Tufts Alumni Couple Develop Platform to Support Learning Online
For one husband-wife Tufts alumni team, the idea of helping people develop meaningful connections online far predates the need for online connections many people, organizations and businesses first experienced when the COVID-19 global health crisis hit in early 2020.
Long before the world was thrust overnight into working from home and embracing the online meeting world that comes with a host of challenges for educational systems and businesses alike, Natasha and Lorenz Sell developed their platform, Sutra.co. They describe Sutra as “a home for group learning experiences”—from nonprofits working with refugees or in racial justice to companies in the wellness space and anywhere in between.
Natasha (A04) and Lorenz (E03) first met as Tufts undergraduates over 20 years ago. Natasha, who is originally from Russia, and Lorenz, who grew up in cities all over the world and graduated from high school in Switzerland, first met at a Tufts international orientation during his second year and her first year. They also happened to live in the same dorm, Lewis Hall.
At Tufts, she studied international relations while he studied computer engineering. The couple, who developed Sutra in New York but recently moved to Berlin, Germany, said they initially felt a connection during their undergrad years, in part, because they both speak Russian. Though they never dated while at Tufts, they were good friends who kept in touch after graduation.
It wasn’t until 12 years after first meeting that their love story took shape. But it’s a little complicated: After traveling the US as far away as Hawaii and recovering from a failed startup project, Lorenz decided in 2011 to move to New York, where Natasha lived. She allowed him to crash on her couch, and, between jobs, Natasha decided to help Lorenz with a startup venture he was forming at the time, a platform called Heartbeat that was designed to build community between independent vendors.
According to the pair, a few months later they actually “discovered” one another during a trip across the country. They had attended the Burning Man festival in Nevada and worked intensely together organizing meals and otherwise providing support for a festival camp of 180 people.
Four years later, in 2016, Sutra was born. As a platform to support group learning experiences, Sutra can organize content and facilitate online discussion spaces. Zoom calls can be saved and conversation can take place between live sessions. Clients include the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, UNICEF and The Presencing Institute, as well as nonprofits that run training programs, mindfulness-based businesses such as coaches and consultants, and other independent heart centered educators.
“Everyone who uses our platform is also an entrepreneur in a way, because they're creating an experience for others. For some of them, it's part of their livelihood. For others, it's part of their legacy that they want to leave for people to share their wisdom with the world,” said Natasha. “Conversation and connection is at the center. Sutra supports programs in social justice, racial justice, and environmental literacy—spaces where having a group process and a conversational journey is a key component to everybody's learning.”
One pleasant surprise? Working together has been the best part of the journey, the couple said.
“We saw our relationship strengthen through the difficulty of creating our own company,” said Lorenz. “The way that our relationship has evolved has been, I think, the biggest blessing of this whole thing.”
Here, the Sells weigh in on embracing entrepreneurship and share advice for aspiring entrepreneurs at Tufts.
How did your time at Tufts help you develop an interest in entrepreneurship?
Natasha: I never thought that I would do anything entrepreneurial. What Tufts really gave me, or expanded in me, is my focus on community and relationship building. I was involved in every extracurricular: culture clubs, dance, music, art… everything that had some sense of community or group culture. I also really appreciated how my professors always had their doors open. I could come in and have a conversation either about class or anything else. That approachability inspired me to know that I can approach anybody and build relationships with anyone.
Lorenz: I studied computer engineering at Tufts, and one of my best friends was a really incredible programmer. In fact, he was so great that I told myself I could never be that great, and after I graduated, I basically gave up coding. I didn't code for 12 years, and then around 2015, I was coming out of a failed startup and determined to work on something. I taught myself how to code again. I became the lead developer on our platform and now we have over 25,000 people using Sutra.
So the moral of the story: What I learned at Tufts supported what I do now. But as a kid at that time, I didn't understand that I could actually learn and develop myself to accomplish anything. One of the biggest lessons is just realizing that I don't have to be good at anything, but I can learn to be good at anything.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Lorenz: If you're a college student without a lot of resources, one of your biggest resources is yourself and your willingness to ask people for help. When you're young and bold and audacious, people are impressed. You can really work with that. People want to see young people succeed.
A really big shift for us happened when we both read this book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The essence of the book is about prototyping, it’s about keeping things really simple and getting your product into real people’s hands asap. Also, it's much easier to raise money with something tangible that has some sort of use case behind it than with some big idea you have.
Natasha: Do not wait until you have this perfect product or perfect idea hashed out. Go out into the real world and talk to people. You have to have the language to describe it and communicate with the world so that people understand what you're offering. The key piece to that is really knowing yourself, understanding yourself, being who you are, and what you're about. If you can be authentic and share your idea from that place, share from your heart, then that automatically attracts people to you.
What is the potential of the Tufts community and students when it comes to entrepreneurship?
Lorenz: Tufts is full of amazing people, both professors and students, and it's a great place to build lifelong relationships and collaborations. The key is finding people who are excited about the same things as you, and just diving into prototyping something simple and learning from real-world feedback.
Natasha: The fact that Tufts offers students so many opportunities to connect and build relationships is the biggest gift. When you embark on an entrepreneurial journey, it is so important to know how to connect and be in relationship with people. That goes for potential collaborators, clients, investors, and the like.