7 Insightful Quotes from Amazon’s Letter to Shareholders

Every year, Jeff Bezos publishes a letter to Amazon shareholders. These letters tend to be an interesting lens into the company and its progress, as well as a source of insightful snippets about building & leading an iconic business. We thought we’d share a few of our favorite nuggets from Bezos’ 2016 letter published last week.

On organizational values:

[AWS and Amazon retail] share a distinctive organizational culture that cares deeply about and acts with conviction on a small number of principles. I’mtalking about customer obsession rather than competitor obsession, eagerness toinvent and pioneer, willingness to fail, the patience to think long-term, and the taking of professional pride in operational excellence.

On cultural stability:

The reason [corporate] cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one — just that it’s ours — and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people.

On the value of experimentation:

Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold.

On innovation and customer understanding:

India is another example of how we globalize an offering like Marketplace through customer obsession and a passion for invention. Last year we ran a program called Amazon Chai Cart where we deployed three-wheeled mobile carts to navigate in a city’s business districts, serve tea, water and lemon juice to small business owners and teach them about selling online. In a period of four months, the team traveled 15,280 km across 31 cities, served 37,200 cups of tea and engaged with over 10,000 sellers. Through this program and other conversations with sellers, we found out there was a lot of interest in selling online, but that sellers struggled with the belief that the process was time-consuming, tedious and complex. So, we invented Amazon Tatkal, which enables small businesses to get online in less than 60 minutes. Amazon Tatkal is a specially designed studio-on-wheels offering a suite of launch services including registration, imaging and cataloguing services, as well as basic seller training mechanisms.

On substance versus form:

Many characterized AWS as a bold — and unusual — bet when we started. “What does this have to do with selling books?” We could have stuck to the knitting. I’m glad we didn’t. Or did we? Maybe the knitting has as much to do with our approach as the arena. AWS is customer obsessed, inventive and experimental, long-term oriented, and cares deeply about operational excellence.

On focus:

Many companies describe themselves as customer-focused, but few walk the walk. Most big technology companies are competitor focused. They see what others are doing, and then work to fast follow. In contrast, 90 to 95% of what we build in AWS is driven by what customers tell us they want.

On decision making:

One common pitfall for large organizations — one that hurts speed and inventiveness — is “one-size-fits-all” decision making.

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible — one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that — they are changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.

As organizations get larger, there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions, including many Type 2 decisions. The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention. We’ll have to figure out how to fight that tendency.

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Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending Isaac an email.

Requests for Startups: Sumeet Shah (Brand Foundry Ventures)

Sumeet handles sourcing and managing new opportunities at Brand Foundry Ventures. He has 6 years of experience across the startup and private equity industries, formerly running new business strategies at Gist Digital and handling business development and project work at Gotham Consulting Partners. He also assisted in the creation of XRC Labs, a consumer and retail accelerator run by Kurt Salmon and Parsons, as the Program Manager for their inaugural class. Sumeet graduated from Columbia University with a Bachelors of Science in Biomedical Engineering, specializing in Biomechanics.

What startup verticals interest you most right now?

Brand Foundry’s focus is in low-tech and high-tech consumer products and devices. It’s all about things you can see, touch, feel, and interact with. I’ve recently been really interested on more low-tech products challenging antiquated industry verticals that combine strong branding, a seamless supply chain, and great go-to-market process.

Examples include current portfolio companies Caeden (headphones) and LOLA (tampons), and rising startups like AWAY and Raden (luggage). What makes these four so exciting to me is how they’re each using unique ways to resonate with their customer (Caeden with form and function combination, LOLA with an unapologetic social media play, and AWAY and Raden tapping deep into product with strong outreach, AWAY with beautiful travel content and marketing and Raden with form and function fit with just the right amount of tech).

That said, I also am excited about where high-tech consumer plays both on electronics and hardware, ESPECIALLY VR. HUGE fan of Oculus.

What are some key factors necessary to build a robust consumer brand?

PEOPLE/PRODUCT/PIPELINE. I would want to see a strong, cohesive team (filling out the roles of Marketer, Operator, and Technician depending on how technical the startup is) with a focus on building a cyclical brand (a complete strategy on supply chain, production, distribution, and go to market). I’ve seen an unfortunate number of founders who are more focused on “Front-end” (marketing, advertising, beautiful product) and less on “Back-end” (supply chain, infrastructure) and they fail as a result because they basically built a house of cards.

What are your thoughts on direct-to-consumer, fully integrated brands like Warby Parker, Casper, etc.?

Well, we invest heavily in the space so I’m definitely a fan. Moreover, my boss Andrew Mitchell is an investor in Warby Parker. We’ve also done heavy investments in the space from Cotopaxi and Lola to AllBirds and Caeden. You also see some great young ones like Tecovas that are fighting antiquated competitors who are retail and brick and mortar heavy and yet use the same components to keep quality high.

But why am I such a fan? It’s because brick and mortar is absolutely broken; young and/or fast-rising companies have to work with the models of the retailers that are holding them, and as a result, they can’t control their brand. It’s so ass-backwards sometimes that you have to deal with their stubbornness of how “things work” for them. Moreover, the retail markup that brands have to commit to (more than 2.5x usually) screws the customer over.

What are your biggest predictions for the year ahead?

We will see the return of a focus towards building sustainable, strong businesses, but my biggest prediction is that 2016 will be the year that women in startups will rule. Female founders will FINALLY get the funding they so rightfully deserve. We take a lot of pride on investing in a significant number of women-led companies (9 out of 15 at the moment), but we didn’t do it to fill a damn quota. We did it because they are absolute badass founders who are building real businesses and challenging the status quos.

Moreover, I wish we could see more women in the VC top brass positions, but you also see some phenomenal female junior and mid-level VC positions who are slated to take over partner positions and/or start their own funds. Sometimes I get so irked that we STILL see women mistreated, mispaid, and misrepresented in our society. I still cannot understand why women aren’t paid the same as men. It’s not even a feminist opinion, it’s all about simple ethics. If we all are on the same level playing field (as investors, founders, as human beings), nobody would be complaining. It isn’t a hard problem to fix!

