Professional Development

How I Got Here: Entrepreneur Priya Amin’s lessons on resilience, mental health and community

The Pittsburgh-based founder of Flexable, which provided backup childcare services to working parents, just took a new position at Robert Morris University. Here's what she learned from her company's growth — and the pandemic-time decision to shut it down.

Priya Amin.

(Photo via LinkedIn)

Priya Amin thinks entrepreneurship is all about the mindset.

A Pittsburgh-based founder and former marketing employee for several big-name companies across the country, Amin is now an entrepreneur in residence at Robert Morris University.

Until last summer, she was the CEO of Flexable, a startup she cofounded to provide backup childcare services to working parents. But the financial and organizational limitations of the pandemic forced her to shut Flexable down.

But making that decision allowed Amin to focus more on her mental health, rebalancing her work and home life to prevent the burnout that contributed to the decision to leave Flexable. Though she’s not currently operating a company she founded, Amin told Technical.ly that bringing her experience to a new role at RMU will enable her to impart it to students looking to follow their own entrepreneurial paths. Beyond that, Amin remains a key connection in the Pittsburgh tech and startup community, often in communication with fellow founders like Jim Gibbs and other leaders like Academy Pittsburgh’s John Lange.

Amin joined Technical.ly on our public Slack before the holidays to talk about both her career path and the entrepreneur mentality. You can find the full version of it over in the #ama channel where we cover her transition from industry to startups, problem solving with company ideas, maintaining mental health as you build and more. Below, find a condensed version of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Technical.ly: What was it that sparked your interest in entrepreneurship as opposed to continuing to work for some of the companies you’ve been at?

Priya Amin: I joke that I’m a vagabond by trade. I’ve lived all over the country — spent most of my life in New Jersey (through undergrad) then moved out to Arizona for grad school to get my MBA, followed by work experience in Oregon at Harry & David, North Carolina with IBM and St. Louis, Missouri with Nestle. Most of my professional career after my MBA was in marketing, and at both IBM and Nestle I worked in product and brand management. I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. While I was getting my MBA I also became a certified dog trainer and my goal at that point was to start a dog grooming salon/cafe, but I ended up getting a corporate job instead. The entrepreneur bug stayed with me though and I feel as though I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.

What truly sparked by interest in entrepreneurship though didn’t happen until we moved to Pittsburgh. While I was working at Nestle in St. Louis I had my first child. Even though I absolutely loved my career, having him completely changed my perspective on work and life and made me start thinking about those things differently.

Since you’re now based in Pittsburgh, I’m curious to know if there was anything appealing to you about the city in terms of entrepreneurship opportunities here? Or was it more of a coincidence that you ended up here at a time when startup activity is booming?

"The most important part of finding a good balance while running a company is having people who share your vision."
Priya Amin

You know, when we first moved here, I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, and was quickly pregnant with my second. Living in the South Hills, too I was pretty removed from the city and all the things going on, especially from an entrepreneurial perspective.

What got me involved was after I had my second child, and I wanted to go back to work, I had a tough time getting back into the workforce. Because of the gap on my resume, I wasn’t as qualified for positions here in Pittsburgh. So I decided to start my own company — called ROKI — to help put my marketing skills to good use. It was my first foray into traditional entrepreneurship.

However, the biggest challenge I faced with my fledgling company was finding the time or opportunity to go to networking events or client meetings, mainly because I didn’t have anyone to watch my children. So that lit a new spark in me to try and figure out how to make working easier for working parents.

That’s an interesting problem to have even now, when a lot of networking events or meetings have transitioned online. Just because they’re easier to access doesn’t mean it’s still easy to be actively engaged if you don’t have childcare during them.

True — and more and more folks are wanting to network in person again so it may become a growing problem again, but it’s nice to have choices. It just felt like a lot of the things we take for granted professionally were becoming inaccessible to me because of a lack of childcare.

Is a solution there for meetups to offer childcare so parents can more easily attend?

That’s exactly what Flexable did — for five years we offered pop up on-demand childcare at offices, conferences and events all around Pittsburgh. Just before the pandemic we started expanding nationwide. There’s a real need for life and work to fit more seamlessly together. Flexable was a B2B company focused on supporting working parents and driving gender equity in the workplace through the provision of childcare. So many working parents needed childcare for “nontraditional” reasons — going to an after-hours event, going to work when school was closed (Election Day, summer, in-service days, etc) or when childcare fell through (nanny called off, etc).

We worked with organizations around the country to provide childcare to working parents (free of charge) to allow those parents to attend work, conferences, events, meetings, doctor visits, etc. Our goal was to democratize childcare and make it more accessible for working parents by having orgs subsidize the cost. We did really well for several years until the pandemic hit, then we pivoted to virtual childcare. That worked for a little over a year, which was great. But sadly, with the uncertainty of going back in person vs. staying virtual, our business model needed to be tweaked again.

Because of my personal burnout and uncertainty in the market, we made the very difficult decision to shut the company down earlier this year. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

The startup world seems to be getting better at helping founders understand a better balance, but how did you learn to prioritize your wellbeing in growing your company?

The thing I tell most founders who are starting out is to find a cofounder. The most important part of finding a good balance while running a company is having people who share your vision to help you balance everything. That was my cofounder for me. She left just before the pandemic started and things got a lot harder when I didn’t have her to help me balance all the things. Also, having a supportive spouse or partner at home is just as vital. My husband is super supportive. Even through the shutdown of the company, he’s been very supportive of me and my mental health needs.

Shutting a company down is like putting a beloved pet down — it’s something you’ve loved and nurtured for many years, but when you realize that you have to make a decision that is both difficult but humane, it’s really hard. And the grief is real.

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Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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