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Hitha Palepu describes herself as a “consummate multi-hyphenate,” juggling roles as an entrepreneur, investor, writer, and public speaker.
Chief among her professional roles is serving as CEO of Rhoshan Pharmaceuticals, an early-stage life sciences company. And as partner in Adama Ventures, Palepu has invested in startups primarily founded by women, including luxury apparel maker MM.LaFleur and the online community Girls’ Night In.
But some readers might be most familiar with Palepu from her popular weekly newsletter, and she has since expanded her brand with the debut of a new podcast, which happened to debut just a few weeks before the shutdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Fortune spoke with Palepu for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how the coronavirus outbreak has affected her work, her plans for the future, and to get a sense of how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.
Hitha Palepu is based in New York City.
You have a popular newsletter, #5SmartReads, and just launched a brand new podcast, 1 Smart Thing. What inspired you to launch each of these products? What do you want readers and listeners to take away from them?
I started #5SmartThings with a very selfish motive: so I could discuss the news I thought was important with other people. I launched it on Instagram Stories and got zero engagement at the very beginning. It was after weeks of posting that I saw people starting to swipe up and read the articles, and a month or two before people began replying and sharing the articles with their own communities. I launched the newsletter as a way to share all the week’s reads at once, and to share some of my other favorite things (items I’d been loving, books I’ve been reading, and little updates from my own life). The response and growth surpassed my initial expectations, which was to geek out over the news with other smart women.
I actually had the idea for the podcast first, before I started #5SmartReads. The original concept was different and far more ambitious, but some friends—Farnoosh Torabi and Molly Beck (the founder of Messy.fm, my portfolio company)—helped me refine the format and the positioning of 1 Smart Thing. I’m incredibly grateful for their wisdom and feedback, and the response to the show has been incredible.
My goal with both the newsletter and the podcast is help people be smarter, faster. Our time is limited, and we have countless options on which media and content to consume. I’m not a journalist, but I am curious and I try to share the stories and perspective that aren’t on going viral on Twitter, scrolling on the chyrons of news channels, or on the front page of newspapers. My hope is that you feel more informed and that you’ve developed your own opinion after you read some of my smart reads or listen to an episode, and I welcome you to join the conversation.
You’re also an active angel investor. What are you looking for when deciding whether or not to invest in a new company? What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs when starting a company?
There are the typical things I look for: has the company established product-market fit, the growth rate to date, how they earn revenue, the reasons for the raise. I also have my own criteria for founders: how they solve problems, what the early challenges of the company were and how they overcame them, and how they take care of themselves and their team. Cash flow management and path to profitability is really important to me. A question I often ask is, “If this was the last round you ever raise, how would you manage it?”
I want to invest in founders and companies that have a long-term vision beyond a big exit or going public. I want to know what the impact of the business will be on people, both now and in the future. The most satisfying answers aren’t necessarily what the founder says, but how they make me feel when they respond. It’s a little woo, but I trust my gut and the numbers equally, and I won’t invest unless I’m comfortable with both.
What else would you be normally working on this time of year if there weren’t a pandemic going on?
I would have likely closed the fundraising round for the company I run with my father and [would] be executing on our commercial strategy plan. I’d be huddling with my portfolio companies on profitability and growth plans. I also would have just wrapped a few big speaking engagements (South by Southwest, JPMA’s The Best Baby Show) and preparing for some upcoming ones.
And if I’m being honest, I’d probably be sleep deprived, eating terribly, and not spending enough time with my kids.
When did you realize that COVID-19 would affect your work?
It didn’t hit me until South by Southwest was officially cancelled. Shortly after, I met with my team to review our cash on hand and reduce burn as much as possible and volunteered to forego my salary to maximize cash flow. We also revamped our fundraising strategy, which I spend the most of my work time executing on.
I had to alert some founders that I was in active discussions with that we wouldn’t be investing in the near term, but that I would be happy to come on as an advisor. I also kept a running list of asks from my portfolio company in its own Evernote document and tried to coordinate an introduction or mention one of their current promotions whenever I could.
My news consumption and the articles I curated for #5SmartReads definitely changed. COVID information is overflowing, but I was hunting for one-off stories that focused on showing the impact of the pandemic in the populations we’re not hearing about. I spent more time than I expected to find non-COVID stories to share, to help balance out the day’s selections. I knew the podcast would be more sporadic than I had hoped for, given that my time would be focused on my company and the kids right now. We are starting to find our rhythm with home-schooling and changing nap schedules and my getting used to working for a long stretch after the boys are in bed, so I’m hoping to get into a new recording rhythm soon.
Has whatever this new normal is affected your work for the podcast? How has it affected your investment porfolio?
Absolutely. The podcast is on hold as I focus fully on closing our round. On the investing side of things, I’ve been doing more brainstorming calls with my founders as they pivot during this period. For some, sales have been booming, and we talk through customer retention and community building. For others, I help advise on continuously updating the budgets and making any helpful introductions. All of my founders have demonstrated such strong leadership and sound judgement during this time, and I’m really proud of all of them.
Palepu also runs a blog, Hitha On The Go, which is committed to helping women live their best lives.
What are your future plans for the short-term and long-term?
My short-term plans are to keep everything going—my own company, my content, and my portfolio—and emerge from this COVID period more focused and with solid plans in place. And to survive home-schooling my older son!
My long-term plans are more ambitious. My goal with our life sciences company is ultimately to exit or out-license our lead product at the time of commercialization, and I’m confident that we’ll make it a reality. On the investing side, I would love to launch my own VC fund and help more founders and companies grow and scale. Much of the content I’ve been creating—the newsletter and podcast, IGTV and Lives, and speaking engagements—has basically been my personal audition to be a host on The View.
Long-term, I see myself at that table sharing my thoughts on hot topics, the political view, and asking the tough questions to our leaders.
On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?
I have good days and hard days. At the end of the day, I’m with my family, and we’re safe and healthy and have everything we need, and that’s far more than most can say right now.
But I’d be lying if I said I was fine all the time. I randomly burst into tears or find myself raising my voice or find it hard to communicate exactly how I’m feeling.
But I’ve slowly found a new rhythm to our days and am trying to savor this time with both my young sons and my parents. I’m finally able to get into new novels and establish my reading routine again, and I’m carving out a little bit of time every day to work on all the needlepoint projects I’ve collected over the past few months.
And, I have to ask given your new show, if there was one smart thing you could impart on readers about getting through this economic crisis, what would it be?
There is so much that we don’t know, and we’re still in the middle of it all. The advice that’s helped me is to focus on the day, redefining expectations on what makes a successful day, and to savor some of these slow moments if you’re privileged enough to be safe, healthy, and secure during this pandemic. (Because many are not.)
My friend shared a practice that has helped me reset the day when it inevitably gets derailed. I hide in the bathroom for a couple of minutes to take a few deep breaths and visualize how I want the rest of the day to go. It rarely goes according to plan, but it does help me be more centered and calm when the kids are crawling all over me, my inbox is rapidly filling up, and everyone is hungry and tired and grumpy. And when all else fails, a dance party helps reset the day.
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