Two ENG alumni are on Forbes’ list of top young entrepreneurs
By Patrick L. Kennedy
If you’re a frequent flyer, you’ve been there. At the airport, eyes on the big board, monitoring your flight status. Delayed. Delayed. And then: Cancelled.
Saniya Shah (’16) has certainly been there, and she’s hit upon a solution. Shah is the CEO and co-founder of Pilota, a travel tech start-up that uses AI to predict the likelihood of flight disruptions and empowers customers to book alternate flights ahead of time. No longer must travelers rely on the say-so of the big airlines.
The editors at Forbes thought that was a promising development. They named Shah and two colleagues to the leading business magazine’s annual “30 Under 30” feature last fall. Specifically, Pilota appeared in the consumer tech list—one of 20 categories, each featuring 30 of America’s top start-ups led by twenty-somethings.
And Shah is not alone as an ENG alum. Eduardo Portet (’18) and partner made it into the enterprise tech category with their start-up company, Index. Their software allows busy managers with no coding experience to quickly build their own business-intelligence (BI) dashboards, turning internal stats into actionable insights. Index is ideal for companies that know they want to be “data-driven,” but don’t know how to get there.
Forbes billed the latest list of leading young entrepreneurs as “a wake-up call to cynics who think they have seen it all.” The publication winnowed down this honor roll from 14,000 nominees. What are the odds that two of ENG’s own would crack the list? In fact, it’s no fluke. Here are their stories.
Dancer, traveler, entrepreneur
When Saniya Shah took her first steps toward launching a business, they were dance steps. Growing up in New Hampshire as the daughter of Indian immigrants, Shah trained in Indian classical dance for years, eventually completing a Nritya Nipuna—a prestigious capstone dance recital. Shah’s passion for dance planted the seeds for her first start-up.
That start-up wouldn’t blossom until later, but even in high school, Shah showed leadership qualities and grit. She started a nonprofit, Green Chilies, that won an international environmental award for its work cutting down on electronics waste by repurposing bulky old computer monitors as HDTVs for developing countries, including India.
“From a young age, I was exposed to what it is to be an entrepreneur,” says Shah, whose father is the co-founder and CEO of a software company. “My parents were always so supportive of my interests in STEM and entrepreneurship, so whether in classes or clubs, I gained the confidence and pursued those skills I might need down the line.”
Shah brought that mindset to Boston University. Though she majored in biomedical engineering, she took on an extra challenge in the form of coding and software engineering courses. “These were the core computer engineering courses,” says Professor David Castañón (ECE, SE). “They were very challenging for non-CE majors,” or even CE majors, he added, “but Saniya was very ambitious and recognized the need for strong computer skills in her future.”
It was daunting to be one of the few women in those classes, Shah recalls: “I didn’t fit in with the boys’ club.” At first, she struggled with the material and didn’t feel comfortable participating in class discussions or group projects. Castañón encouraged her to stick with it. “He was extremely supportive,” Shah says. “I would go to office hours and sit in the front of the class and speak up, and he made sure I got the support I needed.”
“She was a talented student,” recalls Castañón, who was the department chair then. “She quickly caught up” and earned high grades.
Another stage altogether
Despite the heavy course load—or perhaps because of it—Shah continued dancing, as part of Chankaar, BU’s Indian fusion dance team. “That took up a lot of my time,” says Shah, who rose to president of the club. “But it was a nice break. Engineering can be very intense. With dance, you’d get to use a different part of your brain.”
Her teammate and fellow executive board member Jyothi Nair (CAS’15) remembers how as president, Shah balanced “her creative side with the logical.” Moreover, Shah was equally comfortable launching a project and listening to others’ ideas, Nair says. “She was not just a great leader but also a great team player.”
After graduation, Shah was working in the innovation incubator of healthcare company Optum when a relative asked her to choreograph a dance routine for a wedding reception. Shah tapped Nair for help. The dance proved a hit, more weddings followed, and soon the duo went pro, co-founding Kahaani Event Choreography. They coordinated with families stretched around the globe, teaching steps via video.
“She was working closely with clients,” says Nair, “talking them through from start to finish, making sure they had a great experience, that they were being tended to” even in the thick of potentially stressful wedding planning. The attention Shah paid to clients’ feelings as well as their logistical complexities would find a parallel in her next start-up.
