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The Importance of Mentorship, Diversity, and Betting On Yourself with Amna Sohail

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About the Episode

When Amna Sohail looks around the room during venture capital events, she’s usually shocked by the lack of women and diversity in the room. In this episode, she shares how we can all play a role in bringing more diversity into tech and the VC world. From addressing your own personal biases to the myth that pipeline is the cause of diversity issues, Amna shares insightful ideas on how we can all help build more diverse workplaces.

Episode Highlights

Meet Our Guest

Amna Sohail doesn’t let anything stop her from achieving her goals. After graduating from Purdue University with a chemistry degree, she pursued a career in the nonprofit sector. During this time, she developed an interest in business, innovation, and entrepreneurship. This led her to shift into a career in venture capital, igniting her passion for getting more women into tech and VC. She’s an inspiring force for women across Indianapolis, especially within groups like The Startup Ladies, Pass the Torch, and Women & Hi Tech.

Episode Transcript

Chris Byers: When it comes to women in tech and tech leadership, we still have a long way to go. Amna Sohail is helping change this landscape through her work in technology. She is a senior investment analyst at Elevate Ventures and a passionate member of Pass the Torch for Women, a mentorship group. And today's episode will dig into the ripple effect mentorship has on closing the gap for women getting into tech and the steps she's taken to get where she's at. I'm Chris Byers of Form SAC, and this is Ripple Effect, a show celebrating the positive impact of our decisions creating. Iona, welcome to the show. Tell me, why are you so invested in helping other women build careers in technology?

Amna Sohail: I would have to start by saying the tech industry is booming. It's really growing. And with that, I think that just creates a lot of different opportunities for growth for anyone that's in the industry. But when you think about how those opportunities are spread out, there's definitely a big gap. There's a lot of women that are not represented, particularly women of color that aren't represented in tech roles as well as tech leadership roles. And I think there's a huge opportunity to be addressed there. And I actually had the support of people, mentors, colleagues that actually helped me pay my own path into tech. And I'm, you know, really passionate about mentorship and really paying it forward. And I want to see more women represented across the board in levels of leadership, not just in tech, but in business and government and nonprofit all all across the board. So why not close the gap there?

Chris Byers: Tell me more about why you think there's a challenge in bringing more equality for women, especially in technology and of course, in technology. We think of ourselves as this very forward thinking, progressive kind of space. What do you think stops that from maybe actually being more progressive?

Amna Sohail: One thing that really comes to mind? There's progress that's starting to be made here is just the fact that I think as a whole, we have to do a better job of diversifying our talent networks. There's a lot of big companies that are growing in the tech space, but thinking about how do we bring in diverse talent and not just say you have a pipeline problem, that's probably four companies are saying that's probably because they're not meeting people where they are and the cycle continues to persist and you're not really having diverse talent joining those companies. And I think that's where you start to see a bigger gap. I'm just going to take an example of the industry that I'm in right with venture capital. There's only about seven percent of VCs are women of color, and black women make up less than one percent of that. Latina women aren't even represented in that percentage kind of breakdown. And so when you think about that, just taking this example of venture capital, there's a big opportunity for leaders, especially those that are making those decisions to hire talent to be, I think, a lot more intentional about building relationships with people who don't look or sound or honestly think like you do. And I think that's where I see there's a big gap, but also a huge opportunity.

Chris Byers: I think a lot of us, probably at some point in time, have believed that that top of funnel problem, the idea that maybe there isn't enough diverse talent for me to actually find and bring into our organization. So what are some next steps or places that people can get involved to meet more people and go where they are?

Amna Sohail: Yeah, there's a lot of different ways to go about that. There are groups, for example, like Black VC that specifically are groups to cultivate black venture capital professionals. And I think groups like that that are very specific to particular communities are a great way to start attending their events and getting in touch with their members and inviting them to events that are key to your company. I think it starts with really identifying the key groups within the community that are really based for those kinds of marginalized communities and getting connected with them. I will say one that I'm really passionate about that's here locally is the start up ladies. And it's an organization that has definitely shown me many wonderful female entrepreneurs. And I think the founder and leader, Christian Cooper, does a really great job of bringing in diverse talent on our own team, but also diverse speakers panels, and she does a really great job of that. I think one thing is to surround yourself with people who are already doing the work in terms of being intentional about hiring diverse talent and continuing to learn from best practices there. I think leaders have a way of doing that by connecting with other leaders that are already solving for that. I think it comes to just continuing to get engagement with community groups, and I think the more that we all and not just leaders, focus on being part of different conversations and attending different community groups and events, plenty are happening virtually right now to you the more you just get connected with people. And I think those are ways to open your talent pipeline.

