Kevin Shah: building better leaders through an Empathy Gym

July 19, 2022 5:39 pm
Written by: StartOut

DEI goes beyond hiring. While attracting and retaining diverse talent is a pivotal and impactful first step, it is not the end for an organization. Now more than ever, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are vital to ensuring that people are valued for their authentic selves and empowered to showcase their best.

This month, we reached out to entrepreneurs in the DEI space whose core missions revolve around building diversity, equity, and inclusion solutions at scale so that DEI becomes woven into the fabric of an organization and doesn’t exist purely for show.

Kevin Shah (he/him) is the CEO and co-founder of Jaago, the “Empathy Gym” startup that focuses on providing a comprehensive program for organizations to build their empathy.

Kevin’s story of falling into the field is unique, marked by his innate desire to help people and companies grow, better themselves, and impact the world.

Kevin, how did you begin your journey into entrepreneurship?

I’ve been working in tech my entire career. I came to America from India to get my electrical and computer engineering degree and eventually moved into product management. I lived in Florida for eight years with my husband before moving to Seattle. We liked Florida but felt like the area we lived in had no opportunities to grow and often preferred a conservative way of life.

I joined a weapon producer called Axon, where they asked me to design software and subscription programs for the company. I asked myself, “Why am I working on weapons?” I was asked to develop software and a subscription program for the company. My work led to the best product launch, and the CEO gave me a startup to work on as a show of support. 

When George Floyd was murdered, our stock hit an all-time high. Making millions of dollars off of something like this made me feel like I was doing something wrong, and I needed to make a change. In June 2020, I resigned, gave up $15M, and decided to do something more meaningful with my life.

And that’s how Jaago first came to mind?

Yes. I asked myself how we could reverse the division in our communities. I knew we needed more empathy, and I knew we needed to build it at scale.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement began, DEI has become such a big thing. “Jaago” means to ‘wake up’ in Hindi, and I wanted people to do just that. I tried to open our eyes to a world where people seek to understand each other. That’s where my ‘Captain Empathy’ persona was born when I realized that we all could be superheroes.

What was it like beginning as an entrepreneur?

I remember boldly saying one day that I would never be a startup founder and never saw myself as that person. Making someone else’s idea happen was a strength I knew I possessed, but launching my own was something foreign in my mind. 

Despite the hesitation, I knew that many of the skills I gained through my work were entrepreneurial. When I finally came across something personal I was passionate about and knew I could address, I dove in and never once doubted my ability to succeed.

I discovered StartOut in 2020 through some of my connections on LinkedIn. What I got from the organization was the information to learn and grow in an easy, accessible way. StartOut made me feel comfortable enough to network even more and gave me the safe space to thrive in entrepreneurship.

I didn’t raise funds – I bootstrapped Jaago because I didn’t want to be held to VCs. I called people I’ve worked with and respected and told them my vision. Within 20-minute conversations, I had six people working on this, proving the cause is valid.

What sets Jaago apart, in your opinion?

Jaago’s whole mission is to make DEI a daily practice. Just like you would go to a gym every day to better yourself, you strengthen your compassion and understanding by participating in our Empathy Gym daily. 

DEI is not something that just occurs as part of work but as part of life. We’ve created an app to make these daily lessons more accessible, and in just three minutes a day, people can weave empathy into everyday practices. We also hold workshops to help bring people together in an interactive and tailored way.

We’re bold in our approach and begin every new client journey with an Empathy 101 workshop to build the foundation. We want to make people aware of what it truly means versus what people think it means. 

Internally, I don’t believe in hustle culture. We’re going slow and steady with a small team, and I love that pace. I can continue growing Jaago while I work my full-time job, and even though our operation is small, it’s comfortable. 

What are the most significant issues facing the future of DEI initiatives?

The most significant difficulty in this space is not being able to go into areas where DEI is needed the most. Large corporations don’t understand their interpersonal connections by not addressing them. Narcissism, unfortunately, affects a lot of it. 

I’m optimistic about the future. There are peaks and valleys, but the data suggests that our best days are still to come. It’s all about getting the right people in the right places. I don’t doubt we’ll be able to reach our goal.

You can connect with Kevin on LinkedIn for the latest updates on Jaago and follow our blog on Medium for monthly founder stories.