At Unshackled, our mission is to empower the next generation of immigrant founders. As part of that, we want to be as transparent as possible about what we look for in new ventures, how we think about investing and who we are as people. So, we decided to turn the interview on ourselves. This time, we are featuring our Co-Founder and General Partner, Manan Mehta.
General Partner, Unshackled Ventures
What were you like as a kid?
I’ll say this: I didn’t look like most of the other kids growing up in Sunnyvale, California. I was obsessed with playing sports, but was usually the only Indian kid on the team. I think a lot of my classmates expected me to fail — especially on the baseball field. They’d joke: “Are you sure you don’t want a cricket bat instead?” But from the very beginning, I really embraced that underdog mentality. I think that clearly holds true today: I root for underdogs, because I see myself in them.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life?
My parents uprooted their lives in India to build something of their own in California. They took a huge risk in doing that. They’re the ones who first taught me to step out of my comfort zone. I’ve tried to keep doing that at every stage of my life. Sports were probably the clearest example of that, at least early on. By the end of high school, that scrawny kid who everyone mocked could throw a 90-MPH fastball.
Throughout my life, I’ve been lucky to have some key mentors and coaches who invested in me and helped to build my confidence. I think of Dave Garner, my baseball coach growing up who’d take me to the batting cages and share stories from his own baseball career. In addition to giving me practical advice and training, Dave changed the way I looked at myself. Unshackled is based on the same idea: that when someone believes in you, something that seemed impossible becomes more accessible. We believe in our founders, and we fight for their success every single day.
What do you look for in an entrepreneur?
As soon as I can, I move beyond LinkedIn and try to understand them as a person: what’s their story? What allows them to get really hard things done? What drives them? I’m looking for authenticity, and clear self-belief.
Diving deep into personal stories is essential because our model at Unshackled is to discover and underwrite the founders that everyone else has failed to see. We’re a little like the Golden State Warriors seeing the magic of Steph Curry at Davidson, instead of looking for another star from UNC or Kansas. We never pretended that we were sourcing from the same pie as everyone else. That’s why I’m less interested in frameworks and more interested in the nuances of their story and personality.
What traits do you share with the founders you invest in?
I think a number of our founders have this misfit energy that I definitely identify with. I’ve always felt like an outsider. I played sports, not piano — a big act of rebellion for a young Indian kid. I joined the dance team at UCLA — again, not so typical. Later on, I left investment banking to work in marketing at a startup… even though I hadn’t had a minute of marketing experience. I strongly believe that what you’ve done does not dictate what your potential can be. That falls in line with how I evaluate new founders.
Why is America still such a draw for immigrants?
This is the place where unicorns are made. And many of those unicorns are built by immigrant founders. Look at eBay, Google or a dozen other examples. I think that despite its faults, this country still attracts some of the most innovative minds in the world. The university system is this generation’s Ellis Island — in fact, seven out of ten university patents are filed by a foreign student. There is an unending flow of talent coming into this country trying to build something new, whether in academia or otherwise.
What should founders know about working with you, and Unshackled generally?
Founders should think of us as an extension of your team. You can trust us with the hard stuff — and believe me, it’s going to be hard. But we’ll be right there with you the entire way. We’re not going to bail as soon as the process gets sticky. As a VC, our interest is not in any particular project. We are investing in extraordinary people. That’s why we actually invest before the immigration process begins, with the knowledge that it might be an obstacle.
What excites you about where Unshackled is headed in the next 5–10 years?
I think the big vision is to rewrite the narrative of what immigrants can do in this country. Immigrants don’t “take jobs” — they create them, and can provide a shining example of people climbing the economic ladder. Our model helps to facilitate just that. We want to remove every possible bottleneck that prevents immigrant founders from realizing their potential. I think we’ve proved the basic model — but as a firm, we’re just getting started.