Shripriya Mahesh is a multi-faceted personality. She is presently the founding partner at Spero Ventures, and looks to invest in enterprises working towards creating a positive change in the community. Today, the VC firm boasts of a portfolio that includes companies like Fiveable, Huckleberry, BASE and Gencove.
Prior to this role, Shripriya was leading the technology investment wing at Omidyar Network. She has also been an angel investor, advisor and board member across various private technology companies during the course of her career.
Shripriya has also held leadership roles at eBay including that of the Vice President of Product Marketing and the Vice President of Global Product Management.
At the tender age of seven, the enterprising lady knew she wanted to be a visual artist and this dream came true when she pursued an MFA in Film from NYU’s Tisch School of Arts. Post the course, she made several short films.
In a recent episode of 100x Entrepreneur Podcast, a series featuring founders, venture capitalists, and angel investors, Shripriya spoke to Siddharth Ahluwalia about sowing the seeds for Spero Ventures, investing in mission-driven companies like Tesla and battling her way through cancer.
The early years
Shripriya was fascinated with coding at a very young age, and learnt the skill when she was just 11. With information technology seeing its first wave of boom during the late 80s and early 90s, she began picking up programs like COBOL and C. Though Shripriya was pursuing a degree in economics from Stella Maris College in Chennai at the time, she made it a point to garner information about computers on the side.
Immediately after graduation, Shripriya worked in India for a few years. And, later, she got admitted to Harvard Business School at Boston for her Masters.
“I was passionate about the internet and everything that it could do. I still remember setting up my presence on the internet. I bought shripriya.com and made a geeky web page,” reminisces Shripriya.
Once she completed her MBA from Harvard Business School, she spent 15 months doing a consulting job. She then joined NextCard, a firm that is known to be one of the first issuers of credit cards and instant approvals, and moved to the Bay Area in San Francisco. For the next two and a half years, she was engaged in product management, business development as well as marketing.
“My next job was at eBay where I ran the Selling side and was also involved in the company’s decision to acquire PayPal. I had an incredible time there. People were passionate and the place offered a whole bunch of opportunities,” adds Shripriya.
Filmmaking and starting her own venture
Growing up in culture-rich Chennai, Shripriya took up a photography course when she was studying in class IV and held on to the hobby thereon. Even while she was working with eBay, she attended evening classes to hone her skills.
However, she was not sure about pursuing photography as anything other than a hobby.
“I realised that photography in itself would be a very lonely career. So, I thought of exploring something adjacent to that. In 2005, I took a break from work to do a three-month film course in New York. John Donahoe, who was the CEO of eBay at the time, was supportive about me doing a continuing education program,” recalls Shripriya.
As soon as Shripriya got accepted into the program, she got to know that she was pregnant with twins. But the head of the program was kind enough to defer her admission by two years, and hence, she started the course when her boys were 18 months old. Shripriya toiled her way through all the scripts, shoots and edits and worked for 16 hour shifts almost daily. Nonetheless, she enjoyed every bit of it.
In 2015, after devoting a couple of years into filmmaking, Shripriya thought of making her way back into the corporate sector. Incidentally, during conversations with a few VC friends, she learnt more about the opportunities in the space and found it interesting. She soon joined Omidyar Network, where she worked on emerging tech and was even involved in building a team out of India.
Once Omidyar’s operations started growing at a rapid pace, the need to establish a smaller and nimbler organisation became clearer.
“India has a competitive venture market. In order to win deals, we had to focus and work together as a unit. The name Omidyar carried an implication of dual chequebook. Hence, we spun out in January 2018 and branded ourselves as Spero Ventures. Today, we say we invest in the things that make life worth living. Our thesis is to invest in mission-driven founders,” says Shripriya.
Over the years, Spero Ventures has built a vast portfolio of companies in various segments. Before arriving upon the decision to invest, the VC firm attempts to find answers to a slew of questions - what is the problem this company is trying to solve? If the company scales up, what will the world look like? Does the business model work? What is the mission?
Battling cancer and investing in a mission
A few weeks before delivering a presentation to the board about the spin out, Shripriya discovered that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. This made her begin to rethink about life - she wanted to live, be there for her children and do more meaningful work. And through that process, Shripriya figured the areas of focus for Spero Ventures – health, well-being, work and purpose.
“I worked even during my chemotherapy. We finalised all our plans to spin out while I was undergoing treatment and surgery. And, we went public with it about six weeks after my major surgery. Omidyar either means the man from hope or the man of hope. Hence, I looked up the translation for the word ‘hope’ in every language and in Latin, Spero means hope. The URL was also available and we went with it,” says Shripriya.
Spero Ventures is a single bottom line fund and the firm measures their progress in terms of return to LP. At the same time, it invests in companies that have a powerful mission and can deliver good returns. Shripriya refers to Tesla to highlight this.
Marc Tarpenning, the co-founder of Tesla, was Shripriya’s venture partner at Spero. He deeply cared about sustainability. When Marc established Tesla with Martin Eberhard, they knew that burning oil and adding to the climate change problem would not be wise.
Hence, they took a call and moved towards electric cars. They did not want people to buy the car because it would be electric. They wanted them to purchase it because of its features. So, by fulfilling their core function of selling electric cars, they were planning to bring about a positive shift - towards a non-gas future.
“The core purpose of Tesla is to build and sell electric cars to people and with every car they sell, it brings them money, which enables them to move closer to their mission. Similarly, we invested in only those companies whose mission and business models were perfectly aligned. The idea was to support the next generation of entrepreneurs who can make our world better, safer, more liveable and accessible,” notes Shripriya.
“Being individualistic should ideally mean having a massive positive impact. We are all humans and connected with every other person on this planet. Giving access and possibility to everyone is true progress. We cannot say that we don’t care about climate because it doesn’t affect us individually. That’s just not the way it works," she adds.
Edited by Anju Narayanan