Sabari Raja: Managing Partner JFFVentures – From Entrepreneur to Venture Fund Manager

We’re investing in companies that are supporting the upskilling & reskilling of the workforce, provide access to better quality jobs, and give employers the tools to hire and retain diverse talent.
– Sabari Raja
From growing up in South India on a coconut farm to becoming a pioneering entrepreneur and impact investor, you don’t want to miss a word of this inspiring conversation with Sabari Raja.

On this episode of the On Work and Revolution podcast, Debbie Goodman traces Sabari’s remarkable journey from co-founding Nepris (now Pathful, Inc.), navigating fundraising challenges, and breaking down stereotypes about impact-focused ventures to a successful merger. Sabari now heads JFF Ventures, steering an impact-first fund focused on technology solutions for enhancing economic mobility among low to middle-wage workers.

Debbie & Sabari dig into:

✓ addressing the relevance gap in classroom learning by connecting students with professionals

✓ Sabari’s journey to becoming the purpose-driven Edtech entrepreneur & impact investor she is today

✓ how Sabari is now paying it back by supporting first-time founders

About our guest, Sabari Raja:

Sabari Raja is Managing Partner at JFFVentures, an early stage impact fund that partners with entrepreneurs to build solutions at the intersection of education, workforce development, and human potential.

Earlier, she co-founded Nepris, an impact-focused edtech platform connecting students to industry experts to bring real world relevance and career exposure to all students.  As an entrepreneur, she raised investment capital from impact and venture investors and led the company through early growth and eventual acquisition by a private equity firm in 2021. Post-acquisition, she assisted the company with the leadership transition, merger, and rebranding (Pathful, Inc) and continues to remain on the board of Pathful, Inc.

She is an active angel investor and limited partner in companies/funds focused on innovation in education and workforce with a passion for supporting diverse founders. She is a member of Hustle Fund Angel squad, Senior Advisor at New Markets Venture Partners, and a mentor at StartEd. She enjoys sharing her experiences to guide entrepreneurs through their startup journey. 

She was the 2020 EY Entrepreneur of the Year winner for the southwest region. Her journey and story has been captured in publications such as “Innovate Hers – Why purpose driven entrepreneurial women rise to top” and “Who you know – Unlocking students social capital”.

Sabari has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from India, master’s in computer science, and an Executive MBA from Cox School of Business, SMU. She lives in Austin, Texas and is also a busy mom with 2 boys, one a high school junior and one heading to college this year.

Helpful Links:

Follow Sabari on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:00

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of Edtech. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman, and I’m the CEO of Jack Hammer Global, which is a global group of executive search and leadership coaching companies. I’m also an adviser to venture backed Edtech companies. And my main mission with all of the work that I do is to help companies and leaders to create amazing workplaces where people and ideas can flourish. So I am really excited today to have Sabari Raja as my guest. A big introduction. Okay, so listen up, Sabari is managing partner at JFF Ventures, which is an early stage Impact Fund. We’ll talk a bit more about that in a bit. Prior to that she sat in the entrepreneurs seat, she co founded an Edtech platform Nebulous, which she led to a successful exit. And we’re going to talk more about that too in a bit, hang in there. She is an active angel investor and limited partner in companies and funds in education and workforce with a passion for supporting diverse founders yeah, absolutely 100%. She is a member of Hustle Fund Angel Squad, Senior Advisor at New Markets Venture Partners and mentor at StartEd. And she was the 2020 EY Entrepreneur of the Year winner for the southwest region. But wait, there’s more. She has an undergrad degree in electrical engineering from India, a master’s in computer science and an executive MBA from Cox School of Business, such a lot of credentials. And Sabari has just the most fascinating career journey which has in fact been documented elsewhere. But listeners how much better to hear the story from Sabari herself directly right here. So welcome.

 

Sabari Raja  02:00

Thank you so much, Debbie, for having me. Um, I’m blushing here with my long intro, but that’s okay.

 

Debbie Goodman  02:08

Okay, so let’s start. Let’s just give some context. All right, please share with listeners where you grew up and where things really started out.

