Life is a choose your own adventure — no one decision can chart your entire future. You will find your way to the right thing if you work hard and are dedicated. You can choose to live your life as a choose your own adventure ride.
Nisha Dua knows how to advocate for women. And trust us, you want her on your side. She’s the founder of BUILT BY GIRLS, a platform that encourages young women to enter tech by introducing them to opportunities, practical skills and a network of women in the industry. On top of that, Nisha’s also Co-Founder and General Partner at BBG Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in consumer tech startups with at least one female founder. “We've made 63 investments and invested over $20 million,” she tells us. “We’re one of the largest single portfolios of female-founded companies in the country as an institutional fund.” But before all of that, Nisha explored a variety of careers: singer/actress, lawyer, consultant. “When we're younger we have this tendency to agonize about things. We think that this one decision now will chart the course of our entire future and it rarely does,” she says. “Everything I've done has been helpful to this moment.” In the full interview below, Nisha tells us more about her varied career path, her childhood in Australia, and why sometimes it’s better not to get your first choice.
How she did it
Early Years (Australia)
Swapping Science For Humanities
My parents migrated to Australia from India in the late 60s, and I grew up in an Australian town of about 20,000 people. I come from a very academic-oriented Indian family. I have two big brothers, both of whom are two of the smartest people I've ever met, and so that set a pretty high bar growing up.
In a family that was pretty focused on math and science, I started resisting that box early on. In year 11, I dropped physics and chemistry, and decided that I was going to do math, but that I’d also do drama, ancient history, and English. Those subjects weren't necessarily prized as being what would get you the highest marks or get you where you needed to be, but that was the first of many decisions to lean into what I was good at. I think overall in life you will be much more successful if you do the things you're good at and passionate about.
In Australia, you do the high school certificate, which is a little bit like the SATs. If you get a score of 99, it means you came in the top one percent of the state, and those rankings determine what university you can get into. At the time, it was really about that one number and if you came from a family like mine, you were focused on getting 100. But it's funny to reflect now on how a singular drive to a number can mean so little — that’s not what will define your career at the end of the day.
University of New South Wales (2001-2005)
Learning To Love The “Second Choices”
I got a mark of 99.05 and was immediately let down because the mark to get into the University of Sydney to study law was 99.1. So I ended up going to the University of New South Wales and it turned out to be one of the best things I could've done. Throughout my life, there have been a series of instances where I wanted something that I considered to be the top choice, but ended up with my second choice instead. And I would say without fail, the second choice has been the best thing that's happened to me at many points in my career.
I did a combined law and finance degree which in Australia means that you can do law straight out of the gate instead of going to grad school.
Did you want to become a lawyer?
I did think I was going to become a lawyer more than I thought I would become a doctor, which is the traditional Indian route. Though I did have an inkling I would end up in business. I always saw myself as a suit, even though I was a creative person.
Deep down, I actually wanted to be an actress and a singer, and I planned to take a year off to pursue that.
In your final year of Uni, you do a summer internship, and I wanted to get an internship at an investment bank. I was in the top two for an internship at Goldman Sachs and missed out. I had to apply to law firms at the last minute, and got a clerkship at [top Australian law firm] Blake Dawson, which I ended up loving. Again, it was one of those times where you don't always get your top choice, but it worked out and was incredibly useful in everything I've done since then. (For me, it was, “thank goodness I didn’t become a banker.”)
Lawyer @ Blake Dawson (2004-2010)
Gap Year + Pursuing Acting/Singing = Back To Law
I accepted an offer at Blake Dawson, but this was the one chance I’d have to think about whether I really want to be an actress and singer, so I deferred my offer. I took a year off, and did screen acting classes, sang in a band, got my black belt in karate, and worked on the side, doing marketing for a friend's boutique wine company and entertaining at children's parties. While I loved being on stage, I didn't find the same level of intellectual satisfaction, which is why I ultimately went back to being a lawyer.
What was Blake Dawson like?
