#14 Alexander Leeds & Sehreen NoorAli: The Impeccable Founding Pair

updated on 11 December 2020

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We believe life is like a snowball. The more it spins, the bigger it gets. For us, the snowball began to turn after one evening walk, brainstorming about, one day, speaking to inspiring people from all corners of the world. Little did we know that this dream would turn into reality in a blink of an eye. A couple of weeks ago, we had the pleasure to speak with Alex and Sehreen, two beautiful souls filled with life, living in the melting-pot of entrepreneurship, New York City. Sehreen is a Brown and Harvard grad with a contagious smile, a passion for education and a strong international background working in the Department of State. By her side, there is Alexander, a soft-spoken and curious mind with a Ph.D. from Wharton School. He also has a long track record working as a data scientist and even co-founded his first venture, Ufora, a data-crunching platform. The two met during the first cohort of Antler in NYC in September 2019. They decided to merge forces and form what is today a company: Sleuth. Their mission is to improve the lives of millions of children by equipping parents with crowd-sourced, data-driven guidance for early childhood health concerns. With smart technology, Sleuth helps all parents looking for advice related to their child’s health and development to identify solutions, resources, and cures.

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures and the victories.

In a few words; we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Everything in Italic symbolizes the voice of the writer, aka, us at Venture Insider. . . .

Introduce yourself — tell us a little bit about your individual journeys?

Sehreen: I have always been passionate about education. This led me to pursue a career in the State Department, working as a public servant and living in several places all over the world. I started in digital diplomacy, where I was designing communication tools to strengthen the US’ relationships with audiences in the Middle East and South Asia. These were the cowboy days when it comes to technology and diplomacy. I still remember meetings where we’d talk about how best to use Twitter, and then we actually got to have a small sit-down with Jack Dorsey himself.

But, to take a step back, I should mention that an essential part of my journey before working in diplomacy was moving to London after college. I was on an academic fellowship at a small research institution there and ended up meeting my now-husband. I had the best time; I basically read and traveled. During that era of my twenties, I got to visit Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Syria, UAE, parts of western Europe, and many other gorgeous countries.

Alex: For me, it all began back in graduate school at the Wharton Business School, where I was a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Operations and Information Management.

As a researcher straight out of college, I felt like I was studying business phenomena I could never fully understand from the outside. When a talented friend approached me about starting a company, I decided to make the leap. Our company was very, very early to offer parallel computing for machine learning on Amazon Web Services.

I completed my Ph.D. and, at the same time, learned so much (more) building the team at our startup. I learned about stellar engineering, product management, data science, design, sales, marketing new ventures… it’s such a long list! After that, I occupied a series of leadership roles in data-centric organizations. By the time I met Sehreen, I had quit my job as a manager at Squarespace and was ready to start a new journey as an entrepreneur.

What did you always dream of when you were kids?

Alex: I love this question, and can I say that my dream has always been to become an entrepreneur?

My family has deep entrepreneurial roots. My father, sister, grand- and great-grandparents were company founders. I was always encouraged to look at the world from an entrepreneurial point of view. During my teenage years, I taught myself questionable computer programming from all the books I could acquire, and I was fascinated by the early internet. I also loved science fiction, and I think the aspirational fiction of the 1960s, despite its social naivete, also promoted that mindset of aiming for radical change.

Sehreen: I also come from a family of business owners. My grandfather owned a jute factory back in Pakistan, and my parents have always been pro-business. I think there was something we all appreciated about building something, on our own terms but also with people. I love that we are so similar to Alex because my dream has also always been to start a company.

Sehreen, what drove you to join the US department?

I grew up listening to my dad speaking about his work in international development, and he was brilliant at it. Naturally, I became quite interested in the topic and decided to major in international development at Brown University. This fueled my desire to work at an international level even more, and I, fortunately, landed a position at the US Department of State through a really fantastic leadership program within the U.S. government called the Presidential Management Fellowship.

Alex, why academia, and how does is it compare to entrepreneurship?

I believe life as a researcher is similar to the life of an entrepreneur. For example, you begin by generating ideas and developing a hypothesis, followed by an extended validation process. Then, you “pitch” the findings to the academic community in conferences and through the articles you publish. At last, you build momentum by creating a research agenda within that community and training, motivating, and reviewing others’ work.In short, academia is a marketplace of ideas, and an excellent way to have an impact by enlarging the collective understanding of a domain.

What was your first impression of each other?

Sehreen: It is impossible not to get a great impression of Alex, as he is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Also, Alex openly shared pieces of advice and tried his best to be helpful to everyone. Overall he was genuine, and that really stood out.

Alex: Thank you. I appreciate your kind words, Sehreen.

My first encounter with Sehreen was during her terrific self-introduction on stage in front of our accelerator’s cohort. I clearly remember her remarkable story and her unique way of communicating. Sehreen has the natural ability to connect with anyone, which makes her a superb businesswoman, and the best co-founder I could imagine.

What superpower does your co-founder have that you look up to?

Sehreen: Alex has an exceptional product vision and knows how to pump ambition in a project, create a map, and make it happen. He doesn’t get flustered quickly, and never looks really stressed. Therefore, I trust his judgment and his deliberate way of making decisions as he handles any challenge with ease, whatever the difficulty.

