Business Planning Workshop: Interview with Rekha Pai Kamath

Just a couple months into my first year as a Girls Innovate! Teen Committee member, I had the opportunity to work with Ishika Narain, my co-Project Leader, to organize tomorrow’s workshop on Business Planning, part of our exciting “Intro to Startup” Series for girls!

Our guest speaker is Rekha Pai, who will guide us through understanding and doing some interactive exercises around usability, value proposition and market research. I am very excited to meet Rekha and learn from her, as I’m sure are all of the 40+ girls attending. Here’s a Q&A I did with Rekha in advance of the workshop. Rekha’s answers definitely motivated me to venture deeper into business. To learn more and meet Rekha, join us at the first of our four events, hosted and sponsored by Cornerstone Research, on February 23.

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Rekha Pai: Rekha leads several business and strategic projects in the New Business Incubation group at Juniper Networks. She has 15+ years in various engineering, marketing, and product management positions at Silicon valley companies such as Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle Corp), Symantec Corp and Applied Materials. In her New Business Incubation role, she is responsible for analyzing Market Requirements and building the Business Thesis and Framework around deploying new and disruptive technologies to market.

Question 1: Can you tell us more about this workshop – what will we be doing; what will it be like; and what aspects of it that a girl as young as 12 years old could gain from?

The workshop is about learning how to think through the business aspects of a startup. Money is a very important aspect of sustainability of many startups – whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit. Although business planning typically tends to be a blind spot for first time entrepreneurs, it is very critical as it enables the entrepreneur to be laser-focused on the efforts that truly matter. This laser-focus is doubly important in a startup because resources – both time and money – are in short supply. So if you have an idea, whether it is about helping your community, a local organization or creating social impact, or it is a for-profit venture trying to make money, you need to think through basic building blocks of a business plan, which I hope students will learn to do after this workshop.

Today, it is easier to get started on building your own mobile application, or create projects of impact due to the advantage that the readily available technologies like LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) and freely available tools like App Inventor, Google Docs or Skype. It is no longer required to have a huge investment of capital before your venture can take off. Teen entrepreneurs, if motivated, can start to solve real problems in their community or fulfill a need only they see clearly, and this workshop will provide them will some basic skills to create business-savvy startups.

Question 2: In preparing for the workshop, what challenged you the most? What potential rewards do you see?

Learning to plan a business can be quite complex due to the various subtleties in different markets and businesses. The focus of the workshop is on organizing it into bite-able chunks and to create the right-sized bites for the given time constraints.

If I could ignite the spark of confidence in even one teenager to start a meaningful project or build a mobile application to solve a real world problem and create sustainability for the business, I would consider my workshop immensely successful. I hope that teenagers come out of the workshop getting a better perspective of why it’ so important to understand your customer or user, and why it’s key to clarify the benefits of your products to your customer, so that they can create more relevant and meaningful businesses or non-profits.

Question 3: Were you interested in this kind of thing (technology, business, competitions) when you were at this age? What qualities do you think you possess at that time that, looking back, made perfect sense for someone who now works at the intersection of entrepreneurship, business and technology?

Growing up in India, it was super competitive. Admissions to the top high schools depended on your performance in a state-level examination. So when the results came out, and I found out that I was 17th in the state among 117,000 students, it increased my self-confidence and courage to dream.

I think competitions are great opportunity to get validation of your ideas, but it is also important to not be afraid to fail, because I believe that you always have to pass failure on your way to success.

Growing up, I loved taking things apart and fixing stuff, especially appliances and electronics, because I was always so curious. I believe this is why I got interested in the business side too, because I saw many well-engineered products fail in the market due to decisions made in marketing and business strategy. So I would encourage teens to always be inquisitive and try to understand why things are the way they work.

Looking back, it would have been impossible for me to imagine my current career life, given that my engineering career morphed into business and entrepreneurship. And as Steve Jobs said, ”you can only connect the dots looking backward”, but I think having bold ambitions, an inherent curiosity to ask why, and the ability to embrace change really defined my actions and influenced my career path.

Question 4: Where were you born? What aspects of your childhood left the greatest impression on you? Who were your greatest influences?

I was born in India and I have had the good fortune of having some really great teachers at various points of my childhood who really supported me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. There was a math teacher in my 10th grade who would meet me very early at 6:30am to answer any questions I had if I could bike the 3 or so miles to his home before school. Mr. Verma, a professor of French. spent long hours teaching me 2 years of French over 6 weeks in summer so that I could catch up with 3rd language requirement because I had chosen French to replace the regional language that the local students had studied for over 6 years. I think I was lucky to have several nurturing and inspiring teachers every step of the way, and I always looked up to them striving to not let their confidence in me down.

It so happened that I grew up in 4 different cities in India due to my father’s job. So I had to change schools 4 times before college, which does sound difficult because I had to leave my friends and adjust to a new school and curriculum each time. But in retrospect, I feel the experience was a boon in disguise as it gave me the ability to embrace change and see beyond to the opportunities that came with it, and to be much more open to ideas and differences.