Chris Byers: Why do you think it's important for us to think about bringing diversity into the workplace? What's the motivation?

Amna Sohail: I think there's a lot of research that's out there that talks about the fact that diverse teams just have better returns, perform much better, have better returns for the business. In that context, when you have diversity members, and that's not just based on one thing like race or gender, but it's on a lot of different ways of diversity. I think when you have that represented on your team, it only makes the team and the company. I think in the organization is a whole lot better because you're not just all thinking the same thing, you're open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, new approaches. And I think that's a part of what drives innovation and what makes teams successful from a business standpoint. And it's more than just it's the right thing to do. It makes a lot of business sense as well. And the more you surround yourself with diverse perspectives, the better. And a person you are professionally and personally, I think you can also understand and build better empathy and emotional intelligence when you surround yourself with people who are different than you.

Chris Byers: Why did you get involved in pass? The torch for women would love to hear more about that backstory.

Amna Sohail: I got involved with Pass Torch. I want to say about three years ago, and this was actually when I was just starting out my career and I was seeking out mentors because I was considering making a career pivot myself. I started off in the nonprofit sector. And I loved what I was doing. I knew that I really wanted to be part of the startup ecosystem and always had an interest in that kind of since college. But I came from a pretty nontraditional background science undergrad major and was working in a nonprofit and had some experiences under my belt, but wanted to ultimately break into those two to the startup ecosystem and was identifying ways to get mentors who could expose me to different career opportunities and within that industry. And that's how I initially stumbled upon Pass the Torch because I had this kind of need to connect with others who are more experienced and pass the torch. Provided that avenue, it is first and foremost a national mentoring program that has a big indie. And since then, my relationship with that foundation has grown tremendously, and I am fortunate to be a mentor myself now and involved in a lot of different capacities. But truly, past churches have been really there for me through every step of the way in building my own professional journey and helping me bet on myself and not think that I can't make it in a specific industry or that I can't do a job because I don't have the traditional background, which nowadays nobody does.

Chris Byers: Well, what are some things that if somebody were to Google you or do you do some research? What are some things that they actually might not find that kind of have been the catalyst getting where you are today growing up?

Amna Sohail: Not really. Many women in my family truly had the opportunity to pursue higher education, and there's no harm at all in my family who even pursued anything in business, let alone venture capital. So I had no examples to go off of, and no one in my family that I can really talk to you about. And charting that path for myself had no idea about that, about even busier or entrepreneurship, even in college until much later on. And for me, I would see, like a big catalyst for me is the fact that despite not having that, truly it was the support of my parents and especially my mom who always encouraged me to just bet on myself and to take those chances and to really go after the opportunities where I could think I could make the most impact and to never really think that I can't do something. And so I would say she's been an incredible catalyst for me in making it where I am today. But then also all the mentors that I've met along the way, both women and men that have just championed and continue to push me forward even when I thought I couldn't make it. All of those people have been really helpful as part of my process, but definitely have to give a shout out to my mom. First and foremost for being the biggest catalyst

Chris Byers: was really key decisions come to mind that actually taken you where you are and any decisions you think as you look back, if you hadn't made that decision, you wouldn't be here today