Are there any specific company ideas that you really want someone to build and would potentially fund?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s within the dating app space, specifically within apps like Tinder and Bumble. Those apps are more visually focused on one side of the spectrum and you have more content-heavy areas like OKCupid and Match on the other. I would love to see someone build out something in the middle, where push notifications or the like would be the center; these notifications would show questions that are pertinent to popular culture, current events, or values that would be with Yes/No/Decline to Answer options. The data can then be built within each person and as you “match” with someone, those questions can pop up as a way to open the conversation and engage with your match further. Better and deeper conversations can lead to better success stories from these apps.If you could have a magic wand and instantly have any imaginable solution to a problem you’re facing, what problem would you solve?

I think like most people, I’d love for any repeatable or “brain-less” task to be automated so I can spend more time focusing on harder problems to solve/more important tasks. I think AI can also arm people in the near future with a tool that streamlines a lot of these processes vs. fully automating them, so hopefully we’ll see that happen soon.

If you’re interested in Brand Foundry Ventures, feel free to reach out to Sumeet directly via email.

This issue was curated by Akshay Goradia (email, website). Akshay is a student at Carnegie Mellon studying Information Systems and Human-Computer Interaction. Having spent last summer at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in NYC, Akshay is interested in venture capital and is looking to gain more experience in venture. Drop Akshay a line here if you’re a VC looking for an intern this summer.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending Isaac an email.

What are the most popular computer science topics at Stanford?

Given the prevailing excitement around artificial intelligence and machine learning, we thought it’d be interesting to see how these trends and topics are reflected in course enrollment in CS courses at Stanford over the past 5 academic years (AY). We asked, what topics are students and professors most excited about, what’s been growing fastest, and how have these preferences/offerings changed over the past 5 years?

Some important things to note upfront:

  • I filtered out courses below the 200 level. This filters for courses that are advanced and typically not core, required classes.
  • Courses are sometimes offered multiple times per year (e.g. in Fall and Winter quarters). I’ve summed enrollment totals for the academic year (i.e. Fall, Winter, and Spring) and excluded the Summer quarter (since this can include guests, high school students, etc.).
  • Course enrollment for the Spring is not yet closed, so numbers can still change. This applies to two courses: Deep Learning for Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision: From 3D Reconstruction to Recognition.
  • Obviously, course enrollment is driven by a lot of factors — curriculum, professor, quarter offered, time of day, rating, etc. All these factors can change from year to year. Some courses are also not offered every year.
  • Courses sometimes have enrollment caps, which means they may be super awesome and wildly popular but capped at 16 students and thus not reflected herein.
  • There are various tracks in the CS program that require various different courses. These tracks change, as do course requirements, from year to year. We are looking at raw course enrollment numbers, so none of that is accounted for.
  • Some courses are cross-listed under multiple departments with separate enrollment numbers, which can affect aggregate enrollment. Only the enrollment numbers under the course listings in the Computer Science department are accounted for.
  • Not every course has been offered every year for the past 5 years. For example, this is the second year Deep Learning for Natural Language Processing is being taught.

10 most popular courses this academic year

AY ‘15-’16 enrollment.

Course descriptions & topics

  1. Machine Learning — statistical pattern recognition, linear and non-linear regression, non-parametric methods, exponential family, GLMs, support vector machines, kernel methods, model/feature selection, learning theory, VC dimension, clustering, density estimation, EM, dimensionality reduction, ICA, PCA, reinforcement learning and adaptive control, Markov decision processes, approximate dynamic programming, and policy search.
  2. Artificial Intelligence: Principles and Techniques — search, constraint satisfaction, game playing, Markov decision processes, graphical models, machine learning, and logic.
  3. Convolutional Neural Networks for Visual Recognition — students will learn to implement, train and debug their own neural networks and gain a detailed understanding of cutting-edge research in computer vision. The final assignment will involve training a multi-million parameter convolutional neural network and applying it on the largest image classification dataset (ImageNet).
  4. Mining Massive Data Sets — Frequent itemsets and Association rules, Near Neighbor Search in High Dimensional Data, Locality Sensitive Hashing (LSH), Dimensionality reduction, Recommender Systems, Clustering, Link Analysis, Large-scale machine learning, Data streams, Analysis of Social-network Graphs, and Web Advertising.
  5. Introduction to Cryptography — encryption (symmetric and public key), digital signatures, data integrity, authentication, key management, PKI, zero-knowledge protocols, and real-world applications.
  6. Social Information and Network Analysis — methods for link analysis and network community detection, diffusion and information propagation on the web, virus outbreak detection in networks, and connections with work in the social sciences and economics.
  7. Deep Learning for Natural Language Processing — students will learn to understand, implement, train, debug, visualize and potentially invent their own neural network models for a variety of language understanding tasks. The course provides a deep excursion from early models to cutting-edge research.
  8. Computer Vision: From 3D Reconstruction to Recognition — cameras and projection models, low-level image processing methods such as filtering and edge detection; mid-level vision topics such as segmentation and clustering; shape reconstruction from stereo, as well as high-level vision tasks such as object recognition, scene recognition, face detection and human motion categorization.
  9. Probabilistic Graphical Models: Principles and Techniques — Bayesian and Markov networks, extensions to temporal modeling such as hidden Markov models and dynamic Bayesian networks, exact and approximate probabilistic inference algorithms, and methods for learning models from data.
  10. Natural Language Processing — Syntactic and semantic processing from linguistic and algorithmic perspectives. Focus is on modern quantitative techniques in NLP: using large corpora, statistical models for acquisition, translation, and interpretation; and representative systems.

Top-5 enrollment trends over the past 5 years

Enrollment for top 5 courses from AY ‘11–’12 to AY ‘15-’16.

