Meet Tejal Shah, Mechanical Engineer, finance, sales, and operations master. She is an International Investment Banker at US Capital out of San Francisco. Recently expanding their West Coast operations with her expertise, she has hit the ground running, expanding their reach. Her career in engineering, start-ups, non-profits, wealth management, founder, working in the C-suite, and overall professional services has been an amazing mix of experiences to help make this role a natural fit.
Tejal has worked in many fields, and her breadth of experience is remarkable for someone considering all the unique spaces she has worked in. I think she is a fantastic example of studying one thing that later is very unrelated to what your job is; it is the entire package of life experiences that shape us into the people we are.
Born into a family of immigrants from India, Tejal grew up in Syracuse, New York, where her father eventually founded his own company that made products to clean air pollutants. In the homogeneous nature of Upstate New York, she had to navigate the differing social and cultural dynamics of her life from her peers. Tejal grew up in a household where work was intertwined with family life; her father had difficulty turning off his professional life, often stopping along car rides to make a business call. Her mother stayed home with the two children so her father could live his entrepreneurial dream. Tejal was drawn to the life of flexibility but understood the delicate balance of work and play.
Tejal remembers that while her parents were pleased with her artistic talents, she was most encouraged to strengthen her math and science capabilities. In her first year of high school, she won a top prize at an art fair, which garnered passive recognition from her parents. Nevertheless, she was inspired in her studies and celebrated for her academic successes, so felt confident about pursuing a career in nearly anything. However, she lacked role models of people she wanted to be like as a woman. She had the desire to be like her father, to be a CEO and be a leader, but she felt silly for saying that. She didn’t have any women mentors at a young age to talk to her about what it was like, yet she still nurtured the ambitious side of herself for her career.
When it came time to go to University, she attended the University of Rochester with her inclination/social pressure to be pre-med. However well she did in her other math and science classes in high school when it came to Organic Chemistry, she knew she did not want to pursue medicine anymore. So she landed in Mechanical Engineering like her father, who was overjoyed at this decision. Not only did he talk to her about all the possibilities she could do, but he also got excited about the prospect of them working together one day. During the summers, she got internships at various firms in the New York area, using a connection her father introduced her for the first summer, and then ultimately building her network and applying to jobs from the industry knowledge she developed in college.
When she graduated, she got a laudable first job out of college as a mechanical engineer grad – one of the big car companies in Detroit. However, she entered this firm when they were going through a lot of turmoil (think late 90s American car industry growing pains). She had a hard time without a consistent boss to help her navigate her initial year of working while also being on the first-year track, where she was moved around the company to learn the different aspects of the industry. While, in theory, it was a great job, she could not grow from it. So, about a year into it, she decided to look for work in San Francisco for a change of scenery.
Tejal moved to San Francisco at the height of the Dot Com boom. As a young professional, it was exciting to be near all the growth people had in their jobs and portfolios. Her own career was at a medical devices company, so she was somewhat removed from the chaos of those firms. And of course, luckily, she was in a different sector, having seen some of her new friends lose their jobs not long after she arrived.
After several years working as an engineer at this medical device company, Tejal’s father was ready to partner with his daughter. Tejal took on the work of growing the business from the West Coast and created the business structure and satellite office of her father’s firm, but grew it organically on her own. And how did she do it?
“Trial and error? This is part of entrepreneurship that scares people. And I just had to research and do it. So I opened up an LLC I incorporated in California. I would consult with people who I think could help guide me, but ultimately it was on me to figure out and do it.” And she figured it out quickly and effectively. She secured their most significant contract and largest customer to date with the Department of Defense and grew the business severalfold. Most of all, she was very proud to support her father.
“I worked with my father for four years. It was an amazing learning experience, but it was also tricky at the time because it was his way and a lot of the company within his head. It was difficult to do things independently because it had to be done a certain way. At first, it worked, but over the years, issues around this kept coming up.”
