Star and that those metrics were met, uh, for myself and I knew I was aligned with the organization, then I was ready to do whatever it takes.
And I’ve taken that learning that mindset with me. Am I aligned to what this organization wants to do? Am I aligned to where they want their people to be? Great, now let me figure out how to do it.
Vishal: Beautiful. Let’s go back to the points that you mentioned about those stops in between, because obviously when you are the Chief of Staff of a 500 crore company, and you’re talking about the wine industry, which has been around for a very long time, you must have encountered a lot of frustrations and a lot of questions yourself when people were saying, no, this is the way it’s always supposed to be done.
How were you navigating yourself through those moments? Were there are a lot of them or were you questioning yourself?
Ria: I think there were questions as there would be in any other role. You have to realize that I was in one very small industry. The wine industry in India is not huge, right? Everyone knows everyone, everyone knows this is how things are done. We would also one of the largest players. So we did have the freedom to set out own part, but that was constrained by probably the mindset of the folks within the organization. I was also one of the youngest HoDs or these, or one of the youngest organization leaders and I was a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
I think my initial frustration at not being taken seriously, very quickly transformed into, “Okay, great. But this is the job. How do I do it?” My frustrations aside, right? I can’t keep questioning things over here. This is the organization that I’m a part of, and this is the operating framework that they have.
So one of my biggest learnings for an organization like that was to go in building allies. I couldn’t do anything on my own. And I think that’s when my trait of not really wanting to take credit for the final outcome came in very handy because I was more than happy to have someone else feel like they made the decision as long as I got what I wanted out.
So if it was redrawing the sales compensation matrix and figuring out, you know, what would make our team work better, but it came from the head of sales himself, it didn’t matter to me. The fact was that we were able to get better sales folks, we were able to give them better compensation.
If it came from the head winemaker or the head of hospitality about how to build a learning and development program for their team and make sure that we were training folks to be up to date on the latest technologies and it came from them as part of their program, that’s fine to me, it didn’t matter.
But I had to really go through an ally-building exercise to be able to drive organizational change. And I think that’s where it comes back to it, right? Like people in culture is never driven by one person. It can’t be, Ria saying these things need to change because where do I have the credibility for the subject matter and the content knowledge?
I don’t, but what I have is an organizational perspective of what will happen if X doesn’t happen. And I think if I drive that through the leader, it increases ownership increases, uh, an interest in the impact of people versus the firm. And ultimately it just gets the job done. And I think that’s my focus at the end of the day.
Vishal: How did you go about choosing which allies to build? And I ask because a lot of times we still don’t understand that, especially in the knowledge era, building allies is very important for us to be able to get things done. We still think that I want to do this work, I want to get the credit for it, and that’s going to leapfrog my career and X and Y and Z. And a lot of that is essentially misplaced information that was probably working when we were working in the industrial era on assembly lines.
Ria: Your best allies are your harshest critics.
Vishal: How do you digest that? I mean, that’s good to say, but how can you stand your harshest pivots becoming your allies?
Ria: You take a deep breath, and you swallow your pride, and you realize who you need by your side to get the job done. It’s a harsh lesson. You’re not going to go through it until you repeatedly bang your head against the wall. The folks that either undercut you, going behind your back to your manager or the people who don’t agree with you in meetings are probably the ones that you need to get on your side first, before doing anything.
Vishal: How do you do that?
Ria: I guess my response to that would be, you have to let go of the process a little bit. You don’t have to control how is the team going to get from A to B as long as you know, they are getting to be. If there are two ways to get, if your preferred way is route X and another leader’s preferred way is route Y… if it doesn’t significantly impact the organization, if it is a small thing, let them take root while your end goal is the desired end state outcome.
Vishal: Hmm. And obviously they’re going to trust you a lot more when you’ve allowed them to, or when they’ve taken route Y and you’ve been with them.
Ria: And I think the biggest growth as a professional and an individual you can do over here is “The blame lies with you; the credit lies with someone else.” It’s really hard to absorb, but that’s the risk you have to take for driving organizational change.