Amna Sohail: thinking back to undergrad. One of the things I did is I had signed up for this exploring entrepreneurship course, which was offered to the business school, and I really pushed myself and I even participated in this pitch competition that the school offered and actually had placed in the competition, which is super exciting. And that was one of those kind of foundational experiences. My professor at the time really pushed me and had told me about different groups I could connect with. And so when I got out of undergrad and graduated, one of the things that I took from that experience was just the importance of building relationships with different people, different networks and one of the groups that I had the opportunity to get engaged with kind of early on that helped me get me to where I am today was the startup ladies, and with the startup ladies, I had the opportunity to just be a volunteer. I would attend their startup study halls where they would have different speakers, talk and different entrepreneurship topics, and I would just volunteer my time. I would get to connect with so many different entrepreneurs, investors and just different groups, and meet different people who became mentors along the way. And that was one experience that I think connected me a bit more into the community because I think what I've learned is that it's really not who you are or what you know, but who knows what you know. And as I started connecting with people throughout the community, people were getting to know me, learning about my interest, my background, what I could do then and then, I guess I would say. Lastly, one thing that I did when I was working in the nonprofit sector at United Gibson from Vienna is I took on initiatives where I could really think about and drive innovation in some sorts before I made the pivot to being in the venture. I had the opportunity to be on this project where we were launching a new technology with Salesforce called the Flexi Cloud, which was basically a solution to help companies. Better track the ROI of their corporate social responsibility initiatives and help employees better engage with those initiatives in the community. And just to see an organization that's been around for 100 years, implement a new technology and get to be part of the go to market team. To implement it nationwide was a really impactful experience for me because it showed me how an organization that's mature can adopt the new technology and evolve and innovate. And that experience actually helped me take the leap and join my next role. After that, which was at High Alpha, where I got to join their corporate innovation team, where they were building out a new practice to launch new companies. So I would say collectively, all those experiences from the networking, volunteering my time and really being intentional about the experiences and initiatives I took in my current role were the things that helped me get to where I am today

Chris Byers: while being in the sciences and venture actually turns out to be a great grouping these days, like lots of amazing stuff happening there. I'm curious how you think about that background actually help as you started dealing with software and some other, maybe science based innovations.

Amna Sohail: Yes, actually, it's funny. I guess at the time when I joined the team at High Alpha, my science background, I would say, has always made me very analytical. A lot of the work that I did in terms of parsing and doing deep dives into different markets and doing a lot of the research and analysis, competitive nous and all those things they to really identify with. The biggest opportunities are, I think that analytical background certainly helped. But honestly, it's funny where it's being a lot more prominent for me in my current role. And Elevate is just the fact that I get to see so many different types of life sciences opportunities. Pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and a lot of those are very hard science. And for me, just having that a bit of that background there, as I'm learning about those different markets and landscapes, it's been really helpful just to have a bit of that knowing the language, so to speak and being able to understand what's going on in those spaces. And actually, that's one of the reasons why I also sought to make that transition and kind of be on the investment side at a firm like Elevate because of the ability to get such broad exposure outside of just traditional B2B SAS to even opportunities in the life sciences. So it's been come in handy now more than ever. But I would say really, I think with a science background, it it's just like that analytical thinking and the ability to break down big problems into smaller ones has been a mindset that's really helped me in my roles.

Chris Byers: How do you think that V.C or maybe you see this that elevate should actually be contributing to the conversation and influencing people to think more about diverse work environments?

Amna Sohail: I'm a big believer in kind of a notion that what gets measured gets done is actually, I think from a first standpoint, it's really getting an assessing kind of what does the current landscape look like now within your firm and identifying opportunities for improvement? And then I think it goes down to I talked about this earlier, just the fact that you have to think about talent pipeline from the early stages as well. And I think venture firms have a huge opportunity to really start actually talking about and introducing careers in venture earlier on because in all honesty, I had no idea about venture capital when I was in college. And yesterday I just sat on a panel for some undergrad students. All of them were men, and they actually they knew about venture capital and kind of other different professions in that field that are related to that, like investment banking. But there were there was not a single kind of woman in the audience there. And it's something that I've continued to observe is you're not going to see a lot of women in venture and it has to start from the first phases where you're actually actively talking to women about careers in venture capital. Earlier on, when they're in college as a starting point, because otherwise you just don't know beyond just the investor standpoint, there's also a standpoint of entrepreneurship. I think it also has to be that for people that are in decision making roles where they actually have the checks and can invest, it's really important to not just focus on kind of the mentoring aspect, but also actually doing the work and investing in diverse founders as well, including women, including people of color. And that would be even more influential because in a startup ecosystem, there is definitely a big diversity problem, and there's not much funding that's going to people in communities of color. And part of that starts with kind of the relationships and networks we have really being intentional about building relationships with people that don't look or sound or think like you do. I guess I would end by saying that I think people in the industry and especially men, I've come across a lot of great male venture professionals who have been really great allies where they're really thinking about what kind of difference could they make with not just their time, but also like their money and influence to really invest in women who are wanting to join the profession and women who are wired? If found companies, how do they provide that support outside of the mentorship? All those things together are just ways that firms spectrograms can be more. I think the. Cessful and more conscientious of driving diversity within the industry.

