Life After Corporate: Sonpreet Bhatia, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, MyCityWay

SonpreetBhatiaBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“I’ve said this many times,” began Sonpreet Bhatia, Co-Founder and COO of MyCityWay. “If you have a vision and are passionate about solving a problem, just start now. There is no better time.”

Bhatia and her two co-founders took a risk when they developed MyCityWay, an app that helps people find information they need to navigate their city. The three were working on Wall Street in technology roles, drudging through the midst of the economic meltdown. When they came up with the idea for company together, they just went for it.

And their risk paid off – after earning the backing of New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and BMWi, among other investors, they’ve now taken their company global.

“Make sure everything you do adds up to something big. Take it one step at a time. Staying focused will pay off,” Bhatia said. “And don’t think you’re alone out there – reach out to other women. They will help you.”

Career in Technology

Bhatia began her career at IBM‘s TJ Watson Center as an engineer focused on the technology behind high frequency trading. She worked with leaders at the company to develop the first-ever standard integration interface within automated order processing, and from there, she moved to Wall Street, taking a job with the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. “I was intrigued by how intelligent technology could provide traders with the information they needed to produce value,” she said. “It was a very interesting to experience the corporate culture at a large company.”

Soon she was hired by Bank of America Merrill Lynch as a Vice President of Technology, where she worked as an architect, implementing technology integrated solutions. “This was at the time of the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, and a few days later we saw Lehman collapse. I learned not to take the longevity of a business for granted.”

In December of 2009, the idea for MyCityWay was developed in Bhatia’s garage. MyCityWay is based on the convergence of three factors, she continued. “First, we thought about how people are carrying tiny computers with them. They have a GPS and a camera at all times, producing content and sharing it on social networks. Second, an always-on device would substantially change patterns in how we move around. And third, we considered urbanization. We decided to build a company at the intersection of all three.”

Bhatia and her cofounders entered MyCityWay in the Big Apple Apps contest in 2010 – and won three awards, including People’s Choice. “After winning the competition, we got to meet Mayor Bloomberg for dinner,” Bhatia recalled. “He asked me what we are doing on Wall Street, and we had a conversation about creating jobs. He said that if we made MyCityWay into a business, the City of New York would invest.”

Bhatia quit her job at BAML and never looked back. Soon thereafter, BMWi (BMW’s venture capital arm) invested in the group as well. “We expanded to other cities beyond New York and we were even able to get it up and running in London before the start of the Summer Olympics,” she continued. “Now we’re in over 100 cities around the world.”

That global growth is something to be proud of, she continued. “We were less than two years old when we went global. People said it was too early, but we knew we had to move fast and we did it.”

Even still, her proudest achievement came closer to home. “I’m most proud of the moment we made our first hire with MyCityWay. The economy was not doing well and it was an extremely humbling experience to create a new job.”

“It makes me think about the contributions entrepreneurs make to society.”

Making the leap to entrepreneurship was a significant personal risk for Bhatia. “Coming from a pretty traditional Indian culture, I was always taught to highly respect your job, and the fundamental security that comes from having a job. But now I know that security comes from what I learn.”

“That makes all the difference,” she continued. She encouraged other potential entrepreneurs to dream big when it comes to their careers. “Make an attempt at work that adds up to something big in the long run. Make sure your fingerprints are all over it. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you stay on that path, it will benefit you.”

Increasing Gender Diversity in Technology

Bhatia believes the barriers for women’s advancement in technology can be broken by focusing on three factors: education, opportunity, and visibility.

“Increasing the pipeline of qualified women is the first step. Education is extremely vital. A lot is being done at various levels, but we need to incentivize it and not just raise awareness,” she said.

She continued, “The second factor is matching women with opportunities. Young women need to see mid-level women and senior women in technology succeeding. At the events I go to, I spot fewer than five percent women. That equates to a missed opportunity for young women.”

For example, she said, when she attended the World Wide Developers Conference for Apple in 2010, only about 1% of the audience was female. “That’s out of more than 10,000 people attending!” she said. “There are many qualified women in the technology industry out there.”

Third, she said, “We also need to broaden our definition of professional technology roles, which will help increase women’s visibility in the industry. We do need to create more female engineers, but there are various other roles – like project managers and executives – that we can make more visible.”

“Getting these three in place will go a long way to expand the presence of women in the technology industry,” she continued. “And having run a startup, I’ve found that startups are more open minded, at least in New York.”

Advice for Women in Tech

She encouraged junior women in the industry to ensure they are getting credit for the work they have done. “Don’t let anyone undermine your work or your contributions. Take credit for your work.”

Additionally, she said, it can also be helpful for young women to reach out to more senior women in the industry for advice or mentoring. “You’ll be surprised to see how willing they are to provide help and guidance.”

She urged more seasoned women to keep working to draw more women into the industry and support one another. “If we continue to address those three areas – education, opportunity, and visibility – we will be in better shape than we ever have been in the past. A little push at the right time will go a long way.”

“A lot of people are worried they might not have time,” she added, “but just a little contribution from every successful woman will make a big difference.”

In Her Personal Time

Outside MyCityWay, Bhatia enjoys teaching yoga and participating in non-profit work. “I volunteer for NonVio, a non-profit that promotes non-violence as a way of life,” she said. She is also an aspiring Ayurvedic chef.