Like I said, a person who is in a people and culture role is very rarely independently executing actions. Everything is done with someone in the organization. So building those relationships and building those allies is extremely important. Then even when something falls flat, you have maybe someone else in your corner who has been converted over to your side, right?
You are going to fail. You’re going to fail at picking those allies at the start. But I think the more folks who trust your intentions, who know, you know, Ria’s not so hung up on how I do this, she’s open to different ways of doing it, but she’s made it very clear that we need to change what’s not happening right now.
You make it more inputs along the way, right? You can have, again, an HR team, the HR team cannot do anything unless other people in the organization are bought onto the vision of what needs to be done.
Vishal: This obviously takes a massive change in mindset. Was this a mindset that you always had? “The blame lies with you, the credit lies with others” and “let’s build allies to get the things done?”
Ria: No. I think in, in the first year of my role, I came across as very abrasive. I came across as very aggressive to a lot of the other leaders in the organization. They were very open about the fact that Ria just wants things done one way. That feedback went up to my boss. He gave it, he gave that feedback to me saying, listen, you were Chief of Staff before. Earlier your job was to get it done. And you had to do that. Now your job is not to get it done. Now your job is to get things done through someone else. You have to take a very different approach.
I think that definitely the first year was the toughest. But I spent a lot of time that year sowing seeds, building relationships. Some of it was in that you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. What do you need? Fine, I’m happy to help, you know, make this happen.
What some of you may think is a small favor for someone is actually a huge deal for them. So the areas where you can help someone else, if it doesn’t take away anything from you or doesn’t take away anything from the org, if you can use your position of privilege to make change happen for someone else, you’re obviously better off.
Vishal: Interesting. Were there any specific things you did, like say meditation after the first year when you had to lead to the change in mindset?
I started writing on LinkedIn [laughs]. It started to coincide a lot of when I started liking it, I think that was my way of solving. Trying to articulate my learnings and probably reflections on, Hey, I tried doing X exit didn’t work, but if I did it again, how would I do it, right?
And those were a lot of the writing that I did at that time. It was sort of like notes to myself. How would you do it if you did it again? But you know, it did help a lot of folks who read it. But I realized that I had to find a way to process the reflections and the learnings, how would I redo this if I had the chance? How would I go step by step? What would I change? And I think that’s when I started writing a lot.
Vishal: And did that help as in help you process and understand what you would like to do here?
It did. It also gave me an alternative channel of feedback. I think obviously, you know, feedback helps with your thoughts. Like you put something out there and you want to know, does this make sense? Obviously, any form of social media can be a filter or a façade. But I think I did get a lot of engagement, I did get a lot of comments. A lot of folks reach out to me with stuff that I did put on. And I think it did help me build my confidence in the fact that Ria you’re at least thinking about it the right way.
Stuff never ends up being the way you expect when you execute it. There’s multiple factors that you can’t control. But I think it gave me a lot of comfort in knowing that I’m thinking about this the right way. If I had to redo something, if I had to propose something from scratch, this makes sense in real-world terms.
And I think getting that feedback helped me sort of strengthen my belief that I’m in the right space. I’m in the right role. Obviously, I need to learn, but there is something that I’m doing that is adding value.
Vishal: From there, from a 500 growth company to moving to bloom VC, was that a conscious transition?
Ria: It was a conscious transition to want to move to a smaller place because I realized a lot of the things I was experimenting with, I wanted to try in a smaller setup, one where I could have more interaction and more impact on the input and the output.
I think at my level I was controlling the inputs, I wasn’t responsible, or I wasn’t able to see what was happening on the ground. We had, you know, massive offices, factories, factory workers… couldn’t really control what went down to everyone. So I knew I did want to move to a smaller setup. And I wasn’t sure which sector or industry to pick if I went only the startup way.
So obviously that year that I was consulting with a few different people, I did keep my eyes and ears open. That’s probably when. I got more interested and learned more about VC as an industry and the impact that it has.
