June 20, 2024

American Dreamers is a series of conversations with leading Asian American entrepreneurs and business leaders in which they open up about everything from their startup stories and company building to confronting racism and making it in America.
Neha Narkhede is the co-founder of Confluent, an advisor to and investor in tech start-ups, an Indian-American founder, and an all-around wise, thoughtful, and successful leader. I’m so excited to get to talk to her for this round of American Dreamers, our series about Asian-American tech founders and their journeys to establishing some of the most important businesses we use to navigate life in the modern world.
Before starting her own company, Neha worked for Oracle and LinkedIn, where she was part of the team that built Apache Kafka, the software that allows LinkedIn to capture data in motion and utilize it in real time to give users a personalized experience. Eight years ago, she and her team decided to bring that technology to other businesses encountering the same problems with user data and founded Confluent, a data-streaming platform that IPOd last June.
Along her journey, Neha’s learned some crucial lessons about what it takes to be a founder, as well as how to navigate her identity as an immigrant to the US. “I’ve learned to embrace my own unique background that truly makes me who I am today,” she told me during our interview. “The more you get comfortable with your own identity and see ways in which you are adding value because of that identity — that’s the right way to go about this.”
How and why did you come to the United States? So this has to be 15 years ago, I immigrated to the US to pursue a career in tech and work with the best minds from across the world. I started by coming here for my Master’s degree in computer science at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, followed by moving to Silicon Valley — working at Oracle and LinkedIn and then finally starting Confluent. It’s been a really fun journey, but when I first got here I was really in awe of all of the differences, and I had to do everything myself — little things like learn how to grocery shop without a car, and big things like figure out how to pay my tuition.
What were some of your first impressions when you got here? There were a lot of cultural factors that made Georgia Tech a tough transition. In Atlanta people had guns. It wasn’t safe to take the metro or walk back home later alone in the evening, nothing like the culture of my hometown. Beyond that, I was shocked at how big everything is, from the size of the parking lots to the size of the snacks you eat! And everyone is friendly, but everyone is really busy — people don’t sit and have a coffee at the cafe, they take their coffee to go. I was excited about all of it, but I just thought it was very different.
How has that experience shaped your career? As a founder, there are small things you take for granted about how people build rapport and hit it off, like pop culture references — I didn’t have that shared language. And I’ve often found myself to be the only woman, and definitely the only woman of color, in a room full of mostly white men. There’s a lot of unconscious or conscious bias that’s feeding into a new role that you’re playing. There’s a lack of role models, too. I would say that made some parts of the journey difficult.
Tell me a bit about starting Confluent. From pretty early on I was a problem solver; I loved building a new solution to a problem and was even happier when people used it. So my journey to starting a company is actually more intrinsic; my mindset was, if I ever get a chance to create something of value, then I would want to see everyone using it. I definitely didn’t fall into the cohort of young engineers who just knew they wanted to start companies; it was more gradual and intrinsic.
Were you ever afraid either to come to the US or start a company? You don’t strike me as somebody who experiences fear very often, but those are both pretty intimidating decisions to make. I think both of those experiences have some amount of fear and anxiety, and I think that’s perfectly normal. Leaving where you grew up, going to another country and establishing yourself is scary — and it should be. Starting a company when you know nothing about starting companies and taking responsibility for everyone you hired along with yourself is also scary. Something I’ve heard many entrepreneurs say is, you should feel anxiety and fear on a very regular basis, if not every day. It’s important to accept that this feeling is normal, and then have the ability to turn that into a strength and motivation. It’s a learned skill; it didn’t come naturally to me.
What does your family back in India think about what you do? How do you explain your work to them? I usually talk about all the cool functionality that we’ve enabled in all the database services. Uber’s real-time tracking is built on top of Kafka and the Netflix recommendations are powered by Kafka — your credit card transactions are processed because of Kafka in real time. Nowadays, they get more excited about me being a role model for young Indian girls; they’re very excited about that.
I didn’t have role models in tech, but I remember when I was younger my dad used to sit down and read these books to me of female role models, leaders in their own spaces. We read about Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, about Indra Nooyi who went on to become CEO of PepsiCo. They all cultivated in me a hope — a sense of persistence that I could do it too. But it was still a couple of steps away from tech and the ability to see myself as a successful tech entrepreneur, so I do feel that if we can have more people who have diverse backgrounds as tech entrepreneurs, that would go a long way to bringing more change in the industry.
What has being an immigrant taught you about building a successful business? As an immigrant I took nothing for granted and I knew I had to work hard to achieve the things I wanted to. Specifically, as someone who grew up in India, growing up in a culture of scarcity and immigrating to a culture of abundance was an adjustment, but it allowed me to access the best of both worlds; the importance of family, community, and team support and persistence, as well as the ability to make both the best out of fewer resources.
Both of those experiences have allowed me to cultivate two traits that I think entrepreneurs should have. The first one is optimism and the second one is persistence and hard work — that’s been my experience of being an immigrant American.
How else did your family and your upbringing influence your journey and your path as a tech founder? Having a growth mindset — that’s something that my parents instilled in me from a very young age. You will always come across things that you’re new to and that seem really hard on Day One, but you just have to put in enough effort. That kind of mindset helped me a lot because there’s just so much to learn, as a first-time entrepreneur, about building a large company. You have to be in this continuous pursuit of excellence and it requires having a certain mindset.
We had a relatively difficult period of anti-Asian racism in the last couple of years. How has that made you feel, and is there any impact on the business and recruiting and culture? The heightened anti-Asian racism has made me feel sad and isolated and very disappointed by the shattering of the very foundation of America, as I thought it to be. I hope that we are able to overcome the hatred and bias and actually welcome and nurture immigrants who have always contributed productively to the country. I continue to believe that a culture of inclusion and a real focus on that, along with role models, are two big ways in which we could change that dynamic. it’s truly, truly hard to do something big if you don’t see someone who looks like yourself having done it before successfully. I do feel that having role models can go a really long, long way in doing that, and a culture of inclusion — which I think we are trying, but we are still far away from.
Any lessons or advice for founders, especially who are immigrants to this country or women, or both? The choice of a co-founder is probably one of the top three most important decisions you’ll make. That relationship either makes or breaks the business based on whether you have alignment on a value system that you can fall back on. It’s really difficult to agree on everything, in which case you really have to lean back on your values.
With respect to Kafka, we’re three co-creators of a system that changed everything about how online businesses and their data would work. So being smart, humble, empathetic — building a team like that that could elevate Kafka to the next level was something we aligned on, and I think that really worked great wonders for conflict in the long term. Thinking about building a team with complementary skill sets is important, too; that’s going to ensure that there’s a complete team going after the problem.
What do you love about this country? One thing I’ve always loved about the US is the abundance of opportunity and the fearlessness to dream big. The coming together of some of the top minds in the world and in many parts of the country, and the existence of a cultural melting pot — all of those are things I love about the country and I don’t think there’s another country in the world that has all of these things.


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