Machine learning, AI, and deep learning are all growing substantially. Data mining (MapReduce, Hadoop, etc.) is flattening or on the downswing. Crypto was flat for the most part but seems to be picking up steam. This latter point is great to see, especially in light of a study published last week that finds “none of the top 10 US university computer science and engineering program degrees requires students take a cybersecurity course.”

Below are the top 10 courses, with Machine Learning removed to make the graph more readable.

Enrollment growth rate in the past year

Based on the charts above, we observe the following growth rates from last year (AY ‘14-’15) to this year (AY ‘15-’16).

Enrollment growth rate AY ‘15–’16.

Deep learning, specifically applied to image recognition, is exploding. It’s interesting to see that deep learning for NLP is growing, but hasn’t seen the same explosive quality. It may be because the two courses are offered one after the other (Winter and Spring, consecutively) and there is overlap in the course materials, so folks may not see as much value in taking both. Or, we might be observing the same progression that we’ve seen in industry, which is that deep learning first grew (and remains) hot in speech recognition, then computer vision, and now NLP/NLU (see here).

Average enrollment growth rates over past 5 years

Average enrollment growth from AY ‘11-’12 to AY ‘15-’16.

The main thing to note here is the trend away from big data, data mining, Hadoop, etc. (i.e. collect, store, process) and moving towards machine learning, AI, and deep learning. Obviously, these are connected activities (seehere). The shift seems more from dealing with and collecting massive data to leveraging it for predictive activities.

Average enrollment growth rate from AY ‘11-’12 to AY ‘15–16.

Probabilistic graphical models has been quite a roller coaster over the past few years. Social network analysis is growing less rapidly as well.


While the results herein may not come as much surprise, it’s fascinating to see the extent to which AI, machine learning, and especially deep learning has proliferated and grown among advanced course offerings. It is incredibly exciting to witness the opportunities for predictive insights & machine intelligence that are affecting every industry and business application, and reassuring that knowledge and understanding of these core areas is only going to increase — and perhaps become core tools & techniques for an upcoming wave of engineers.

By Isaac Madan, investor at Venrock (email).

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. Subscribe here.

Requests for Startups: Jason Shuman (Corigin Ventures)

Born and raised in Boston, Jason comes from a family of entrepreneurs. An analyst at Corigin Ventures, he’s responsible for sourcing and analyzing deals, along with working with, and supporting portfolio companies. Prior to Corigin, Jason founded Category Five, an eCommerce mens footwear company that specialized in hand-sewn Boat Shoes (hence the twitter name, BoatShuman) and Driving Moccasins. Jason graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Miami where he now serves on the Entrepreneurship Board and Young Alumni Leadership Committee.

What startup verticals interest you most right now?

As a firm we look to invest in things that are impacting the future of consumer behavior and daily living. Over the past quarter I’ve been looking at the following:

  • VR — A variety of it’s natural applications whether that be for tourism,real estate, education, sports or other content. Also interested in the infrastructure that’s being built out around marketing tech and content creation by and for the masses.
  • The Aging in Place Movement — How the smart home/IoT can create safer environment for the elderly. Products or services that make the care givers/families lives easier when it comes to end of life planning, as well as the diminishing ability to perform ADLs (activities of daily living).
  • Real Estate Technology — We’re the venture capital arm of a large real estate holdings company, so we’re always looking at the latest in Real Estate Tech and how our portfolio can support founders. This includes everything from data analysis to property management, co-living and accounting. Our goal is to be forward thinking when it comes to every division of our real estate side (acquisitions, development, property management and lending), so we’ll honestly look at anything. I will say, though, that the future of living and what millennials’ preferences are is something that we talk about a lot.
  • eSports — We just made our first investment in the eSports space and I’m excited about the potential for the space. I will say though that some of the infrastructure already exists at scale and I’m not sure about the breadth of companies that will win big vs. a fair amount of verticals within the space becoming highly fragmented.
  • Mobile and Digital Health — I wrote a long medium post about why I like this space, but generally speaking it’s one of the last spaces that been heavily impacted by mobile and the fact is that improving patient outcomes, increasing accessibility and decreasing costs are 3 very strong valuable propositions which should be generating strong tail winds behind the movement.

What are your biggest predictions for the year ahead?

I think we’ll finally start to see some exits in the eCommerce space, for better or for worse. With the vertically integrated eCommerce movement starting to get more crowded, I’m interested in understanding who these companies exit to (can’t imagine PE shops really knowing the inner workings of these businesses very well yet) and what type of multiples they receive.

With more and more players entering the space, I think brands are going to have a hard time keeping their CAC down as well, which combined with the exit results may slow down the funding into these types of businesses.

On another note, great founders and companies will not struggle to fundraise in this environment. The smart ones, who are resilient, capital efficient and traction driven will continue to do big things and get funded.

Are there any specific company ideas that you really want someone to build and would potentially fund?

Not sure I’d be willing to fund it quite yet, but I’d love to see someone put together an adaptive learning platform for Virtual Reality. I think that evolution of education is still in its infancy and that by combining VR with adaptive learning you’ll be able to provide higher quality education to the masses (both inside and outside the U.S.). Ultimately, if things work out, you’ll be able to match a teachers teaching style to a students learning style, which should create a more effective and capital efficient way of learning.

If you could have a magic wand and instantly have any imaginable solution to a problem you’re facing, what problem would you solve?

I think like most people, I’d love for any repeatable or “brain-less” task to be automated so I can spend more time focusing on harder problems to solve/more important tasks. I think AI can also arm people in the near future with a tool that streamlines a lot of these processes vs. fully automating them, so hopefully we’ll see that happen soon.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Whether or not we see a slow down in the pace of funding, I’m a big fan of entrepreneurs who are absolutely obsessed with the industries that they’re playing in and starting a company for the right reasons. If the markets start to slow down, I think we’ll see the Founders that truly understand their“why” continue to grind through the challenges and succeed.