Question 5: When you were approaching college years, how did you think about what to study or what to do with your life? What did you study and are you happy with that decision?

​I used to love watching Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos.” The picture of Rakesh Sharma, India’s first astronaut, was plastered on the wall of my room. During high school, I had decided I wanted to learn astrophysics and space science and that my ultimate dream was to work for NASA.

But there was no undergraduate specialization I could pursue that would lead me there. Since I was admitted to a prestigious engineering school that was difficult to get into, a professor I consulted told me to study engineering as a means of getting into the fields of astrophysics and aeronautics. Looking back, that turned out to be great advice because studying engineering gave me the perception of how relevant science and technology was. I guess early on, I hadn’t realize how much I enjoyed the practical and hands on aspects of science, which my degree in Electrical Engineering later revealed to me. So I would suggest to you to keep your mind open while pursuing your interests. One great way to be better prepared for the myriad career options out there is to try things out and see if you like it. Participating in things like Technovation Challenge is an example. You may have a pre-determined idea that creating a mobile app would be too challenging for you, but you may be surprised!

Question 6: If you could go back and get another degree or study something else, what would it be?

I don’t think I would want to go back and get another degree but I would like to work on certain skills like writing, or learning how to blog better.

Question 7: How has your career path been what you imagined? How has it not been?

​I hadn’t imagined going into the business side until a few years of working as an engineer, so I guess that turned out differently. Over the years my career path showed me how critical it is to think about the business side, the market, user, partners and the whole industry ecosystem that we operate in. It’s important to understand that no one operates in a vacuum, and that we are all interconnected in many ways. So while we are all working on a specific idea or project at any given point of time, I had never imagined my career to be so interconnected and inter-dependent on so many different aspects.

Question 8: What do you love about your day-to-day at Juniper Networks? What skillsets do you bring that makes it a good fit for who you are? What skillsets do you think could help you grow in your job or career?

I would say that what I love about my career is that it is so relevant and meaningful. I can see that the innovative networking gear we make enables new and improved communication services and applications and creates opportunities not possible earlier. It was amazing to be in Rwanda just earlier this month and observe that even for members of the poorest of communities, mobile apps on feature phones were as much a necessity as running water and electricity. In many rural communities around the world, basic access to a feature phone (not a smartphone) is so critical to receiving health services for AIDS victims, acquiring pre-paid electricity services or even being able to make a living dependent on mobile money transfers.

Being at the front-end of the innovation process, I am responsible for conducting product/market discovery, which means I get to build new products and discover new markets for them – requiring me to challenge preconceived notions. A lot of times what we think are slam dunk ideas don’t pan out and at other times, marginal ideas play out to be successful – and it’s both a humbling and an amazing learning experience

I think that my critical thinking and communication skills are key to my success at Juniper. It is also very important to be adaptable and have the ability to continuously learn. Our world is rapidly changing and therefore the ability to learn new concepts and synthesize the enormous amounts of information coming at us in an efficient manner is key to success at my job.

Question 9: Do you consider yourself an innovative person? If yes, how do you think you developed that mindset? How do you keep your mind engaged in a creative and action-oriented way?

Any entrepreneurial activity seeks innovation. I view an entrepreneur as someone who seeks to solve a problem or fulfill a need he/she sees in their environment. The existence of the problem/need implies that the existing solution doesn’t work, which means the entrepreneur needs to be innovative to solve that problem. When innovation is disruptive, there is significant change to status quo and opportunities for impact are greater. To that end, I try to create value and solve real-world problems using disruptive innovation in technologies, marketing frameworks and business models.

To be innovative, you have to able to challenge the status quo and think outside the box. When you truly seek the answers to the higher level questions of why, what, and how, and challenge the assumptions you have made, you come up with innovative solutions. This is the principle behind my work at Juniper and in everything I do.

Living in Silicon Valley, we are lucky to be witnessing innovation in every sphere of life. Parents within a school community find innovative ways to organize themselves. Schools find innovative ways to teach and engage students. This is the birthplace of iPhone, Google, Facebook and eBay. Working on interesting products at Juniper, living in the Valley, and participating in events such as these keep me engaged in creative ways.

Question 10: What three to five areas do you wish girls could develop more of at this age (middle school to early high school years) to enable a more meaningful life later on?

  • I think it is very important to develop the discipline to manage your time to put in your best effort in to your homework and activities. I know I sound like your parents, but it is important to do well in school!
  • Keep your mind open and ask a lot of questions!
  • If you have a passion or a pet-project, be committed, get started and don’t give up.

Question 11: What do you think about our educational system? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

Let me think about this. I like the educational system we have, but if I had my way, I would mandate an additional language in the K-5 grades.

Question 12: Do you have any thoughts to share with high school students, like me, who are interested in the business field? Or any thoughts, in general, that you would like to share with the Girls Innovate! Community?

Get your feet wet, and try starting a business! You will learn a lot, and get some good experiences, and hopefully even become a wildly successful teen entrepreneur!