Chris Byers: Well, even for the person who maybe very much cares about creating equity, especially for women in the workplace, what do you think are some ways that they still miss the mark? Maybe their hearts there, but they're just missing some key things that don't always come to mind.

Amna Sohail: I think it comes down to really understanding where you have your biases. Everyone has their own set of implicit biases, and I think one thing that is important is to be aware of those. When you're interacting with with people, you might think that you're being really welcome and opening, but maybe you're maybe you're being off putting to someone who is coming from a different community and maybe not already part of your network. When you think about being inclusive, it is really important to think about kind of the biases that you bring and how did those affect the kind of conversations you're having with people, especially if you're trying to branch out. One really important thing is to really be in tune with the biases you have and make a conscious effort to be mindful of them and make sure that those are not a barrier. That's making it difficult for you to connect with other people because you're not understanding where they're coming from. Where this comes into play, perhaps in my industry, is when you think about just investors and how they see different pitches. If you, as an investor are not surrounding yourself with different types of founders, for example, you might have built this kind of like general frame of reference. We call this like pattern matching, right? And if you're not meeting diverse entrepreneurs, you might not be used to hearing about the kinds of market opportunities that you don't have a frame of reference for. As a consequence of this. What happens is that these investors can become used to funding companies that they've seen before or with people who already run in the same circles as them, which really limits the opportunities for innovation that can happen. And again, it goes back to my point, really, to make that change, to be conscientious, we have to know about those biases and then work to hold ourselves accountable and intentionally build those relationships and really get out of our comfort zone to do that. But it's not an easy thing. So I think really taking the first step of acknowledging those biases is a big step forward, but then being really accountable about it.

Chris Byers: So you mentioned this idea of bias and bias is the downside of those is that we can't see them in ourselves. I'm curious, how do people actually dig that out a little bit and try to discover where they have bias?

Amna Sohail: So this is definitely a topic that by any means, am I an expert on, but I have found that there are a lot of great resources that are out there that you can look up at kind of talk about what are different types of biases. There's even like assessments nowadays or even the great speakers that you can find on YouTube. If you're curious just to learn a little bit more about what different types of biases are and how they manifest themselves. One thing that comes to mind for me is that biases can be something as simple as that. Someone tells you where they're from, where they grew up, and you make an assumption about that person just based off of that. And maybe it's a stereotype, and that could be something that maybe makes you think perhaps negatively about them when that really shouldn't be the case, it's being able to recognize things like that where you're making assumptions about people because of something about them that really shouldn't impact the way that you view them or their ability to do the job or whatever that might be. So that's a very simplistic definition. But like I said, there's a lot of different kind of resources out there to do your homework, but then also take notes and then think about ways to pause and think before you act on that bias. It would be my recommendation.

Chris Byers: Are there actual experiences that that you've experienced that if you could share them with other people might cause them to say, Oh, that's something I've done before. That kind of shows bias or shows just not right thinking.

Amna Sohail: One example that comes to mind. Not something that is personal to me, but I have seen it with some former colleagues, relates to women who are working moms and also thinking about starting families and how they are perceived by other coworkers when they're making those decisions. And one of the things that I've noticed, and definitely within the pandemic, there's been a lot more, I would say, a lot more strain put on working moms, especially having to juggle school and work and other responsibilities that they have. But something that I've noticed is that especially for those they've had, some colleagues had told me about this experience. But when they talk about or when they're thinking about starting a family, they have been hesitant to really talk about it because or talk about it too early, because they don't want people to think that they're not as committed to their job, which is crazy to think that just because you're about to start a family that you're not going to do a good job at your job. But that is the reality of it, that there are some people that think that way and that has a trickle down effect where women, especially when they start their families, don't always have or retain those same opportunities. And it can be a hindrance for them in terms of their ability to grow in their leadership, if that's what they want to do within the workplace and is because of the biases that are in place by people that think that they can't handle. No, because, OK, now they're under they're a mom when in fact, that's just not the truth, and that's just one example that comes to mind. I've personally seen several kind of friends and coworkers experience that, and it's it's just one of the examples of biases that I think women face in the workplace that can have a lot of detrimental effects for the long term.

Chris Byers: If you could give advice to our listeners, how can they unlock their genius to get them where they want?

