TiEcon 2023: How Surbhi Sarna overcame all odds to become mentor to women entrepreneurs

Surbhi Sarna, group partner, Y Combinator, at TiEcon 2023

Ritu Jha-

Her journey to success was fraught with challenges and hurdles but that did not deter entrepreneur Surbhi Sarna, Group Partner at Y Combinator and author of Without a Doubt. Sarna spoke to indica on Day One of the two-and-a-half-day TiEcon 2023, which was inaugurated by the first woman president at TiE Anita Manwani on May 3.

“I was not just a woman entrepreneur, but a woman entrepreneur working on women’s health issues,” she said. And until very recently, there wasn’t really a light that shone on the differences between men’s health and women’s health, and the importance of women’s health. I think we’re getting better at that,” Sarna said.

At Y Combinator — a startup accelerator company that has helped launch such companies as Reddit, Airbnb and DoorDash — Sarna works on launching and promoting healthcare startups.

But when this young Indian American entrepreneur started nVision Medical, an innovation-driven healthcare company in 2011, it was an uphill task. “In 2011, I couldn’t say the word ‘vagina’ when I pitched my company. And now I love working with women founders and women entrepreneurs and a big percentage of the people that I fund in each batch are women. They bring a special skill set to the table. The time is now to fund women and support them as they go through their journeys. This is one of the parts of this job that excites me the most,” Sarna said.

She said it is tough at time to talk to women on a subject they shy away from and is often considered taboo in certain communities. “When I coach women on this, I don’t want them to be too focused on what the men are thinking of them. A lot of the time you’re going into the biggest meeting of your life and you only have one shot to do the best possible job. If you end up being distracted because you’re thinking about what is this guy thinking, then you won’t do your best possible job. Sometimes unconscious bias against women exists and sometimes it doesn’t. But if you’re always looking for it, then you’ll psych yourself out. You should just go in there, do your best possible job and assume that the bias is not there. And then deal with it later.”

When the going got tough, Sarna and her team pushed through. “There were times when my team and I thought, how are we going to figure the solution to this problem? Ralph Waldo Emerson has this quote, ‘A good indignation brings out all one’s powers’. And my indignation around wanting to solve the problem was greater than my fear that we couldn’t figure out whatever technology issue. You know, so I just kept pushing.”

Sarna’s firm developed a microcatheter device that collects cells from the fallopian tube, the known site of the most lethal forms of ovarian cancer. It remains the only such device approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Sarna sold her company to Boston Scientific in 2018 for $275 million, but remained with it for two more years to guide it on its mission. “Now that I’m not the founder of the company and I’m in this other position, I can deal with things a little bit more head-on. When you’re a founder and you’re starting with no connections from the ground up, it’s very hard to wear the burden of sexism and the burden of building a company.”

Funding is a major concern for women entrepreneurs, especially those that work in female healthcare, she admits. “I don’t know why there is lack of funding for women entrepreneurs. A much larger percentage of the company founders that I fund are women. I think there are a lot more women that invest in the healthcare and bio sectors.”

What does she look for in an aspiring wannabe woman entrepreneur? “I like it when I speak to a founder and I can tell that they have so much energy and excitement about what they’re working on, that they can barely contain it. It almost feels like they’re jumping out of their seat. I like to look for thoroughness. Before you have money to work on your product, there might be a limit to what you can build, but there’s no limit to what you can read. And I want to see thoroughness and seriousness in a founder. And the last thing I look for is a clear communicator.”

On TiEcon, Sarna said that she has spoken at the event earlier too, at the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey. “I love it. I think that these type of networking events among the South Asian population is just so important. I’m very pleased to be here.”

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