Leadership Stories

with Sheetal Mehta Walsh

The investor, entrepreneur, and co-founder of the first all-female-led  VC in the UK speaks to Osama Gaweesh on life and lessons of a leader.

In Canada, 1972, a two-day-old refugee from Uganda arrived seeking a new home.  Almost 35 years later, she was invited to Buckingham Palace for the Women in Business reception hosted by Her Majesty, The Queen.  Today, she has co-founded Soho Ventures, focusing on sustainable and socially responsible global solutions with the UK’s first all-female partnership.

 

In a recent interview with Osama Gaweesh and the first in the Leadership Stories Series, hosted by Atara Partners, Sheetal narrates her journey towards success and gives her own recipe of leadership.

(The following are edited insights of their conversation.)

Osama Gaweesh: Who are you in your own words? 

Sheetal Mehta Walsh: Thank you all so much for having me, that is a big question!

I am a person who is hardworking, loyal and dedicated to everything I do, thanks to my incredible family, business, colleagues and friends.  I am also a person who will not do anything or spend any time [on projects], unless I’m certain that I'm able to make an impact on the community.  That is what wakes me up and puts me to bed nicely in the evening; knowing that whatever time I have spent on doing whatever I do, it has impacted positively on communities around the world. 

 

OG: You are the founder of the first, all-female VC in the UK, Soho Ventures, what are its, and your objectives?

SMW: Well firstly, we never realised that we were the first female-led venture capital fund in Europe.  We were four women who came and started working together, with the best experiences and networks to go and build this right. The four of us are British, but we have Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian and Turkish backgrounds, so together we are global citizens with UK hats on.  Soho Ventures therefore provides us an opportunity to support diverse communities. 

 

We are a £50-million UK fund that cares and tracks ESG measurables.  Our main focus is to ensure there's a financial return and a deep sector speciality amongst the founders that we work with.  We also want to ensure that we help the companies we work with and generate product-market fit in different geographies around the world.

 

OG: You have always cared for social impact platforms that positively affect communities like Shanti life. Why did you start this enterprise?

SMW: I started it because I was frustrated.  I started my career at Microsoft where I created the venture capital strategy for Bill Gates in the U.S. and took that through to EMEA.  While I was there, I leveraged their CSR strategy to be able to go and work in Uganda and India, among other countries, to help provide accessibility of technology to vulnerable entrepreneurs, which was quite exciting.

 

What was frustrating to me was, that when you look at not-for-profits, there are very few business skills that are applied to giving and making a difference in the world.  So I created Shanti Life, which is focused on financial inclusion and enabling access to capital for vulnerable entrepreneurs in villages across India.  We give money, mentorship and literacy training to the beneficiaries so they can set up their small business and create a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.

OG: You have years of experience in start-ups, what were the main challenges you faced in your journey and how did you manage to overcome them?

SMW: I was personally a refugee from Uganda, my parents landed in Canada with nothing in their hands.  We were raised by our community and our upbringing was that you have to work to survive and you have got to put yourself out there.  Consequently, carrying that sort of conviction and integrity in all my journeys has helped me to identify opportunities, where and when there have been challenges and have then been driven to tackle those challenges very quickly.

 

We can all complain and sit back and say, “Governments are not doing this” and “the corporates are focused on this” and “there are not enough resources”, but that is not the approach I've taken.  For example, when I went to Bill Gates and said we need a venture capital strategy, some people said that it was crazy, but it resulted in creating the Microsoft strategy globally across 17 countries.

OG: How did those challenges develop you as a leader?

SMW: We are always working to get to the next stage.  I believe that our biggest teachers are our students.  In my opinion, our families, communities and businesses on a day-to-day basis have allowed me to be a stakeholder in all those capacities as a leader.

 

I think it is a really important element to think about our responsibility and how we influence others.  What kind of investments are we going to make?  How do we align with ESG and board governance and diversity?  In a customer sense, we want to ensure that we instil values and in our activities with a bottom-line financial return; we do not have to sacrifice financial returns when we look at social impact.  So as a leader my priority is how do we make money to benefit all and how do we do so in a way that protects our planet and our environment?

 

OG: Do you consider that as your recipe for leadership?

SMW: One hundred percent, yes.  I always said I will only work with people who I believe hold integrity around this type of thesis and I’m proud that I've stuck to that in the last 15 - 20 years.

OG: Knowing what you have achieved so far, what would you say to your younger self, the refugee who grew up to meet Her majesty The Queen?

SMW: I was super honoured to meet Her Majesty The Queen.  That was one of the most interesting days of my life.  It was a reception for women in business and I had a one-on-one session with her.  In that moment, I said to Her Majesty The Queen, “I was a refugee from Uganda, but now I'm having a conversation with you about what the UK has offered me by way of a platform, to give back, to grow my career, and impact others.”   It was just a real moment of summer where you stop and think, is this real? It was almost an out-of-body experience!

 

Looking back now, I would say make sure you have fun because life goes so fast.  Now in my older self, reminding myself to continue to stay young in my mind is important because we must be passionate and enjoy what we're doing. 

 

OG: As a refugee myself, I know how hard it is to leave your home and start from scratch in a new country. Do you still remember that struggle? 

SMW: I have carried the values that my family gave me from what they learned at that time in Canada and even today, I take those values because I still work with a lot of the refugee community.  When we look at innovation, technology and venture capital, we need to incorporate diverse communities as users of the technologies and innovation.

 

While we have these opportunities to be able to sit with Her majesty The Queen or to be able to be a venture capitalist, we must remember to be inclusive and representative of those who are vulnerable and to be able to equip them with tools and access to capital.  I do carry this refugee mentality with me always and just as a heads up, I have an emergency bag beside my bed, which my husband still laughs at, because you just never know what is going to happen!

 

OG: Last year was hard for many businesses and leaders and opened a wider discussion about leadership in the new normal.  What do you think about leadership in the new normal?

SMW: I think it is such an unprecedented time for us, obviously, in our generation.  We have never seen anything like this.  Politicians, leaders, CEOs and even Mums and Dads have had to be an entrepreneur during COVID.  I believe that we all have to be agile, resilient, and able to pivot. 

 

I think it has been an interesting time for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, as leaders, to reconsider how we work differently in this new era, and to be more insightful, using our intuition and our long-term analytical thinking on what we are going to do. 

 

OG: How did the pandemic change your leadership style?

SMW: I have been a global citizen working in many countries, online and working from home, even before the pandemic. 

 

I have used COVID time to re-engage with an amazing group of employees and colleagues from Microsoft, from Lebanon, Egypt, India and all over the world.  Incidentally, it has allowed me to go into business with some of these people now for our funds, so it was a cleansing opportunity to regroup and rethink how I am going to spend my time and with whom.

 

OG: Your story can inspire young female entrepreneurs, especially those from developing countries, what leadership lessons do you have for them? 

SMW: I have never worked with more young females than I am now, and I find that exciting.  I am a Mum and I have a young seven-year-old daughter.  You can see how the media and life impact upon young women, so, I am driving a strategy, not only around my daughter but amongst the young female interns that I work with.  I am teaching them how to think differently, not to think they are women, but just to be good at what they are doing.  If you are an entrepreneur, be a great entrepreneur, then leverage your skills as a woman to incorporate them in your strategies.

 

Atara Partners would like to thank Sheetal, Osama and hottopics.ht for enabling the Leadership Stories Series to take place