Amna Sohail: I talked about the importance of it's not really who you know or what you know, but who knows what you know, and I connect this with another concept. There's this book that I love a good to great by Jim Collins, and there's a concept in there called the hedgehog concept, where there's three concentric circles where it's like, What are you passionate about? What are you the potential to be the best at and how can you make money? And I think if you connect all those things together is really where you find a sweet spot in terms of what you have that will help you unlock your genius, right? But if you couple that understanding that introspective ness that you know about yourself and yourself to that level, you connect that and find, how can I add value to someone else and make them aware about the value that I can provide? That's how you start to create opportunities for yourself that you may not have been aware of before. That might not have already been opened to you had you not taken the time to really reflect on those things introspectively and then connected to someone who is looking to fill in that gap. And so that would be one thing that I would recommend. And especially if you're a young professional like myself. One thing that I've learned is that you just have to think about one, do the good work, but also find ways to add value by being curious, by taking initiative and the opportunities will present themselves to you if you do all those things. If you show up, you ask the questions, you roll up your sleeves and you're willing to try new things and you'll be surprised where that takes you.

Chris Byers: As we wrap up the conversation, what do you want people to think about when it comes to addressing the equality issues that women might face?

Amna Sohail: What I want people to be able to take away is that we can all be part of the solution. There are things that we can do from an everyday standpoint to a systematic standpoint that can make a huge impact. And if we're thinking about ways to be more inclusive, be an ally, really think about what something that you can do today to make a difference in someone's life that could really change our trajectory, open them to new opportunities, whether it's making an introduction. If you have a certain level of influence, thinking about what are ways you can expose them, making those introductions investing if you have the opportunity to do that and whatever they're working on. There's a range of ways to get involved, but really think about what's the one thing you can do for someone that is in a position where they don't have the same opportunities? And where can you make that impact? And most importantly, start by listening before you act and know that we can all be part of the solution here.

Chris Byers: What do you think people listening can do differently in their day to create a positive impact for other people?

Amna Sohail: One thing that people can probably do differently is maybe think about think about like your own networks and think about when's the last time I actually connected with a group that is totally different from the groups that I'm already a part of surrounding myself with. It's very easy. We're all human. We're in the nature of being in our comfort zone, being with groups that we are really familiar with. But think about what's the when's the last time that I connect with someone different and who have an already something to do that's different needs to really seek out a group of an organization, a person. Maybe it's a colleague at work, someone that completely different. You haven't had a chance to connect with and really take time to make that connection, whether it's over a virtual coffee chat or whatever attending an event, whatever that might be. That's one thing that I think we can all do to really just change the types of people that we're surrounding ourselves with. Even it can be simple something as simple as like listening to a different podcast by a different person, reading a different article. There's a lot of mediums to do it, but really think about who am I surrounding myself with and who are those influences? And is there someone different that I could listen to that I just haven't given a shot yet?

Chris Byers: Are there any ways that you personally elevate your thinking about how to create an impact for the future?

Amna Sohail: Just from like a professional standpoint, locally here have been part of starting this new group called NexGen, which is through the Adventure Club of Indiana, and it's like a group for emerging venture professionals in the state. And one of the reasons I have is, I think when we first started, we had about 40 percent representation by women. I want to say that a number definitely go up a lot more. And that's one way that personally, I'm wired to make an impact is through creating an actual community where we have support for people that are on the earlier side of their career and venture to have the support, to get to learn from peers that are more experienced from partner level individuals all the way down to really have that support as a growing and hopefully be able to retain that talent. That's one thing I'm doing, and I'm a big believer in the power of peer groups. That's something that I've getting to do. Luckily, through next gen and also through organizations like Pass the Torch and I think the more that we can do things like. That were peers can support each other. I think the more that we'll be able to make an impact

Chris Byers: in recent episodes, guests have brought up the way they view or experience failure. How do you view failure?

Amna Sohail: I view failure as really just an opportunity to grow. Obviously, failure initially does sting, but in my experiences, any time I've had a failure or rejection, whatever that might be. I've taken this as an opportunity to really pause, actually take the time to get some feedback and then know that failure. That rejection is not going to stop me from getting me where I want to go. It's just a moment for me to learn, pivot or change my approach and then get back on to the show and deliver. Failure is really just like learning lessons for me and to make myself better.

Chris Byers: To learn more about how people are reimagining their world of work. Head over to Also linked in our show notes. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Ripple Effect.

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