I think I did a little bit of my research to understand, you know, what are the smaller… I obviously again, knew, right, that if I look at a larger VC firm pedigree experience, sort of the wrapping that I come with, it doesn’t pass the filter or muster, right? It doesn’t get me through the door because I don’t have that experience, uh, that someone would look. Like eight years as an HRBP in a particular function, then like five years leading talent acquisition. I don’t have that.
So I was realistic about the kind of places that would value something that I would bring in. I was looking at smaller. I had reached out to Sajith (Pai) in a very similar vein, trying to understand something about portfolio companies at that time. I think they weren’t looking, around October of 2020.
And then I think they, they realize with a lot of the growth that they expected to see over 21 and 22, that they needed to get someone in house to start managing these things for Blume. And that is also unusual for a venture capital fund to do. Normally when you look at VC funds, their HR folks are just responsible broadly for recruitment and talent acquisition and building out the support system for portfolio companies.
Blume had already done that through Passion Connect, that had been incubated under Blume around six years ago with the sole focus of hiring for portfolio companies. So they were aware of that problem to be much earlier than a lot of other folks. So that part was addressed. What they did want was someone to come in and handhold Blume the organization as a group to the next level.
And I think they were, they had a lot of foresight in doing that because Venture Capital now is also facing similar challenges as being one of the options that that talented candidate may have when they choose their next play. Whether it’s a talented candidate who chooses to come to VC or chooses to go to a startup.
So we’re in effect competing for a similar set of candidates. So there was a lot of work that had to be done and rightfully so continues to be done around portraying Venture Capital as a potential potentially lucrative and challenging growth path for folks who do want to take that punt in their career journey. It also requires outlining things that probably five or 10 years didn’t need outlining, right? The team was much smaller. A lot of folks were it to just see where things go. And I think now things are going. So folks who are coming in right now want a little more clarity on what the next steps could look like.
And for an industry that has been very people driven, you know, roles have been crafted around people, around how the ecosystem changes that industry now suddenly has to corporatize a little bit and bring in a little more structure than they were normally used to having in a way that doesn’t negate flexibility, that doesn’t kill innovation, creativity, and still allows for some great folks to come in, who may not fit into an otherwise traditional venture investor profile.
So a lot of exciting stuff is happening around here. Obviously waiting to see how some of our initiatives play out, but I think it’s, I think the most exciting part is to be able to co-create the playbook on what it looks like to build a strong Venture Capital fund and form in India, right? Like, yes, we can build a great portfolio, how you build a great company side-by-side, that’s going to outlast people. That’s going to outlast portfolios. You know, that’s going to outlast any ups and downs from the market. How do you build that firm internally? And I think that’s, that’s the core of, uh, building any great company.
Vishal: What have you noticed are the most important factors in building a company that will outlast people and cycles?
Ria: I think conviction in your mission and why you are doing what you’re doing, even if it goes directly in the face of what conventional wisdom is. Blume has always been known to be the underdog in some places. Right. But I think we’re very steadfast on why we did certain decisions, why we invest in companies the way we would at the stages we should, and why we probably don’t get caught up in trends that come up, right?
Sometimes that might feel like you’re not traveling fast enough. You’re not catching up. But I think that conviction from the side of the founding team is extremely important because that sets the culture. It impacts decision-making, which is super important with the work that we’re doing. And it also drills down how we want to do things.
And those sorts of cultural signals from the leadership cannot be replaced by anything else. And I think once cultural signals are quite strong, yes, you can decide, succession planning, career paths who does what. But I think those cultural signals are what makes a firm outlast its competitors and make a firm outlast its markets.
Vishal: Sticking to that conviction eventually leads to the culture.
Vishal: So coming from Blume VC to Ria Shroff, what is Ria’s conviction? What’s your mission? And why do you do what you do?
Ria: I think my mission was, now that I’ve had time to reflect, whether through conversations like these or even thinking through my career decisions or life decisions, I think my mission will always be to help people connect the dots.
And whether I choose to do that at a firm, whether I choose to do that independently 15 years down the line… I think I inherently believe that people know the answers for themselves. I think we sometimes don’t give people enough credit, and this is even now from a personal standpoint, I think people make decisions knowing the answers, right?