 

Sabari Raja  02:18

Yeah, I grew up in rural South India on a coconut farm. My parents didn’t live there. I love to go back there. That’s where it all started. You know, I also my my parents did not have college degrees. They’re very, very focused on my education. So sent me to boarding school at the age of five, which is very typical. In my family as most of my family’s from rural South India, where no good schools are close by.

 

Debbie Goodman  02:53

Right, and then big expectations are in terms of what they expected from you with regard to studies, career, what what was on your shoulders?

 

Sabari Raja  03:03

Yeah, no, that was always the case. I remember my mom saying, if you don’t study well, you’re going to end up on the farm. And I always joke about it. Like, I go back there and I’m like, wow, what was wrong with being on the farm, it’s perfect, you know? So, yeah, there were big expectations. But also, I think you have to give a lot of credit to my parents. Traditionally, in the environment that I came from, many decades ago, you know, it’s changed a lot now. But within my families, the expectation was as a girl, you’re supposed to get married, have kids and raise a family, you know? But, that my parents never really pushed me in that direction. They wanted me to study well. And as typical for most Indian families, they were like, if you’re a good student, and you’re getting good grades, you need to be an engineer or a doctor.

 

Debbie Goodman  04:10

Okay, there are two options here, two options.

 

Sabari Raja  04:13

So career paths, I mean, I had zero exposure. My world was farm and boarding school. I really didn’t see many people within my community that had diverse career pathways. So when I was told, like the unsaid expectation was study well, if you study well, you need to end up as an engineer or a doctor. So that was it.

 

Debbie Goodman  04:46

Okay, but nevertheless, it was still relatively progressive considering the options which may have been just come back to the farm and you know, have babies, so your parents were already a step ahead.

 

Sabari Raja  04:58

They were definitely a step ahead and with the social situation, the pressure was more about, hey, if you come of age, you need to start finding a groom and get married, you know. So that was the general expectation. There’re always exceptions and I’m glad my parents were the exception, you know? 

 

Debbie Goodman  05:20

Absolutely. I’m sure there are many people that were glad that your parents were the exception because you’ve gone on to do some pretty extraordinary things. Firstly, your electrical engineering degree in India. But then the big move to the US, how did that come about?

 

Sabari Raja  05:37

Hey, honestly, sometimes I think about all the big moves I have made in my life, there is no rhyme or reason for why I made that move. It’s always I feel like, there was always that inner drive where I felt like I needed to do the next thing, the next big thing. And then at that time, within my community, there were not many girls who were leaving their families before getting married and going off across the world for higher education. That was very progressive in big cities, but remember, I’m coming from a small rural place, right? So when I finished my engineering, my undergrad at that time, I mean, in India there were job opportunities, but there weren’t a lot, you know, like right now in the last decade or 15 years India is thriving, but at that, when I graduated, there weren’t that many opportunities. So I was sort of like, should I go work for someone, which seems like an uphill battle, or my fear, I don’t talk about this much, but in the back of my mind, my fear was if I don’t find a job, and I don’t really know what my next step is, then I’m gonna have to get married. So a couple of my friends were starting to think about, you know, going and studying in the US. I really didn’t put much thought into it. I said, Oh, that sounds like, you know, fun, I really want to see the world. So let me just sort of follow the path, take my exams, apply to a bunch of schools and see what happens. I never thought my parents were gonna agree to sending me but once the ball was set in motion, there was no stopping it, you know.

 

Debbie Goodman  07:33

And of course, anything better than just staying and getting married.

 

Sabari Raja  07:41

Conquer all my fears and leave the country and figure it out.

 

Debbie Goodman  07:47

In order to avoid that, right. Okay. Nevertheless, clearly, that was an amazing move and completed some further studies and went on to find a great job and do some great things. But what was the transition point to actually becoming an entrepreneur to be, you know, to have the gumption to co found the company? What problem did you see that you were trying to solve? Or what what precipitated this?

