I Love My Job: Archna Sahay, Philadelphia’s Director of Entrepreneurial Investment
In 2014, we named Archna Sahay Philly’s “Best Connector,” and in the three years since then, her success has only multiplied as we expected. She’s still Philly’s top connector — linking entrepreneurs to growth opportunities near and far — and as Philly’s director of entrepreneurial investment since 2015, she’s the engine behind StartupPHL, the government arm that has supported and strategically pumped millions into the dreams of Philly innovators. Sahay is behind the movement to put Philly’s innovation scene on the national stage as her social media are replete with Philly success stories and anxious tweets to outsiders about Philadelphia’s growing promise. Her push for more opportunities for the world’s underserved populations is also unremitting. There’s no doubt Sahay’s got a packed schedule, and she loves it. Though she seems to be everywhere, all the time, this interview proves there is still a ton to learn about this warm city leader. Sahay shares the highs and lows of working in the private sector and in city government, and tells what it was like to be born thousands of miles away from where she is settled now.
I grew up … everywhere. I was born in India in this city called Bhilai. My father was an engineer, and he worked at a steel plant there. I came to the States in 1984 when I was five. We first spent six months in Orange County, California. Then my dad found a job on the East Coast, so we settled in Virginia where I lived for 17 years. I moved to Philly in 2002.
A fond childhood memory of mine … is spending time with my dad fixing stuff and building stuff. Growing up money was tight as we were re-establishing ourselves in a new country. He was very handy. Changing the oil in the car himself, to building a fence in the backyard, I would be there hammer in hand. Also our first car was this 1970s two-door Toyota Corolla. It ran great, but it wasn’t the prettiest car. The radio didn’t work. So we just carried a boombox inside the car, and whenever we went anywhere, we played all these old Indian tapes, and I’d be in the passenger seat singing along with my dad in the car. Good times. One singer we’d listen to is Mukesh.
Growing up I was teased about … my name. In Indian culture you have two names: the name everyone calls you at home and the name you write down on your official documents. My official name is Archna as everyone knows . My house name is Tumpa, reserved only for family. So imagine, playing with the kids in the neighborhood, your mom opens the door to call you in for dinner and screams out your house name. The kids would just stop and stare. One summer around 5th grade I went by Cindy. It was the most “American” name I could think of. Then Arachnaphobia came out in 1990. That was a tough year. But hey, there’s a street in Philly named after me – Arch St – so I just point to that now for reference.
The education I received growing up … was very good. The school system in Fairfax county was one of the best in the country and still continues to be. I went to public school my entire school career. My parents were also very strict about school. Things weren’t good if I brought home a B, and there was no celebration of straight A’s.
I like to tweet because … it’s helped me find my voice. I’ve been able to reach a lot of people and Twitter has allowed me to learn about what’s happening in the world. I get my breaking news from Twitter.
I admire my … parents for the sacrifices they have made to establish themselves here. And my sisters — to see them come back from their failures — I’m really inspired by them. And with the phrase, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” the CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, really does it for me. She works really hard and is leading one of the most iconic American brands.
Working in city government is like … an adventure. Every day is different. Every day is rewarding because you have a direct impact on the community. I encourage everyone, if they have the flexibility in their careers to do so, to spend six months, a year, or two years working in local government in some capacity. It’s been the most fulfilling part of my career thus far. Especially right now in the current federal climate that we are in. No pun intended!
The best piece of recent news about Philly is … that we were named one of the emerging startup hubs in the country. Professionally I’ve been working towards this for the last two years so it’s great to see us finally getting the recognition we deserve. We are a major tech hub. We have traditionally done a poor job of getting that message out.
The last book I read was … The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It came out in 1931 and is about traditional values eroding under the influence of wealth.
My next vacation will be … in the fall/winter. I like to travel during the off-season. I’m planning a trip to London and then domestically a trip to the coast of Maine. I’m fascinated by it!
Most people don’t know that … I’m a classically trained Indian violinist, and that I can read, speak and write Hindi fluently. And people also probably don’t know that I’m an introvert. I recharge over quiet dinners with family and friends.
Difficult times in my career include … when I graduated into the dot-com bubble with a finance degree in derivatives. The job market wasn’t very good for a finance graduate. Another time was when I decided to leave the private sector. I had stuck it out in the industry for a few years after the crash but as a career, finance wasn’t working anymore. It was difficult to say that the culture wasn’t working for me.