Startups are hard, but they’re an incredible experience. You’ll be emotionally and physically exhausted often times, but ultimately if you surround yourself with great people and are starting a company for the right reasons, then everything will work itself out.

If you as a Founder really know your Why, then I’d love to speak with you.

If you’re interested in Corigin, feel free to reach out to Jason directly via email.

If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending us an email.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. This issue was curated by Isaac Madan (email).

What do Facebook’s Technical Program Managers do?

Anand Parikh is the Manager of the Data Centers and Networking (DCN) division of Technical Program Managers at Facebook. He has been with the company for 5 years. He has a Civil Engineering degree from West Virginia University and spends his spare time hiking around California.

What is a TPM?

TPM stands for “technical program manager.” We are a team that manages the coordination of business decisions and leads design through the implementation of our infrastructure. The DCN team has grown from just a few people to a couple of dozen during my time here. We’re a global team in California, Ireland and Hong Kong. Our focus is the “Technical” portion of “TPM”, which is why we have TPMs that have varying areas of expertise:

  1. Network Engineering TPMs work cross-functionally with other teams to build out Facebook’s network. These TPMs work on data center networking, backbone networking, and edge deployments. Our goal is to connect the world, and it all begins with building out the network.
  2. Data Center TPMs manage our large data center build and turn up projects, playing a key role as Facebook continues to scale. They are responsible for aligning multiple teams to build and operate these massive data center buildings.
  3. Hardware TPMs strive to make the hardware more scalable, efficient, and effective. The TPMs work with many cross-functional teams to develop and deliver first-class, hyper-scale hardware.
  4. Capacity TPMs team up with engineers to determine how to scale and manage Facebook capacity to accommodate the users. They’re consistently challenged to draw from technical skills to drive programs, including knowledge of data centers, power, hardware, networking, and software.
  5. Engineering TPMs work with engineers on software efficiency, reliability, and quality to integrate into our back-end infrastructure while simultaneously helping to shape product vision.

What tools and technologies do TPMs use on a daily basis?

The goal of a TPM is to help engineers move their programs to completion more efficiently. The most effective way to do this is through face-face communication. Facebook is all about connecting people — no tools, documentation or software could ever replace the face to face interactions that are so vital to our progress.

That being said, there are a number of internally developed tools we use to manage programs from start to finish. “Tasks” are used to assign responsibility to an owner of an action item, to follow up and to document the resolution of the requests.

Our “Projects Tool” and “Facebook Groups” allow us to communicate, to solicit feedback, and to track progress. These tools allows us to have others review and comment in an open forum to ensure that the best decisions are made. By internally dogfooding Facebook Groups, we are able to better understand the pain points and use cases of our users as well.

What are some pain points in your day-to-day work?

When we talk about Facebook infrastructure, it includes a plethora of products that serve our community: Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Groups, Instagram, Oculus, etc. All of these services need to rely on our infrastructure to provide sufficient capacity, efficiency, and reliability for the hundreds of millions of daily users.

These unprecedented scaling challenges imply that we are constantly reevaluating our roadmap. So far, we have been able to accommodate an evolving infrastructure from a simple text News Feed, to photos, video, 360 video, and now Live video. Going forward we’ll need to figure out how to integrate emerging technologies like VR, which will introduce new variables and cause us to rethink our strategy.

The TPMs work together to develop our software, network, and hardware stacks in blocks that remain flexible so we can adapt for product growth. Sometimes it seems like we’re trying to hit a moving target due to the high rate of change. We have to reassess what we’re building for on a continual basis.

What challenges do you see that hinder the industry from advancing?

In the area of Data Centers and Networking, we encounter scenarios where our scaling demands cannot be met by existing technologies, or the new devices have yet to be widely adopted by the industry.

Let’s focus on one example: Data Center Networks, which is Intra-Data Center Network Traffic. Just a year ago we were first adopting 40GbE technology. Now we already see the need for a 100GbE Intra-DC network to allow our thousands of software engineers to build applications that scale and in turn build better product experiences for our users.

To satisfy our demands, we have to work very closely with the industry to also adopt these new technologies and drive down the costs to an acceptable level. If we can’t get a higher quantity of fast networks, the rest of the industry will also suffer.

Aside from data centers, we recognize that great content can only reach users through network connections. We work to ensure that our FBCDN Edge Egress capacity continues to grow to provide this access. The limited amount of fiber infrastructure in the ground also provides a constraint, which is why Facebook has been involved with fiber investments (Asia-Pacific Gateway Cable). Our announcement of the Telecom Infra Project initiative at MWC also addresses the fact that many people globally do not have access to cellular networks (4G,LTE, etc).

What are your biggest predictions for the year ahead?

One big challenge we announced in late February was the launch of Live. It is a product that began rolling out in 2015 in the U.S. and in less than 4 months we are in 30 countries on iOS. Over the upcoming months, we will work to improve the user experience and to enable our community to broadcast via Android as well.

Live is taking off and what we have seen is that on average people watch Live video 3x longer than static content. This introduces a huge opportunity for TPMs to tackle improvement in hardware, software, Data Centers, Network and FBCDN Edge capacity. All the TPM disciplines have to work together to meet the demands. This is going to be big in the near future and it has big challenges associated with it.

Curated by Jonathan Choi.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. Subscribe here. Run by Isaac Madan (email).

I’m An Entrepreneur Because Of My Mom

happy international women’s day, mom.

By Joe Laresca

There’s no possible way I could encompass what my mom has done for my family and the sacrifices she’s made in a blog post. It probably deserves a book (stay tuned, wink wink), but I wanted to write something down. And, what a better time to do so than on International Women’s Day — because, let me tell you, she is the most baller woman I know. Period.

My mom, Caterina Liliana Larriva Laresca, came to the Big Apple (Brooklyn, to be exact) in 1990 at 16 years old — by herself. Yeah, that’s right. 16, alone, living in New York City.

She didn’t know anybody. She didn’t have a dime in her pocket. Oh, and one more thing, she didn’t speak English.

