What I learnt from Heidi Roizen and how it changed my life

17th Oct 2016
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It all started three years ago.

October 2013 was when it started. It had been a few months since I had started my love affair with the tech world. I was trying to start a small internet company with my junior from undergrad, in the few hours I got outside a mundane 17-hour job where my greatest achievement was either being the last guy to leave every night/morning, or hustling around to get stuff done when nothing else worked (we engaged with the tax authorities/government bodies). I decided push had come to shove, and I definitely needed to get out and be where my heart was, ie. tech. Consulting for tech clients wasn’t enough; I wanted to be there in that world!

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After the realisation came through, I started knocking on the doors of anyone and everyone in the internet space, trying to learn more and more about this world. I had an interesting story to tell. That’s what my dad had told me very early in life — live a life that is interesting enough to capture people’s minds. I had first started up in grade four, an Enid Blyton-inspired ‘teenage only kids club’ that had a pay-per-use model. During undergrad years, I ran an unusual B2B sweatshirt business, selling directly to college unions. All my ideas and ventures revolved around just one thing — relationships. The story did touch some chords and I received a tonne of advice, prominent among which was to go back to school.

Soon, I started to apply to business schools. After all, that seems to work really well for a lot of people; should have for me, too. With that belief, I applied to half a dozen schools, and at the top of that pile was Stanford. That’s where a lot of smart people in tech went — only that I wasn’t one already. I applied anyway. A few months later, of course, Stanford did not get back to me. Luckily enough, ISB and Oxford did. The interviews helped; making conversation was something I had been good at. Buoyed by the ‘India is awesome’ theory and my short stint with the soon-to-be-in-power political party, I decided to stay put here and join the school that’s churned out some rock star entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from India — ISB.

In all this circus, something pretty awesome happened. Between me falling in love with tech, speaking to anyone and everyone I knew in tech, and applying to awesome schools that would get me to tech, something happened that was to change my life. I met Heidi.

First impressions

Heidi’s patience with me back in the day still surprises me sometimes. The quality of my emails was raw, and I did not know what I was really looking for. She, being time-pressed the way she is, could easily have turned me away, but she did not. And that’s probably the first thing about her that will stay with me for a lifetime.

We spoke on and off and I soon headed to business school. Now, there’s a course in most popular MBA programmes across the world that talks about the softer aspects of winning the game. It’s called ‘Managing Complexity’ at ISB, ‘Organizational Behavior’ at Harvard, etc. During MBA, you study via cases — these cases are about companies business school students can learn from, or extraordinary people whose lives they can pick up lessons from.

Sitting at the Learning Resource Centre at ISB, I opened the case to be discussed in class the next day. This was one of the rare subjects I had taken interest in. As I started flipping through the case, I sensed familiarity. Turning back to the front page, I was taken aback — the name of the case I was reading was ‘Heidi Roizen’. Holy crap!

Wow. That was perhaps the first word I managed to say even then. Very interestingly, a lot of friends who read through that case said the closest they could think of in terms of similarity with Heidi was Akshay. Hearing that delighted me, but I kept quiet; I definitely did not wanted to sound more pompous than I already was. Heidi had taught me humility; I was to practise it. I emailed her that night, expressing my surprise and shock. She sent back a smile and some graceful words, just like always.

That moment, and that day, took the bond I shared with Heidi to the next level. Never before had I resonated with someone as I did with Heidi. I did not wanted to say it loud, but here I was — reading about, talking to, and getting to know — a person who I feel so close to in every darn way possible!

Growing thicker

My relationship with Heidi continued via email. I would share stuff about my life with her, get her advice, hear a lot of things from her that made me get to know her much better, and sooner than I would’ve thought, she wrote one day about a programme that her firm/firm’s founder (DFJ Ventures/Tim Draper) had come up with, where aspiring tech entrepreneurs from around the world were invited to spend over three months in Silicon Valley and learn from the who’s who.

I took no time in applying for Draper U, and in early 2015, made the cut. I was totally excited, for I was going to be in the Mecca of tech startups, and I was finally, finally going to meet Heidi after at least over 200 emails exchanged between the both of us!

This time also saw Heidi now teaching me some really important facets of life. They define a lot of how I act till date.