Alex: There are two things that I deeply admire about Sehreen. First, she knows how to expand the frame of a problem. She knows when to take a step back and question whether she is looking at the problem from every angle. Second, she is always balancing the essential considerations: How will this decision shape people’s behavior? Is it the right thing to do in terms of its impact? And what is the business potential? Her intuition has consistently proven right.

Describe the moment you came up with the idea behind Sleuth, and what was the first step you took to make it happen?

FYI Sleuth is a platform that gathers experiences, stories, and information from parents all over the world and provides them with solutions, resources, and cures to their children’s problems.

Sehreen: I realized quite early that the market was ready for a potential solution, and I made my goal to do everything in my power to make it happen. However, it wasn’t before I shared the idea with Alex, and he used his exceptional product vision, that it really took its final form. As a concrete first step, we spoke to a ton of parents, and after each conversation, we knew that we were getting closer to a solution.

Alex: Sehreen identified that there was an unmet need for parents. A child’s pediatrician or family physician may be the best first step, but it is just one step in what is often a journey. The perfect way to discover what truly mattered and what kind of product to offer was first to conduct numerous interviews and then to survey a thousand parents. Basically, to do user-centered design.

How did your experience as a parent form you as an entrepreneur?

Alex: I don’t think I could have contributed to this company in the way I have if I wasn’t a parent myself. I now understand why a majority of parents worry about their kids’ development during the first years. There is so much uncertainty. And although my daughter is doing well, I’ve been through every parent’s ER visits and sleepless nights.

Sehreen: It has been crucial for me. Being a parent is a principal part of my identity. But, that makes it also very hard for me to parse things out. I love entrepreneurship, but there is nothing I love more than my kids and my husband. They mean the world to me. Being a mother is fundamental to this business because it hurts to see other parents in pain.

Why Antler?

Alex: I had left my position at Squarespace to “start something” before hearing about Antler. My goal for Antler was to meet exciting people and enjoy the chance to brainstorm and test ideas. My initial perspective was that joining Antler would only bring benefits. I had very little to lose. I also wanted to be part of the very first cohort in New York City. I love to be part of something starting from scratch. It may be a little rough, but the energy is truly special.

Sehreen: By the time I applied to Antler, I had left my job to take care of my daughter full-time. I hadn’t been working for a year, and I felt ready to go back. Antler was a three-month commitment, and if by any chance it didn’t work out, I could always go back to a 9–5 job.

I believe having a very low opportunity cost is important to participate in such an adventure. Instead of taking everything so seriously, I didn’t really care about trying to impress others, or being someone I’m not. I took the whole experience relatively lightly, as an opportunity to learn.

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now have regret for, what would it be?

Sehreen: I wish I had the personality that I have now during my 20s. I was very risk-averse in my 20s, and rarely took any professional risk, which probably stopped me from achieving more.

Alex: I’ve had such a fortunate chain of events in my life. This is something people will laugh off, but I wonder about my decision to go to Yale. I loved math and computer science, and I had a chance to study them at other schools that might have been better training grounds. I wasn’t brave or mature enough to say no to an Ivy League education.

What is the most significant challenge you’ve ever faced?

Sehreen: Losing my father was the hardest challenge. I had an extraordinary relationship with him.

Alex: Nothing compares with that. My greatest challenge was very young: attending seven schools by seventh grade through frequent relocations. I think I became both more socially awkward and more intentional about certain social skills as a result.

What are the milestones that are still left to be achieved on a personal level?

Sehreen: My first milestone is to make sure our company does really well in terms of impact and market share. Second, the plan is that my husband and I retire and travel the world during our 50s.

Alex: I love to create communities, and every time I do, it is such a joyful experience. I’m excited about our chance to build a brand-defining community around — inside and outside of — our company. On a personal level, I also have communal goals: most of my deepest friendships are built during 1:1 conversations, and as I get older, it is important to me to expand those into larger, shared social circles.

Do you have an inspiring figure?

Alex: The founder of the VidCon conference, Hank Green profoundly inspires me. He is a video blogger with his brother, John Green, a best-selling children’s book author (though less successful than John), and a serial entrepreneur. His work has had an immense impact.

Sehreen: The community of Shia Muslims that my family and I are part of inspires me every day. Everyone is always trying to give back to each other. I am trying my best to raise my children with these values.

One book?

Sehreen: When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra by Shems Friedlander.

Alex: The Splendid and the Vile by Eric Larson.

The One Billion dollar question: what if you fail, will you then go back into the corporate world?

Sehreen: I wouldn’t go back to what I did before. I know too much now to do what I used to.

Alex: The easy answer would be to “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” However, I also believe you can be an entrepreneur within a corporation. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the same as creating your own company, but it is an equally important approach. I would do it all again or switch to being an intrapreneur this time, working on similar problems.

Our Main Takeaways

  • Accelerators are great, but can also trick you into thinking that you have found the GOAT even though you have not even tested your idea in real life.
  • The greatest founders are complementary: Sehreen and Alex are remarkably different. This is what makes them such a great pair of founders.
  • You can be an entrepreneur in academia, within a company or in any area of your life. The process matters, not so much whether you actually create a company at the end.

Inspiring story Sehreen and Alex, thank you very much.

. . . The last few words

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