We spoke with Charu Sharma, the founder of Next Play the creators of the the mobile application “Ellen.ai” which gets to know an employee and starts matching them to mentors and resources within their company.
Charu is a US-based Indian explorer, entrepreneur, and author. With 5 National Awards, expeditions to all 7 continents, over 600 stage shows, and three books in progress, this prodigy was enlisted as a “Power Woman’ alongside such notables as Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Gandhi, and Melinda Gates by Youth Incorporated magazine in March 2012.
Charu built two-award winning startup companies out of her dorm room before getting recruited to LinkedIn. She has since dedicated her time to bringing together audacious women entrepreneurs through her book, documentary film, and Huffington Post interview series with the goal to inspire more millennial women to build their own startup companies.
Here are excerpts of our interview. You can listen to the full conversation on our podcast.
You never know where you’ll find inspiration. Which connection.
The Origin Story
I think it’s always interesting to understand where people grew up to see what drives them. I grew up in India in a family where women aren’t allowed to work. Creating equal access to economic opportunity is what I’m about.
I made a documentary called “Go Against the Flow“ and we showed it around the world to over a million women to educate them on starting their own businesses.
When someone has the right education and economic opportunities a lot of those social and civic problems can be solved from the very root. That’s what drives me personally
I came to the US for college, and started two startups out of my dorm room. I got my first job out of college at LinkedIn. I really liked working there, it’s a terrific company, but i was even seeing unconscious biases there.
In one of the most developed places in the world, everyday little things happen. I call it covert discrimination. Little things like when you would talk in a meeting men would talk over you, or mansplaining. Or when you and a man have an idea, he’ll be listened to and you’ll be overlooked.
Little micro-aggressions happen everyday. I noticed that we wouldn’t advocate for recognition and the men would and they’d get promoted. They would get the bigger projects. So I implemented a mentor program for women at LinkedIn – my peers, and it really took off.
So many senior women wanted to take it forward. A really amazing culture. When I was running the program I realized that it was not only limited to women, diversity comes in many forms.
We built a product, it’s a mobile app called Ellen, that helps your employees with mentorship. The idea is that a person can run a single mentoring program for several hundred people, but that doesn’t scale. Because Ellen is an intelligent chat bot that uses artificial intelligence, It can scale to thousands of users.. You can plug into a company of 400,000 people and it works automatically.
The vision is something for the end user. We’re creating a safe space. It’s conversational. Whatever you tell it, it doesn’t go to HR and come back to bite you.
One of our early adopters is the ride-sharing service LYFT. They gave the app to each member of their mentoring program. Ellen chats with each of them on their mobile phones. She understands whatever you tell her, It understands the employee’s goals and blind spots and who they are outside of work. It then matches them automatically to relevant mentors or mentees based on our algorithm.
Ellen then supports them on an ongoing basis. Tracking conversations between the two parties. There is an automated feedback loop, and it tracks your goals. It will send reminders of meetings, prompt you to give feedback after the meeting. If you meet a goal and acknowledge it, it will notify your mentor. Ellen creates more accountability and clearer support for these individuals
Is the World Ready?
I’m fundraising for my company and I hear a lot of skepticism from investors. They say that mentorship may not be critical to a company.
That is wrong. Those days are gone. Millennials are increasingly becoming the majority in workforce. The number one choice of employee benefits is personalized career support. And companies have no way to offer that at scale to early to mid-career employees in a cost effective manner.
We fundamentally believe that mentoring employees will become the way to engage them. Companies are losing 30 billion dollars a year on employee churn. And the number one reason employees are leaving is because they don’t get career support, and they aren’t growing.
Mentoring isn’t novel. It’s existed for a long time. It was always left up to the employee to find a mentor, to build these ad-hoc relationships. A lot of these relationships happen serendipitously if you’re not in the right place at the right time. A lot of women, minorities and introverts miss out on those opportunities.
If you don’t ask for more the same outspoken mentees keep connecting with the same visible popular mentors. We scale this and expand this – by building systems where more people will have serendipitous encounters.
What Next Play Has Learned
Our product is for employees of all ages. Because we mostly work with tech companies currently, we have mostly experienced early to mid-career employees.The gap in connections has been more about gender than age. Millennials, Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers all want mentorship. The goals similar: career planning, confidence building, and work-life balance. They don’t always know what they want but they feel stuck in life and think a mentor will help them get unstuck.
The first phase is discovery and to make their goals more specific. What we have noticed is the difference across genders, especially heterosexual men is their desire to be around an executive presence which is where they see themselves going. Their confidence is much higher. For the rest of us the goals are around confidence building. Tell me I’m good enough to apply for that promotion.
When we begin, we ask who do you identify as – which demographic, and depending on confidence level we match someone who looks like them who has been there and done that.
We are very mission driven and very humble but we’re also very ambitious. We want every company using our product. We see ourselves working up to $100 million in revenue in next six years and then an IPO.
What we really do is help professionals accelerate getting to their ‘Next Play.’ That’s the name of the company. It means getting to what is next for you. We’re helping you do that.
The onus is on you. You are in the driver’s seat. But it has a lot to do with how you maneuver a professional landscape.and people who don’t do this well don’t always have opportunities. We want to make possible:
- Equal access to opportunities
- Using time on the planet productively.
- To accelerate more effective career choices.
- Better leaders. Being a good mentor is critical to being better leaders. We’re building the leader pipeline. Building stronger leaders for tomorrow. This i not just a business proposition. We’re really making the world a better place.
Find out about Next Play and Ellen here.