We had the pleasure of chatting with Shaloo Garg, MD of Microsoft for startups Silicon Valley, a programme that provides startups with the resources to get their product off the ground.
Throughout her career, Shaloo has been a fantastic advocate for women in technology and is currently a champion of innovation at UN Women. There she works with universities leveraging emerging technologies to encourage digital literacy in developing countries for young girls who don't currently have access to education.
Listen to the Podcast here. Read the full podcast transcript below.
Topics explored include:
· The Opportunities from Startups and Enterprises Leveraging & Collaborating with Each Other
· The Effects of COVID, and on Innovation
· AI in Digital Transformation
· Leveraging the Power of Technology
· Motivating Factors for Enterprises & Startups
Nikita RE•WORK [1:09]
Okay, great. Hi Shaloo, it's fantastic to have you involved in this week's podcast. I know that we have been speaking about this for a while, it's great to have you involved today. It would be great if you could just please, for our listeners, give a quick introduction to yourself. Also, if you could just say a bit about where you're currently recording this podcast.
Thank you very much, Nikita, for this opportunity. We've been speaking about this almost for a year now, I'm glad we've finally made it happen. But a quick introduction, firstly, a big hello to the listeners from San Francisco and right now at my home in San Francisco. Of course, self-isolating as I'm sure all of you are. Quick introduction of myself, I am the managing director at Microsoft for Startups and also the global leader for Microsoft global social entrepreneurship programme, which we recently launched, just a few months ago, super jazzed about that. I've been with Microsoft for about a year and a half, and been in the industry for a long time, both in the enterprise and startup space and have also been part of the mergers and acquisitions team just acquiring some really big companies out there. Thank you for the opportunity.
Nikita RE•WORK [2:33]
No problem, our pleasure. I'm just going to get started with quite a big question, something that you just touched on. You've mentioned obviously that you've spent many years in both the enterprise and the startup space. What, in your view, is the biggest opportunity for both startups and enterprises to leverage each other?
That's a great question, enterprises have been around for a super long time, right? I remember we started with Fortune 1, and then Fortune 100 and then fortune 50. So the business has been in the rigor for a long time. Then startups have been around for a long time as well, but in recent years there has been an immense amount of innovation that's been emerging from the startup space and the beauty of bringing startups and enterprise together is really what I view this as commercializing revenue opportunities for startups and impacting digital transformation.
What I mean by that is, startups holy grail is connections into enterprise customers. I know we talk a lot about access to capital in the startup space, being funded by institutional investors and others but at the end of the day even if you get capital you do meet sales acceleration, and that's where you lean on to the large enterprise customers to bring that revenue streams for you, or even for that matter SMB, business small to medium-sized businesses. So that's the startup side. From an enterprise perspective customer are always looking to innovate, the only constant that's part of the enterprise journey is growth and change.
What startups do is bring that innovation in a super, super specialized way. For many enterprises it's always beneficial because they're faster, they're cheaper, and they're more agile. Just to give you context and an example of what I'm referring to here, is a couple of years ago I was working with one of the largest banks here in the US and they were setting up a blockchain business unit within a company and they were like, gosh, you know, competitors are moving really fast and blockchain is the way to go. And you're putting in 50 million dollars in the R&D space, and we're going to recruit a team, and we're going to build solutions on that.
I remember meeting that customer and having a sort of due diligence and going through the discovery and understanding what exactly are their business challenges? Why are they putting in $50 million for this one single initiative? Long story short what we were able to do is bring forward a couple of startups from our portfolio into their fold and help them solve the business problem that they were having. So, what we were able to do over a period of time is reduce that cost significantly that they were putting or were willing to put in and also bring in efficiency and time, of course, is a big factor. That's the beauty of bringing the startups and the enterprises together, which is leveraging the power and innovation that startups have to solve some of the biggest problems that enterprise customers have.
Nikita RE•WORK [5:59]
Definitely, that's something that we've both seen happen just again and again, and when you've been involved in our events previously, it's often been within the startup community. We've seen those events as well that startup enterprise collaboration and the power of innovation that comes from that. You also mentioned that change is the only constant, and I think that's never a kind of more prevalent than it is today. Obviously, we're in the middle of unprecedented times at the moment. How do you think the challenge about landscape has changed in the last few months given this current global pandemic?
You know that's an interesting question. I'll say necessity is a mother of invention, it's a very common phrase, right? COVID-19 has forced many around the world to rethink our lives, right from work, school, to entertainment, to the workplace, it's pretty much changed our thinking. It's challenged the status quo as to how we perceived our lives to be and what in reality it is as of today. So, in response to the travel ban, school closures, you know, recommendations to not gather in large groups or keep distance, social distancing.
