Updated: Feb 22, 2019
"I wanted a family, so I started a family. But I also wanted do a lot of things and I didn’t want my family to stop me from being able to do those things.
I didn’t want having kids to stop me from being a working mother, and a working mother that advocates for other working mothers."
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 6, lightly edited for clarity.
Hi everyone, it’s Lynne. Welcome to Episode 6 of Rock the Boat.
Have you ever wanted more hours in the day? I’m pretty sure we all have. Between work, exercise, relationships, side projects and sleep, the challenge of our day seems to be finding time to squeeze in all the things we want to do.
In today’s episode, I speak with Deepti Sharma. Deepti is an entrepreneur, mother of two, and an activist for small businesses and working mothers. Eight years ago, she started a company called Food to Eat that connects companies with immigrant, women, and minority-owned food businesses for team meals.
She also mentors through New York City government’s Women Entrepreneurs NYC initiative and serves on the Board of the Business Center for New Americans, a non-profit supporting immigrant entrepreneurship. She is a Forbes 30 Under 30 alumna and was recently named a World Economic Forum Global Shaper as well as a member of the NYC Food & Beverage Hospitality Council.
Deepti seems to do it all! We talk to her about how she manages to find time for everything: her company, her family, and all of her passions.
We also discuss:
What it was like to grow up in a traditional Hindu family in Flushing,
Why Deepti decided to start a company over going to law school,
How she’s discovered the importance of advocating for herself - and others - as a woman of color, and
Why we need more Asian American political participation
After listening, you might feel a nudge to advocate more for yourself AND others. And if you’re looking to start a family but don’t want to sacrifice other aspects of your life, Deepti will offer some sound advice - with a dose of reality.
A Day in the Life
My name is Deepti Sharma. I was born and raised in Queens, New York. I am an entrepreneur, a mother of two.
Lynne: Deepti and I met last summer at her WeWork office in Midtown where Deepti’s company, Food to Eat, is based.
Deepti: I feel like the boat is rocking me...I’m exhausted.
Lynne: Deepti’s second son was born just 2 months prior to our interview, hence the exhaustion.
When we checked in with her, she was technically still on leave but actively replying to emails while breastfeeding and taking care of her other son with her partner while holding it together for her company because, well….the hustle is real.
Deepti: A day in the life is drop son #1 off, then drop son #2 off with a grandparent.
I’m pumping about twice a day - two to three times a day depending on what time I’m getting home - and it’s between me and my parents who’s picking up the kid…
Lynne: Life as a working mom is a juggling act.
Deepti: At the same time, it’s about making time for events. I’m an entrepreneur, if I’m not networking or advocating I’m not doing my job as a founder and CEO. It’s about balancing with my parents and my husband’s parents...it’s hard both of them need so much attention!
Lynne: Though she’s grown her company from a single-person venture to eight full-time employees, Deepti will be the first to tell you about the unglamorous aspects behind the curtain of success. She actively shares glimpses of her parental life on social media, calling it a way to vent without venting.
Deepti: I posted a video a couple days ago where my second son was crying, my first son was crying because he just got out of the bath but they both started screaming at the same time. It’s just funny because I said I’m pretty sure you all want kids now
Deepti: #RealLife, #Parenting, #IMomSoHard..I am fortunate to have help but even then it’s hard because I have to work around all of our schedules and they have to work around mine...we’re all trying to balance each other...and I’m fortunate in that I’ve made money. I think about somebody that lives on the poverty line. What do you they do? How do they do get looked out for?
Growing up in Flushing and Learning to Advocate
Lynne: To take a step back, Deepti’s interest in advocating and speaking up for others started early. She grew up in Flushing, Queens, one of the most diverse places in New York City, if not the nation.
Deepti: There was a very interesting mix of people on my block there were Chinese people, Filipino, white families, black families, etc.
Lynne: But even in a diverse environment, you know when you’re different.