 

Sabari Raja  08:19

Yeah, I mean, a lot of it is connected to my personal story of where I grew up, and what I had and what I did not have, right. So to some extent, I think, growing up in a family where everybody just worked for themselves, they own farms, or, you know, other businesses or so subconsciously, I always had this thing that at some point, I want to do my own thing, right. But working for a big company, at that time, my first job out of college, I just happened to land in a job that was in, you know, in education technology. I didn’t even know what education technology meant at that point. And being in the job is where I first really stepped into a proper K-12 school because I didn’t do my K-12 schooling here. And a lot of my exposure came through my first job at Texas Instruments working for the Education Technology Group, I had some amazing people, amazing mentors. But while there, I got involved with a lot of nonprofits and other intermediaries like chambers and economic development that were doing this work of bridging the workforce pipeline gap or the STEM pipeline gap specifically for minorities and girls. I mean, if you remember, you know, I grew up where everybody was told, like if you if you study well, you need to become an engineer or a doctor. I was baffled that in a very, you know, progressive country like the United States, there were hardly any girls or others like underserved students going into, like the STEM jobs. I mean, we were all sort of indoctrinated to some some extent like yeah, that is the path you need to take to be successful for economic mobility and all this. But here, that wasn’t the same message that was reaching everybody. And it is baffling to me that coming from a small rural town, that was instilled in me, but I see people here with a lot more opportunities who are not pursuing that path, right. So I got involved with a lot of, you know, intermediaries and nonprofits doing this work first in Texas, and then around the country. I got involved with a lot of conversations where all these ecosystem stakeholders were coming together, were talking about like industry leaders, hiring leaders, you know, chambers, economic development, nonprofits coming together, talking about what is the role of industry in education? How do we bridge this workforce pipeline gap? How do we bring equity in this process of, you know, career exposure and career readiness? I was part of one such event in the Dallas area. And, you know, we had a day long event with amazing conversations, all the top employers were in the room, everybody was in the room who should be in this conversation. And at the end of the day, you have a nice happy hour and it was a great networking opportunity, a whiteboard full of wonderful ideas and then everybody went home. And hardly anything happened at scale, right, I had to really solve this problem.

 

Debbie Goodman  11:53

The Graveyard, the graveyard of great ideas.

 

Sabari Raja  11:57

Great ideas. Yeah. I mean, um, then the same night, I actually drove to my friend’s house. And, and we were like, you know, technology needs to play a better role in connecting the dots here. And that really was the first seed for what became Nepris. But I sort of skipped many steps before that. I actually quit my job from TI, months before this opportunity. And this idea even came about, I can tell you exactly which exit I was in Dallas, taking the exit to go to my work, 14 years, going to work. And I thought, Oh, my God, how did I end up here, like every day, for 14 years, every work weekday taking this exit to go to work, I had a very diverse experience within the company. But it was just a jolt of like, I don’t want to get very comfortable doing every day, what is expected of me to go to a eight to five job to keep doing this without sort of pushing the boundaries. So that I literally Googled how to type a resignation letter, turned it in and quit. And I like remember what I said. All important decisions in my life, I have jumped off the cliff without a plan. But I have to sort of break that status quo. You know, if I kept going, it was very difficult. We had a comfortable lifestyle. I had two little kids, we had a house, we had, you know, certain lifestyle, and it’s very difficult to break that cycle.

 

Debbie Goodman  13:32

100% I mean, I hear so many people who’ve got these this like dream, or the dread of the monotony the getting caught in the trap of the comforts, but just don’t ever take the leap? Because it’s risky. And sounds like you’ve already had pretty positive experiences of jumping off that cliff from time to time. And I had identified a big need. So Nepris eventually arose, evolved, got founded. But then also needed to. So let’s just get clarity for a second, Nepris is subsequently exited, merged, etc. We can talk about that in a bit. But at the time, what was the core focus of the company?

 

Sabari Raja  14:15

So the main problem we were solving was that kids are learning things in the classroom, and there’s no real reason for why I’m learning what I’m learning. You know, what is the relevance? You know, I’m learning about rocks in second grade. I’m learning about ratios and proportions in sixth grade, I’m learning about calculus in my high school and I joke about this I have two engineering degrees and to date, I do not know why I learned calculus. And so it’s really sort of the way we tried to solve the problem of bringing exposure and awareness by bringing relevance to what they were learning in the classroom. And the way we chose to solve that was to say there are people who are working for these companies that are applying these concepts in their work. What if we brought them into the classroom, you know, virtually, so that they can hear it from the horse’s mouth? As to why you need to learn about ratios and proportions and rocks.

