Our thinking

Interview with Roshen Sethna

25 January 2017

Recently, Sheba Najmi, Senior User Experience Strategist at Exygy, interviewed Roshen Sethna, Product Manager at Exygy, as part of the Exygy team member interview series.

So I have with me Roshen Sethna, who’s been with the Exygy team for two years now. Yesterday was her thirtieth birthday, which we just celebrated! So, Roshen, tell me a bit about your early years and where you grew up.

I was born in India in a town called Pune. That’s where my dad’s from, and my mom’s from Bombay. We moved to the US when I was a year old, to Knoxville, Tennessee. I grew up in Knoxville until I was six or seven, and then in Durham, North Carolina for the rest of my childhood and through college.

Something that’s particularly poignant for me is that I come from an inter-religious household. My dad is Zoroastrian and my mom is Hindu. For me that meant that growing up, my parents were very liberal and open to a lot of different things in terms of culture and religion. We went to the Hindu temple and we would celebrate Zoroastrian holidays with families in North Carolina. So I was exposed to different communities.

Traditionally, the Zoroastrian community can be very conservative in terms of not marrying outside the religion, so the marriage my parents had was kind of a big deal in India at the time, and still is. Their wedding ceremony was a little bit rebellious, but brought their families together in a really awesome way. So the ethos I’ve grown up with has been very inclusive, very curious and accepting of other people even if they’re different.

Legacy wise, I get a lot of strength from my mom’s parents too because they were freedom fighters in India, activists. They were both professionals; her mom was a city council member and a professor, and her dad was a doctor and a state senator. They were both very involved in the community. Through her, I get a lot of my activist side. My dad’s dad was more business-minded, so I get the entrepreneurial strength from that. I’m very close to my family; my brother and I are really close, and my parents and I are really close.

I know you identify strongly with North Carolina. Why is that?

Growing up in North Carolina was very interesting and beautiful. So I grew up in Durham, in the center of the state. It’s historically a tobacco town, and has deep African-American roots. It’s about 40% black in a mid-sized city of 240,000 now.

The way the South handles racism, cultural differences, and socio-economic differences is very visible and in your face. I went to a lot of schools growing up in the Durham public school system where kids came from disadvantaged backgrounds or were recent immigrants. The area is also one of the highest PhD’s per capita, so it’s very educated. There’s Duke University, NC Central, University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and the Research Triangle Park which has a lot of tech and bioscience companies. It attracts really educated people, and there’s this mix of things going on.

That exposed me to very different groups– I would talk to really educated people, or people who hadn’t graduated from college or high school, or rich people, poor people, black people, white people, asian people.

The Asian population is small compared to the black and white communities there. I remember going to the cafeteria, and it was self-segregated where white kids would sit on one side and black kids would sit on the other side. And I was like, “well, where do I sit?” And so all the international kids, there were about ten of us, just sat in the middle. So for me, my entry point into the community was almost as an outsider. I was able to interact with a lot of different groups, and I pull a lot of my strength now in understanding people from growing up in Durham.

What is beautiful about that city, about Durham, is that its soul is so rooted in its crazy amounts of diversity and that people just really, really care about the community. And they care about it as a whole — including all of the differences, disparities, and things that are so in-your-face. In fact, people debating and confronting differences and disparities out loud is what makes Durham, Durham. Being from a city like that, a truly caring and dynamic place, will just never leave me.

What kind of person have you dreamed of becoming?

I think I’ve always been driven to create big impact in the world. I’ve been really lucky and privileged to always have career positions where I’m doing that. Right out of college, I was a housing counselor for first-time homebuyers. After that, I started an organization in North Carolina with a couple other friends that was an incubator for early-stage social entrepreneurs. And now I work at Exygy and all of our clients are social impact-driven. I’ve always carried this ethos of, “how can we shift things in the world? How can we make life better for people?” A lot of my strength is in bringing people together to do that; bringing people from different disciplines, or different parts of the world. So I always have imagined myself as a facilitator-type leader. Too often I think we’re tackling problems in silos or on our own, and people need to collaborate more. That’s where you get the great solutions coming out– a doctor sitting next to a designer, sitting next to a mechanical engineer, sitting next to a community organizer, all working on the same problem together.

