We continue our monthly column, Curious Minds, created by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.
In this column, Rose speaks with Shruti Ajitsaria, the head of Fuse, Allen & Overy’s tech innovation space, which opened in September 2017. Ajitsaria discusses bringing technology to clients, moving away from the standard of perfection, and the value of startup schools.
Rose Ors: Who are the thinkers outside of the legal industry that have influenced your work?
Shruti Ajitsaria: The single most transformative experience was participating in Campus for Moms, a Google-run startup school. There I met the startup founders who showed me a completely different way of thinking, behaving, and pushing myself.
I entered the program with the idea of developing a travel app for children. Halfway through the program, I decided to pivot. I went to the program head and said I wanted to use the remaining time to develop a framework for building a tech incubator at Allen & Overy. That is when the idea for Fuse took root.
Rose Ors: What propelled you to attend a startup school?
Shruti Ajitsaria: I had been encouraging my two primary school daughters to try new things that would take them out of their comfort zone. When I went on maternity leave with my third child, my daughters asked if I was going to follow my own advice. So, I did.
Rose Ors: How novel was the idea for Fuse in 2017?
Shruti Ajitsaria: It was novel. At the culmination of startup school, each participant pitched her idea to a room of venture capitalists (VCs) who provided feedback on the proposal’s viability. At the end of my pitch, one VC told me, “That’s a great idea, Shruti, but no law firm is ever actually going to go for that.” I invited that VC to Fuse’s formal opening to show her what we’d done in such a short time. Sharing our achievement with her was a wonderful moment — one I will always remember fondly.
Rose Ors: What made your idea appealing to Allen & Overy?
Shruti Ajitsaria: I think there was a feeling that clients were becoming better informed, that they were starting to understand technology and ask questions about the positive impact it can have in streamlining how work gets done and by whom.
Rose Ors: What has surprised you about how your partners have embraced Fuse?
Shruti Ajitsaria: I have been wonderfully surprised at their willingness to try and use new technology. An even bigger surprise is how amazing they have been at introducing their clients to us. It is gratifying that so many partners trust and believe in the value of Fuse.
Rose Ors: Allen & Overy rarely invests in any of the Fuse cohort companies. Why?
Shruti Ajitsaria: Our focus is purely to provide our clients with the opportunity to test-drive emerging technologies we believe can significantly help them. I want to be able to look our clients in the eye and say, “This is our tech cohort. I want you to consider them because it may benefit you, not our firm.”
Rose Ors: What books have influenced you?
Shruti Ajitsaria: Three books have significantly influenced me. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries was one I read when I was in Google’s Startup School. One of the most important lessons of the book is that “perfection” is not the goal. And this was the first time I had ever thought about doing something in business without striving for perfection. Perfection was the standard of excellence at Allen & Overy. No one at the firm would ever share anything unless it was polished.
Moving from a standard of perfection to one of experimentation was a dramatic leap for me. I learned from Ries’s book that to be truly innovative, you need to understand that experimentation and failure are part of the process. I had to become comfortable with this new way of thinking. It was both scary and freeing to learn to say while building Fuse, “We gave it a go. It didn’t work. Let’s move on.”
Another book I loved and want to read again is Measure What Matters by John Doerr, which teaches essential lessons about establishing concrete, action-oriented objectives and using measurable and verifiable objectives and key results (OKRs) to monitor if a goal is being met. I could benefit from the discipline of using OKRs in my daily life.
The third book may be a slightly odd choice, Fair Play by Eve Rodsky, which discusses all the unseen work women with families do and offers ways for couples to share household responsibilities more equitably. I am one of those women who feels that everything is on my shoulders. The book helped me explain to my husband all of the things that are happening in my head. I’ve been saying to him for years, “This isn’t fair,” but it took him reading the book for the message to sink in. I guess he needed to hear it from somebody who wasn’t yelling at him.
Rose Ors: What fuels your creative thinking?
Shruti Ajitsaria: Stepping outside my comfort zone to interact with people doing completely different things. My husband and I used to be angel investors. Every Sunday night for two to three years, we would invite a startup group to our house to discuss their idea over pizza and a bottle of wine. It was an opportunity to learn about a wide range of things I knew nothing about. It broadened my horizons to discover how things get done in another industry or sector, and it makes you rethink the what and the how of what you are doing.
Another terrific learning experience for me is serving on two boards. The information presented by management at board meetings is mostly positive. So, as a board member, I’ve realized that my greatest weapon is asking questions that elicit honest and helpful answers about challenges facing the organization. That said, I’ve also learned that governance requires that you not overstep — you must know where your role ends and where somebody else’s begins.
Rose Ors: What is a big picture question facing the legal industry?
Shruti Ajitsaria: Law firms have to ask, “What is our piece of the pie?” Today, more than ever, there are many potential growth opportunities. The hardest thing for any law firm is to be clear about its place in the marketplace.
There is a tendency to say, “I want to eat the whole pie.” However, if you try to do that, you’ll get indigestion. You may try to do something you don’t do well, or worse, be viewed as placing your interests above those of your clients.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.