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Life Beyond Facebook

Real-world movie 'Social Network' character has no time for regrets

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November 29, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold
Divya Narendra

Divya Narendra
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Divya Narendra was having dinner with his girlfriend when a fellow Northwestern University student recognized him for his real-world role portrayed in the blockbuster movie “The Social Network.” “He, of course, mispronounced my name,” said Narendra, still adjusting to the spotlight since the release of the movie.  

One of the film’s three Harvard graduates who alleged Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook was based on Narendra.  

How accurate is the story of what was deemed “the movie of the decade” by some critics? “The way our personalities are colored is exaggerated at times, but the underlying story is a lot closer to fact than fiction,” Narendra said. 

Going through events that later became the plot of a major motion picture was life changing, he admits, but that was yesterday. Today he is much more interested in the JD-MBA that he is pursuing at Northwestern and what brought him to the University in the first place, a startup company called SumZero.  

The 28-year-old New Yorker is putting in long hours working on the startup he has been developing since 2008 as well as on the joint degree at Northwestern University School of Law and the Kellogg School of Management.  

Inspired by Wikipedia, SumZero is a universal encyclopedic database for investment ideas. But, unlike Wikipedia, contributors are limited to hedge fund analysts, mutual fund analysts and private equity analysts -- experts who work at investment firms and do research that influences investment decisions. 

In the following Q & A, Narendra shared his thoughts with Wendy Leopold about Northwestern, his company and his thoughts about “The Social Network.”

Why did you choose Northwestern’s JD-MBA program?

I’d heard about Kellogg and its great reputation but it wasn’t until I worked at Credit Suisse and met one of my co-workers -- an awesome guy from Turkey and a Northwestern graduate -- that I had a personal connection. I stumbled on the JD-MBA program. I was looking at the Kellogg website and saw the link to the JD-MBA program. When I read the details, I was blown away. It was my chance to get both a law and business degree from two great schools in only three years, without having to take the LSATs and by completing a single application. The decision to apply to the program was a total no-brainer.

Had you considered law school before?

After the Facebook experience, I was very sensitive to the value of getting a legal education and of understanding the language of law and how it informs business decisions. At age 22, I started thinking maybe I should do law school instead of business school. The JD-MBA was the perfect solution.

How have you found the program so far?

It’s been great. The students at both schools are really smart, the professors are accessible and the proportion of subject material -- business to law -- is just right. You gain knowledge at law school that complements what you learn in business school. It’s a huge differentiator to be an entrepreneur who also has a JD.

Since the movie are you known as the guy who sued Mark Zuckerberg?

I’ve heard anecdotally that some people look at me like that. But students here generally treat me as just another student. I go to classes. I do my homework.

What’s the idea behind your start-up company, SumZero?

We’re creating a universal encyclopedic database for investment ideas. Contributors are hedge fund analysts, mutual fund analysts and private equity analysts -- experts who work at investment firms where their research influences investment decisions. Traditionally these analysts don’t share their proprietary research. To date, we’ve got 4,300 analysts and portfolio managers from around the world sharing ideas. 

How did you feel when you learned there was a movie being made about the Facebook controversy?

I was excited but also worried. My career’s relatively young, and the last thing I needed was someone to malign my character or misrepresent the type of person I am. But after seeing the film, I was relieved to see that the film depicted multiple sides of the story in a balanced manner.

And how about the way you were portrayed?

Max Minghella, the actor who plays my character, is half Asian, half white. That he wasn’t Indian bothered some people in the Indian community, though I didn’t mind. This sort of thing happens in Hollywood casting. I met Max when I visited the Winklevoss brothers at the Henley Royal Regatta in England. The Facebook film crew was shooting one of the last scenes there. They’d just about finished shooting the film by then, so I had no influence on the way he played my character.

Do people assume things about you from your character in the film?

Some people assume I come from the same background as the Winklevoss brothers, who are from a wealthy family. Not true. I went to public school. My parents came to the U.S. as immigrants without any money, though both were trained as doctors. My dad drove the same Toyota Corolla hatchback for 13 years before he upgraded to a Mercury Sable station wagon. 

What have your parents made of all of the buzz?

They’ve gotten a kick out of it. I doubt they ever expected to see their son in the papers, let alone in a major motion film. Like many Indian parents, they probably had some desire that I’d be a doctor like them. They’re very low-key, not socialites. I convinced them to go to the after-party at the Harvard Club after the movie’s premiere in New York, and I think they enjoyed it judging by the number of photos they took.

Some people might be bitter if they thought they had an idea that turned someone else into a billionaire. You don’t sound bitter.

This all happened so long ago that I don’t lose sleep over it now. Beyond the Facebook litigation process and all the media buzz, my co-founders and I got busy doing other things. I worked as an investment banker for two years and then for a hedge fund. I launched SumZero. Now I’m doing the JD-MBA. I’ve learned an incredible amount since I graduated from college.

Has Northwestern been a place to make connections?

There are lots of networking opportunities between the smart students and outstanding professors. I approached Professor David Ruder, who’s a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission about SumZero. He said, given my past litigation background, I should hire an attorney for SumZero. He introduced me to a partner in what’s arguably the most powerful technology law firm in the country, which we officially engaged a few weeks later.  So there’s a tangible benefit to working with experienced professors.

Any regrets?

I joke that I regret never learning web programming. If I had, we’d never have hired Mark Zuckerberg in the first place. But, no, I don’t live in regret. You have to learn from life’s lessons and keep moving forward.

Topics: People