Law for me was quite boring; it felt very black and white. I perceived that you're a good corporate lawyer if you've done the same deal 20, 30, 50 times and you've seen all the nuances. And for me, that felt like there was a lack of creativity, especially in securities and mergers & acquisitions law. I was much more interested in the business dynamics of the deals, which was ultimately why I decided to get into consulting.
I also went through a pretty serious bout of depression when I was a lawyer. Some of that was due to health issues, but I was also just really unhappy doing that work. I was not fulfilled, and it didn’t give me energy.
Did you face any sexism in the industry?
It was definitely a boys’ club. You could observe this in the promotions they were making at levels above us or the deals junior lawyers were assigned to. And when I asked to stay in a rotation longer or transfer into the corporate group I was frequently told by male partners that I was pushy.
I didn't really realize it was discrimination against women until very late in the pace, because I was really brought up to believe that I could do anything. I didn't know it was because of my gender until a few boys said to me, “Maybe you're getting that work because the partner’s into you.” I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, but it wasn’t.
Senior Associate Consultant @ Bain & Co (2010-2013)
Back To Business At Bain
I knew I wanted to get into consulting because I thought it was the best way to explore my interest in business. For two months before I left, I put my head down in my office, got my work done and did practice case study after practice case study. By the time I went for my Bain interviews, they told me that I didn’t lose a single mark in my interviews, and I got an offer for the Sydney office.
What was your experience at Bain like?
I loved my time there. The challenging thing for me was right when I was doing my interviews, I went numb down the right-hand side of my body. At the time I thought it was stress. The week after I got my offer, I found out I have Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. I went back to Bain and I told them I was still planning to start, but that I don't know how things would work. To their credit, they were fantastic about it.
The toolkit I gained at Bain will be forever valuable. I loved the problem-solving aspect and working with clients. What was challenging was trying to figure out how the lifestyle of a consultant worked with my health. There were times when I was simply not the person up at 1:00 AM working on the model and that is challenging in a team environment.
Chief of Staff for Susan Lyne & AOL Brand Group (2013-2014)
Fresh Start In America
I ultimately decided to leave because I have an autoimmune disease that is highly related to stress and being at a top consulting firm was probably not right for me. It was 100% the right move but it was a big personal stumbling block because when you’ve aspired to something for so long, leaving can sometimes feel like giving up.
But it took me back to why I had started in consulting, which was to do this for two or three years and jump onto the next thing: go be in business. I had long wanted to move to New York as well. So I started interviewing in America for startups and some of the big companies.
How did you approach the job search?
I view the first part of your job search as an investigative process, so talk to as many people as you can. I didn't really know what job I was looking for, so I talked to people in Business Development and Partnerships and Operations. I looked at all the people I knew on LinkedIn and I reached out to them or asked them to make an introduction.
I think it’s really important to use your network as best as you can and make it easy for people to introduce you.
How did you find AOL?
I found a listing for a Chief of Staff role at the AOL brand group, which was home to some incredible brands like the Huffington Post and Techcrunch. I looked up who this role was with and the new CEO of the AOL brand group was Susan Lyne.
My brother knew someone who was the GM of aol.com and after I applied officially, I had him send my resume to that person. The Chief of Strategy was an ex-Bainee and I had someone I knew at the Bain San Francisco office introduce me to him, and then he also sent my resume on internally. So I had two different people send it on.
And when Susan and I met, we often say it was like love at first sight, because while I think the Chief of Staff role is great for an ex-consultant, the best Chiefs of Staff are successful because they have chemistry with the CEO.
What does the role entail?
In the best scenario, you’re a second pair of eyes for the CEO. You can be at meetings in their place, you can help run the business, and you surface and deal with issues. You will likely be working on strategy and operations with them, which is what I was doing, but some Chiefs of Staff will spend more time on the financial.
General Manager @ Cambio
Built By Girls, For Girls
I was Chief of Staff for about 15 months, but six months in Cambio, AOL’s celebrity gossip website, was up for grabs. We'd been consolidating the portfolio and decided to reduce the number of resources on Cambio but not to shut it down. I asked to take it over in the interim while we decided what to do with it. It was a fascinating experience with a very limited budget — just three people trying to reinvigorate the brand.