An entrepreneur isn’t someone who starts a business; it’s a lifestyle. It’s someone who doesn’t take no for an answer, knocks on doors (breaks them down, occasionally), creates their own opportunities, never stops learning, isn’t afraid to take risks, and approaches every single day with a positive mindset — even when life continues to throw you curveballs.

Being a single mom at age 20 in a foreign country seems pretty daunting. As a matter of fact, daunting, probably isn’t the best word.

Mom, Jesse, and I circa 1995 — the day 1 crew.

But, my mom always figured things out. She made things happen — because she is an entrepreneur. It’s who she is.

Here are some short anecdotes on what I mean:

  1. She supported my brother Jesse and I by working 3 jobs at 20 years old. She’s now a real estate broker, but she’s sold electricity, water, clean energy, and used to hostess at multiple restaurants to make ends meet.This is where I learned to hustle.
  2. She taught herself how to speak English, along with a little bit of Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and Polish. She listened to every type of music, studied every career there is, and knew “who was who?” at every dinner party. People love that about her. This is where I learned that it always pays off to do your research and know “a little bit of everything.”
  3. I once her saw negotiate with a major car dealer. They wanted at least $8,000 as a down payment towards the car she was leasing. We walked out of there without putting a cent down, free tire insurance, and lower monthly payments. This is where I learned people skills and how to negotiate.
  4. This next one happened on two occasions. I had gotten a partial scholarship to attend Poly Prep Country Day School, but it definitely wasn’t enough. My mom went directly to the Head of Financial Aid and convinced them that I deserved more. The next day I committed to Poly. Same thing happened with college. As a matter of fact, I remember heading down to college and not being enrolled. This time it was me calling; I called both the Director of Admissions and Financial Aid. I’ll never forget sitting in the financial aid office for 3 days straight, convincing them to let me in — but I learned from the best, so same story there. This is where I learned that there’s always a way in.
  5. She loves Barbara Corcoran. You know, the real estate mogul who’s a judge on Shark Tank? My mom does real estate. So, what did she do? She emailed Barbara telling her why she should hire her. Barbara didn’t get back, but that’s not the point. This is where I learned why it never hurts to just go for it — even if it’s swinging for the fences.

My mom is where I learned entrepreneurship. Every venture I’ve started, sport I’ve tried, monologue I’ve done, song I’ve played, article I’ve written, she’s always said, “I think you should go pro — you’re gonna be great.” Her unwavering support and go-for-it attitude towards life is why I am the way I am. It’s why I enjoy taking risks and doing things that scare me — whether it’s pursuing an idea or covering a Sublime song on stage.

I think everyone can learn something from her. Whether you’re into entrepreneurship or not, it always helps to be entrepreneurial. It’s this quality that separates you from the rest and gives you that edge; people respect hustle. There’s a reason why every company out there — from a bank to a startup — lists “entrepreneurial, thinks outside the box, can take on multiple tasks at once, etc.” under the requirements section for a job posting.

Entrepreneurship isn’t starting a business; it’s a way of life.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m into the stuff I’m into. And, then I remember, I got it from my mama.

Happy International Women’s Day to all, and thanks so much for reading. ByJoe Laresca. You can also find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, or my website.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. Subscribe here. Curated by Isaac Madan (email).

Here’s what it’s like to be on Shark Tank as a student entrepreneur

Jason is a student entrepreneur at the University of Chicago. He enjoys making videos, trying new foods, and building tools that are meaningful to improving society.

How did you find yourself on Shark Tank? What was the Shark Tank experience like?

This is actually a really funny story. My first company, IReTron, began as a school project that got out of hand. We buy back used electronics, refurbish them, and resell or donate to schools or hospitals. We built web software that scraped the internet to find all websites for cellphones, and their buying price points. We set our price at 95% so that we beat out 95% of our competitors but at the same time, if we cannot sell a phone, we can sell it to a competitor and not lose money. We built this technology for phones and tablets.

Then, I made a Youtube video for a funding competition. IReTron in its entirety was funded by award money from competitions. The SharkTank producers found this video on Youtube and contacted me, asking if we would want to be on Shark Tank. I don’t watch TV, because I’ve never owned a TV, so I assumed this was some spam email asking me to swim in a tank of sharks! But after looking it up, it looked legit. I said yes and things started rolling— my dad and I were watching videos and preparing; however, before we signed the contract, I realized that IReTron was not making enough money to be on the show. We would have been laughed at. So, I told the producer “Sorry, I can’t do it this time.” The next year, the Shark Tank producer called me again and at that point, I agreed to be on the show. It was senior year, why not?

Shark Tank flew me to LA on a first class plane (the only time I’ve taken a first class flight!). After arriving, I went through my 2-minute pitch with the producers. They told me, “You’re a kid! You’re not excited enough! You sound too adult-like!” So that night, I worked endlessly revamping the pitch for TV standards. As for wardrobe, my khakis weren’t cool enough. The fashion directors took me to Forever 21 and there, I bought a pair of jeans. You can see them in the show! But anyways, the day of filming, I was the sixth person to go on the show that day. The doors open, you walk, and then stand there in front of the Sharks. One take. All the way through. I was in there for about 50 minutes however it was cut down to 8 minutes of TV footage.

For me, the most stressful part of the experience was the pitch. To prepare for the questions and answers, I watched every episode of the show and formulated answers to every question. By the time I went on the show, everything was premeditated so that I was never caught on the spot. To prepare, I also did practice pitches with startups and spoke with many professors.

Ultimately, I got a deal with Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban: $100,000 for 10% of the company. The episode was filmed in September, the deal closed in October, and the episode aired in March. With Barbara and Mark’s assistance, IReTron is now growing and self-sustainable. We have high school students and actual employees working with the company. Now, the focus is helping high school students with getting business experience and making money. I’m thankful for Mark and Barbara because they have assisted with both IReTron and UProspie!

What problem does UProspie solve?

