We recently jumped on a Zoom call with Renuka Sastri, one of StarterStudio’s newest advisory board members, to get her take on StarterStudio, the region’s tech ecosystem, and where she hopes to plug-in her talents to support tech founders in the region. Her two operative words are “resilience” and “diversity.” A thought leader in many areas of e-business, Renuka is as fluent in strategic philanthropy as she is in digital transformation. And, oh yes, she dabbles in and sells pottery as a side-gig. She has a storied career with a variety of organizations, including AAA, the American Automobile Association. We’ll let her tell you the rest.
Starter Studio: We need to start somewhere, so let’s just start with: can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Renuka Sastri: Well, first of all, thank you for the opportunity. I'm happy to be a part of StarterStudio.
I work in Orange County government on workforce and economic development initiatives for the I-Drive CRA [Community Redevelopment Agency]. My volunteer interest is in a practice called strategic philanthropy that we can talk about a little bit more. Essentially, I got really interested in the things that improve community resilience. And not just from a single facet, but all the different ways in which a community becomes more resilient. And so, this job is a perfect intersection of all those things that I've become more interested in over the past several years.
StarterStudio: You spent nearly 20 years at AAA in a number of positions. Can you talk a little bit about your last position there, which was very much involved with what you just outlined, change management and capacity building?
Renuka Sastri: I left AAA in the fall of 2017. For the five years prior, I was the director of e-business, which is a very broad term. For me, it meant an evolution of the role through growing the social media presence for federation of motor clubs across the US, getting into technology R&D, governance, strategy, and product management. And before you ask, I didn't have a background in technology, digital product management. But I leaned into it.
StarterStudio: We have a very long mission statement for Starter Studio. We saw in your LinkedIn profile that you have encapsulated similar ideas that are in our mission statement: strengthening the tech startup ecosystem and elevating the region, particularly in the eyes of investors. If we use that as a touchstone, why does it resonate with you so much?
Renuka Sastri: Lillian [Myers] made a comment about StarterStudio supporting or providing all the support that founders of tech and tech-enabled companies need, which I thought personalizes that mission very well. And that's exactly why I was interested in StarterStudio. I've been involved in a number of different organizations over the last several years and there's been this sense for some time that Orlando is on the verge of bringing it all together. We are not just on the verge anymore; it's all coming together, which has been great to see. And I wanted to be a part of it in a way that leveraged things that I knew how to do, but also gave me an opportunity to learn. StarterStudio allows me to do both.
StarterStudio: Let’s skip back because we don't want to leave out your work with 100 Women Strong. You mentioned strategic philanthropy before, and those must be tied up with each other. So maybe you could talk just a little bit about that specific experience.
Renuka Sastri: Sure. 100 Women Strong is an initiative of the Central Florida Foundation and we are what's characterized as a giving circle. The idea is that I make my tax-deductible donation, but instead of being it being a one-off gift, it gets pooled with all the other members, and we collaboratively decide where we're going to focus on each year. We work with local nonprofits, local subject matter experts, to then identify a specific pilot, something to launch, scale, and test, and try out new things to address very specific outcomes. So, we don't try to solve for world peace or homelessness in Central Florida, but we do look at root causes. Then within the focus of what we as a group can impact, that's where we'll make investments.
This past year, we invested a two-year grant of $100,000 in Poverty Solutions Group that does some amazing work with financial resilience. And we partnered them with Sharity Global to provide domestic violence education and training. I got involved with 100 Women Strong because I wanted to really understand what was happening in the community, what was being done, where I could play a part. Call it the midlife crisis, whatever, but I was looking for that extra something of wanting to learn and to become more involved.
StarterStudio: Do you have any personal goals as a board member?
Renuka Sastri: One of mine was to contribute, and the other one is very much to learn. There's a certain energy I think, being around startups, the wonderful and crazy ideas, and just the joy of being around it all. I’ve participated in meetups, hackathons, Techstars and a few other things that have happened in the community. I just love the energy; how unfettered some of these concepts are.
StarterStudio: Next, personal and professional, do you have any areas of interest or focus that we might not think of it when we look at your resume that could be leveraged to help our Starters?
Renuka Sastri: I have built my career on user research. What do people want? What motivates them? What causes anxiety, what inspires joy? That's been the continuous thread throughout my career. It's something you know, I think that applies to every product, every service, anything that you want to bring to market.
I have in a very, very, very micro way, a small business in that I am a potter, and I sell my pottery online, and have learned the joys of building a website and trying to drive traffic and balancing between making content and making pots has been a fun challenge. I was making enough pots that I needed a website. So, I spent a few weeks setting up a website and then realized I had to make pots to sustain the website. It's basically like having a child in that once you birth it, you have to grow it. And not profitable at all for me, but I get a great deal of joy out of it, and it keeps me somewhat sane.
StarterStudio: One last one. If StarterStudio were on the cover of business, magazine, or newspaper, five years from now, what would you like that story to be about?
Renuka Sastri: Am I allowed to steal what Stephanie (Miller) said, because I really liked it? I definitely think about the impact that Stephanie already mentioned. But I would also say the storyline would be about the diversity in age, the diversity in backgrounds, race, all the aspects that I see in StarterStudio are really compelling. I think too many times there's a certain vision of who a tech starter, a startup founder is. I think StarterStudio is doing some amazing work making that dream possible. Or at least inspiring people to dream that it's possible for a much more diverse group of people than one would think.