When are you happiest?

I’m happiest when I’m bringing people together. I really love hosting people, and connecting people with each other. I also used to love doing art as a kid, so when I get into a creative mode, I lose myself in that, even just singing with people around a campfire.

What do you consider so far to be your greatest accomplishment?

When I think about it, the things that come up for me are the relationships I’ve built with people. I have a strong relationship with my brother. Sometimes I’ll look at Facebook and think, “all my friends are doing really amazing things.” I have a friend working at the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, and friends graduating from medical school. Friends that are doing very poignant work; even this week, for the presidential election, several friends flew in to North Carolina to canvas there. I’m just really proud of the community I’ve helped build for myself and the communities that I’ve joined throughout my life. In college, I was involved at the Center for Race Relations at Duke. Right out of college, working on the incubator in Durham, we created a really great community of social entrepreneurs that were working on healthcare, education, clean tech, and different issues. Then I joined Exygy, with our base of clients and the events we do here. I think one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to create great communities to be a part of and be connected to. They’re able to enrich your life and you’re able to give back to them.

Tell me a little about your incubator and your journey to where you are now.

I studied Public Policy and Global Health in college, and then I promptly didn’t do any of that after college. I moved to Houston to do a year in Americorps, and that’s where I was a housing counselor for first-time homebuyers, usually low and middle income families. And I didn’t know anything about real estate. So I developed this system: in the beginning, when I had just come out of training and I still needed to get my legs underneath me in terms of real estate knowledge and experience. I had my own office where I would counsel families. And I knew, at some point, I would have to print something or go to the copier. Throughout the meeting with the family or whoever I was counseling to buy a home or redo their financials, I would write down the questions I didn’t have answers to. When I would go out to get a copy or print something, I’d run into my boss’s office, ask all the questions, and she’d walk me through best practices and answers. Then I’d run back into my office. That’s just how I learned as a young person trying to do something new. It was a very supportive non-profit; I learned so much about real estate and community development there and I was able to support a ton of families, over 30 a month. At the end, I knew way more than I had coming in. It prompted me in a more entrepreneurial direction, which I kind of already had started, having worked on a non-profit in college. So I realized I could learn whatever I needed to learn when I need to learn it.

At some point, I could’ve gone to DC to be in policy, or gone to law school– that had always been on mind, up until a couple years ago. I wondered if I should go back into politics or policy, since that’s what I studied. I moved back to Durham (North Carolina) after the year of Americorps in Houston, and started the incubator with a friend of mine from Duke and a professor of ours. It was called Bull City Forward. We were very scrappy. We were figuring out how to support social entrepreneurs in Durham, build a coworking space, and get resources, talent, and money to entrepreneurs to grow their companies. I was really inspired by seeing all the entrepreneurs in Durham– people who would quit their job to start something. We’d clap every time a new person came into our space and wanted to support.

I had a lot of impact in the social sector, but I also wanted to gain skills to approach social sector work with more resources. That’s why I was interested in design, and how design skill sets can be applied to the social sector. I wanted to join a design firm to gain those skills as well as more product and technical skills. I was lucky to find Exygy, a design firm with a focus on the social sector.

Even though I haven’t gone into policy or politics, I’ve always interacted with government throughout my career. One of my largest clients at Exygy has been the City of San Francisco. In Durham when starting the incubator, the City of Durham was one of our big partners and funders. The incubator was an economic development play for the city. So I think I’ll always be very civically engaged, very connected to government, but be able to support civic work from outside of politics.

What issue facing our world are you most passionate about, and what personal experience have you had with it?

I think a lot about the future of how we live together in cities. And not just transportation and smart cities, and that kind of more technological side of things. I think the millennial generation has experienced this loss of community because we’re so mobile, we put our careers first, and we often get into relationships later, if at all. The experiences of a lot of my peers are in cities at great jobs, but they feel this loneliness or disconnectedness. So I think the way we build our societies in the future– like our governance structure, how neighborhoods are structured, if people know their neighbors– is really interesting to me. And also interesting from a social justice standpoint. For me, tying back to growing up in Durham, I feel a lot of empathy for people not like me because I grew up around people not like me. As we segregate our neighborhoods more and more, we see a loss of empathy for other people and the rise of fear politics as we see with Trump and a lot of other Republican candidates. I think how we design society – how we design our civilization –  in the future is fascinating for me.

