Swati Mylavarapu (Florida & Wolfson 2005) is a Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in its early-stage investment group, where she focuses on digital health and consumer technologies. Previously, Swati worked at Square where she was responsible for business operations and strategy for Canada and Japan. She has also worked as the head of sales and client services at Quid and as a founding member of Google.org. Swati holds an MPhil in Economic and Social History from the University of Oxford, an A.B. in Development Studies from Harvard University, and is also a Truman Scholar.

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What were memorable experiences for you?

Swati Mylavarapu: It was almost 10 years ago, although it feels a lot more recent. The two years that I spent at Oxford were a wonderful time of self-discovery. It was this kind of open, free time to explore intellectual interests. I think the most enjoyable parts were the people I met and the communities I was a part of at Rhodes House and Wolfson College. It was an exposure to a tremendously talented and very international group of people who also had a range of different life experiences, stories and interests—I learned a lot, probably the most, from my peers in my time there.

I also saw a lot of the world while I was at Oxford—both academically, in taking classes on Africa and South Asia, and through time between terms and over weekends to travel. For instance, I remember going to see the Turin Olympics with a few other close friends from Oxford in 2006 and that was a magical experience. I also travelled around India and took some of my friends from Oxford with me. I think there is something really rewarding and educational about hosting people on a trip and carrying responsibility for introducing them to a new place.

Rhodes Project: You came to Oxford with an interest in development policy and completed the MPhil in Social and Economic History. How did your academic interests fit with your plans afterwards?

Swati Mylavarapu: I had done development studies as an undergraduate and was so passionate about the subject that I actually designed my own major in college to focus on development studies through a multidisciplinary lens. I was thrilled to have the opportunity at Oxford to continue that study in the MPhil in Social and Economic History programme. I spent a lot of time focusing on new parts of the word—I dedicated the two years at Oxford to learning about Sub-Saharan Africa and East Africa in particular. The opportunity to take classes on African history and politics, and spend time there as part of course work and my thesis research, was hugely motivating and really solidified for me that this was an area to which I was really committed—so much so that the first job I accepted was to start Google.org, which was the in-house non-profit group at Google, and my work there was really to focus on our South Asian and Sub-Saharan Africa portfolios, which were the two regions I had gotten to know much better.

I think the most formative experiences I’ve had in life come in two flavours: either positive affirmations that I have found something that I love and want more of, or the realization that something is not for me. I think sometimes learning that you don’t like something and consciously deciding that you do not want to go down a certain path is even more useful in finding your course. From that perspective, the coursework at Oxford confirmed that I was not satisfied with just studying these issues. I would leave a wonderful class or semester feeling excited and empowered, but there was also a sense of frustration about how to engage in solving these problems if I was just studying them. That’s not to diminish how important it is that we continue the academic pursuit of these issues, but it wasn’t satisfying for me. That revelation was also a part of my step back. I said, okay, I think the next most impactful and educational experience for me is to get into the world as a practitioner in the development space. For me, that meant working in places that can have a transformative impact on the conditions in which people live, to help people better help themselves. So, I went to try this at Google.org, and the evolution from there has been interesting because, while I didn’t stay directly focused on developing countries and emerging economics, what I realized in my time at Google.org is that technology can have a tremendously transformative and equalizing effect. Technology can often times increase access to information and opportunity, and so what I’ve spent the last couple of years doing is learning a lot more about how we build great technology companies and deliver those services at scale to hundreds of millions or billions of people.

Rhodes Project: Over the course of your career, you have worked with organizations like Google.Org, Dalberg, Quid and Square. Can you tell me about this professional trajectory and what eventually drew you from development-oriented work to startup organizations?

Swati Mylavarapu: Before I started college, I was really passionate about chemical research that focused on better mechanisms to care for people with genetic predispositions for diabetes, and I was also really passionate about youth political involvement. From diabetes treatment and youth political engagement to economic development and technology companies, it seems like I’ve gone through four very different areas. But for me, the theme that has unified all of these things is working on things that enable and empower people to live better lives, and projects that have transformative impact at scale in improving the way that people are able to make choices.

We sometimes create a false dichotomy and say well, you’re either working for good and helping people in disadvantaged circumstances or you’re out for personal gain and money. It’s easy to paint it as a very black and white issue but if you think about it, sometimes the best approaches to solving the really, really important and deep-rooted problems that really impact the way people live, actually manage to do good while also helping the people behind those ideas do well. We reward and incentivize the solving of really large problems in part because the solution is probably going to make it easier for many people to live better lives. That is a high-level conceptual way of thinking about it, but here is one specific example: When I left Oxford and came to San Francisco to work at Google.org, believe it or not, in those days we were just starting to talk about smart phones. The original iPhone had just come out, and Google was starting to work on something called Android, and I remember being one of the first people at Google that got to test their first Android device. Here we are, seven or eight years later, and we know that through mobile phones and smartphones, high powered information and connectivity tools are markedly changing the way people live. They can have as transformational an effect on individuals living in a rural village in Kenya as they can on the young techie kids using their app to order an Uber from downtown San Francisco. That is a transformative technology. 

There are a lot of people that made a lot of money starting businesses around mobile phones. We can talk about whether or not that’s a good thing, but in making the technology more accessible, it can now benefit many, many people in ways that we couldn’t have imagined at the beginning.