The best career move I’ve made is … building authentic relationships. Networks are so vital as you get into mid-career and into senior level positions. Your network is where you find jobs, mentors, advisors and sponsors.
My favorite Indian food to cook is … anything my mom makes. Right now I’m perfecting her chicken curry dish.
The last time I went to India … was in 2012 for my cousin’s wedding. I am overdue for a trip. I like to visit every few years.
Something Philly’s entrepreneurship scene is still missing is … dedicated support for women and minority tech entrepreneurs.
My favorite time of year is … the fall/winter time. Even though I was born in July I am not a summer baby. I like cold weather and love when it rains.
A city leader I look up to is … Simran Sidhu. She was the executive director of Youth Build for over a decade. I’m impressed with the contributions she’s made to our city.
My self-care routine involves … sleep. Lots of sleep, and I try to get to the gym every day. Weights and running. And a steady practice of gratitude and meditation.
A beer garden I want to try this summer is … I don’t like beer. I do enjoy wine. My favorite is Catena Malbec 2007. Also I love hotel bars. The Logan is my current favorite.
My summer bucket list includes … buying lots of local art for my home and learning to the play the piano.
A Philly eatery I can’t stop going to is … Han Dynasty.
The hardest part of my job is … getting back to everyone immediately. There aren’t enough hours in the day and every request is important so it’s imperative to respond immediately. Some days that just doesn’t happen.
The best career advice I’ve ever been given … is actually personal advice from my mom that has applied to my career. I was going through a very difficult time personally, and I had a decision to make. My mom told me that with whatever I decided, I’d ultimately be the one traveling on that road alone. So I needed to make the decision for myself.
I also recently came across a quote from James Altucher about living life based on themes rather than goals. I’ve been thinking about that, and one theme is definitely “living authentically.” The quote: “Goals will break your heart. Have a theme. You can build your days around your themes. In the short blink that thins out your life, when you reach the point where goals matter no more, the themes of your life will shine bright.”
The Philly dating scene is … [Laughs]
I’ve always been bad at … telling people who are important in my life that they are in fact very important to me. It’s easy to take people for granted, and I absolutely am guilty of it. I’m getting better at it as I get older!
Access to capital over the last few years in Philly has … increased. We’ve worked hard to build bridges and connections with resources both in the city as well as outside the city. Money travels. And we want it to come here for our founders.
Something Philly still doesn’t get about diversity is … it’s not the same as inclusion. And this isn’t specific to Philly. There are wonderful programs that do a great deal of onboarding for people of diverse backgrounds, but where we fail to continue the conversation is with the retention of diverse talent. We’re beginning that conversation but must realize that the metrics for success are still built out for one demographic. We need to modify the infrastructure.
If I were to launch a business … I would raise a fund to invest in startups that are solving for problems that underserved populations deal with. So I wouldn’t try to invest in female or minority founders, in particular. There are many funds out there doing that. Instead I’d want to invest in startups that are making life easier for women, for example. I’d invest so that I can direct capital toward innovations that help underserved groups. Doesn’t matter if it’s being created by white guys, just as long as it’s serving and empowering underserved populations.
My secret networking tip is … don’t do it. Build relationships instead.
I usually don’t wear makeup because … I’d rather use that time to sleep in. The most I’ll do is mascara, or I’ll go through phases when I wear lipstick or lip gloss. My mom never wore it. I grew up with my male cousins, and we were into sports and cartoons. I was never influenced by makeup. I do however love accessories like jewelry and shoes! And I spend plenty of money on lotions and potions.
The best piece of consumer tech I’ve used on the last five years … is the UE Boom, a portable speaker that was gifted to me. It’s really good.
So far, I’d grade Mayor Kenney’s engagement with the entrepreneurial community as an … A+. It’s been an honor to work in his administration. And as a citizen I am very proud to call him my Mayor. He has so many heavy issues to work on, but he still somehow finds time for all of it. He is present for the tech community, he considers the needs and challenges and actively looks for ways to be supportive. His staff is also amazing. They are extremely responsive and collaborative.
In ten years I want the theme of my life to be … authentic impact. I want to continue giving back to my community in an authentic and purposeful way. I also see myself happily married with lots of babies, running a major venture fund and traveling the world.
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