I see it as my privilege and my responsibility to help connect the dots, whether that’s in life, whether that’s helping a friend, whether that’s supporting someone who wants to, you know, sort of talk out a new business plan. There are great ideas, great talent around me. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the experiences that I have.
And I think I will be happy continuing in this way personally, professionally, you know, for the years to come because I’m afraid sometimes that we will get too caught up in individualistic pursuits while losing sight of the greater picture. Now, whether that’s commerce, whether that’s industry, whether that’s even, even in the nonprofit space, right? I think a little bit of that came from seeing multiple folks try to address an issue in their own way while losing sight of what power they could do in collective action.
Vishal: So that was basically like seven blind people trying to describe an elephant.
Ria: Or seven people trying to help one blind person. Yeah. And I think had bothers me a lot. Obviously, I think everyone has a unique way of doing things, but I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. Obviously, if I find something that I believe is a unique purpose and a unique way of doing some things, I definitely do want to support that.
But I think I am conscious I’m of approaching one problem from multiple directions. I don’t know how that’s gonna work out in life.
Vishal: You spoke about connecting the dots and regardless of whatever we want to do in our lives. Even if we want to put up a startup or, you know, just pursue a side hustle, a lot of that comes when we connect the dots and it’s an Aha moment in our minds and we’re like, Hey, I can try this out, and it makes me feel excited enough to want to do something, right? And that excitement, the enthusiasm, the involvement really pushes us to want to try something new rather than stay stuck in the status quo and the conventional wisdom point that you mentioned. If you had to advise listeners about what skills they could imbibe, or what they could practice to learn how to connect the dots or get a little better at connecting the dots Ria, what would you suggest?
Ria: It’s a tough thing to explain, but I think continuously having that mindset of “how can I help.” If you think about the other person and anyone you meet. Um, and it’s something I started doing in the year that I was in between jobs. I was trying to figure out what my next play was after leaving Sula. And I did a lot of these networking calls, whether it was Coffee Mug, Lunch Club, just folks that I would meet, right? And I think after an introduction and what are you doing, my first question was, what are you doing? How can I help?
And taking that approach automatically helps the other person sort of drop their guard and actually talk about what they need. And we sometimes don’t know how to ask for help and we don’t know how to offer help. But if you continuously get into the mode of thinking that you have something to give every single person you meet, at one point, you will have enough dots to connect.
Folks will automatically, then come back and help you. Obviously, there are things that you will also need, right? But if you’re continuous, if you intentionally set a goal that for six months, every single person I meet, I’m just going to ask them, “Hey, how’s it going? What are you doing? How can I help?” And just keep the focus on them, the kind of conversations you have, the kind of connects you’ll be able to meet will ultimately make that part of your superpower.
And once that becomes, if you automatically start thinking about I can connect this person, here’s how we can do it. If it’s inside an organization, you start connecting the dots. Have you spoken to this? Have you spoken to Y? That’s also the unique prerogative of certain roles in organizations. Either starting with an EA or a Chief of Staff, a CEO’s office, you know, if that is something that you feel you can experiment with, uh, it’s a great place to build that muscle professionally.
Vishal: So during these Coffee Mugs and lunches when you were between jobs and you were asking people, how can I help? What were the answers you were hearing?
Ria: Sometimes folks just wanted an additional set of eyes on a business plan, on an idea they wanted to adopt through a specific strategy, something wasn’t working organizationally. A connect to a specific kind of resource, ideas on how to make career shifts and changes a big part, which a lot of folks do resonate when they look at my profile, “you moved from the not-for-profit to the for-profit sector, or you switched from an administrative to a functional role.”
So I think just talking through that helps someone, you would think it might not, but I think everyone’s looking for that validation before making the next big decision. So those ended up being a lot of the common threads of the conversations that I tended to have.
Vishal: And you found all these people whom you eventually wanted to connect with through LinkedIn?
Ria: There were two three different networks. Lunch club and Coffee Mug are two independent platforms that I did sign up on and they connect you with one person a week.