 

Debbie Goodman  15:20

How brilliant. I have two high schoolers and the number of times I hear that is the common complaint. Mom, why on earth do I need to know this? Yeah, exactly. So you’ve solved this problem. Amazing. Yeah.

 

Sabari Raja  15:33

And then it turned into more of a college and career readiness platform. But that was the core of the problem we were solving. And it was very difficult to scale that right. So we had to figure that out. But from day one, we were very impact focused, like we wanted to get to the rural schools, we wanted to get to the underserved students, we wanted to bring equity in this process of career exposure. Like my kids in my house, they look at me, they’re like, Okay, I know what an engineer does. I know what an entrepreneur does, I know what an investor does. They look at my husband, he is in semiconductors. But that’s not the same case for a kid who’s in a community where they’re not surrounded by, you know, a variety of jobs.

 

Debbie Goodman  16:20

Along the way, you needed to do some capital raising as almost all entrepreneurs do these days, particularly in the tech space. What was that experience like?

 

Sabari Raja  16:30

If somebody had told me how hard that would be, I don’t know, if I would have jumped off the cliff without a plan. I did not know a single investor at that time. I was just like, very passionate about the problem that I was solving, it was very connected to my own lived experience of how I grew up, and the lack of exposure. And fundraising, so initially, you know, all I knew was you’re supposed to go fundraise in order to build your company. And so trying to raise that first seed round was so difficult, because I would go pitch to like venture groups or angel groups, right. At that time, I didn’t realize like, we were too early for true venture capital, but most angel investors did not understand this whole impact piece at that time. There are a lot more impact investment is a real thing now, but 10 years back, it wasn’t not in Texas, at least at that time, you know. So I would go to these groups, and they’re like, education does not have any money, this is not ever going to become a real business, this is nice, It’s a feel good. Why aren’t you a nonprofit?

 

Debbie Goodman  17:52

If it’s not scalable, we’re not going to be able to get our returns. Where’s the 10x? Where’s the unicorn?

 

Sabari Raja  17:58

Where’s the 10x? Are you actually, do you actually have a billion dollar Tam? And are you gonna grow over 100% year on year? But honestly, early on, a lot of the pushback was all of this, you know, like, but the common thing everybody said was, I love what you’re doing, we need something like this. But then the next thing would be like, you should go be a nonprofit, because you’re doing good, you know, so to really now looking back to really navigate this, you can do well by doing good. You can build a scalable technology company that can also give high impact returns, you know, financial returns and impact returns. Little did I know what I was actually doing right? But that is what I was navigating and I learned a lot in the process early on. A few angel investors who invested in our pre seed were people who believed in me, people who knew me, others who believed in this course. But later on, even as we were growing, it became really difficult to raise traditional venture funding. And then 70% of our investors were impacted investors who really cared about the double bottom line, you know, and eventually, when we exited for our earliest investors, we were able to give significant financial returns. But we were never put in that category of us even having that possibility because we were also chasing impact. We were put in a bucket of these are do gooders, it’s not really viable.

 

Debbie Goodman  19:50

If we see our money, we’ll be lucky. It’s so interesting to hear this because, you know, for those of us in the world of social impact, it’s part of our common discourse. And we recognize that, of course, it’s possible to do both things, you know, make money and do good at the same time. But it’s hard to think that, you know 5, 8, 10 years ago, this was kind of a new concept and there wasn’t a model for that and there weren’t that many investors in the space. Now, certainly in the Edtech and education space, that is, you know, very much more commonplace. But you know, to think back that you’re part of trailblazing this work and trying to convince investors that the possibility exists to do both things is kind of extraordinary now in retrospect. Okay, and then fast forward a little bit. And then the process of doing the, what do you call it, an acquisition, merger takeover? What was the actual structure of the exit of Nepris?

