In the Spotlight: Anu Shah (MBA 2012)

Anu Shah is a globally successful entrepreneur and a powerful advocate for gender parity through entrepreneurship and innovation. She is a serial entrepreneur and ex-CEO of Rocket Internet SE.

Leaving home at 20 to work in a Mumbai call-centre for a meagre salary and little to her name, Anu forged a successful career across Dubai, London, New York and Singapore in her twenties. She has featured in leading publications Forbes, Bloomberg, CNBC and CNN.   

After two successful start-up exits and the charitable donation of her fortunes, Anu now works in the Silicon Valley and social impact spheres. She is currently Venture Partner at OpenBook Ventures. We caught up with her to find out more. 

Can you tell us about your career so far and what it means to be a tech entrepreneur?  

After working my way up from the call-centre, I was able to live a dream life in my twenties of travel, opportunity and discovery. I’ve worked in M&A, strategy consulting, private equity and tech entrepreneurship globally.

Then, at Harvard, I saw the Silicon Valley network effect and it left me in awe. I wanted to replicate the supportive start-up infrastructure in emerging and frontier markets globally- from there I dropped out and founded EFI Hub. As a tech entrepreneur I use technology to solve problems and make change.  

What happened next?  

I had a period of reflection after selling EFI Hub. In 2019, I donated $7 million – 100% of my proceeds- to UNHCR’s refugee rehabilitation programme in Africa. Meeting the CEO of an all-woman local craft brewery in Rwanda had left a real impression- I saw how small level entrepreneurship could pull women with no formal education out of financial dependence and poverty.

I’m now a voluntary advisor at the UN, helping to design a programme to establish gender equality in war-torn nations of Africa and Asia. I also serve on the board of the American India Foundation to support girls’ education and reduce the infant mortality rate in India. I’ve done this alongside working at tech start-ups in the US in recent years. 

You’ve come a long way from the call centre in Mumbai. What were the highs and lows along the way?  

I had unusual experiences in my 20s: like buying a flight ticket to Seychelles out of the blue! I have got lost wandering alone on the streets of Morocco, worked and lived in Saudi Arabia, had projects in Cannes and Paris. But after I sold my business, I had unresolved trauma to face, and I realised while my 20s’ were fun, real life was to be found in self-care and uplifting others.

It’s rewarding to use my entrepreneurial skills to tackle global challenges, but it’s not easy, as these are issues that can’t be solved overnight – like the effects of war and the sexual abuse of women and girls globally.  

What advice do you have for current students or alumni wishing to set up their own enterprise? 

Tap into the support networks around you. While studying at Leeds, I was humbled by the kind, inspiring souls who inspired me to be mindful of social contribution – and Harvard gave me the much-needed support and mentors from classmates and Professors to create my vision and launch it on a larger scale through EFI Hub.

Also, prioritise your wellbeing. Investors, founders and poorly-trained middle managers perpetuate a myth in the start-up ecosystem that the only route to success is through grinding yourself inexorably to the bone.

I have yet to meet a founder who has a budgeted line item for self-care or who takes guilt-free vacations, resulting in poor founder health. 

What are your best memories of your time at Leeds, and how has your experience at the Business School helped you in your work? 

The MBA programme at the University of Leeds contributed hugely to developing my organisational and managerial skills, which were key in setting up new businesses globally, with very limited funds.

Leeds gave me insight into current affairs, global affairs, and I started to see all these things that needed fixing, which led me to pursue a career as an entrepreneur.

My work as a three times founder with multi-million dollar exits and my work at the UN and American Indian Association: all these achievements have roots in my early days at Leeds.