I graduated from ISB on April 10, and was on a flight to the US for the first time ever on April 11. Just before leaving though, I received the ‘Heidi Roizen of ISB’ Award. It meant a lot to me. I had been called a social butterfly in my consulting days, and ‘jugadu’ in my undergrad years. Now I was the ‘hustler’. I had a new name.

Silicon Valley

The time I spent in the Valley was probably one of the most rewarding times of my life. I hustled like nobody’s business and met just about every person I could, ensuring I learned the best way I learn, which is from people. Those experiences are worth their weight in gold and I will probably write a book about them one day.

Coming back to the story.

I first met Heidi a week into the Valley, when she came and spoke to the 30 of us from around the world at Draper. On a question from Sharon, my friend, about if she’d ever met anyone who she’d been really impressed with herself, and who thought and acted like her, she took my name, right there! I was humbled, surprised, embarrassed, white, and grateful, all in the same moment. We next met at the campus again, next to the pool, where an excited me managed to mumble, thank, talk about what I was doing and wanted to do, and she ever so graciously did what she always did best — pointed me in the right direction.

Over the next couple of days, she invited me over to the DFJ office on — wait for it — Sandhill Road! Now, I had lived in Delhi all my life, and San Francisco hadn’t managed to surprise me so much from an infra standpoint, but Sandhill Road, boss, there was something about it.

In the DFJ conference room that noon, where hung the IPO certificate of Elon Musk’s Tesla, I had the most interesting conversation with Heidi about what I wanted to do with my life.

I left Silicon Valley with a new title from my peers at Draper. They called me ‘Heidi Roizen of the East’ now.

Learning, in hindsight

Heidi always says ‘networking’ isn’t the right word to describe this; ‘building relationships’ is. And at the core of most successes are amazing relationships. There is no conscious effort that they need, and probably a lot of times some relationships might go the other way for a variety of reasons. But that shouldn’t shake our core belief. Well-intentioned meaningful relationships, friendships, they are not just a rule for success, but also the golden arrow for leading a meaningful, fulfilling life.

For me, life came close to full circle two months ago, when I was invited by Professor Jim Schmidtke (who comes every year all the way from California to ISB, to teach the much sought-after ‘Managing Complexity’ course), to co-teach the Heidi Roizen Case at ISB. It took me a day to believe he actually meant it. I later visited the campus, and spoke about some of the things that Heidi has taught me over the years. Not sure how helpful I really was to the far smarter people out there, but the students did treat me to back-to-back parties, I had the most amazing time with Jim, and I did get my fair share of cheers and whistles while taking the dais. I guess my cussing also helped, maybe.

I continued to talk about the subject at large for all those three days on campus, and compiled what I shared, in these 10 points. Getting these right really does help.

BEING HAPPY: This happened after our first few conversations, where Heidi pushed me to enjoy what I do at all given times, and if I don’t, to find what I love. Fortunately for me, tech was that. Rishi, my former boss and mentor, calls it ‘ being in your north star’, doing what you are naturally awesome at. People across domains who get a kick from what they do every day are able to put in that extra that sometimes makes all the difference.

GO OUT ON ONE LEG AND HELP EVERYONE: Make everyone win, everyone. Do favours without expecting anything in return. Help people who randomly reach out to you, help people at work, help your family with things that you can, and connect to someone who can help at times when you can’t directly help. Just do your bit.

MAKE IT EASY FOR OTHERS TO HELP YOU: This is what Heidi taught me the hard way, perhaps after having been mentored by her for a year already. People in general are very helpful all around, but they are also very busy. It helps if you make it easy for others to help you. A simple example is politely coming to the point, directly writing an appended email if you are looking for a connection to somebody, being tangible and yourself understanding what it is that you want from the other person. Nobody minds lending a hand if it’s worth just a few minutes of their time.

BE REAL AND BE VULNERABLE: You will fall, people might talk behind your back, some might not connect with you at all, but that’s okay. Because that’s you. In all the shine and armour, it’s what you are and you should wear it with immense pride every single day. Be human. Laugh at yourself. Be fully engaged when you talk to somebody, and make them feel as if they are the most important person in the world to you!

KNOW PEOPLE WELL WHEN YOU MEET THEM THE FIRST TIME: To pat my own back, this is something I have done all my life, even at seven — knowing that person I wanted to play cricket with super well. It helped to know what he liked so that I could do a quick trade to demand batting first. You get to meet a lot of people, but it is people who seem to know something about you, can identify a common connect, talk about something you did, are the ones that stay longer in your memory. It not just creates an instant impression but also ensures a sweet spot for them in the next conversation.

