Entrepreneur finds Comfort in Disruption

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
The Charlotte Observer

Amish Shah likes his new moniker: “the disruptor.”

That’s what Dan Roselli, founder of uptown startup hub Packard Place, calls him.

An entrepreneur and founder of investment firm Sierra Maya Ventures, Shah moved from the New York area to Weddington in 2008, when Charlotte’s startup community started to coalesce.

Also with him were his wife, Radha, a Matthews native, and his BlackBerry full of contacts — from the founders of big-time tech companies to the investors who made the growth possible.

Shah, 40, has seen operations that started in someone’s studio apartment explode into billion-dollar companies.

He knows the legwork involved in securing funding from people with some of the world’s deepest pockets.

Shah also knows how to sell: a product, a company, and himself. He’s a regular guest on CNBC and Fox Business, where he’ll discuss companies he’s invested in (wearable technology and commercial drones), and has been featured in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

So when he trained his expert eye on Charlotte’s startup culture in 2013, Shah saw the city was flush with desire and great ideas, just not all the know-how to capitalize on it.

He reached out to Roselli and told him how he felt.

“It was a bold email,” Shah said. But “he agreed with me. He said, ‘We’re not there yet. How can you help?’ ”

Just a few months later, Shah is setting up office space in Packard Place. He’ll be working directly with RevTech Labs, a 12-week program focused on early-stage mobile, software and Web companies.

The incubation program provides free workspace, mentorship and programming for startups with potential to be revolutionary.

Once the company founders know the ropes — how to hone their business plan, how to give their company a proper valuation, how to make a pitch to investors when you only have five minutes and a bored audience — Shah says he’ll invest in the most promising ventures.

And when he does, he’ll make sure the Silicon Valley power players become acquainted with the companies as well.

“We have a lot of startups who are like great college football players,” Roselli said. “Amish is an NFL scout who’s bringing in other coaches, other general managers.”

Shah agreed: “This is the next level.”

Early entrepreneur

A New Jersey native, Shah says he was destined for the entrepreneurial world. In third grade, he remembers hocking his own pencils and erasers to classmates for 25 cents apiece. The spare change went in his piggy bank.
Shah job-hopped as a teen. He delivered newspapers, then pizza. He worked at the mall. He made cold calls for a direct-marketing agency. And in college, Shah went door to door, selling Craftmatic adjustable beds. He was the company’s top salesman one month.

Shah’s dad, an immigrant from India who grew up in the big-city projects, however, wanted him to pursue a more secure career.

“He wanted me to be a nurse,” Shah said.

But Shah persisted. And after graduating from college, he started his own company, Millennium Search, a boutique recruiting firm for high-growth tech companies in San Francisco, New York City and Boston. That’s when Shah (with his self-described “gift of gab”) started rubbing shoulders with the big-timers.

Through Millennium, Shah worked directly with company founders and investors to determine their needs and find job candidates who would be a good fit. Shah helped Google hire some of its first 50 employees. He connected SAP, Zillow and Oracle with top talent.

And more than 300 of his tech clients have either gone the IPO route or been acquired through mergers and acquisitions.

Shah moved to Charlotte in 2008 because his wife wanted to be closer to family. He started Sierra Maya Ventures with Boston-based partner Eric Kagan in spring 2013 so he could invest in the most promising of the companies he comes across.

And in just months, Shah and Kagan already invested in 15 early-stage companies. He hopes some of their next investments can be in Charlotte.

Disrupting status quo

It’s not that the Queen City is without success stories. Most recently, Passport Parking, a startup that operates cloud-based tools for an industry dominated by coin-operated meters, secured a combined $6 million in venture financing from two East Coast firms.

But the city has yet to attract the deep-pocketed “tier-one” investors who can flip the switch on a $50 million investment without a second thought. Those folks are usually looking to Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston or Los Angeles, Shah said.

And pitching to a venture capital firm with billions of dollars under management is like applying to an elite college or trying to get a well-paying job at a big company in a bad market, Shah said.

Venture capitalists “get thousands of applications all the time,” Shah said.

So to really win an audience, especially if you’re from the relatively unknown entrepreneurial community of Charlotte, Shah said, your company needs someone to vouch for you, someone with an opinion they trust who won’t waste their time.

“Amish and Sierra Maya Ventures plug a hole in (Charlotte’s) ecosystem,” said Roselli of Packard Place. “And that hole is access to … national-level deal flow.”

“We’re on the brink … the start of something,” Shah said. “And it’s going to happen by being disrupted.”

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