Prerna Gupta is getting the Snapchat generation hooked on reading fiction in a surprising way: Text messages. Gupta, 35, cofounded Hooked with her husband in August 2015, which also doubles as a way to collect data on what books are resonating with teens. More than one million teens have installed the app and in early December, Hooked even took the number one spot in the app store, beating out favorites like Messenger and Snapchat. Gupta sold her previous startup, a music app called Khush, to Smule in 2011.
What about your job most excites you?
I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, the oldest child of immigrants from India. I was an outcast, without any real friends. High school was tough for me, and I got into a lot of trouble. What saved me was literature. Reading great books and writing thoughts of my own. Discussing literary themes with my classmates. This is what helped me see that I wasn’t so different from those around me. Literature helped me find myself, and it gave me the courage to pursue my dreams.
My job is to bring this essential aspect of the human experience into the future. I love everything about that.
What’s your secret for maintaining a work-life balance?
Discipline. It takes discipline to eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, make time for family and say “no” more often than saying “yes.” I find it easiest to stay balanced when I am disciplined about sticking to my daily routine.
I try to get 8 hours of sleep every day, eat healthful meals, exercise regularly, and read for pleasure before bed every night, so I go to sleep with a clear mind. I schedule my work around this routine and say no to opportunities that will disrupt it. And I try to prioritize time with family over incessant business networking. In the long run, I am most effective at work when I am living a balanced life.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I eat the same breakfast every day: a large bowl of homemade muesli, with wholemilk yogurt, seasonal fruit and a dollop of raw honey
I’m a big believer in streamlining daily decisions, but I also think it’s important to be well-nourished throughout the day, for optimal brain function and energy
What’s the passion project you pursue that not many people know about?
I love baking! I’m not a fancy baker. My desserts are always kind of cosmetically challenged and rustic. But I love getting in the zone of baking, improvising, and creating my own recipes. The best part for me is sharing freshly baked goodies with friends and family. It’s such a warm feeling!
If you could pitch to one person, who would it be?
J.K. Rowling -- she is my idol, because she found a way to touch the hearts and minds of young people around the world, without letting the allure of infinite power consume her. Pitching Hooked to her would be a dream come true.
What was your first job and how much did you make?
My first paying job was in high school. I was a hostess at a local restaurant at the mall, called Garfield’s. I made minimum wage, which in Oklahoma at that time was around $5 an hour.
What's your favorite city and why?
San Francisco -- because I’m not a city person. I love the proximity to nature, the unique quality of the sunshine, the crispness in the air, the hills, the amazing fruit, and the wholegrain sourdough bread. The people are pretty great too.
What’s the most important company we’ve never heard of?
Oxitec, a company that is using advanced techniques in synthetic biology to eradicate mosquito borne diseases. It’s the most promising answer to Zika, Dengue and Malaria.
There has been some fear-mongering that Oxitec is actually responsible for Zika, but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.
Although genetic engineering will initially seem scary to many, I think it is one of the two most exciting -- and significant -- areas of innovation currently (the other being A.I.), and it’s important for us to embrace it.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the tech industry today and how do you foresee it getting solved?
Immigration reform. It’s insane that the U.S. government restricts the free flow of talent into our country. It hampers innovation and hurts everyone in our society in the long run
The solution is to reform U.S. immigration laws. We should be welcoming the world’s best and brightest into our country -- and our tech companies -- with open arms.
If you won a trip to the moon (all expenses paid for), would you take it?
I’ve thought about this question many times, and the answer has changed throughout my life. My current answer is … no!
Although it sounds like an incredible adventure, the physical toll isn’t worthwhile to me. Most people don’t know this, but flying to the moon is extremely destructive to the human body. I’m content watching documentaries and reading books about it instead.
What travel tips have you picked up over the years?
Lodging: Wherever I travel, I always prefer to rent a house or apartment, rather than a hotel. My husband and I have been doing this forever (even before Airbnb, there was VRBO!). You get much more of the local experience that way, and you can really get a sense of what it’s like to live there.
Surviving long flights: Get noise-cancelling headphones! You’ll be amazed at how much less exhausting the flight is when your ears aren’t being bombarded by those insanely high decibels.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year and why?
Lord of the Rings.
I started reading it again (something I do every few years) just before the election. It’s my favorite book of all time, but it feels particularly relevant right now. It is a story, perhaps the most canonical one, about the eternal battle of good versus evil, love versus lust for power.
It has given me hope in a time of despair. Love always wins in the end.
Best piece of advice you've been given?
I have encountered this advice throughout my life, in various forms. It’s a founding principle of many Eastern religions and is the sort of advice that floats through the air when you’re growing up in an Indian household.
It’s the basis of yoga, meditation, singing, surfing and so much more.
What keeps you up at night?
My husband’s snoring.
If you could tell your 18-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
Find love. Nourish it. Cherish it. Nothing else matters.