 

Sabari Raja  20:51

It was through acquisition. So, honestly, I never thought about exit proactively, I was facing a dream, my co founder and I had complementary skill sets, we were building a truly impactful company, we had attracted some really good people who believed in the mission, we built an amazing culture, people loved working for the company. And so we were all having fun figuring it out and then steadily grew. It took a little longer. So a lot of the money had to be patient capital, you know, so we, it took a little longer to get there. But once we got there, we grew, you know, significantly year over year growth was quite significant. And we ended up we were at the point during COVID. You know, there were, there were opportunities, and there were challenges as well. I mean, there were opportunities, because we were already a virtual platform. People were trying to figure out how to be virtual. But there were challenges because being a virtual platform doesn’t really mean you can support a remote classroom, you know. So without getting into the details of that, there were a lot of operational challenges, because kids were not in the classroom. We were a teacher platform, so teachers had to really sort of navigate classroom management, whereas now each kid was sitting in their home and classroom management and things like that became an issue. So I mean, nothing insurmountable. Like we were figuring it out, we got through a lot of these challenges, but it also forced us to think about where do we want to go from here, we were growing over 100% year on year. There was a lot of large deal state statewide deals and as we were getting in front of states, it became very clear that we had a very niche product that did something really well, that was quite differentiated, that nobody had figured out how to scale these live connections. And but most of the states were like, but can you also do this? And can you also do that? So it became clear that we needed to be a full fledged college and career readiness solution. And what we had was quite differentiated. But we were not checking a lot of the boxes for a true CCR solution. And our option was, you can go back and build those things, which, as entrepreneurs, we hate catching up, you know, like, it sounded very boring to try and, you know, catch up and build things to check boxes. But at the same time, you know, we were at a point where we were spending more time operationally, you know, adjusting things than really innovating. And more than me, I think, even for my co founder, he’s a creative guy, and he wants to build new things and cool things all the time. And we were just, you know, solving operational challenges and building to solve those. And that wasn’t as exciting. So we really were at a crossroads thinking, do we continue to build more products or do we go through a process where we have an opportunity to acquire and merge with other companies and then had a discussion with our board, and that’s where we ended up and we said, we’re in a good place. We were near profitability, we were growing over 100% year on year. If we have to keep building things on our own, we can, but we’re going to run this process and see if we can find the right partner and so the first step was to really find the right banker to support us in this process, and then everything sort of, you know, the ball was set in motion. We had a competitive process and ended up I mean, I never really knew much about a private equity exit. To me private equity was I had a very stereotypical idea of private equity. But I had to educate myself in this process, talking to other founders who’ve gone through a strategic exit or a P exit, really understand the pros and cons of both. And we ended up sort of choosing the private equity path, because we found a good you know, acquirer, who was also had identified another company, which had very complementary features to Nepris. So Virtual Job Shadow, and Nepris, the idea was that these two companies were to be acquired and merged together in order to provide that entire college and career readiness platform. And that is what is now rebranded to Pat Foley. So that was the goal. And so we went through the process, it took us like six months, and then we ended up getting acquired, so I still sit on the board. But I stepped out of my operating role a year after the acquisition after the handoff and the transition, and everything was done.

 

Debbie Goodman  26:27

I mean, I think that’s something that many entrepreneurs in all sectors are needing to think about in this current market. It’s hard to raise capital and if you can’t get investment money, it may be necessary to consider strategic partnerships, mergers, similar types of acquisitions, strategic partnerships with other complementary products and services. So your experience around this is so relevant for right now. Even though you sort of did this slightly ahead of the curve, we’re definitely seeing a lot more m&a activity right now than we are seeing investment.

 

Sabari Raja  27:03

Yeah, one thing I want to clarify is, you know, getting acquired when the company has a very healthy growth trajectory, where the company is meeting all of their key performance metrics, that is the right time to exit. You know, a lot of times if you’re trying to exit because you can’t raise money, or because, you know, you don’t have any other path, that is very challenging to exit. So we were a healthy company that was growing that had enough cash to, you know, we were not, we didn’t go the acquisition route because we couldn’t raise money. We had literally a month and a half, before, a year and a half before the acquisition, we had closed our Series A and we hardly even used that money, we had enough revenue that we were bringing in for operational costs. So anyway, that’s, I want to make that clear difference.