I would reach out to my immediate network of circle and say, like give me three names of people I should talk to just broadly. And if they would give them that background, you know, I’d ask for an intro, like connect me, I’m exploring next steps. I kind of want to learn what they’re doing, keeping a job or any interview out of the question.
I was very fortunate to have conversations with a good spread of folks, you know, senior, relatively fresher, or just even from our circle of friends. My mom connected me to a few, my husband’s colleagues. I think it was just doing it to be a little shameless at that point and not feel bad about what you’re asking for, but also be mindful of the fact that the other person knows what you want to talk about.
I think it’s very hard, even when, I mean, I did do that on LinkedIn a few times, as much as I would want to help. I think life comes in the way so much that anyone who is reaching out, you know, definitely should be mindful of what they’re looking to ask for.
I think doing your research is really helpful. Like if someone wrote to me specifically and said, Hey, I want to know about making this transition or, you know, like getting back into the workforce as a new mom, can we chat about X, I’m much more likely to reply to that than someone saying, hi, loved your profile would love to chat.
Life comes in the way, right? One of the things I developed was really mastering the art of the cold email, really doing my research and really figuring out what have they done, what can I solve for them, when I reach out to them? Don’t expect that folks will respond to you. I mean, people will respond when they know that their time is being valued on the other side.
So I think definitely do your research, but then definitely reach out very targeted. People will be happy to chat.
Vishal: Interesting. So very quickly we’ve come towards the closing moments. So if you had to recommend three books to anyone, what would they be?
Ria: The first book is one, it’s a non-fiction book. It’s one that I broadly recommend in professional settings. And for anyone who I believe would benefit from it, it’s called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Uh, it was part of my sort of non-fiction binge about two years ago, but it stayed with me ever since. And the entire premise of that book is building on feedback as a way to really build relationships, and not underestimating the power of feedback in being able to significantly impact someone’s life.
And when she uses the word candor, it comes from a place of being upfront from a place of love. And what that means is that feedback can be the best demonstration of love and care that you have for someone. So even if you worry about giving tough feedback or being too harsh at the end of the day, it’s the best thing that you can do for someone. Whether it is an upward manager, whether it’s someone reporting to yourself. So she definitely gives some great frameworks for figuring out how to implement that one-on-one or in teams. It’s a great read. It’s one of those that I can keep going back to again and again.
The other one of the books that keeps coming back to me every time someone asks for a recommendation is a book called Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, I think is his name. A great telling of a very personal transformation for a young boy in the US, son of immigrants, I think those sorts of books about children, of immigrants, children across cultures, always speaks to me because I’ve always felt like sort of a multiple culture kid across different spaces. Grew up in India, spent some time in the US, learned Spanish, and immersed myself in a different culture for a while. So I really, I really love and appreciate that.
The third book, or rather not the book, but, the author that I would recommend is the author and poet for whom this tattoo came across, Rupi Kaur. I think a lot of, she has three books of poetry that have been released and I definitely encourage people who normally wouldn’t look into that as sort of a way to reflect on our lives so far. I obviously don’t want to give away too much, but she’s written things in a beautiful way that sometimes words really can’t capture.
Until school poetry used to be exclusively the domain of old white men. And you now have a brown immigrant woman who’s tried to capture parts and essences of what it means to be Asian, what it means to be Indian, what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be a millennial kid of parents, sort of straddling tradition and modernity.
So just, again, beautiful books that I can pick up anytime. One of the volumes is called Milk and Honey, which I really recommend. One of the things that sticks out to me, anytime folks ask me for book recommendations.
Vishal: Fantastic. So for the sake of our listeners who can’t see this video, why don’t you describe your tattoo?
Ria: My tattoo is the anatomical sort of drawing of a heart, but it also has flowers blossoming out of the top. And it’s reflective of a poem that talks about heartbreak and growing through it. So I think it’s very symbolic of the fact that yes, your heart can break, but beautiful things can continue.
Vishal: There’s a similar concept in Japanese culture and it’s called kintsugi. So very quickly for the sake of our listeners, if something is broken, like a porcelain cup or a saucer, rather than disposing of it because it’s cracked, they kind of fill it with gold because they say that something that’s cracked and broken can actually become more beautiful, make it more antifragile.
