By Jaeson “Doc” Parsons
Charu Sharma is the founder and CEO of NextPlay.ai, a company focused on intelligently pairing employees with mentorship and cross-functional relationships. Companies, such as Square, Netflix and Asurion, use NextPlay’s mobile app to build mentorship programs to better equip their employees to build critical leadership and coaching skills.
Diversity in STEAM Magazine spoke with Charu about her background, her insight into women in tech, and the future of Artificial Intelligence.
Growing up in India, she describes her early life as a bubble where women were raised to be stay-at-home moms.
“I was on track to go study at the premier engineering institute in India,” she said, “but I was very attracted to the liberal arts education in the U.S. where I could study a range of disciplines from world politics to physics to film studies and develop my critical thinking skills.”
Her family was unable to provide for an American education, but she was able to gain a scholarship to study in the United States. Charu decided on Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, which was the first institution in the United States where women could earn degrees.
“The values and culture at my college also hugely shaped how I looked at the world and the contribution I wanted to make in society,” she said.
While at Holyoke, Charu began as an intern at a startup called SumZero, which was funded by the Winklevoss twins of Facebook fame.
“I did meaningful business-critical work. And my mentor, the CEO of the company, was a young brown man. I identified with him. The next time I saw a problem, I built a solution for it. The power of role models is huge.”
For that reason, she started GoAgainsttheFlow.com, which through storytelling educated one million women around the world on starting their own businesses.
“I was lucky to have role models, and I wanted them to see someone like them in those shoes. In Go Against the Flow, I told stories of successful women entrepreneurs ranging from an 18-year-old college dropout to a woman in her 50s—they all went against the flow and wrote their destiny. Self-doubt holds us back more than anything else. Which is why it’s so important to create mentoring opportunities for young women so that they know their options and have someone cheering for them.”
Charu is working to effect change worldwide regarding the global opportunities for women. At her core she is driven by leveling the playing field to create real opportunities for women and minorities.
“I realize I’m part of a system and so I try to do three things. Do my part by mentoring women (and men) Creating systems at scale through my work at Nextplay for companies around the world. Partner with like-minded organizations and influencers to educate leaders around the world on creating equal access for their employees.”
Charu sees Nextplay as a conduit for providing equal access to advancement and growth for all employees.
“Nextplay is best in class in building such systems at scale, and I’d love to see us impact tens of thousands of organizations and billions of humans in a meaningful way.”
AI is an exciting new frontier and is being applied to everything from agriculture to health care. Her advice to new entrepreneurs is to fix the problem that they need to solve instead of focusing on becoming an AI company.
“Understand the path you want to follow. AI is becoming a massive field, and each stream requires different training and skills. So do informational interviews—and go find mentors!” she said.
Mentorship has taken center stage—and for good reason—as the experiences of Charu Sharma attest. Creating companies, which provide new avenues for individuals to pursue their dreams through entrepreneurship, will add more depth and opportunities for society as a whole. With the advances of AI and the leveling technology with these advancements, the inaccessible becomes accessible for groups once trapped by the barriers of an ethno- and gender-centric society. Through programs and companies like Charu’s the world becomes more accessible to the genius once hidden by ineffectual economic and social prejudices. The limits are bounded only by the imagination of the dreamers and their mentors.