Is it in the genes?

A conversation with Anu Acharya, CEO of Mapmygenome and former CEO of Ocimum Biosolutions, about why early influences matter, what it takes to scale two genomics companies in India, and everything else from Nutella cravings to an equal partnership at home and work

Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya

Anu Acharya has it all. She studied at an IIT. She married a classmate and they’ve together built a family and two very successful genomics companies—Mapmygenome and Ocimum Biosolutions. While she is lauded as a young global leader by the likes of the World Economic Forum, she’s also a loving mom—to her two daughters and her two beagles. 

In this conversation, I had the pleasure of really getting to see the person behind the overachieving scientist and business leader. Anu speaks about:

  • Her foundational influences 
  • What it takes to build and scale two successful genomics companies in India
  • Creating an organizational culture that endures
  • Everything else—from guilt-free nutella cravings to an equal partnership at home and work!

What gives Anu Acharya her “hustle fuel”? 

Highlights from the conversation

Nature and nurture, especially in the early years, matters

“[My father] would encourage all of us to have meaningful debates. He would take one side just to see if each one of us could come up with meaningful reasoning points”

Anu believes that nature gave her the entrepreneurial hustle (her Marwari genes!) and the soft spoken demeanor that all her employees describe as a very effective steel hand in a velvet glove. 

On the other hand, it was nurture from her father that shaped her ability to be constantly curious, think independently and have a scientific temper. 

And while she doesn’t directly use her training as a physicist in the day-to-day of her career, her years at IIT-Kharagpur gave her the invaluable skill of knowing how to think, not just what to think. 

The business of telling people more about their DNA has important lessons for any entrepreneur 

“When we started seven years ago or so, one of our challenges was how do we introduce this concept. [People did not understand] that you could use genomics to make changes in your lifestyle. The first step was to come up with a name [DNA health test, Genomepatri] so that people will understand what you are trying to do.”  

At its core, Mapmygenome provides its consumers access to their own genetic data (their “genome patri”) and helps them understand its implications through a very easy-to-buy-and-use saliva swab. Its business model creates a win-win for both Mapmygenome and its consumers. Consumers can analyze their genome to gain insight into their health, ancestry, and wellness factors and take control of their own health. Mapmygenome not only monetises this process, it also takes another step towards building (and later creating a business around) India’s genomic database. This wealth of genetic information contains clues about (and potentially cures for) some of the most pervasive diseases which afflict our population. 

“When we raised our first round [of funding], our aim at that time was to get the right people that can help grow the business. Because this is an age for genomics that is still early and having investors that can help us get the right connections can be very helpful.”

Unlike several other genomics companies that raised significant funding, spent a large part of it on early marketing and are unprofitable to date, Anu talks about how Mapmygenome raised minimal funding and took a different (slower) marketing approach. Early adopters played a huge role as influencers and some of them, like Angelina Jolie, offered the best kind of marketing—free!

People like people who are more like themselves. But more diversity is essential for personal and professional growth

“I didn’t see any obvious [gender biases]. But you need to understand two things: is it a gender bias or a ‘them not understanding the business’ bias. But it is for sure that people like people like themselves and that will change only when we have more women become investors… At Mapmygenome, we had a tendency to hire more and more women! And we are striving to [rebalance that]”

Everyone has some unconscious bias. In the entrepreneurial world, this often means that investors tend to fund the people and ideas that are familiar. Anu underscores how essential it is to have more diverse representation—within companies, in the investor community backing companies, and on boards—to truly best serve unmet needs. 

Personally, Anu draws inspiration from sources as diverse as her family, the Mapmygenome board and Steve Jobs. Like with most things in life, she exercises discretion in taking the good and leaving the not-so-good from each of these inspirations. 

A “co-founder” who complements you—at home and work—brings out the best in you 

“We found out who is doing certain things better than the other.”

Whether it’s romantic relationships or professional ones, the notion that opposites attract is far from a cliche. Whether at home or at their two companies, a large part of what makes Anu and her husband, Subash “work” is that they balance each other out. 

As Anu says, half in jest, the increased productivity by having Subash step up as an equal partner at home is invaluable—whether it’s Subash taking care of their two beagles, or the two of them alternating between the good cop and bad cop roles with their two daughters.  

At work, that has meant they are collectively better off because they have incredibly complementary skills that allow each of them to do things that the other can't. Anu enjoys mapping the long-term vision and being the face and marketing brains behind the operation. Subash, on the other hand, excels at the details.

Live life with no regrets 

“Now they’re at a point where if it’s bad, they’ll tell me to my face.”

Living a life with no regrets doesn’t mean perfection. 

Personally, Anu has been able to make conscious choices—whether it’s indulging her sugar cravings, or missing out on personal commitments at certain points in time. With greater self-awareness and self-understanding of what matters most when and by giving herself some grace, Anu steers clear of the perpetual guilt that so many of us have of often coming up short when it comes to doing enough, giving enough and being enough. 

As a leader, she has cultivated a safe space at Mapmygenome. She empowers her team to not regret the mistakes they make, but to just make sure that they learn from them, forgive themselves, and move on.

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About the author

Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya
Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya

Product Strategy & Monetization

Microsoft Azure, Seattle

Aparajita Bhattacharyya (Opu to friends) is currently based in cloudy Seattle, advancing the goal of bringing Windows to the Cloud. She leads product strategy and monetization and brings together multi-disciplinary teams at Microsoft to scale the virtualization business in Azure. 

Prior to Microsoft, Opu’s work experience as a strategist and investor spanned the US and India and across multiple sectors, including technology, healthcare, consumer and education.

In her previous role, she was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in the US. During her time there, she advised numerous healthcare and consumer clients (ranging from F-500 companies to pre-IPO firms) on how to build and drive large-scale digital transformations and on their corporate development strategy. 

Deeply passionate about the growing market opportunity in emerging markets, Opu spent the early years of her career working across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in India. She connected the dots across the investing, marketing and operations functions of HDFC Asset Management Company, as part of a three-year rotational leadership development programme. As a legislative aide to Dr. Ashok S. Ganguly (former chairman and CEO of Hindustan Unilever), Opu led his venture philanthropic investments (as a Member of Parliament) in quality education and healthcare for the bottom-of-the-pyramid. 

Opu holds an MBA (with Honors) from The Wharton School, and bachelor’s degrees magna cum laude in Mathematics with a focus on Statistics (from Bryn Mawr College and Harvard College) and Linguistics (from Swarthmore College). She serves as one of the youngest board members of her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, where she is an evangelist for the power of technology to transform society and for increasing the representation of STEM-trained women in technology. 

Outside of work, Opu is a dim sum devotee, a novice glamper (exploring the beauty of the Pacific Northwest) and constantly curious about what makes people tick.

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