Deepti: One of the times I did feel very different was going to school. My Mom would always give me Indian food for lunch. There were kids who would look at it and say, “What is that? Ew, you smell like curry” and I’d be like, “No this shit smells great! I don’t know what you’re talking about..” I
It hurt because no matter how thick your skin is, it doesn’t feel nice when someone says something mean about you. It stings. that was probably one of the first times I felt different.
Lynne: Most of us can probably relate to this feeling of being an outsider.
Deepti: When I would visit India, it seemed I wasn’t Indian enough. And when I’m here I’m not American because I’m not white. So, what am I? Where do I belong?
But I think that’s what makes America so great is that no one is in fact from here. We’re all immigrants and we all came here at some point, whether it was 100 years ago or 10 days ago.
Lynne: Within the immigrant narrative, we’re often told to keep our head down, work hard, and not cause a scene. But what happens when we see injustice?
Deepti: I had the opportunity in middle school to volunteer as part of our curriculum. Once a week, we would spend time in a pre-k or kindergarten class. The class I was placed in was a class with disabilities. It was the first time I was so close to kids who were so young, kids who had cerebral palsy for instance. I’d be sitting there and kids would be having seizures. Teachers would have to go in and hold these kids down.
I was probably 11 at the time. And I remember thinking to myself, "Why does this happen to some people?" I’m lucky. I didn’t get to choose where I was born, in which house, and which family. I’m fortunate and privileged to have everything that I have today. That experience at that age was very humbling. I had been to India for years and saw people who didn’t have a lot. But to see kids in the same socioeconomic background facing these physical issues was really disturbing to me.
Forsaking Law School to Start a Business
Lynne: Something within Deepti was stirred. She knew then that she wanted to do something that would bring more opportunities to underserved communities, like the special needs students she worked with. She considered becoming a scientist to help find a cure for some of these diseases. But as she looked around her community, she saw a lot of Asian Americans going into the medical and engineering fields. What she didn’t see was people who looked like her in politics.
Deepti: When I got to college I actually worked on my first campaign. It was one of the most interesting experiences because I got to see New York from a very different lens and perspective. Up until then, it was always the community I grew up in. I saw it as just myself and the issues I was going through.
Going around with a candidate that was running for mayor in 2005 was so interesting because I saw people from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, all different races and ethnicities, talking about things and issues they were dealing with.
Lynne: That on the ground experience talking to everyday people inspired Deepti to work on other campaigns including Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial run in 2006, John Edwards’ presidential bid, and several organizations advocating for President Obama in 2008.
Deepti: And then I thought the next step was law school. I didn’t want to become a lawyer, but I wanted to gain knowledge. If I wanted to continue down the political path, I thought this was the best way for me to get there.
Lynne: Deepti genuinely wanted to go to law school for the education and because she thought it could further her political career. But she graduated during the financial crisis and had to weigh a number of factors.
Deepti: I thought about what I'd be gaining afterwards: I’d be gaining a lot of debt, the workforce was going to be much harder at that point when everyone going in was coming out, and the economy was only going to be so much better by the time I come out.
And I had an opportunity, an idea, that struck at a time when I was studying for my LSATs. I thought, "If I can do this, then why not think about pushing law school to a later point? School will always be there - I can always educate myself - but the opportunity to start a company won’t be always there. I didn’t have as much risk, I didn’t have a family then."
Lynne: Deepti still took the LSATs but didn’t end up applying to law school. Instead, she pursued her business idea.
Deepti: I wanted to do something different. I wanted to advocate for a community in a more interesting way and I started to do that. I started a company that was working with a group of people that were underrepresented. At the time, Food to Eat was an online ordering platform for food trucks and carts, so it was a Seamless for food trucks and carts. We’ve pivoted since then into what we do today, but it was a cool opportunity.
We were the first ones to bring technology to food trucks, before then they were only taking cash, and then Square came along and then we came along and we were both trying to do something very different. It was very fun to do at that time.
Lynne: Today, Food to Eat is more of a corporate catering concierge service. But as Deepti mentioned, her mission to provide opportunities to under-served communities remains the same; in this case, she’s helping immigrant, women, and minority-run food businesses that may not normally have the infrastructure or capital to offer catering services, expand their reach, bring in more income, and learn new business skills.