After a solid run, it was time for Tejal to have a challenging conversation with her father. “I said, ‘I’m not happy doing this right now. It’s frustrating you, and it’s frustrating me, I think I need to go somewhere and develop my own skill set. I’d rather be your daughter than your employee.”
The father-daughter duo parted professionally on good terms, and Tejal took a new job as a Director in Fundraising for the American Heart Association. She thrived in this role, growing the prospects of the non-profit and driving the vision forward. It was exciting to make big changes and earn lots of money for a fantastic cause. She worked and grew in this role over four years, earning sales awards and other recognition for her amazing advancement for the AHA. However, over time, she was thinking about her own trajectory and did not see the internal openings necessary to give her the opportunities to grow in the direction she wanted.
During this time, her partner was working at a big bank. The hiring manager for her partner coveted Tejal’s skillset and drive and often remarked that she would do well in his industry. After working for several years for a fraction of the pay doing many of the same jobs, she decided to join Merrill Lynch as a Financial Advisor. She took the Series 7 and 66 exams and hit the ground running. And like all things that Tejal does, she rose quickly and did great work. In their two-year training program, Tejal learned fast and completed it within 18 months. She acquired new contracts and business clients with the skills she developed in sales, and was awarded for her amazing talent at this as well. And because she was now working at her husband’s office, they naturally became a complementary team.
As she threw herself deeper into the work, Tejal realized the cultural challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated world of finance. Despite her success, she was not championed in the same way, nor did she have access to the same degree of mentorship. She grew tired of this dynamic. But her husband made the first move, jumping ship to an independent advisory via a broker-dealer. Tejal would have branched out sooner herself but instead opted to stay for the stability and balance the job offered, as she was now pregnant amidst the 2008 financial recession. It was the right call – her husband’s new venture struggled, prompting his quick return to Merrill Lynch.
From the market instability to Tejal’s maternity leave and the back and forth of her husband’s employment, the couple’s portfolio at Merrill Lynch took a hit. It was a rough end all around to 2008. The couple reassessed their next steps and spent the next two years rebuilding their base. They brought in new clients and got the books on track, setting themselves up to leave on their own terms.
In 2010, Tejal and her husband resigned from Merrill Lynch and began their own independent IRA Firm, Peninsula Wealth. The pair spent two years building that up. Tejal departed in 2012 to initiate a start-up, KidAdmit, while her husband carried on at Peninsula.
Tejal had now recently given birth to their second child and was experiencing postpartum depression for the first time. It was an unexpected impetus for pursuing her idea for KidAdmit. “I think it’s very empowering…I always had the idea. I had lost kind of my identity through having children…I had so many aspects of my life that I like to want to have. And we’re so set on everyone putting you in boxes. And when I lost some of that because I was just a mother at that point. I’m like, that’s when that was empowering. Because it wasn’t like an escape thing…it was like this is the right stage…this is what I did, was making something for myself.”
Every component of Tejal’s career up to this point had been in part, to the benefit of someone else. She supported her father’s business, joined her husband at the same job, and then supported his new business ventures. But KidAdmit was Tejal’s time to do something just for herself. KidAdmit started as a common app for preschool candidates that gathered data on them and their families to create a curated marketplace for each of the child’s programs and services to support their individual needs and interests best.
Pioneering her startup was very much a process of learning by doing. Tejal ran the company for four years, during which she and her team raised $1.1 million of micro-VC money. Their numbers and metrics were great, but rampant sexism amongst prospective investors inhibited their growth. “I remember distinctly having all the things they’re not supposed to tell you, they’ve all been said to me…‘We like this idea, but we don’t think you can run this.’ ‘How are you going to balance this being a mother?’ ‘Who’s going to take care of your children?’
Ultimately, KidAdmit folded in 2016 when they could not close a $350,000 gap in a proper seed round. Again, the gender bias was to fault. Tejal gave the exact same pitch as her lead investor and fundraiser, a man yet never secured the same level of buy-in. “It’s the one that got away… but I learned a lot, and loved the journey. I had a great team. We, you know, crushed our numbers. No one can do the numbers we’ve done in the space. So, I’m really proud of our team.”
