Sona Shah is the Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of My Private Professor, LLC (MPP). What started as a one-woman business has blossomed into an impact-driven educational services company with a nationwide network of top tutors that collaborates with organizations to offer personalized, online tutoring services and gives back with every tutoring hour to support students in underserved communities. Sona is thrilled to have found a meaningful way to combine her dual passions of education and philanthropy into a sustainable model that helps all students succeed. By empowering students and donating to the community, MPP is able to provide a critical resource for families, schools and nonprofits, and students experiencing homelessness. With over a decade of leadership experience on the boards of nonprofits in Southern California, Sona is grateful to currently serving as President of Tustin Public Schools Foundation, Founder of Inspire Philanthropy Foundation, and Board Member of Orangewood Foundation.
Tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?
Growing up in sunny Southern California with first-generation immigrant parents, I was the mischievous middle child and daughter, sandwiched in between two stellar sons. We spent our childhood tapping into our creativity and making the most of what we had. I became an expert in making gifts out of paper and tape for all occasions, and was notorious for drawing on every spare sheet in the house (and, on occasion, the lampshades and walls as well ;)). On the weekends and during holidays, we played tag and hide and seek with the neighborhood kids during the day, played board games, and read in bed-sheet forts in the evenings after enjoying dinner on laminated TV trays. I was quite the chatterbox at home, and apparently did not let my brothers get much airtime in our family. In public school, contrastingly, I was shy and tried not to rock the boat, partly because I skipped a grade one month into school and was bullied by some of my new classmates for being so small (I did make a valiant effort to “fail” back into my “proper” grade by writing letters backward and numbers upside down but to no avail). I became more comfortable in my skin in middle school when I found extracurricular activities that I appreciated and a friend circle that appreciated me. High school, with its plethora of opportunities, was where I realized that I could explore new interests and double down on what I loved. And, boy, did I run hard. I filled my schedule with so many clubs, activities, and challenging classes that my family held an intervention to get me to ease up. But action-packed days and weekends were met with a sense of accomplishment, and I loved chasing what gave me a sense of purpose.
How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
I began my journey as an entrepreneur when I hit double digits – in age. At 10 years old, I walked a few blocks over to a classmate’s home every week to help her with her math homework in exchange for a few bills in an envelope with my name on it. What motivated me was not the moolah but rather the “aha” – when my students would finally master a tough concept. I found that I really loved tutoring and continued this as a side hustle throughout middle school, high school, and college. After earning my law degree from UC Berkeley, I practiced business litigation for 6 years; when I had my son, I realized that I wanted to invest my energy into something more meaningful to me than clocking in thousands of billable hours to sue or defend companies. So I took a detour and went back to doing what I had always loved: tutoring. Through word of mouth, this passion grew into a sustainable business model that enables us to help as many students as we can through partnerships with employers, nonprofits, and families. I haven’t looked back since.
What is one business lesson you would tell a startup founder?
To my fellow startup founders: follow your passion—do what truly gives you joy. Identifying and understanding your purpose is crucial. I think that most businesses nail their “how” and “what,” but it’s crucial to lead with your “why”—i.e., why do you want to create this business and provide these services? To create a business based on your “why” is to create a business with an authentic mission. For MPP, our mission is to provide top-notch, individualized tutoring to help all students reach their greatest potential. Our goal is to maximize student impact—whether or not they are paying clients. This end goal provides the needed framework through which we carry out our strategic and tactical decisions at MPP, and anchors our perspective to a lens of ensuring that our actions will help provide access to as many students as possible. Once you know your purpose, try to actively find ways to stay true and in alignment with this passion every day. Ups and downs will be inevitable—so the key to successfully building your startup is to always integrate your purpose into your work. That’s when you are truly maximizing potential with purpose.