Ria: Beautiful concept.
Vishal: If you had to share one piece of wisdom or advise to just out of college Ria, what would that be today?
Ria: I was a very different person just out of college, but, um, I think the one thing I would want to say is that you know, you’re good enough. You will be enough. I think there was a lot of insecurity at that time about not having done the things that everyone else was doing or sort of that expectation of going along with the crowd. And I think I would sort of want to say that what you’re doing is enough. Like it will work out. You don’t need to significantly change who you are or start doing what everyone else was doing, you know, you will be enough.
Vishal: Just keep plodding on, on your path.
Vishal: Nice. Are there any specific rituals that you follow in the morning or during the day, which are important for taking care of your personal self?
Ria: Coffee [laughs]. It’s also a factor of the fact that, um, my first year out of college, the first job that I had, I was working on a coffee farm. One of my professors had a farm in the Dominican Republic and I didn’t know what I want to do. And I knew I couldn’t go back to India with a degree in Spanish. So I said, you know, let me figure things out for a while.
And she said, you know, we have a piece of land and there’s a small village over there and they’re looking for, there’s a small library. They’re looking for a teacher. Go live there for a year. You know, we’re happy to pay your stipend and give you a place to stay. A big part of that year was, you know, living on a mountain, no internet, really nothing figuring stuff out, but it was a coffee farm.
And before that, you know, I didn’t really drink in school. In college, it was whatever comes out of the vending machine… like really milky bad coffee. And over here you saw something that folks would like, we lived at the outskirts of the farm. So every morning and all the guys in the village would get ready, go out into the fields and even the coffee would come.
Obviously, the best of the lot was shipped away for export. And then they kept on the second harvest. But coffee was, it was super black and it was super like, they used to put a lot of sugar in it, but you had to have at least like seven to eight cups of it a day. And they were like these really tiny cups. But everyone you went to speak to, you have to have coffee. Like that is the same way someone comes at home and you give chai, right?
But all my work was going out to like 30 different villages, 30 different houses in the village every day. And for me, coffee has always symbolized, whatever you’re doing, slow down, stop, talk. A lot of learnings around coffee was the entire ritual and the process of a bean from flower to cup, everything that it goes through, the economy’s that it supports the culture that it’s created in that, in that region.
After that, I’ve never had coffee with milk again in, I would say like 12 years. Always had coffee, black coffee, huge coffee lover.
Vishal: Do you still have six or seven cups a day?
Ria: I have larger cups. I probably have four a day. It’s not great. Uh, even when I was pregnant, that was one rule of my doctors that I flouted because it was very hard for me to live without coffee. But I think I always carry that memory of, you know, coffee always means sit down and stop or conversations or a pause. And it’s something I tried to like do for myself at the start or the like four o’clock like right about now in the day.
So I think it’s just something for myself. I’m very passionate about it right now. Um, thanks to, thanks to a lot of these small businesses that have come up. I’m discovering a few new blends from South India and I’m trying different ones every day. So happy to see the Indian coffee industry growing as well. But I think if I had a ritual, it would pretty much be that. No time for anything else right now [laughs].
Vishal: Any specific coffee brand that you’re really enjoying right now?
Ria: Right now I am trying out different brands from this company called Toffee Coffee Roasters. They pick up a lot of small-batch brands from South India. There are two strains that I generally like, which I try across different brands. One is, uh, Mysore Nuggets and one is Monsoon Malabar.
So that’s a specific kind of bean that you get. So different brands will have different variations of these, these two flavors.
Vishal: Nice. I’d like to circle back to that one year that you spent on the mountains in the Dominican Republic without the internet, without anything, what was your experience there? What was it like?
Ria: I spent two years in the Dominican Republic. That was the first year, but I think those two years, uh, really made me comfortable in my own skin and being alone, but not lonely. So I was, I was a Spanish major, so it just made sense for me to be there.
Yeah, of course not being able to be in touch with my regular friends, my family, you know, other folks obviously forces you to spend a lot of time with yourself. And I think if you don’t feel comfortable with who you are as a person and you don’t like spending time on your own, it’s a problem. Those two years have really forced me to, definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone.