The summer before college started, I was very scared to come to UChicago. Rumors claimed that the school was very rigorous… And that the kids were really weird. I wasn’t sure if I would fit in, or if this was the place where fun comes to die! Many stereotypes are inaccurate and UProspie seeks to break these stereotypes by conducting one on one conversations between college and high school students. UProspie has a web platform, and channels and feeds so that each prospective student can have an individualized experience with getting to know the school. While the Admissions Office does a great job, it can be challenging to individualize the experience. What if you want to go out? With UProspie, the prospective student can find a host. This makes the overnight experience safer. With $15/hour, the knowledge about the school grows exponentially. If you are an undergraduate, you can make money on your own time simply by sharing your opinions and experiences.

UProspie does not want to just help the rich kids who can afford such luxuries therefore we try to connect students who have similar academic interests and socioeconomic backgrounds. From my involvement inMoneythink, I have been exposed to many charter school students. In these schools, there are many smart students who don’t have the right resources: guidance counselors are stretched too thin and cannot assist in navigating through financial aid or scholarships. With UProspie, college students can lend knowledge to someone who is in a similar position. In Texas, LA, and NYC, we offer subsidized tours for students who cannot afford the services.

More recently, we have been matching international high school students with international college students. With UProspie, the information is tailored to your needs to help you understand the experience more directly.

While we are not endorsed by admissions offices, there is a 95% commitment rate: Of the students who use UProspie, 95% of them will commit to the school they prospied at. Since launching on Halloween, we have spread to 80 universities with over 5,000 hosts.

What’s your advice to students starting companies while they’re in school? What resources did you take advantage of that you would recommend to others?

School is the best time to start a business but it can also be the worst. While in school, it is very important to prioritize your classes, your GPA and your academic record. Definitely. However, once you become a real person (aka exit the college bubble) you have SO many real obligations. Mortgage, a partner, kids… As a student, you don’t have any of that. Instead, your school is like an incubator. With UProspie, for example, my co-founder lives on the floor above me. The promo video maker lives across the hall. College is great because there are always people around who will have the technical skills that can assist you in creating a company. From computer science and video making to marketing and advertising, whatever it is, you have a team. To build something, you just need friends. I would highly recommend all students to embark on an entrepreneurial endeavor while in college. Every moment you are in college, you are spending money. Money is just flying out of your pocket every second. That motivates me. I could either watch Netflix or work on my business. If I am going to spend money to be surrounded by brilliant people, I want to take advantage of that.

There are many great resources on campus. At UChicago specifically, I utilize connections through Career Advancement and UCIE (UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship). Advisors can provide great advice, and also direct you to other entrepreneurs or financial resources. Last quarter, I traveled to over a dozen pitch competitions across the United States and UChicago was very supportive in funding our travels.

If you’re interested in IReTron or UProspie, feel free to reach out to Jasondirectly via email. This issue was curated by Kaesha Freyaldenhoven (email).

Interested in artificial intelligence? Join us at the AI meetup on Thursday at 6pm in San Francisco at Sandbox Suites, 404 Bryant Street, with special guest Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower. Details & RSVP here! If you can’t attend, let us know anyway, and we’ll keep you updated on how it goes.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending Isaac Madan an email.

8 Major Keys to Success: Getting Hired in the 21st Century

feat. startups and tech, advice from DJ Khaled, and beyond. By Joe Laresca.

A lot of people ask me how to get into tech or how to land a job at a cool startup. And, I’ve noticed that many brilliant, creative people either a) count themselves out or b) have the misconception that you need to be a coder (this_is_not = true).

Like DJ Khaled said, “don’t play yourself.” Many just don’t know how to approach the process, and therefore, aren’t putting their best foot forward. After working in startups/tech for 5+ years and going through the process myself, I’ve devised a formula that works.

Disclaimer: Although this is geared toward tech and startups, all types of companies value this process (banks, consulting companies, non-profits, gov agencies, etc.) so don’t discount these 8 critical pieces.

1. Make A Website

  • It’s mandatory nowadays. Just about every job application has a field for “links” or “website.” So, make one. It should say who you are, what you like to do, and what you’re all about.
  • Are you a marketer? Developer? Social media guru? Finance wizard? Who just so happens to be a foodie, triathlon obsessionist, part-time photographer, etc.?
  • Besides putting your own creative spin on it, link some projects you’ve worked on, education, and any relevant experience you may have.

You don’t code = You can’t build a website. FALSE!!!

Here are some great resources for making a snazzy website without coding at all: Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, etc. My personal favorite is Squarespace, by the way.

2. Be Visible Online (or BVO)

  • This one is definitely easier for some, but if you want to work for a tech company or any kind of startup, you need to be active online.
  • At the very least, you need to be on LinkedIn. Make sure you have a fun/professional photo and engaging summary.
  • Other than having your website and LinkedIn, be active somewhere else — whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Medium, or Tumblr.
  • You don’t need to be tweeting, gramming, and snapping every second; however, you should be building your “online street cred,” as Kim Phamputs it in her article.
  • Show what you’re interested in, what you blog about, what spaces you’re passionate about, etc.

All of the above create backlinks and help you rank higher on Google. Nine times out of ten, the first thing a company/recruiter will do to learn more about you is Google you. So, make sure that when someone Googles your name, you come up first — your website, LinkedIn, Twitter, Blog, and any other fun stuff you’ve worked on.

All of this makes you more reachable. One should be able to Google you and find you in seconds. Eric Friedman (EIR at Expa) coins this as “Always Be Reachable,” in an interview called “How to Get a Job At a Startup.”

3. Create A Resume

  • The most obvious requirement — it should be action-oriented and filled with quantifiable metrics.
  • Keep it on 1 page, 2 to 3 bullet points per job, and only include the most relevant experience.
  • Remember, whoever reads your resume, will probably only glance at it — meaning he or she will skim it for about 7 to 10 seconds. So, keep it short and simple, and focus on the important stuff.

Your resume should follow this formula: Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z] (Laszlo Bock).

