July 25, 2018

Lead(H)er: Priya Sapra, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Product Officer at SHYFT Analytics

Priya Sapra was determined to become a physician. Her father was a doctor, and she had a strong passion for the profession throughout high school, so there was no question about how her career would unfold after graduation. But over time, Sapra, a highly empathetic person, came to realize how difficult it would be for her to see her patients suffer in pain.

Instead, she decided to try and become a chemical engineer. She was a student at MIT, so her parents reasoned why not give it a shot? This ended up being short-lived. Ultimately, it turned out that Sapra discovered a love of literature during her last years at college, and ended up graduating with a double major in biology and literature with a minor in chemistry—a nod to her mother’s career as an organic chemist.

Priya Sapra
Priya Sapra, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Product Officer at SHYFT Analytics

“Really what this meant was that I was lost,” said Sapra, who is now the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Product Officer at SHYFT Analytics. “I knew I had strong quantitative and analytical skills and a strong creative side, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore because I had lost what I thought was my calling.”

Her time in college, however, did teach her a few valuable lessons: how to fail fast, how to fail smart, and how to be unafraid to try new things.

“I no longer had any expectations of what I was going to be doing on the other side,” she said. Freed of these expectations, Sapra developed an affinity for entrepreneurship and the next new adventure.

The first adventure on the other side was a startup that recruited Sapra just as she was graduating from MIT. There she began to fully embrace the idea of taking multiple risks and trying multiple different approaches to realize a goal - despite the many failures inevitable along the way. For a self-described perfectionist, the learning curve proved steep, though not insurmountable.

When the company was forced to shut down after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, Sapra was devastated. However, she realized what she wanted the most in her next role – and throughout her career – the same sense of purpose and camaraderie that she had felt in this one.

“I didn’t want to be somewhere where you come in, clock in at 9 and leave at 5,” she said. “I wanted to be part of something where it feels like I’m building something, creating something, where I’m making an impact, and working with people who are an extension of my family.”

At that time, after completing her Master of Public Health, Sapra and a close friend found jobs at TargetRx in Philadelphia. It was there where Sapra quickly became part of the New Product Development team and began working in product design, execution, and management. Back in Boston a few years later, Sapra joined MedPanel, a consulting organization that recruited her to launch its first-ever product line. While the launch was ultimately unsuccessful, Sapra transitioned into the role of Vice President of Quantitative Services within the company, resulting in her managing about 80% of its revenue. The job brought her into what she calls her first true leadership role, but she still felt that to succeed in the corporate world truly, she needed to devote time to completing the business school degree she had started on a part-time basis.

“I’m not sure if it is still true today, but at the time having a business degree was important,” Sapra said. “I had a strong academic background, but not the finesse and polish or traditional training necessary for long-term management success.”

Business degree in hand, she moved to New York after a former MedPanel client offered to hire Sapra at Phreesia, where she ran Analytics for several years before moving back to Boston upon the birth of her son. She then spent some time working as an independent consultant to spend more time with the baby. Ultimately, after a few years, she returned to the workforce full-time as the Head of Consulting at SHYFT.

Once there, Sapra never stopped moving, completing work on the analytics, product, and operations sides of the business before taking on her current role. The constant movement helped Sapra develop a 360-degree perspective and allowed her to understand the challenges and opportunities from each vantage point of the situation she finds herself in.

“I think I would say that has been a recipe of success for me—not sitting still, being relentlessly urgent,” she said of her career so far. “I wish I could say there was a very logical approach, but I think it’s just being impatient, looking for the next challenge, and not being afraid of what happens if it doesn’t work out.”

What’s next, then? Sapra has no idea, but she does enjoy working in the startup world enough to continue her career in that realm. The culture of constant change, the thrill of working on something new, and the teams made up of passionate and visionary people are enough to ensure she keeps seeking out opportunities that will keep her guessing and continually solving new problems.

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?

I love to be with my son. He’s eight years old, and it’s a super fun age. He’s learning something new each day and it is a privilege to watch him grow. Second, I’m a really, really amateur poet, which stems from my love of literature from college, and so when I get the chance, I love just to sit and write. Albeit not well, but I genuinely enjoy the process. In addition, reading in general—not things related to work, but instead, I like to read fiction, lots of classical literature, something that takes me away and ignites my brain in an area that I don’t get to use on day-to-day. Finally, I love to travel. I’ve had the privilege of visiting almost every continent. Any time I can, I adore bring on the road. I want to experience new cultures and see new languages, eat new food, meet new people.

How do you deal with stress?

I think by maintaining a work-life balance. That’s not balanced on a daily basis because, in my opinion, that’s not possible. It’s about looking at what’s going on in your life overall, and realizing what’s important—and most days there’s a compromise that needs to be made. I’d like to say that I’m a perfect mom every day, a flawless employee every day, and an ideal person every day, but that’s not true. Instead, I think about what is my focus for today and how do I make sure I’m doing the best on that? That does mean that sometimes stress does build up - but I believe we need to train ourselves to recognize it and then discipline ourselves to take the necessary time to recuperate from it. I’m not the best at it, but I am getting better. You need to constantly gauge yourself and tackle it before it gets too out of hand. Try to maintain an overall sense of equilibrium and realize that when you’re unhappy in one realm of your life, it spills into all other realms.  Determine what is at the core of your stress and attack that element head-on.

How many cups of coffee do you drink in one day?

Zero. No coffee, no tea. I’m actually caffeine sensitive, so I am not allowed to drink anything caffeinated. Instead, I drink a “green” juice every morning and lots of herbal tea throughout the day.

What is your favorite spot in the Boston area?

That would be where I live - the South End. I absolutely love it. I’m an urban girl to a large extent, but I’ve always wanted to find a place in the city that was quiet, not in isolation. The South End has a perfect harmony. I can easily access the energy and excitement of Tremont Street while opening my windows at night and still have quiet.  

Aside from family, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?

I think my greatest accomplishment to date is that I have been able to live the life in equilibrium (as I talked about earlier). I have been able to navigate a career that has been challenging and exciting. Simultaneously, I have been able to work hard at attempting to be a good mother. Of course, there are times when my life is out of balance, and by no means, I want to put a semblance of perfection on this, but if I was to look at my aggregate experiences, I think it’s been a life where I’ve been able to be in harmony. Maintaining family, work, friends, interests - in general, I don’t believe I have neglected any one part. In today’s world, this feels like a big achievement.

Where did you see yourself 10 years ago, and how does that compare to your reality?

Ten years ago, I was 31. I was planning to have a child, so I knew I had the exciting journey of parenthood ahead.  Professionally, I just knew I’d be doing something interesting. I hadn’t defined what it would look like. Similarly, if someone asked me what I will be doing 10 years from now, I truly could not answer that question - any answer I would give would most likely be wrong. I just hope that I will still be doing something intriguing, still focusing on maintaining the balance, and still trying to be the best leader I can be.

What is your advice for recent college graduates?

Try everything. Do a lot. Learn, experience, expose yourself to as many things as possible. There is no set formula for what you could be successful at, to what you could be happy doing. It’s wonderful to have focus and direction, and I’m not saying to acknowledge that.  But at the same time, what you could be destined for could be something that you don’t even know exists. Don’t get too attached to the path or the journey or the expectation of what life is going to look like. Explore and wonder because you know much less than you think you do.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.

Images courtesy of Priya Sapra