VALUE YOUR SOCIAL CAPITAL: It’s great to be a connector, but take one more step. You have to find the right connect between the person who ‘needs’ help and the person who ‘can’ help. Heidi talks about ‘exercising your No muscle’, and it’s extremely relevant. Yes, some people will hate you, or think you’re arrogant, but that’s okay again. A lot of people write to me every year about connecting them with X,Y,Z; I first check with X,Y, and Z if it’s relevant for them, and only then do I connect. After knowing what X, Y, and Z are not looking at a couple of times, I politely decline, telling them the truth.

BE FUN: You could be interviewing to work in a large or small firm. Or you could be trying to raise money for your startup. People generally like to work/be around people they develop a liking for. Now, this isn’t about being manipulative, as Heidi points out pretty well. But it is about, like I said before, being real, and being genuinely interested in others. Heidi calls it ‘Good Humanship’ — you have to be thoughtful and considerate and be able to laugh, enjoy, share — that’s what builds meaningful relationships and also ensures you are having fun all the time, and on its own is a pretty cool state of mind to be in!

BEING GOOD AT NEGOTIATION: Among the over 1,000 things on which I have found an exact replica in how Heidi and I do stuff, this must be at the top of it — realising the importance of negotiation, and learning it. I wasn’t the best academic student at business school, but there was this one course that I truly aced, getting an award for it by the end of the semester. This was it. Look at how you can help the other person — what is it that the other person needs? Think about creating value all around. Bingo!

LOOK AROUND: Know people you study with and live around. Be social. In my very short half-decade career, most of my dealings and big wins have been with people I previously knew through one context or the other. We had schooled together, gone to the same clubs, cheered for the same team, had been classmates in business school, had similar interests in sports, politics, etc; basically, there was this one connect which made all the difference.

IDENTIFY HOW YOU LEARN: Some people best learn from books, and some just learn on the fly from other people. I realised in time that I belong to the latter set of people. And it’s a totally valid form of teaching yourself, provided you are conscious about it. I attend a wide variety of tech events, and often make notes wherever I go. I then discuss these notes and learnings with many others in the ecosystem. These are then supplemented by pub conversations, podcasts, the newspaper, etc. Basically, understand how you learn, know it, and then practise it all the time.

Back to today

My email interactions with Heidi continue, only that there’s an unsaid sense of warmth every time we speak now. A few months ago, I heard from another fellow Indian who had made it to Draper post my stint, and from another, about what I wouldn’t have thought about in my wildest dreams — Heidi, as amazing as she is, spoke about me at talks in the Bay Area.

Here is one clip that a generous friend managed to share with me:

Abridged from here - 51:25 to 53:30.

Professor Jim played this clip at ISB to thunderous applause. That moment, I was left speechless, extremely humbled, and without any sense of what this really meant, what exactly I should make of it.

Today, I work at a cool startup called Babajob based out of Bengaluru, doing a cross-functional role that cuts across everything except raw tech. I am as deeply immersed into the tech ecosystem as I would’ve ever wanted to, literally living and breathing it every single moment, all seven days of the week, 365 days of the year. More or less — yes, more or less — most people in the Indian tech ecosystem aren’t more than one degree away (yes, that’s the brag quotient), and I make use of these generous relationships by constantly connecting A to B and B to C, creating value all around, which gives me immense joy. I am mad about the Indian startup scene, and believe each one of us here must do the best we can, in fostering it further — making it as wonderful, helpful and amazing as Silicon Valley is. I work with a bunch of co-working spaces, am involved in the early-stage startup scene, help organise a lot of events, and have over time also taken the route towards what was the only missing link in my tech career —tech itself — by madly exploring user flows of a dozen apps every week, ripping apart business models with some super kind founders who’ve seen the ups and downs over multiple rounds of coffee, and also slowly learning to write some code.

All through this, I have had generous amounts of advice, feedback, scolding, and care from Heidi, and every single bit of it has made me what I am today — someone fit enough to be a small part of the most amazing and passionate industry in the world — tech. This is where I wanted to be all along.

PS: Here is a copy of that in-gold HBS case on Heidi.

PPS: Heidi has officially given me my most recent name now, the first-ever 'Heidi Roizen-ologist' ;)

Thank you, Heidi. Much love.

 

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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