Tejal took a break to recover from the founder life. The break didn’t last long, with the pivotal results of the 2016 presidential election soon to follow. She was not surprised in the least by the outcome of that election. As an Indian woman, Tejal had experienced countless racist verbal assaults in San Francisco alone, one of the most liberal cities in the US. She knew bigotry to be everywhere and that Trump’s traction would multiply across the country, yet those around her didn’t take her concerns about what was to come seriously. After the election, Tejal decided she never wanted to feel so helpless again, to feel that she hadn’t done enough, so she kickstarted her deep commitment to political activism. Friends showed her the ropes, and she spent the next four years focused on the 2020 election.
At the tail end of 2019, Tejal co-founded the political-tech startup, Votivate USA, a post-partisan platform for political engagement and broadcasting. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Tejal reevaluated her options. She wanted to return to a more regular flow of work, and explore a career in operations, which would be a much-needed break from the emotional expenditure of more forward-facing work.
After some searching to no avail, Tejal DM’d a friend from Twitter who occupied the tech startup space. They swapped contacts and connections with one another and put job leads on each other’s radar. A COO position at an anime content-creation production company, 555 Comics, continued to surface, but Tejal was concerned she didn’t have the necessary background. Her friend steered her straight; the industry didn’t matter – having run several startups, Tejal could do what the job was asking. The hiring team thought so too, and she was brought on in 2021.
As CHIEF Operating Officer at 555 Comics, she managed business operations, fundraising, monetization/supply chain optimization, administrative procedures, and operational controls for an Anime company that creates characters and stories on social media where the audience interacts directly with the characters. “It’s like social media influences, but more realistic.”
The company saw massive growth in Tejal’s tenure, from over $6 million raised to expand the team to 73 employees. “In this day and age where there’s a lot of influencers out there, there’s this you know, this faux sense of what those are and people comparing themselves because they’re real people. I love that our characters are more relatable, even though they’re fictional. They’re more relatable and more real. And so if that bridges some positive change on the internet and social media platforms, and if we can continue to enable that, that’s the vision that I want to see be a reality.”
After wanting to find something new, Tejal stepped away from 555 Comics. While she spent some time with her family, she also started to learn about what else was in store for her. In that break, she had a lot of wonderful conversations with people who were eager to help Tejal find the next best place. In one of those conversations, many encouraged her to look at the Venture space, as many other Founders do, but she found a role that brought her back to the banking world.
She now mainly works with founders who are past Series B funding. And given the current market, many Venture funds are holding off on investing in companies, so her work at a bank is more important than ever to help good companies get good deals.
Tejal spends her time on the side mentoring and coaching women professionals, having minted the unofficial Plus One Project, where she encourages women to bring a friend to any networking event they may have. “It can be hard to be the only woman in these things and so just kind of paying forward with telling people how to navigate some of that…we’re outstanding community builders and we need to channel that.” And for any panel she speaks on, she advocates for there to be a male presence: “We need men at our tables if we’re going to change anything.”
Throughout her entire career, Tejal has gone after what she wants. She’s heard “No” quite a few times, and while that hasn’t stopped her, it has left its mark on her. “I constantly do a lot of work, I have had frustration. I have had sadness. I have felt resentment. We all do. And I’m really trying to work on them. So I will continue to make good choices for myself and put myself in better situations…I try to be mindful and help others along the way where I know they might need it.”
Thus, she wants to build a world that enables all to succeed. A world that provides mentorship in a way she lacked growing up. To be someone reliable, who will have those honest and hard conversations but never waver from your corner. She wants to build a world that encourages people to try, fail, learn – and try again. “I am the person who wants to open the door and let everyone know that I think the world is bigger. I don’t think we need to really keep the pie small. Let’s build a bigger pie.”