Here’s the full article written by Laszlo Bock (SVP, People Operations at Google and author of WORK RULES!) on how to write the perfect resume: My Personal Formula for A Winning Resume.

4. Learn A Hard Skill

  • Tech companies, especially startups, want to know what tangible skills you possess. For example:
  • Web/Mobile Development, Front-end, Back-end or full-stack, iOS, Android, or both, Design, UI, UX, or both;
  • Digital Marketing, Social Media, Data Analytics, Data Science, Sales, Excel, etc.

General Assembly is great, and if you can afford it, you should absolutely take a class there. However, there are plenty of free resources to learn new things, from digital marketing to iOS development to data analytics. Codecademy,Treehouse,Khan Academy, and Coursera are some of my favorites.

Here’s my favorite article on learning anything, “The 37 Best Websites to Learn Something New,” by Kristyna Z.

5. Work On Projects

  • You have a website, you’re networking on LinkedIn, you’re blogging on Medium, tweeting interesting stuff, and you’ve acquired some in-demand skills. But, the number 1 thing people want to see are tangible projects you’ve worked on.
  • Apply those sweet skills to a project, startup idea, organization you’re in, or blog you run.
  • If you want to be a social media manager, you should be managing social media accounts. If you want to be a developer, you should be attending hackathons and filling your Github with the websites, apps, and tools you’ve made. If you want to be a designer, you should be loading yourdribbble with the flyers you’ve designed, icons you’ve created, and apps you’ve mocked up.

In other words, you need to apply those skills you have to a tangible project. Companies want to see more than what school you went to, what classes you took, and that certificate you have in mobile development.

6. Reach Out

  • I honestly cannot stress this one enough. You could be the candidate of someone’s dreams, but if you don’t do this, then the likelihood of them getting back to you is slim.
  • Submitting your resume and cover letter through a job posting is notenough — especially if you’re applying to a tech company or hot new startup. Understand that some of these companies get 100s of applications per week, so give yourself the best shot by reaching out.
  • If you know someone who’s connected to someone at the company you’re interested in, ask them if they’d be willing to make an intro!
  • If you’re gunning for an iOS dev role, reach out to both the recruiter at said company and someone on the engineering team. Applying to a social media internship? Then reach out to someone on the marketing team or the social media manager.

All of this information can be found through LinkedIn and on a company’s website. Here’s an example of how to reach out:

Hi Sarah,

I absolutely love the work you’ve done both solo and over on the Growth team at Slack. I’m very interested in the Growth Manager Associate role available, and I’d love to learn more about your experience there before applying.

I’ve attached my resume; you can also learn more about me on my website,creative agency’s site, blog, and LinkedIn. I understand that you must have a busy schedule, but I’d love to chat. I’m free Monday-Thursday between 8am and 3pm EST — do any of those times work for you?

Thanks so much and I look forward to hearing from you!



7. Be In The Know

  • If you’re interested in a company, you should know everything about them. Who’s their CEO, when were they founded, latest news article on them, where are they located, etc.?
  • You can find this information through their website, LinkedIn,Angellist,Crunchbase, Twitter, Facebook, and through good ol’ Google searching.
  • Same thing goes for industries. If you’re interested in tech and startups, then you should skim TechCrunch and Product Hunt daily. Interested insocial entrepreneurship, adtech, fintech, SaaS, on-demand, consumer-tech, etc.? Then, know about that industry! Know the major players and up and commers.
  • The information is out there, so there is no excuse for not knowing it.

All of this reflects your motivation and your genuine interest. It shows that you’re not applying just because you think Snapchat is “cool” or because Slack just locked in another major funding round.

8. Hustle Hard

  • Ok, let’s face it, this word gets thrown around a ton in the tech/startup realm — probably a bit too much. But, all in all, it’s really what it all boils down to.
  • Keep pushing the bar — continue learning new things, building out your network, working on new projects, and continue to create opportunities for yourself.
  • Here’s a great story on the first employee for Uber, Ryan Graves: From Dead-End Job to Uber Billionaire: Meet Ryan Graves. He embodies what it means to be a hustler. He didn’t play by the rules and he was always trying new things to create opportunities for himself.

I’m not saying that this is a magic formula that will guarantee you a sweet job, but I can guarantee you that it will put you in a much better position than before.

Make sure you’re following these 8 Major Keys and don’t get discouraged when someone doesn’t get back to you or if you get denied for a role that you applied for. It’s happened to me, it’s happened everyone.

Moral of the story? Be like Ryan.

By Joe Laresca. If you have any questions or need some help getting started feel free to reach out to Joseph directly at josephlaresca@gmail.com. You can also find him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his website.

Going to SXSW? Let us know.

If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending us an email.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. This issue was curated by Isaac Madan, investor at Venrock (email).

Requests for Startups: Jeremy Harper (Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator)

Jeremy is a Principal at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator and is focused on investing in early stage technology start-ups across multiple sectors, both enterprise and consumer. Jeremy was previously an early employee on the Booz Allen Hamilton commercial team, a digital strategist for Unilever, and the head of marketing for The5thMedium. Jeremy received a B.A. from Brown University, and spends his spare time struggling to keep up on soccer and rugby fields in NYC.

What startup verticals interest you most right now?

Being a New York only accelerator, ERA tends to focus on industries that we see as being housed in NYC. The theory being that if you’re serving or disrupting a major NYC based industry, this is where your startup should be located. Things like fintech, adtech, edtech, fashion, commerce, and more are all verticals that interest us.

Fintech is a particularly interesting one, as NYC is the obvious hub of that industry, we see great opportunity here for both investors and entrepreneurs. Much has been said about the recent trend of un-bundling bank services, and I believe there’s still a long road ahead and plenty of areas to innovate here. On top of that, there are other trends — such as the current generational wealth transfer, millennials becoming more active players in the financial ecosystem, the introduction of crypto-currencies and entirely new asset classes enabled by tech — that make this vertical ripe with opportunity.

