THE BLOG

Women in Business: Q&A with Priya Haji, CEO and Co-Founder of SaveUp

02/12/2014 03:45 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014
  • Laura Dunn Social Media and Communications Professional, Founder and Editor of Political Style, Director of LED Media, Journalist and Author

Priya Haji is the CEO and co-founder of SaveUp. She is a serial entrepreneur with a history of building companies that use technology to create positive social change. After receiving her MBA from UC Berkeley, she co-founded and led World of Good to create an online and in-store branded marketplace for fair trade and sustainable goods made by women artisans from 55 developing countries, which became part of eBay, Inc. in 2010 and continues to grow today. In 2007, Priya received the Social Innovation Award from the Social Venture Network for her vision to change the way the world does business, and in 2009 was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have been an entrepreneur since I was 16 -- I love the process of building something from nothing, especially something that can benefit society and help people solve important problems and improve their lives.

I grew up in a small town in Texas with parents who came from two different parts of the globe - my Mom is from India and my Dad is from East Africa. It is a uniquely American experience. Although I have the cultural values of a small town American girl, I also have the global perspective of my extended family. My family also has a deep commitment to community service; my Indian grandparents were part of Gandhi's movement, and my first start-up was with my Dad starting a free health clinic in my hometown.

Since then, I've built companies that aim to help people using business and technology. SaveUp helps Americans save money and reduce debt by turning the process into a fun game -- you can win $2 million, vacations and other prizes for doing the right things with your finances. Coming out of the recession, many people are still working to rebuild assets, and our team built SaveUp to help in an innovative and fun way. We looked at solutions that were working in other countries and created an adaptation of this research that Americans could use for free with their existing financial accounts.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at SaveUp?
The steps to creating a new venture are the same regardless of the specific company or industry. Initially, the process starts by studying the landscape, understanding the best practices, and defining why your idea can be the best solution. The next step is to build a network of advisors and partners in launching. For me, it has always been important that I have a great co-founder. Once these parts are in place, we work together to create the specific plan for the business. My favorite part is seeking the first customers and understanding their feedback to figure out what is working and what isn't. From there, once your product is effective, you have to think about how to scale.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My aunt Diana once told me there is no such thing as work life balance and to just accept that. Instead, realize that life is like a winding road -- sometimes pulling one way, and sometimes pulling the other way. The goal is to figure out how to keep the overall path moving in the right direction and to enjoy the turns. I am a single mom of two beautiful children, Zen and Omi, and I love being the CEO of a start-up. The key to the whole equation is an amazing team on both sides. I lean on my extended family and friends and have an amazing nanny. At SaveUp, I have a great co-founder and focused team. And thank God, I don't need much sleep.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SaveUp?
The biggest highlight of SaveUp is being part of the creation of a product that people like and really use to accomplish their goals. Every day we get messages and emails from people who tell us that SaveUp has helped them save more or pay off more debt. That is the best reward.

In building any new company, the biggest challenge is breaking through the clutter of messages and ideas that people receive and catch their attention. Millions of people are struggling to rebuild assets after the recession -- how do we show them that SaveUp is a smart and fun way to achieve their goals?

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to establish their own business?
The most important advice I can give is to take action. Take a step in the direction of your vision every day. Build mentors and friends who can support you in your vision. Start figuring out your plan for how the business will be built. The only thing that can stop you is if the business is only in your head -- no one can benefit from it there!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In the United States I think the biggest issue for most women is defining your own path and timeline for your professional ambitions and personal life. For some women, having a family early in life is important, so creating a career success path that navigates through that and finding the resources to support a working mother with young children are key. Other women choose to focus on career first and then later in life want to build a family. For each woman, understanding your own priorities and proactively defining the path that works for you is a major challenge. In the US, the resources to support working families are also underfunded, which is an area we should all work on together.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I think Sheryl Sandberg has written an excellent call to action for all of us as women to "lean in." I wrote a blog post on my thoughts about the book here. My own path as a woman CEO who chose to become a mom on my own without a partner is a reflection of the many choices we have as women today. I feel happy and challenged to be living my life leaning in!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
At each stage in my career and even in my personal life, I continue to have amazing mentors. Building mentoring relationships requires give and take, like all good relationships. So many people ask me, "How do find a mentor?" or complain that no one will mentor them. My first question to them is "What are you doing for your mentor?" This may seem counter intuitive, but relationships have to be rewarding on both sides. I am grateful for what each shares with me, and at the same time, I try to make sure I am giving something back to each of them. Sometimes I can share my contacts or networks, I can look out for articles or research they might find valuable, or I can take the time to write a personal card or email to share my gratitude. As I see where I can be helpful to the person, I make a point of incorporating that into our mentorship interaction. I never want my mentor to feel like meeting with me is a drain.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am in awe of the things women are doing today in every sector of society -- in arts, science, business, politics -- we are making so much happen. Have you seen the website Makers.org? There are so many inspiring women leaders sharing their thoughts and guidance. I admire women who are defining their own paths to create change.

What are your hopes for the future of SaveUp?
I hope that SaveUp can help millions of Americans achieve their financial goals to save money and reduce debt while making some millionaires in the process!