By her early teens, Surbhi Sarna knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life: start her own company in women’s healthcare. In 2010 — just three years after graduating Cal — she founded nVision, an innovative company that creates medical devices and technology to fill a void in women’s healthcare. In 2014, she made Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30: Science and Healthcare” list. Today, her company solves problems that impact millions of women.
Sarna’s mission is deeply rooted in her own personal experiences and her empathy for others. When she was 13, she experienced pain so acute that she fainted. This was only the beginning of many painful episodes she would experience due to recurring ovarian cysts. Each doctor’s appointment would involve blood tests and ultrasounds to detect if her cysts were cancerous, but the results were inconclusive. She learned that the only way to truly diagnose ovarian cancer was to undergo an invasive surgery that risked spreading the potential cancer and threatened fertility.
“Right away, after that experience,” she recalls, “I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and start a company dedicated to women’s health to try to find an early detection mechanism for ovarian cancer.”
In this Alumni Spotlight, Sarna shares her unique experiences as an entrepreneur, and how her time at Cal prepared her for a trailblazing future in women’s healthcare. (And if you weren’t already impressed, she also saved a shark, which you can read more about here.)
What drew you to Cal?
What drew me to Cal was how strong of an engineering and science school it is and how it was clear that I’d have plenty of opportunities to do research. I don’t think Berkeley does science in a vacuum — it’s a socially aware school. You, as a scientist and engineer, are building something. Cal provides the right environment for you to think of the social and policy potential and the impact of the work you’re doing. Some of my favorite classes I took were actually the breadth courses because they forced me to think outside of the normal way of approaching things.
How did knowing that you wanted to be an entrepreneur impact your studies at Cal, and what were some of the skills and experiences you knew to seek out as a student?
There are so many different ways in which Cal helped me build my credibility as an entrepreneur, and it’s why I’m so grateful to the school. Some of the more obvious things were the science courses I took, and the research in bioengineering I did. Some of the less obvious things: I knew that in building a company, some of the most important things are the people you surround yourself with and how you interact and motivate those people. I took a psychology class at Cal and, even though I majored in molecular and cell biology, I took a behavioral organization class at Haas. I knew that I would face some pretty unique challenges as a female entrepreneur, so I took women’s studies classes at the undergraduate and graduate level. My professor was so accommodating and so amazing at opening my eyes to view the world in an academic sense through my perspective as a woman. All of those experiences really shaped the way that I think as an entrepreneur, and the way I approach problems in a wide variety of ways outside of the science and engineering approach — which of course Cal does so well. It was a perfect recipe for me.
How did you start your company? How did you get support behind your idea?
Everything started out with this dream and the confidence that I could really make something out of this. I’ve been really lucky with the people that I’ve found. I think a big part of it is thinking about the opportunity in how I could benefit those who participate in it. Always start with your vision for the company and the huge impact that you know you can have. I think that attracts people to your mission early on. I was a first-time entrepreneur without a proven track record, yet I was able to attract really experienced investors and really experienced people to the team. I took everything from there.
What were the most challenging parts for starting a company at such a young age and as a woman?
It’s interesting. I’m Indian — I’m a brown, young woman without a Ph.D. or higher degree, trying to start a company in a mostly highly educated, white male-dominated field. It’s not like I could pretend to be any one of those things — it’s so obvious that I’m not. So the first thing is getting people over that hurdle. I’m not going to pretend. I’m going to be uniquely myself but also demonstrate to these people — and this is a really big part of it — that no one knows this subject matter like I do. I’m the expert on this; you aren’t going to ask me a question that will stump me. If you are going to invest in this space, you’re going to want to invest in me. I think that really helped me. When people realized they couldn’t ask a question that I didn’t know the answer to, it really helped propel me forward.
What was your experience like pitching to potential investors?
There is a Bloomberg article about me called “To Pitch VCs, Just Don’t Say ‘Vagina’.” Not only am I a brown woman without a higher degree trying to finance a healthcare company, I’m trying to finance a women’s healthcare company where I have to say the word “vagina” a lot. And men have a weird relationship with that word. You can kind of see what kind of experience I’ve had in that article, but one thing I learned is that men are more comfortable with the word “transvaginal,” so I would start saying the word “transvaginal” instead.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for someone to create the products and technology to better diagnose ovarian cancer?
I think it’s getting better now, but for a long time women’s health was not a “sexy” thing. Everyone wanted to work in obesity or cardiovascular health. For a long time in U.S. history, women were considered second-class citizens, and the amount of attention for women’s issues was pretty limited. Imagine a world where the vast majority of scientists, engineers, and doctors are men — are you going to be the guy doing research on the ovaries and the uterus to present to your male colleagues? That’s not a cool thing to work on. It’s only been in recent history that people have even acknowledged the female orgasm or the various functionality of female body parts, so I think there’s a dearth of innovation in women’s health, generally. I definitely think that’s part of the reason why no one has been working on the solution that we’ve identified now.
We’re living at a time where there is so much happening in healthcare, but specifically in women’s healthcare. Do you see more people entering this field?
There are more female scientists and engineers than there ever have been before. They aren’t afraid to work on a better breast pump, for example. I think as there are more and more women in positions of leadership and in positions to invest and invent, you are going to see more and more of these women-specific issues be worked on. And that’s really encouraging and exciting to me.
As a CEO, what are some things that you find important to do to make STEM and entrepreneurship more inclusive to women, especially in leadership roles?
I think the most important thing you can do is take the time to meet any woman who thinks she might want to become an entrepreneur — even a 30-minute conversation where a young woman can see you and know that it’s possible. That’s something you can do to help people at the beginning of their career, but how do you help a peer? The most important thing is to take off your competitive hat for a second and throw some rope around to pull people up to wherever you are. Women have to be overly supportive of other women in order to succeed. It’s almost like a numbers game: there needs to be more of us in positions of power. Going out of your way to help women starting in their careers as well as your peers is enormously important at this point.
Are there any other issues in women’s healthcare that you want to help improve?
There are a lot of different problems that I’m interested in attacking. Fertility-related issues are a really big deal and have a lot to do with our political climate and women’s societal expectations. I think relieving the fear of infertility will give women comfort around spending a few more years developing their career before having a child. I think we’d have a really big impact on the lives of these women and the level of anxiety and guilt that they’re feeling.
What is your ultimate goal?
My ultimate goals are to leave the world a better place for women than when I found it; to create as many opportunities for them as I can; and do everything in my power to enhance women’s health, their position in power, and how they are perceived in society. If I can make even a small dent in that, then I’ll be really satisfied with my life’s work.
Why do you support Cal and why is it important for alumni to give back?
I support Cal because of all the opportunities it provided for me, setting me up so well for my career. I think the greatest gift you can give anyone in this world — after providing food to eat and a roof over their head — is a good education. Sometimes our society neglects that, but I think it’s incredibly important to give back to those institutions that gave us so much. That’s why I support Cal, and I would encourage others to do the same.
Any parting advice to students interested in becoming entrepreneurs?
I think Cal is a great breeding ground for entrepreneurs because it’s a big school and you have to find your own way. That’s what you do every day as an entrepreneur. I encourage kids from Cal to go ahead and start companies as much as I can.
When you find something you really care and are passionate about, the focus comes easily — you don’t have to do any additional activities to keep focused. Always think long-term instead of short-term. There were many times I could have taken more money but that would have taken me off of the path and experience I needed to become an entrepreneur. I made those short-term sacrifices for those long-term gains. So that’s another thing you have to realize — with focus and passion comes sacrifice. You have to be able to give up things and not always take the most lucrative thing that’s dropped in front of you to achieve what you want to long-term.