SHREYANS BHANSALI (CO-FOUNDER SOCRATIC.ORG): “SOME THINGS ARE REAL DESIRES. IF YOU RECOGNIZE THEM, THERE’S A LOT OF INTERESTINGNESS AND JOY THAT CAN COME OUT OF IT”

CREATIVE EXPRESSION: PHOTOGRAPHER

INTERVIEW AND NARRATIVE BY KENNEDY GACHIRI FOR THE SUPERSTAR AGENDA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARYL GETMAN

Shreyans is co-founder of Socratic: an application that helps high school and elementary students learn. Socratic uses large data sets and artificial intelligence to deliver resources to students after they take a picture of a question on a mobile device. Socratic is a highly innovative solution to a complex problem. Prior to founding Socratic, Shreyans was the first employee at the popular money transfer app, Venmo.

The entrance to Socratic’s offices is modest. There is a small sign by the main door of the open floorplan office with SOCRATIC in all caps. Upon entering, Shreyans walks over to me with a huge grin and wide open arms. He ushers me into a conference room with see-through walls that is located at the center of the office. One of the first things I notice as we settle down is a deliberately drawn line on his left arm. It extends from his thumb onto his arm. As our conversation continues, it becomes clear that being deliberate isn’t only confined to his temporary body art. “We believe a lot in process. We’ve never shied away from it even when we were 3 people. We set goals at all different levels,” he would later say about their management style at Socratic.

He laughs nervously, leans back in his seat, and looks to the side as he reflects on whether or not he considers himself a superstar? “It’s a difficult thing to say yes to but where I’m ending up on this is similar to, ‘Are you an artist?’” he says. He then adds some structure. “So there’s two ways to think about being a superstar, ‘Am I already a superstar?’ Or ‘Am I on the path to becoming one?’” He prefers the latter approach he says. “There’s some things that are real desires or drives within you that if you recognize them. If you figure out what they are, and you learn to act on them, there’s a lot of interestingness and joy that can come out of it.

Becoming an artist by following true desire is an idea that Shreyans links to overall fulfillment. “Are you living your life the way an artist would and what does that mean? Are you consuming lots of things and putting them out into the world in some way? Are you inspiring someone regularly? That’s not a matter of, ‘What have you accomplished until today?’ It’s a matter of, ‘What are you like today?’” he says. Shreyans is particularly interested in the power of photography. “One of my fantasies is to connect people using photos. Photos result in joy for other people and I think it would be really cool to affect people’s lives in some way. Photos also act as an alibi for doing interesting things. You get to meet interesting people if you’re going to go photograph them.” Shreyans extends the idea of pursuing one’s fantasies to conversations that he has with his team members, “A question that I have asked a bunch of people on the team is, ‘What’s your fantasy?’ ‘What’s this crazy thing that you dream about doing or dream about being?’ And then think about that, and once you’ve thought about some things, let’s think about if it would actually be possible for you to do it. Because I think a lot of the times it’s really possible.”

Art and beauty are concepts that come up in product design. And Socratic’s sleek interface conveys that intentionality. “A product is meant to evoke some kind of reaction in your brain, or feed a certain pattern, or teach you new patterns, or teach you that the patterns you’re used to, there may be more to the world than that, and that’s all what art is about,” he says. Shreyans further explains how his work with artificial intelligence has shaped the way he thinks about beauty overall. “So I’ve been thinking about neural-mapping a lot. So one way to think about beauty through that lens is, our brains are just hungry for patterns. I think that everything that we’re doing is basically that, understanding people’s facial reactions, and understanding sentences and all that and there’s like these patterns that we learn over time and our brain is trained to take in more of them. I feel like a lot of beauty is either very simply or quickly fitting a pattern that you are used to and that’s associated with some good emotion, but sometimes it’s also showing you something that’s a little bit off but then you can readily fit into your view of the world.”

Shreyans desires harmony in his relationships and prefers to focus on what is happening right now as opposed to extensively planning for the future. “If I want this photo thing to be a part of my life, then I don’t need to come up with grand plans and compare myself against them and feel like shit when they don’t happen or whatever. What’s the thing that I want to do today? There’s this idea that if you’re just thinking about the present then very few of your problems really exist because they’re almost never a problem in the moment. So you’re always worrying about something in the future, and all you can ever do is think about what’s the next step you’re going to take,” he says.