A friend to the traveler
Shah has been a frequent flyer since she was a baby, traveling to India to visit family once a year and adding other destinations for business or leisure. She’s been to 50 countries and speaks four languages. She knows well the trials and travails of travel.
“Delays are the worst,” Shah says. “And they’re just handled so poorly among all parties involved. I think every traveler, the second you say ‘delay’ or ‘cancellation,’ can think of a time it caused a lot of rippling effects outside just their travel schedule. It’s almost like an emotional problem as well as a physical one.”
While earning an MBA at Cornell Tech in New York City, Shah and three classmates founded Pilota with a mission to take some of that worrying out of flying. Their algorithm crunches data across the myriad factors that cause delays—from weather to mechanical issues that cause cascading delays as an aircraft flies several routes throughout a day. The software predicts the risk of a flight disruption and allows customers to automatically book a new flight.
The goal is to level the playing field, Shah says. “Travelers are very much dependent upon these very large companies. What we try to do is bring some of that power back to the people. To let them know, ‘Hey, if your airline messes up, we’ll help.’”
The company got funding from the accelerator 500 Startups and began selling its service to business travelers and corporate travel managers in 2019.
Then in spring 2020, the pandemic dealt its blow to the travel industry. Pilota added a new product, a Chrome extension called FlySafe. Users select the safety factors most important to them— does the airline block middle seats? Require masks? Then as they shop for flights, FlySafe rates each trip according to those criteria.
Pilota made the extension available to the public for free. (They are building a version for paying corporate clients.) “People still need to fly,” says Shah, “whether it’s for a family emergency” or a work site visit that can’t be done remotely. “If people need to travel, we want to make sure they have a safe way to do so.”
FlySafe has helped Pilota maintain its momentum, Shah says, and with COVID-19 vaccinations happening, her team is optimistic that business travel will bounce back, as it has after previous downturns.
“The fact that through the pandemic they’ve not only survived but are continuing to make a name for themselves,” says Nair, “is a testament to her leadership and her ideas and her ability to run a team.”
Eduardo Portet cut his teeth as a businessman in the Dominican Republic, where he was born and raised. Granted, those were baby teeth: His first venture was selling conch shells he’d found on the beach to neighbors and family.
But Portet continued to take business seriously. As teenagers, he and Xavier Pladevall—friends since preschool—started their high school’s chapter of DECA Inc. (formerly the Distributive Education Clubs of America), a youth organization for students interested in business and entrepreneurship. Portet was the chief procurement officer.
When he came to BU to study electrical and computer engineering, it was only natural that Portet would sign up for ENG’s Technology Innovation Concentration (TIC), a four-course sequence dealing with topics in entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology as a provider of societal impact and value. Professor (ECE, SE) and Associate Dean of Educational Initiatives Thomas Little, who is the program’s coordinator, says, “The TIC is our most popular concentration and has graduated 50 to 60 concentrators per year since its inception” in 2012.
Portet says his eyes were opened by TIC guest lecturer Rana K. Gupta, director of faculty entrepreneurship at BU, who talked about his own experiences in startups, venture capital, finance, and healthcare. Until then, Portet says, “I didn’t know you could just start a company and talk to investors and get external capital without a finished product.”
Meanwhile, Portet got hands-on experience building products in Little’s courses. “Those were some of the best, most fruitful classes I took at BU,” Portet says. “He gave you the freedom to research, explore, and play around with things that weren’t necessarily in the syllabus.”
For his part, Little remembers Portet as “a delight to work with.” The professor also sponsored a team of ECE majors including Portet who built a drone-tracking laser for their senior design project, presented at the annual ECE Day event. The team’s goal was to find a way to maintain two-way wireless optical communication with a moving unmanned aerial vehicle. Potential applications would include providing internet access to disaster areas.
It was a daunting task, recalls Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano, the senior design instructor. “At the onset, it was not at all certain that the team could solve the problem,” says Pisano. “But they did! Eduardo designed the part of the tracking algorithm which would find the location of the drone for the precision laser tracking algorithm to then take over. He was an effective member of the team,” which won the ECE Day’s Design Excellence Award.
The importance of teamwork was one of Portet’s prime takeaways from the project. “It felt like I was working in a real company,” he says. “Especially in software engineering, it can be easy to just build a project by yourself. When you start building things together, it becomes harder in some respects,” but by learning to communicate and delegate tasks, Portet says, the end product is better, “and it gets done faster.”
