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Talk Time: Secrets of Serial Success

By Poornima Apte; Photos by Rey Lopez Email By Poornima Apte; Photos by Rey Lopez
December 2017
Talk Time: Secrets of Serial Success

Serial entrepreneur Amol Sarva has cofounded several startups, including Virgin Mobile USA, Peek, Halo Neuroscience, Knotable, and Knotel. He has been named multiple times to the “Silicon Alley 100” list of top New York entrepreneurs. What draws him to such diverse ventures, and what makes him successful?

You went to Stuyvesant, a famous high school in New York City. How did that shape your experience?
This was a place where people worked very hard, very competitively, and aimed for just absolute perfection. In some ways, it's a very unrealistic way to try to live your life, but I found out only after I left there that the world doesn't work like that.

What do you mean by that?
It's a very sort of narrow-minded definition of achievement. The rest of the world isn't like that. In fact, these days, the engineers and the doctors are not the highest aspirations. I think the value system, probably including in India, has moved towards certain more creative scales.

What prompted you to study neuroscience for a PhD after an undergrad in economics?
Well, my undergrad was in philosophy and economics. When I was finishing, I found out that I had been accepted to a PhD program at Stanford also in philosophy. As I started studying, the area that I was most interested in was how the mind works, and the theory of the mind, cognitive science. I ended up specializing in that area.

In reading your long list of achievements, it seems almost like there's nothing that you haven't touched or done. What feeds that hunger?
I don't think I'm interested in anything that you are not interested in. Maybe the thing that's a little bit strange is that I have done some work in each of these areas. Each thing I worked on, I tried to produce some kind of interesting output from—some little artifact, some little memento that I lived.

Is that part of just how work is in the 21st century?— so interdisciplinary, if you will. Your work does seem to touch a diverse variety of topics and subjects.
Yeah. I think there are some people who are more like me, and some who are more specialists. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin had this really simple distinction between the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. When you look around the world at the people you know, you can instantly can start categorizing. ‘This person’s head is down, only noticing one thing. They don't even stop to eat, must be a hedgehog. Then over here, there's this fox, who's sort of taking little nibbles of all these different little projects.’ I know I'm definitely a fox.

How do you decide then which projects to back? Is it essentially anything that sustains your interest?
Instead of trying to judge it beforehand, I have a simple rule to figure out what I should try: if it sounds interesting, and I can make some progress in the small amount of time that I invest, then I will invest more time. As long as something stays interesting and I keep making progress, I try to follow through.

What is the lesson you have learned from your experiences of working with these companies and starting them up, and all these diverse projects?
I've learned so much. You can make some of your weaknesses into really useful qualities. This fox-hedgehog thing, for example. I used to misunderstand myself as being easily distracted and as being tempted to procrastinate or waste time. At some point, I realized that to be easily distracted just means to be really curious. To procrastinate means to want to do some work that just isn't the number one thing on your list.

What advice would you give to South Asian kids who want to follow your path?
I don't know. Parents have to stop asking their kids about medical school.




Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.

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