Cambio had about 2 million unique viewers a month and in the course of nine months, we grew it to 9 million by figuring out how to leverage social media and build shareable content. I also looked at who our audience was, and it was mostly 13-24-year-old girls. So we hired five, 17-year-old girls from the Girls Who Code program to help us redesign, reimagine, and rebuild the side.
We relaunched as Cambio for girls #BUILTBYGIRLS. That was the start of the hashtag #BUILTBYGIRLS and it was an experiment into what happens if you give a young woman exposure to the tech industry’s opportunities, practical skills, and network. That was a really fun experience and a good lesson for me in what running a startup looked like; I became a self-taught product manager.
Founder @ BUILT BY GIRLS
Where is she now? (Part 1)
How did you eventually launch BUILT BY GIRLS?
It sort of evolved on its own. We came up with this hashtag to wrap the content in the site and it became clear that there was a brand and a movement that resonated with people. We started running internships, and the internships evolved into a competition: the #BUILTBYGIRLS Challenge, which we ran three years in a row, including one in partnership with Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn. It was like Shark Tank for 17-year-old girls, and the ideas these young women were coming up with were incredible.
Three key things emerged from this.
One was giving girls exposure to the opportunities that exist in the world of technology. Every young woman knows how to use Snapchat, but she doesn't know how Snapchat is built or that there's a job for her at Snapchat.
The second is how do you equip girls with practical skills they can actually use in their first internship or job?
And third, if the best job you'll ever get is by referral or introduction, how do you help young women crack into this network that's effectively a closed club?
I began thinking about how to take the opportunities we were giving to 5, 10 or 20 girls and expand it across the country, and that's how the idea for BUILT BY GIRLS Wave came about. Wave is a platform that connects high school and college-age girls with young professionals in technology. In the course of a year, a young woman meets three advisors from different areas of technology. Then finally we ask every advisor to make two introductions for their girls. So three advisors, six introductions and a network of nine people, and we hope a young woman can use that to leverage an interview for an internship or her first job. We launched with 130 pairs in February 2017, and since then we’ve matched over 9,000 pairs across the country for almost 14,000 hours of 1:1 advisory sessions.
General Partner @ BBG Ventures
Where is she now?
My other job is BBG Ventures, which invests in tech companies with at least one female founder. When Susan started thinking about investing in women, we talked about this together. The way we think about it is, one, women make or influence 85% of purchasing decisions, which is a huge impact. And two, women are increasingly the early adopter when it comes to every major internet platform — Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn — all the way to the use of the camera and smartphone. And finally, women drive great returns. There's been data that shows women drive higher ROI than companies led only by men.
So we thought it made sense to invest in women, and it was also an untapped opportunity because traditional venture had ignored women founders. AOL, our first LP, really understood and believed in that thesis and put up the money for our first fund.
For the first year and a half, I continued to run Cambio on the side. Everything I've done has been helpful to this moment. Being a lawyer is helpful because you're dealing with legal documents all the time, and being a management consultant is super helpful in terms of doing the due diligence and portfolio construction modeling. And having worked on Cambio - developing brand, product, growth - helps me assess companies and understand their brand and marketing.
Did you ever feel overwhelmed working for three companies at once?
It would be a lie to say that sometimes it doesn't feel like too much, and you wish you were just focused on one thing that you could do perfectly. But I think the secret is that you're never doing any of this stuff perfectly. On the startup side, you have to make rapid decisions and iterate quickly with as much data as you can, but you never have all the data.
I also think you can learn a lot when the companies cross-pollinate. For example, running a startup helps me understand what my founders are going through. I’m constantly trying new things that I can feed back to our companies, and then they also give me great ideas on how to build our company.
And at the end of the day, if the work you're doing gives you energy you can find your way through it. I've had more energy doing the work I've done since I moved to America than I ever did in my previous careers.