The housing thread has been the biggest in my personal career. How we own real estate, or don’t own real estate. How we can craft cities to be affordable. I know more about it from a residential homeownership standpoint, having been a housing counselor and having invested in my own house. I learned a lot about gentrification, because Durham has a lot of those issues with new wealth coming in and lower income families being pushed out. I now work with the City of San Francisco on their housing project and see a bigger city dealing with issues like that. One of the biggest things is going to be how we keep families and people from all socio-economic levels in a city and keep that diversity and affordability.

Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

So, the city question I mentioned is one example of a problem statement that really intrigues me. I think there are other like that, that are multidisciplinary. What’s the future of food? Or the future of mobility and transportation? Or the future of wellness and healthcare? My mind is always thinking of the future. And I really like working on multidisciplinary problems.

I see myself in some position where I’m working with people who come to me because they have a multidisciplinary problem, and it’s layered and hard to figure out and they’re not sure how to tackle it. I’d like to continue to grow as a leader so that I can bring together multi-disciplinary teams to work on these problems.

At some point, I’d like to start my own company. I’m not sure when or how, or if that’ll be a side project or something in parallel with Exygy. I’ve supported a lot of entrepreneurs in my life but I’ve never started my own thing. I think there is a point where I will face all of my own fears about going out on my own and take the entrepreneurial dive.

This vision you just described — what do you think are your biggest strengths that will help you get there, and your biggest obstacles in the way of you getting there?

I have a really supportive network of people and great people that I work with. And Exygy is a place that wants to do a lot of similar things to what I want to do in terms of the clients we’re going after and the work we want to do. So I feel like I have a lot of resources to do that.

The skill side of things, I’m strong in leadership, bringing people together, and being an effective facilitator and manager. I’ve gained a lot of technical skills in design, product, and understanding how engineers write code. But I want to gain more technical skills so I can help more on the solutions side and actually building solutions, rather than just facilitating the process.

If you look back on your life so far, have there been any defining moments that have made you who you are?

My mom and dad were very liberal for what some might consider stereotypical Indian parents. They would always say their opinion, and then say, “ok, now you need to make your own opinion too.” And I remember hating that and loving that at the same time, because I thought, “ok cool, they trust me,” then, “damn it, now I have to make this decision and it’s so hard!” That cultivated something in me where I took many leaps of faith at different points in my life.

After college, I moved to Houston and joined Americorps (to make close to no money…) while my peers were going to New York and DC to work in consulting or banking. I moved back to Durham to start the incubator, that was also a leap of faith because it was very early stage. I moved to San Francisco without a job, I thought, “I’ll meet people and figure it out.” So I’ve taken calculated risks. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge risk-taker, but I went from being risk-averse to taking mini-risks, seeing how things go, and then adapting.

And in truth, I’ve been able to take all of these risks because of the tremendous amount of privilege, support, and opportunity afforded to me by my family and community. I got a lot of strength from that.

Is there anything that most people at Exygy don’t know about you?

When I’m managing a team, I’m pretty even-keeled. A lot of people tell me I’m so calm and chill, and I think that’s kind of true, but in my head I’m not. I think of a duck where on the surface it looks calm, but below it’s paddling really quickly. That’s how I feel. There’s a lot going on below the surface.

What is your biggest priority right now?

Going into my thirties… There’s this comedian Ali Wong who talks about turning your shit around in your thirties. I found that so humorous in a way because it’s 1% true. I’m happy with who I am, but there’s this shift in my mind now where I want to improve. I want to get to the next level. There’s a theme of personal growth and improvement, and showing up in my community and at work, and being more intentional about how I want to do that. Then I feel like I can better be present for other people.

Roshen Sethna is a Product Manager at Exygy, and Sheba Najmi is a Senior User Experience Strategist at Exygy. Read more in the Exygy team member interview series here.