And through TIC, Portet did work in a real company—as an intern at Medidata Solutions, a software company focused on the life sciences. There, Portet got his first experience creating a BI dashboard builder. “My boss showed me he had like 300 Chrome tabs open at the same time,” Portet says. The chaos cried out for its opposite: a single, central source for vast and varied metrics to be called up in clear visuals.
Go west, young man
After graduation, Portet moved with his girlfriend to San Francisco, without a plan or a job. That leap of faith was rewarded when the couple was walking around a mall and bumped into Portet’s old friend Pladevall. The latter had attended Columbia University and was at this time working for Facebook, but was ready to jump ship.
“Xavier was already in entrepreneur mode,” Portet says. “He wanted to start a company.”
In short order, Portet and Pladevall joined forces. They pitched concepts at hackathons. Like true entrepreneurs, they hatched ideas that didn’t go anywhere but that contained the seeds for better ideas. “We iterated through three different products,” Portet says. “You have to deal with a lot of rejections. That’s a big part of staying determined. A lot of people say no.”
At one hackathon, they unexpectedly got to meet with and hear feedback from Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator, the high-profile startup accelerator. “If you had told me three years ago that I’d be talking with the CEO of Y Combinator,” Portet says, “I’d be like, ‘No way.’ Or at least I’d expect to be in a suit, in a very formal meeting. But he was just chilling around in shorts and sandals.”
Based on feedback from Seibel and others as the pair refined their product, Portet and Pladevall settled on a “no-code” BI dashboard builder. The mission of their company, Index, is to empower managers without technical training to build dashboards that turn reams of sales figures and other data into insights in the form of graphs, charts, and other readily readable visuals.
“We’re doing it through an intuitive user interface,” says Portet. “Our goal is to make Index a no-brainer,” especially for companies that hope to leverage data but lack the expertise and manpower to do so.
“A lot of businesses just don’t track anything,” Portet says. “They’re very in-the-moment. ‘Hey, we closed a deal today!’ Instead of, ‘Okay, we closed a deal today, but we closed three yesterday. What can we do to close three tomorrow? Or more?’”
Index is in a private beta stage now, in which a limited number of clients—ranging from a barbershop booking platform to hospitality and financial technology startups—can use the software and provide feedback to the developers.
In October, Index got a $2.6 million seed investment from Y Combinator as well as David Sacks, Slack, and Gradient Venture. The founders have hired two more software engineers, so they can delegate some tasks as they grow the company. They’re seeking to raise another $1 million this year. “I wouldn’t bet against them,” wrote a reporter for TechCrunch.
Finding fame in Forbes
Those who knew Shah and Portet at ENG were not at all surprised to hear the alumni landed on the Forbes list. More may well follow, as the College continues to produce Societal Engineers.
“She’s such a go-getter,” says Nair of Shah. “Whatever it is she decides to do, she puts her all into it.”
“I was impressed,” says Castañón, “but not surprised, based on what I observed of her potential at Boston University.”
Shah herself, on the other hand, was “shocked,” she says. “I don’t have the words to explain how it happened, but I’m very excited about it.”
“It’s just surreal,” echoes Portet.
Little was gratified to hear of his former charge’s success. “That Eduardo has been identified as a rising star as an entrepreneur is a feather in our cap for the TIC program,” he points out.
“BU really helped me get where I am today,” says Portet. Not only did he learn teamwork, technical skills, and the entrepreneur mindset, but because Boston itself is rather a startup hotbed, his alma mater can be a conversation starter. “It’s crazy to see how far the BU community reaches.”
Still, Portet has found that in Silicon Valley, “People don’t really care what your past is, as long as you have a good idea and the determination to actually sit down and build it.”
As for Shah, just as she was encouraged in her tech aspirations by her parents and by professors like Castañón, she hopes to fortify younger women who harbor startup dreams. She takes any opportunity to give talks to female high school or college students interested in entrepreneurship and believes it’s important for women to support each other.
And that includes friends like Nair. “BU definitely was a huge part of where I am today,” Shah says. “Some of the people I met there are still some of my closest friends and my biggest supporters and shoulders to lean on and people I can reach out to when things get tough.”
This story originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of ENGineer, the Boston University College of Engineering alumni magazine.