Deepti: Instead of working in politics, I’m working in a different part of my community and it’s advocating for small business owners that may not be able to do it themselves. May not have the right resources or tools and we want to be that for them. It’s always been about serving my community from that moment of volunteering in middle school.
The Importance of Representation and Paying it Forward
Lynne: Deepti hasn’t forgotten about her political aspirations
Deepti: I do want to go back into politics. I see the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in almost every industry.
The one thing you don’t see today is representation in leadership. We’re still less than 2% of the executives at Fortune 500 companies and we’re above 5% of the US population
We’re seen as submissive, passive, anti-social, which are not viewed as great leadership skills.
Lynne: Deepti recognizes that it can be uncomfortable and challenging to defy the stereotypes and break through the bamboo ceiling, particularly in environments that are dominated by older white men.
Deepti: As a woman, I feel that discomfort. As an Asian American and a woman of color, you see it even more for yourself and it brings you down to a level you don’t want to be at. It’s hard to advocate for yourself.
I also see that under-representation in Congress. In 2016, we were less than 3% in Congress and if you think about it, we should have at least 30 to represent us. I don’t see myself being represented properly and I would like to be a part of that.
I think that I always thought when I worked in politics that I wanted to work for someone so I could help them run for office to have them represent me.
Now that I run my own company, it’s helped me gain the courage to speak for myself and not have someone else do it for me.
My path to where I want to be is to figure out where I fit in within the political sphere and if I fit in. If not me, then what other Asian American can I support?
Lynne: Last year’s midterm elections brought in one of the most diverse Congressional classes ever. Women now comprise almost a quarter of Congress. But even with the gains, women and minorities are still largely underrepresented compared to their general population numbers. So there is more work ahead.
Deepti: You can’t be what you can’t see. Representation is important because all of our perspectives in life are different as we’re going through life. We need each other to advocate for ourselves.
The one thing we can do as a community is encourage each other. If you feel that someone is good enough to run for office to be a leader and that someone is not you, don’t hesitate to push for that person.
Often what happens in our communities of women or Asian Americans is we don’t advocate for each other. We tend to advocate for ourselves because not many opportunities exist. For instance, I get speaking opportunities. And in my generation everyone is trying to talk because they’re trying to build their platforms. But if I find an opportunity that comes my way that isn’t good for me that I think someone else is good for, I try to push it towards them. It takes a lot to do that because you really want those opportunities for yourself to grow.
How do we advocate for each other? Build the strength and the courage to say, "Maybe I’m not the best person for this job but somebody else might be."
If not me, than who? And how can I help? And how I can advocate for them?
Lynne: In the meantime, Deepti will be doing her best to navigate the crazy life of a working mom.
Deepti: The cliche of it takes a village, it absolutely fucking does take a village to raise a child, to raise a family, and to just be yourself. But I choose this life.
Lynne: As for that other cliche, that women can have it all?
Deepti: I don’t think anyone can have it all, regardless of whether you’re a woman or man.
I texted one of my best friends in college the other day to say, “I miss you guys and am thinking of you guys. Sorry, I've just been trying to manage and balance everything.”
And he texted me back saying, “You know balance doesn’t exist”. I was like "Not balance, but some sort of rhythm. You know, not being a total shitshow." I always feel like I'm a hot mess..but somehow you make it work for yourself.
Every few months you pick what’s most important. I usually like to have three things, for instance husband, kids, and work. When I was pregnant, health was one of the biggest things for me so friends wasn’t in that circle. It was work, health, and family. So you kind of change those around, but the complete balance will never exist.
It’s acceptance of the fact that you can’t have it all. There are days where my husband says all I want to do is play video games, and I say you’re a 32-year old man asking me to play video games. Get real.
At our launch event in New York City last month, Deepti shared an empowering message about what it really means to support one another - not just through compliments and kind words but with other valuable currencies like money, time, and connections. Some examples she mentioned include purchasing from each other’s businesses, volunteering time as a mentor, or recommending someone else for a speaking role.