So for me, that’s a lot of where I see the connection and the opportunity. The best technology companies are ones that are scaling by solving really big and important problems. When deployed effectively, they help make the world a better place. I think that can be tremendously transformational—when we talk about economic development, what we’re really talking about is making available opportunities for people in places that are far away from where I happen to live. For instance, Square is a product that helps you accept credit card payments, and what is very exciting about it is that this technology levels the playing field for small business owners. It is universally the case that small and medium sized businesses are very important components of a country’s economic backbone, but tend to be markedly underserved by capital markets and business services. Economists call this the ‘missing middle.’ So, Square is giving this previously underserved part of the market more affordable software services to run their point of sale devices, integrate their accounting services and run payroll.

Rhodes Project: You recently commented on the self-selecting nature of professional and personal networks, which tend to exclude highly qualified women from business circles. How have you dealt with this challenge in your own work experiences?

Swati Mylavarapu: I don’t think I have a total solution to this but I feel like I pay a lot of attention to it. While building teams at Square, I remember looking at patterns of conversation in interviews and feeling like I probably have unconscious bias going into these conversations—I was noticing that I tended to have a predilection to really liking certain attributes in people, but not other attributes.

If you read some management science, there are whole schools of thought and research around how really diverse teams are the strongest teams—but our instinct is to usually hire people that are a lot like us. There’s this tension: my instincts might be telling me to make this hiring decision, but maybe I need to use more of my rational mind and say actually the person that I’m less drawn to might have other attributes that round out the team in a much better way. So, how can we develop more objective ways of scoring and rating and evaluating interviews when building a team? This is one thing I always try to get better about. For instance, I’m a firm believer in work samples as a way of evaluating somebody, and I look for a good mix of feedback from other people on the team who would work with the person. So, I try to simulate what the actual working conditions would be. Start-ups tend to be very collaborative, and it’s very rarely the case that any one person can get a single thing done on their own—you often work with different personalities and across different teams to get things done very quickly. I also try to source candidates from as wide a range of places as possible.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to women with an interest in entrepreneurship or in working with fast-growing startups?

Swati Mylavarapu: I think first, keep your eye on the prize. The world of entrepreneurship, and especially tech start-ups, is a fascinating, high-energy world.  There are few other industries I can think of where there is the potential for such rapid transformative change. The speed at which a team and a business can grow—the speed at which a completely new experience or product or service can be introduced into the world—is exceptional. I was a sophomore at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg was a freshman and I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook when they launched at Harvard as a social network. Recently, they announced that over one billion people now interact with this technology. This has happened not just in my lifetime, but really in my young adulthood. It is an exhilarating industry, and if this is something you are interested in, keep your eye on the prize. Remember why you’re motivated to be in it.

The other really important thing is to be aware of issues, like unconscious bias and some of the structural challenges. I think from awareness can stem a decision to do things differently. So be persistent and if you’re not able to make traction on one route, look for the next three routes. Continue to forge the path. 

A third piece of advice I’ll put out there is for women who have already decided to get into this industry. As important as it is for us to try different ways to address some of the challenges we face, I always look around and wonder, who else can I help? What more can I do? How can I pay it forward? So I take opportunities to mentor or advise or connect or help other women very seriously. 

Rhodes Project: What do you imagine the next 10 years of your life will look like?

Swati Mylavarapu: If the last 10 years have been any indication, I’ve just stopped imagining what the next 10 years of my life will look like. I think it’s been such a tremendous unexpected adventure. If I had one piece of advice to give myself 10 years ago—about the time I was going down from Oxford—it would have been to just be open to the world and to opportunities and seize them as they come.

The first couple of years coming out of school, it was really challenging for me to adapt to the lack of structure. In school, you know that you’re doing a two-year course and you have to fulfill these course and grade requirements. The real world is not really like that, and so sometimes the most wonderful opportunities can come about in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes, this can also mean that if there is something you want to accomplish and you can’t find a path, you have to be persistent and identify creative ways to get what you want. The combination of these two things has resulted in the most unexpected adventures for me over the last 10 years. And I’m excited about how life will play out over the next year 10 years. I know a couple of ingredients that are likely to factor in for me because I just got married. For my husband and me, it is important to start a family so we will have to negotiate how we have a family life and pursue our professional ambitions. I still love working in the technology industry and focusing on ways in which great entrepreneurs and great teams and great products can make the world a better place—and so I am also excited to continue working on that from different angles and different industries.

Rhodes Project: What role has mentorship played in your life, personally and professionally? What memorable advice have role models or mentors given you?

Swati Mylavarapu: I’ve had a couple of really wonderful mentors, and I think I’ve been very lucky in that way. However, my career has taken a couple of less conventional turns—from academia to hybrid non-profits to consulting to technology companies—and so there have been moments where I have really hungered for mentorship and found it very difficult to find. It has been a bit of feast or famine, and it makes me appreciate when you have mentorship all the more. It also makes you resilient enough to realize that sometimes, especially if you’re on a road less travelled, you can’t always count on having a jungle guide or mentor and that experience can teach you to trust your own instincts and learn from yourself, and I think that is a really useful and important life skill.

I think one of the most useful pieces of advice that I’ve gotten from a mentor and good friends has been to build, either informally or more formally, a kind of ‘Board of Advisors’ for your life. So, people that you’ve known in different capacities, that you’ve appreciated mentorship or advice from, with whom you can discuss major personal or professional choices or challenges or questions. What I love about this is that you’re never placing the responsibility on just one person, and that you get to form a group of counsellors who can help you navigate really, really big and important decisions.

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