In 2005, Anu Shah left her home with $40 for a call centre job in Mumbai for a meagre salary of $100 a month. She later worked as a sales representative selling consumer products. Soon, through perseverance and hard work, she became a Brand Manager in the same organisation.
A few years later, she went to the University of Leeds (UK) for MBA on full scholarship. Anu has since worked in M&A, strategy consulting, private equity and as a tech entrepreneur across Singapore, Dubai, London, and New York.
Later she went to Harvard University for further post graduate studies. In 2016, she dropped out to pursue entrepreneurship, and launched EFI Hub, a startup incubator with the goal of empowering start-ups in emerging and frontier markets of Asia and Africa.
EFI Hub aimed to replicate the Silicon Valley model globally and create a robust ecosystem to bring mentorship for high potential startups in Africa and Asia. In 2018, UK-based equity firm Acorn Capital bought EFI Hub for $10mn.
One would expect Anu to be on cloud nine for such an achievement at the age of 32. But she says the year that followed was probably the toughest in her life.
Anu writes for MAKERS India about her journey:
In my 20s I led a dream life. A call centre job – which I took up the age of 20 for just three months – had led me to more than 10 years of fancy jobs, exploration, travel, and success. I have had the most unusual experiences in my 20s: like buying a flight ticket to Seychelles out of the blue! I have got lost wandering alone on the streets of Morocco, worked and lived in Saudi Arabia, had projects in Cannes and Paris, interacted with refugees in Congo and Lebanon, lived in cities including London, Paris, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and made a million friends - all of whom were extremely accomplished, outliers, dreamers, overachievers who shared the same penchant of traveling, exploring, discovering and consuming life.
I always felt like my life was perfect. I was covered in all leading publications, including Forbes, Bloomberg, CNBC, and CNN. I wanted success, a stellar career, experiences! I wanted to be a voice to millions. The harder I worked towards my goal, the more sane I felt.
But hardly two years ago, after EFI Hub was sold, things took another turn. It was time for me face my demons.
Growing up, I came from an environment which was marked with extreme but covert abuse. On the surface, we were a perfect family and I was a perfect daughter, perfect student, perfect person. The pretence of normalcy had started from there.
Initially, the excitement of my first relationship and, later, the adventures of my 20s distracted me from the trauma of growing up in a loveless home. The long hours spent on extremely demanding jobs followed by the exhaustion of entrepreneurship also helped overlook those abusive patterns.
However, after I sold EFI Hub, suddenly there was nothing more to chase. I had done it all. I had lived all over the world, held the best jobs, became the CEO, made a lot of money, and even moved to my dream city - New York. For the first time ever, I was forced to deal with me, my emotions, my reality, my trauma.
And it was hard. For the first time, I had to acknowledge the darkness. I had to admit that to myself first, accept it, embrace it, and gently let it go.
I realised that blaming and complaining will not give me the closure that I wanted. Finding distraction in a new startup role or a new relationship did not bring me peace. Neither did new hobbies, new activities, new friends, or volunteering. Even seeing a psychologist and trying meditation did not work for me.
Exhausted and exasperated from all these experiments, I finally gave in to acceptance. It boiled down to acknowledging the following:
- I am no super woman. I cannot fix it all.
- Sometimes, the only apology I need would come from myself.
- I can't force others to accept their mistakes.
- As hard as it is, letting go is the only way out.
- Self-reflection, not distraction, helps.
And from there started my new journey. I have realised that while my 20s’ experiences were fun, real life was to be found in self-care and working on uplifting others. My personal experience made me reflect on what those less fortunate must go through.
I started volunteering at Akanksha Foundation - a non-profit working towards the uplifting of slum children in India. There I ran a multidisciplinary team working in tandem with mental health professionals and education entrepreneurs. Our efforts for educating children in the rural areas impacted the larger slum community and helped create a working model for seven neighbouring cities. It was then that I realized how fulfilling social impact work can be.
In 2018, I started serving on the board of American India Foundation (started by former President Bill Clinton in 2001) to support girls’ education and reduce infant mortality rate in India. More recently, I have also started working with the UN to design a program to establish gender parity through entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa and Asia. The program is expected to impact and provide livelihood to three million women across the continent.
I have given away $7 million (100% proceeds from the sale of my startups) to refugee rehabilitation program in Africa. Life has now come a full circle for me. I have decided to end this journey where I started - pretty much with nothing. And this time I will build something more magnificent, meaningful and soul fulfilling.
(Edited by Athira Nair)