But I was able to create a life for myself around that, that I really enjoyed. I didn’t have an end goal, right? I just graduated from college. Every day, I woke up, what should I do today? Um, it really teaches you to take each day as it comes again. The first year, I was in a relatively poor farming community on a mountain, not a lot of access to the local cities, but it really pushed you to identify how choices can define your life, but how that’s also not the be-all and end-all, right? And it pushed you to, it pushed me to recalibrate what a good and happy life means.
One of the examples is that the coffee farm was sort of on an ecotourism route. So you’d have a lot of foreign tourists come through, from the US, Canada, Germany, Europe. They come to as a coffee tasting tour and they come see the farm and, you know, they’d meet the local community members who would talk them through, and there’s always an aspect of, oh, come meet the locals and see how they live, which is very problematic when you are in tourism and, you know, in community work.
And I would, because I was sort of the intermediate, really the one person who would speak English and Spanish, you know, the constant refrain I would hear is, Oh, they’re so happy in spite of being poor. It really bothered me to see that classification. One, because we’re applying a very, a very specific lens on that.
But then two, I think people’s definitions of happiness, you realize, then are not linked to material comforts. These were wooden huts. These were folks who did not have attached bathrooms. A lot of these places were holes in the ground. A lot of them would have maybe two meals a day, but it doesn’t mean that I know I’m poor and I’m still happy.
You know, I think these are definitions that we place on someone because of what they have or what they don’t have. In their world, they will contend enough, right? And I think when we, when we apply that lens to life, I think it just makes you realize it’s really not what you have or what you don’t have. And sometimes folks do need to take stock of that, right? Like if every day, if everything burned down tomorrow, your house, if you lost everything, what do you have? And are you happy with that?
Being comfortable being alone because I was obviously the outsider to start with. They were very welcoming and I do feel part of the community when I left. But yeah, I think you have to be happy with yourself first. And I think that was my big learning out of there. Before you can add anything else to your life right? Before you will get a partner, get a family, get kids, you know, get that fancy job.
There’s no good or bad, there’s no right or wrong, but I think that exposure to a different way of living and seeing folks that are happy with their choices is a huge reminder to take with you everyday. Just this morning, I was now with the advent of WhatsApp, I was just chatting with someone who I knew, who I used to live with over there. Her kids were five years old when I was there. And now they’re 16, 17, and about to go off to college.
So life proceeds, folks on the middle of the hill in the middle of nowhere now have WhatsApp and we’re exchanging photos when 15, 20 years ago there was no internet connectivity.
Vishal: If people want to find you or connect with you, where can they do that?
Ria: I’m quite active on LinkedIn and on Twitter as well.
Vishal: Great. I will drop those, your LinkedIn profile and your Twitter profile in the show notes as well.
Ria: Sure. Thank you so much.
Vishal: You’re welcome. And any parting comments for the listeners?
Ria: [laughs] I think you’re putting too much stake into my words over here. I think just the comfort. I think everyone should have the comfort in life that, you know, whenever you take decisions, it was the right one at the time. You know, I feel people, we talk a lot about having regrets. We talk a lot of what I have done things differently. What would I have gone back and changed?
I go back to one from an earlier point that I was saying that everyone is an adult. Everyone broadly knows what they’re doing. So, in life you take the best decisions for yourself at the time. If the impact of those decisions changed later on, uh, it doesn’t mean you took the wrong decision. You just took a decision that went a different way.
And I just, I would want folks to get more comfortable with that because otherwise, we don’t take risk. Otherwise, we don’t do things to sort of following our hearts. We try to do things to keep everyone else happy. And I think just more, a greater comfort with the idea that I’m making the best decision for me right now is probably what will free a lot of us up to try something new, trying something exciting.
Vishal: This has been a really fantastic and stimulating discussion area. Thank you so much for taking out the time to come on The Vishipedia Show. It was a pleasure to have you here.
Ria: I loved chatting, loved taking a little break out of my day to reminisce and go down memory lane myself.
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