UCLA student Sohom Paul is an entrepreneur, data scientist and investor at university-focused venture capital fund, Contrary Capital. His passion for entrepreneurship developed at the age of 17 when he started his first company at an MIT start-up incubator.
As a freshman, Sohom won SpaceX and XPRIZE’s prestigious “FuturizeX Student Challenge,” by pitching an innovative Smart Farming solution to esteemed judges including the Chairman/CEO of 20th Century Fox, Jim Gianopulos. In the summer of 2016, he interned at the MIT Sloan School of Management to run and teach one of its online courses to over 50,000 students from 194 countries worldwide, while providing part-time consulting advice to several MIT-incubated start-ups. That summer, he also joined as the Chief Strategy Officer of Allbeat LLC — an 11- second music discovery platform, one of the top five music start-ups at the SXSW pitch competition in March 2016.
Sohom is currently an intern at Amazon (summer 2017). He resides in Houston, Texas, and will graduate with a double-major in Economics and Statistics in 2019.
How did you get to where you are today?
A multitude of factors played in helping me get to where I am today. I’d say the first and most important factor was my parents’ decision to move from the United States to India when I was 10 years old. Transitioning from life in New Jersey to Bangalore was not simple — I wasn’t used to waking up at 6 a.m., living in a dormitory, wearing a uniform, or following a British curriculum. I joined school within days of landing in Bangalore, so I was immediately immersed into an unfamiliar environment. Learning to acclimatize to an environment outside my comfort zone from an early age played a big part in getting me to where I am today.
Another factor that contributed to my personal success was an incubator I attended at MIT in the summer of 2014. MIT Launch changed my life. It was there I started my first company, Commisi, with three brilliant co-founders — it connected high school web developers with early stage start-ups looking to expand their online presence. Within a week, we obtained five letters of intent, one paying customer, and an MVP for the market. That entire experience provided me the entrepreneurial momentum to get here today.
It’s impossible to achieve results without the right people and circumstances. So I’d also like to acknowledge the immensely supportive friends, family and mentors I’m lucky to have.
What was your toughest obstacle and how did you overcome it?
An obstacle I faced early on was transitioning to life in a completely different country, as I mentioned earlier. Looking back, I’m grateful that happened to me, because it helped me learn to take on challenges and adapt.
I found myself simply accepting my situation for what it was. I was far from home and instinctively resisted change — but through meeting new people, making new friends, and trying out new activities, I felt more at home. I realized that I had the power to adapt to my current situation — I just needed to start leading a disciplined life.
I started waking up before others in dorm, planning my day, and working to hit my goals. I tried out anything I could. Before I knew it, I was representing my school in cross country, track and field, tennis and table tennis!
Music also helped me cope with the transition in both an inward and outward manner. It inwardly provided me an escape from life when I practiced alone, and outwardly provided me a means of expression when I performed for others. With time, more people started to recognize me on campus, and I finally felt part of the community.
In short, it was my acceptance of the initial situation, willingness to venture outside my comfort zone, and disciplined approach that helped me overcome this obstacle.
What’s the key to staying focused & motivated?
I honestly haven’t mastered the art of staying focused and motivated. Full disclosure — I succumb to distractions like Netflix and LinkedIn (haha) quite frequently. Relaxation is a natural instinct, but you have to fight it if you want to achieve greater things.
To me, motivation comes in two forms — the organic form, where you genuinely love something and want to do it from within, and the inorganic form, where you don’t particularly enjoy doing something but just have to.
Either way, set realistic expectations for yourself, and give your 100%. A useful tip I give to others when they say they’re feeling unmotivated, is to dream big. Think of where you want to be in one year, two years, 10 years, 20 years. I assure you, once you feel the rush from imagining yourself in that position, you’ll remain focused and motivated.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
That’s a tough one! I’d have to go with the two words my mom has always said to me — be disciplined. When you repeat tasks, a process called myelination occurs which allows nerve impulses to move faster. This optimizes your performance as you practice your tasks routinely.
That’s why it’s important to develop a natural rhythm your body is used to following. You have to keep hustling, so hustle smart!
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to start a new venture?
The two things you need to focus on are your team and customer. If you have an incredible product made by an incredible team but don’t know your customers, you’ll likely fail. Same goes for having a great product-market fit, but a poorly coordinated team with mixed visions. So heed these two before moving forward.
As a venture capitalist, I also come across many companies that try to seek funding too early. They have a basic MVP and customers only consisting of friends and family, but ask for money to scale. My advice is to prove yourself in the market before raising money. Else, you’ll struggle to get funded — and even if you do, you’ll be under unrealistic pressure to deliver.
Another thing to keep in mind is the concept of Ownership Bias or the Ikea Effect — it’s the bias people form when they own or build something by themselves. People tend to overvalue what they create, so watch out for this one!
How do we get more women leaders?
It’s crazy that we live in a time where men and women aren’t treated equally. It’s unfair that discrimination against women leaders occurs and it’s time to change that. When you look at role models like Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, it’s clear that we need more female leaders in the world.
That’s why movements like feminism are so important — they educate the masses, and call for the equality of men and women alike. We need to support these kinds of movements, which empower women to take on influential positions. I’m optimistic there will be more women leaders in the world because we are taking the right steps toward it.