 

Debbie Goodman  28:07

And I think it’s a very relevant point, I think that you know, to be considering a merger, or any m&a exercise, whilst considering capital raising, so that, you know, it doesn’t, so it’s not left as the last option. Because I think many, many entrepreneurs, particularly during the phase that we’ve had previously where it was relatively, you know, not easy, it’s never easy to raise money. But it was almost assured that there would be some kind of cash injection, that would be the next raise. And so m&a would be left as like a last consideration. So I think that’s very valuable advice, to not leave until you’re sort of running on gas fumes to have it as part of the consideration right now. Let’s fast forward a little bit and talk about your role at JFF Ventures, which, I mean, Jobs For Future has been around for a while, but JFF Ventures, as the fund is actually kind of new. So we haven’t got all that much time, but I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing and what the fund is about and what you see lying ahead for 2024.

 

Sabari Raja  29:21

Yeah absolutely. Jobs For Future as you all know, JFF is a large nonprofit, a 40 year nonprofit with sort of deep networks and knowledge and, you know, ecosystem within this education and workforce ecosystem. So, with JFF Ventures, I’m trying to see how I can shorten the story because my partner Igor was the founding partner for the very first impact focused workforce fund called the Employment Technology Fund that was supported by five leading foundations. It was a pilot fund that he started and he ran, and Nepris was the second investment from that fund. So that’s how Igor and I know each other. He was on our board for a couple of years and he’s seen me take the company from idea to exit and sort of rebuild that relationship for over six years. But I never really thought being a fund manager would be a stop in my career. But I really got a chance to work a lot with other founders as we were growing and doing well, you know, I was serving as an advisor to some of the companies, really enjoyed that process. But JFF, the idea of JFF Ventures is this Employment Technology Fund was brought and housed under Jobs For Future the nonprofit, Igor sort of raised more money and made more investments out of that fund. And that was considered sort of a proof of concept fund, right, there was an opportunity to really try different things. And what we’re doing now, when I joined him, the idea was to really launch JFF Ventures as a new entity, an independent entity, still strategically aligned to JFF the nonprofit but operationally independent. So we have an opportunity to really build a best in class impact first venture fund that sort of has all the pros of a venture fund, but all the benefits of really sort of accelerating impact by having access to this vast ecosystem and the network. That is our biggest differentiator is we are a venture fund, but we are impact first, but we’re also building it on top of this amazing ecosystem and the network that can accelerate growth for our portfolio companies as well. So the thesis of the fund is why I was super excited about joining it all. It’s really squarely focused on investing in technology solutions that are supporting the economic mobility of middle to low wage workers. What that means is there is over 100 million adults in the US who are making less than $45,000 a year and low wage workers even less than $30,000 a year, and many of them are underrepresented in the workforce. So that is the population we are focused on. And we are investing in companies that are supporting the upskilling, reskilling of this workforce, access to better quality jobs, supporting employers with the tools to hire and retain diverse talent, supporting this group that sort of looking at it as a holistic approach providing the wraparound services like child care, transportation, financial literacy. So that’s really the core of our investment thesis and we are raising a new fund. We’re moving fast towards first close, lots of momentum, but super exciting because we’re building a team, we’re building a new fund, we’re attracting the right founders, very diverse group of founders who have lived experiences. And you know why I care about this, because I’m such founder. And I’m super grateful for the opportunity to really sort of I look at this as paying it back and continuing to support those founders who may not have a billion dollar Tam, or may be just a first time founder, ignored by traditional venture capital, but really focused on impact that they believe that they can balance it and balance both, you know, financial returns and impact returns.

 

Debbie Goodman  34:00

I was gonna ask what’s shaking up in 2024, but I mean, with that segue, I can absolutely see it goes without saying that you’ve kind of got this launchpad for so much momentum for what looks like it’s going to be a pretty fantastic year for you.

 

Sabari Raja  34:16

Yes, for us, because that’s where we’re launching the new fund.

 

Debbie Goodman  34:22

Well, I’m excited to watch this space. What a wonderful story. What a lovely time we’ve spent. Thank you for sharing all of that with us. Good luck for the rest of this phase of 2023 and into 2024 and I’m certainly excited to see what arises with JFF Ventures and you. Thank you, Sabari.

 

Sabari Raja  34:42

Thank you, Debbie for having me. Appreciate the opportunity.

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