Q&A with Janvi Shah ‘15, MBA Candidate, Harvard Business School
Janvi Shah ‘15, MBA Candidate at Harvard Business School and former Product Manager at Google Photos, shares how her involvement in Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship and major in neuroscience helped shape her career path.
The following interview is reprinted from Duke Business Oriented Women’s Alumni Spotlight series.
Janvi Shah is a first-year student at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, MA. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she moved across the country to Duke, graduating in 2015 with a major in Neuroscience and minors in both Computer Science and Finance. At Duke, she was the Program Director for FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science) and founded StartupConnect, Duke’s first startup-focused career fair, within the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. She also participated in the inaugural Duke in Silicon Valley and Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program.
After graduating, Janvi joined Google’s two-year Associate Product Manager (APM) rotational program in Mountain View, CA. She spent her first rotation working on Google Search, then transitioned to Google Photos, where she served as product lead for the app’s social and sharing features for the past four years. While at Google, she also served on the APM Program Steering Committee as an alumni mentor to more than ten first-year APMs. In August, Janvi started the MBA program at Harvard Business School, where she is currently co-founding her own startup in the beauty e-commerce space aimed at helping consumers discover the makeup products that will best match their skin tone.
While at Duke, you were heavily involved in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, organizing a Summer Innovation Program in the Bay Area and founding Duke’s inaugural startup career fair, Duke StartupConnect. How did you discover your passion for I&E?
My passion for entrepreneurship was originally inspired by my dad, who started his own manufacturing business in Silicon Valley when I was five. I ‘grew up’ with the business, and got to witness firsthand the positive impact he had on the lives of his employees and their families. Coming to Duke, I knew that one day I wanted to start my own business as well, so I got involved with the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. I was amazed to find how vibrant and supportive the entrepreneurship community at Duke and in Durham was, and I was also lucky to find mentors within the I&E staff who have continued to support me to this day.
You graduated from Duke in 2015 with a B.S. in Neuroscience. How did you combine your interests in neuroscience and I&E during your undergrad?
One of the main reasons I chose Duke was because of their neuroscience program. I was completely fascinated with the brain and why people behave the way they do (often irrationally!). I combined my interests in business and neuroscience by working at the Human Neuroeconomics Lab directed by Dr. Scott Huettel. There, my research focused on consumer decision-making, specifically understanding why consumers pay a premium for products that have a charitable component such as TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker. As a product manager at Google, my experience running these types of experiments proved very helpful when developing unbiased user research studies and A/B testing new product ideas.
How did you break into product management? What technical or soft skills are essential to becoming a product manager?
Like most PMs, I had no idea what product management was when I first started at Duke. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to start my own business one day, and I figured the best way to learn how other entrepreneurs had gotten started in their careers was to actually work with them. So, I decided to intern at an early-stage VC fund focused on the health tech space (Rock Health) in San Francisco. During my internship, I met many of the founders in Rock Health’s portfolio and discovered that several of them had been product managers at big tech companies prior to starting a company. I learned that being a PM could be a great training ground for being an entrepreneur, as you learn how to lead a cross-functional team to bring a product to life while having the support and mentorship that comes with a larger organization. That led me to apply to the full-time Associate Product Manager (APM) program at Google.
The most important skills for product managers, in my view, are 1) leadership/entrepreneurialism, 2) communication, and 3) technical curiosity:
- Leadership/Entrepreneurialism: Have you had experience starting a new venture or initiative with a team? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional startup. Even having started a club or led a side project shows that you’re the kind of person who proactively identifies problems in the world and can rally a group of people to solve them.
- Communication: PMs must have excellent communication skills, both written and verbal. As a PM, you’re the “hub” of information, interfacing with many different roles, so you need to be able to “translate” between functions and communicate a clear vision that aligns these groups.
- Technical Curiosity: Yes, it helps to have a technical background as a PM, and this is a critical part of the interview process. However, even if you don’t have formal CS education, what’s important is that you show a curiosity for learning about how technology works. Maybe you’ve worked alongside a software engineer on a hackathon project, or you’ve set up a website for your student organization. By working on technical projects, you’ll gain practical experience that will translate even more directly to your role as a PM at a tech organization.
What is your favorite product/project that you’ve worked on at Google? What was your role in the process?
I absolutely loved working on the Google Photos team, where I spent the majority of my time at Google. I led the product development group focused on our social and sharing experiences within the app, such as shared albums and direct sharing with other Google Photos users. My role involved a combination of strategy and execution: understanding our users and their unmet needs related to photo sharing, and designing and launching new feature improvements to address those needs. As cheesy as it sounds, what I loved most was the team that I got to work with every day. I was lucky to have incredibly supportive managers and colleagues, from engineering to UX to marketing to our legal team, and I learned an incredible amount from them over the four years that I was on the team. My advice to students looking at job opportunities is to optimize most for your manager and team, as that will have the biggest impact on how much you learn in the early years of your career.
How did you decide that now was the right time to pursue your MBA? How will obtaining your MBA help you reach your professional goals?
As I mentioned before, I’ve always aspired to start my own company one day, and I felt that given where I was in my life and career, it was the right time to step back and take the plunge. Business school seemed like the perfect environment to explore starting a company—you’re surrounded by ambitious peers who can become your future co-founders or investors, you have access to the immense resources of a university, and you’re actively studying all the functions (marketing, finance, operations, etc) that are critical to making a successful business. As I’m wrapping up my first semester at Harvard Business School, I’m happy to report that it’s exceeded my expectations so far. I’m actively working on a startup idea with a few of my classmates now and aim to spend the summer focused on building out the idea.
What book/article have you read recently that you would recommend to everyone?
For any aspiring entrepreneur, I would highly recommend Shoe Dog, an autobiography by the founder of Nike, Phil Knight. The audiobook version is fantastic.