For any of you who've tried to take leave from work, or will need to, Deborah is changing your world.
She arrived from Cambodia (where she was on a Fulbright scholarship) 5 years ago and from there she has gone on to make the world a more efficient place. Deborah is soft spoken but anything but quiet. You can tell there's mountains being built in that lovely head and indeed she's building one right now. All by herself. Sparrow is conquering what has been looming for all of us at some point, paid leave. And there's no better person to build a solution than a machine learning MIT grad student.
In your own words what is Sparrow?
Sparrow is a software-based service that makes it simple for companies to provide their employees with leave (i.e. family leave, medical leave, etc.).
What inspired you to start Sparrow?
Last year, six of my close friends from college had children. All of them had to file for short term disability insurance with their state (because that is how most states in the US provide “paid family leave”). All of them complained about it. Half of them made mistakes, didn’t get paid properly, and had to file appeals. I started thinking, “If my friends (who are highly-trained Harvard and MIT grads with great jobs in tech) are struggling this much with this, chances are a lot of other people are too.”
I ended up speaking with about a hundred parents and people managing leave at their companies, and I found that is a huge problem for everyone:
In my market research, I spoke with so many people who when faced with a decision between a meh job at a large company or an exciting high-potential job at a startup, if they had anything else going on in the lives -- taking care of parents, trying to have a child, etc., they felt like they had no choice but to go to the larger company. Sparrow is a software-based service that makes it simple for all companies to provide leave (such family leave, disability, etc.), so that people don’t need to choose between the people they love and the job that they love.
Why did you choose to start a company now, rather than taking a job and saving your money for future ventures?
Last year, I was a PhD student in machine learning at Harvard, but I wanted to start a company. I angsted about whether I should finish my PhD or start a company for months until finally, I spoke with a friend who gave me some very sage (and mathematical) advice:
“You cannot globally optimize your life. You can only use local regret minimization.”
Walking home that night, I realized that I could compare how much I would regret not getting a PhD to how much I would regret not trying to start a company. I felt I already had a reasonable sense of what my life would look like if I completed my PhD. Whereas, if I did not try to start a company, I would always wonder “What if I had?”
At that point, it was clear that taking a job would just distract me from doing what I actually wanted to do, so I decided to focus my energy on making Sparrow a success.
You're a sole founder shouldering an entire company. Have you found good support or community here in the Bay?
Summer Wilson - Creative Director and Photographer of Battle Cry
Photo by John Thatcher