What are your biggest predictions for the year ahead?

In general, I’m excited to see how big data and sophisticated analytics can move across more verticals and create new value for players in those industries. We’ve invested heavily in this concept at ERA, whether its Cognical (machine learning applied to lending), Agolo (automated financial news summarization engine), or ModernLend (alternative data for credit card decisions). Highly sophisticated technical teams have a great opportunity to create the next wave of innovation across a range of verticals.

Another — larger and more complex products being purchased online, enabled by tech. It’s not necessarily a new trend, but an ongoing one. It’s a trend ERA is invested in, through TripleMint (residential real estate), FourMine (online jewelry), SaleMove (automotive and financial products), and Machinio (machinery equipment). Just a few years ago many of these complex and consultative-sale products would not have been bought online, but technology and innovative business models are changing that, and purchasing behavior continues to adapt a new level of online transactional comfort.

Are there any specific company ideas that you really want someone to build and would potentially fund?

More solutions focused on reducing friction in government and regulatory processes. ERA is invested in SeamlessDocs, which simplifies PDF form management for governments, and also Smart Screen, which automates background checks for enterprises. Government and regulatory processes have traditionally been avoided by entrepreneurs in part because of red tape and a perceived brutal sales cycle. But we’ve seen companies successfully navigate the landscape, and when they do there’s plenty of opportunity with relatively low competition.

If you could wave a magic wand and instantly have any imaginable solution to a problem you’re facing (personally or at work), what problem would you solve?

These are all relatively personal and aspirational, but…

  1. Something that solves the problem of inbox overload.
  2. Limitless battery life (obvious one)
  3. Something that actually engages all tiers of society in productive and fact-based political discussions (Donald Trump meme’s on Facebook does not count)

And finally, ERA’s application is now open for the Summer 2016 class! Applyhere.

If you’re interested in ERA, feel free to reach out to Jeremy directly via email.

If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending us an email.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of entrepreneurial ideas & perspectives by investors, operators, and influencers. This issue was curated by Akshay Goradia (email).

Requests for Startups: Edward Coady (LaunchCapital)

Edward first started working with LaunchCapital as a summer analyst in 2010. After graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science, he joined as a full time analyst in 2012. As an analyst, Edward is responsible for performing due diligence, financial modeling, researching emerging trends and discovering new companies. Edward has always been captivated by the intersection of technology and culture and is excited to meet entrepreneurs looking to disrupt the status quo. We interviewed Edward by phone, so what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What startup verticals interest you most right now?

In terms of specific verticals, we’ve been excited about disrupting supply chains in unsexy industries. There are a shocking number of industries where pricing is variable, orders still occur by fax machine, etc.

There are inefficient supply chains out there where a lot of value and time is being lost. So, we’re interested in solutions that add efficiency, and particularly, marketplaces that allow this to occur. There are suppliers on one end, buyers on the other, and this is revolutionary for a lot of industries, as simplistic as it sounds.

Related to that, we’re interested in the food production supply chain, where there’s a huge amount of waste: ~40% of food produced in US goes uneaten and farmers represent less and less of the consumer’s dollar. This is pretty unfortunate considering how much better this process can be.

Another area of interest is agricultural technology. Leveraging big data for sustainable production, especially in light of water shortage, damaging effects of fertilizers on aquifers, etc. So, we’re excited about companies that revolutionize the way food is produced in a more sustainable way.

We’re also interested in the area of reducing the cost of shelter. Home construction has been unchanged over the past several decades, and there are a couple interesting angles to take on it. For example, the Wiki House is a pretty cool effort.

What are your biggest predictions for the year ahead?

1. We’re part of generation that has a high expectation for efficiency and user experience. That expectation carries from our general software use for day-to-day activities to all processes we interact with. For example, it’s frustrating when we have to fill out forms at a doctor’s office. I think this is going to increasingly carry over to existing industries. It does require significant behavior change, particularly in the food production industry, where consumers have to demand lower prices, for example.

2. Technology has advanced so much that farmers have struggled to be able to tinker with it and be able to hack it. So, empowering farmers to interact with the technology that they’re working with will be important in the years to come. Farmers are known to be incredibly resourceful. They’re already known to be hacking together solutions, so technology that facilitates that, whether its open source software or ‘malleable’ hardware, will be important going forward.

In that space, we’ve invested in Freight Farms, which is a fascinating concept. By localizing production, you can understand demand better. For example, if there’s a huge spike in basil demand, you can respond to that demand very quickly. Production cycles are also short: in 5 weeks you can produce a different crop — it’s game changing.

If you could wave a magic wand and instantly have any imaginable solution to a problem you’re facing (personally or at work), what problem would you solve?

To aid in research and discovery, I would love a platform that lets you see related content across certain topics. For example, the debate surrounding Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article about the theory of disruption was shockingly hard to follow — you have to find relevant rebuttals, and there’s so much pertinent information out there. I would love it if we could discuss all the related news articles, blog posts, and Youtube videos, surrounding the debate. Currently, there’s no great solution. A big part of this is comments — comments on Hacker News, tweets, etc. It’d be great to see that all in one place.

Anytime you’re doing research on X, Y, and Z, you need to check all around and make sure you didn’t miss anything, and then suddenly you discover a blog post by someone in the industry and it cracks everything open. I think that process is valuable, but one centralized place to follow topics across all these media sources and content hubs would be insanely powerful.

Other interesting ideas:

  1. Make search for Gmail a lot better
  2. Podcasts for newsletters — text to speech, for example

If you have a startup or you’re interested in any of LaunchCapital’s portfolio companies, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Edward directly at edward@launch-capital.com.

If you think there’s someone we should feature in an upcoming issue, nominate them by sending us a tweet. Alternatively, if you have startup ideas, submit them here, or email us directly.

Requests for Startups is a newsletter of ideas that investors, companies, and influencers would like to fund. This issue was curated by Isaac Madan and Shaurya Saluja.