The conversation takes a turn to his professional life. Shreyans describes having started his career as a management consultant which was a role that he never took to. “I don’t know. Everyone has their own path and for some there is so much joy you can get out of that world so I’m not knocking it for everyone. But for me though I was uninspired,” he says. After his consulting stint, Shreyans joined a hedge fund and that too was not a job that suited him. It was after the hedge fund experience that he joined Venmo as its first employee. He gets excited talking about his decision making process to join Venmo. “That’s when Venmo happened and I was, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be incredible.’ Work with two of the most interesting people I know. Work on something that seems like it’s going to be useful and interesting and I’m going to learn more than I’ve learnt in the last 8 years combined,” he says.

And how did the move to the education space and Socratic in particular come about? “After Venmo, I wanted to work in education, for lots of reasons, but could find almost no companies that I wanted to work at except one that was like 10 people and Chris [co-founder at Socratic] was the head of products there so he interviewed me to be head of engineering, and we got along amazingly well. It was a one and a half hour-long conversation. It was beautiful. It felt like we could keep talking. We thought about a lot of the world and solving problems and a lot of this stuff the same way and it was such a rare feeling…Two days later, he called me saying, ‘I think I’m gonna leave, do you want to figure out if we can do something together?’ For sure! Absolutely,” he says. And thus began their partnership.

“I’m waaay nurture,” Shreyans says after I ask him where he falls on the nature-nurture spectrum. “Nurture feels like this really powerful thing. A lot of people aren’t going to get the right kind of input into their early mind so it feels like this place where you have a lot of leverage on the world. If you can influence that and put good ideas in there you can really affect a lot of people’s lives. So that’s broadly why education. And then there’s this other layer where I feel super lucky, especially after Venmo. I now feel like I can go do something. I never felt that. I never had that feeling of empowerment. I can go do something pretty interesting and it feels so attainable. A small group of people can do something really cool,” he adds. “When [Iqram and Kortina] were building Venmo, they were making no money, basically they had all these interesting things happening in their lives, they were doing cool stuff, hanging out with people that they liked, having fun in life and having money or not having money wasn’t the thing that allowed it to happen. They were doing it because it was there and because it was possible and because they believed it and they just went out and did it.

So how has Shreyans gone about building a culture at Socratic that fosters that sense of entrepreneurship and creativity? “Culture is not what you say you believe. It’s what you do. It’s what people feel every day and it’s not just what people feel in one off things. It’s the emotions that happen throughout the day and the way people behave throughout the day. That is the culture of the place,” he says. Not surprisingly, the culture at Socratic is as deliberate as the pattern-finding co-founder. “Our work culture, professional culture, is very much focused on doing the least that we can learn from. Being really goal oriented, knowing what are we trying to achieve and remembering that as we’re designing the thing. Not like losing sight of that. Remembering who we’re doing things for,” he says.

At Socratic, being goal oriented and efficient is built into their everyday processes and functions. “We set goals at all different levels. ‘What’s our goal for this round of funding?’ ‘What’s our goal for the next few months?’ ‘What are we trying to achieve towards that in the next week?’ ‘What are we doing today towards the thing we’re trying to do this week?’ And think a lot about that and always know why we’re doing something and then having tools to say, well if this is what we care about we’re not going to be doing these other things,” Shreyans says. “Make it easy for people to do the right thing. You have to repeat it a lot. Just saying it once and putting it up there and being like, ‘Well, we said it that day.’ You have to keep checking to see if it’s happening and remind people in a way that is encouraging and gives them an idea of how to do it.” 

Fittingly, as we are wrapping up our conversation regarding culture, we notice a couple of Socratic employees planking right in the middle of the office. Shreyans is gleeful that this is happening right now and he is not surprised. “They’re planking. The guy on the right, he’s gonna do four minutes,” he says. “At Venmo, we used to do push-ups all the time. Somebody would just start doing and 4 other people would join,” he adds. Not one to leave things hanging, Shreyans wants to clarify that his views on everything we discussed are evolving, “Everything that I’m thinking right now is just where I am right now and I try to put a lot less stock in where somebody is at a moment and a lot more in what direction are they going in. I might not believe some of the things that I’ve said right now…next week,” he says to much laughter. It will be interesting to track what patterns he unlocks about himself, others, and his environment in subsequent weeks, months and years.

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