The key thing here is that it's been imperative to digitally transform not only our places of work but also operate effectively. When I say operate effectively, I mean almost in any industry that's been out there. It is pretty industry agnostic, you can take healthcare, you can take financial services, you can take education, online education, which is absolutely booming. So in terms of how the landscape has changed, I would like to answer that question perhaps in the context of digital transformation, which is up until COVID hit us some industries were industry leaders, for example, or other industries that were doing really well like transportation, hospitality, that business was booming, tourism was booming everywhere. Look at where we are right now.
Now that may change when we come out in the post COVID world, the economy will bounce back, of course, there'll be more consumers and customers out there who will be willing to increase their purchasing power, but that's the shift that's happened. Look at what's going on with industrial manufacturing and supply chain. It was a crucial industry, but not an industry leader. Right now, the whole economy, our whole system around us is just banking on the supply chain. All those toilet papers in the U.S that went off the shelves early on when COVID hit us is right back on the shelves. How is that efficiency in the background taking place? And that's the mindset, that's the journey that we are on right now in terms of how the industries, in terms of both leadership and laggards, are changing so swiftly and will continue to do so in the next few months. I don't think this process is going to stop, it'll just continue on and on and it will be interesting to see how 2021 brings us a new face of the world.
Nikita RE•WORK [9:32]
I think it'd be great just to talk a little bit more about the digital transformation side as it's something over the past few episodes of a podcast series that has cropped up, I think, especially over the last few weeks. How would you define digital transformation and what is the role of AI in that?
Digital transformation is one of, if not the most crucial initiatives that many organizations have undertaken or are taking off. Up until a few years ago, digital transformation was, in terms of technology, it was all about a move where on-site hardware prem into a cloud infrastructure, right? Just make it less hands-on, put everything on the cloud and just run with it. Recently, digital transformation is about data analytics. It is about how quickly you can take the power of that data that you have and put it in action.
It was also up until a few years ago in terms of bam, and there are a lot of theories that are out there which is a business activity, monitoring dashboards, and so forth. But in recent years, AI has suddenly emerged as one of the strongest enablers of digital transformation. When we think about AI it may seem like thinking of a futuristic world in science fiction movies, but in reality, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. AI is changing the world and the lives of people and is becoming the engine of growth for the economy; it can be local or global and the company itself. So, whether it's a simple search you're doing or a chatbot on some website that you have visited, you may actually be already interacting with AI and machine learning-driven tools in many of our daily activities which we don't even know.
Still, in the background, there is a power that it holds, and so that is digital transformation, where it is challenging the way we are thinking about things. It is actually giving us the same face, even a better face of interaction, but actually being dominated more by technology than by humans. Nikita, I often get this question: will AI take the jobs away from people? No, it will not. I think it'll make it even more robust. It will challenge our minds to think even more deeply as to how we can leverage the power of technology into some of these massive transformational shifts that are happening in the industry.
Nikita RE•WORK [12:19]
On that note, leveraging the power of technology, that really touches on a question I wanted to follow up on, which again is looking at the way that everything is changing at such a fast pace at the moment. What are your views on opportunities that lie ahead for AI startups, specifically in their AI for good space?
You've touched a very soft comment there Nikita. Tech for good is a space that I've been passionate for a super long time, even outside of my professional work. I would say the development, let's just put it in simple terms, the development and adoption of advanced technologies like the digital transformation that we were just talking about, it also includes smart automation. AI machine learning has the potential to not only raise productivity and GDP growth but also to improve wellbeing more broadly, including through healthier lifestyles and longevity, the way we interact with people now it's changing.
To achieve these benefits and reduce disruption and potentially destabilize the effects on society that it may have, it will require an emphasis on innovation. Innovation that's growth led with careful management of workforce and other transitions relating to technology adoption, and diffusion. Overall, when we talk about tech for good, technology has no overall purpose on its own. Its effects are driven by human choices and actions and if you look at it, history has filled us with examples of its potential to both do good and to cause harm. It's really upon us how we use that power. So back to your question: how is AI changing the landscape in the tech for good? It's huge, it's humongous and we have barely scratched the surface on how we are enabling the tech for good space with AI.
I'll give you an example of a startup that's part of the Microsoft global social entrepreneurship programme that I just referred to you. We actually launched this programme in FEB 2020, so relatively new, but we've seen some amazing new cases coming in. One of them which draws close to my heart is there is a founder in South Africa who's building an online platform to educate data scientists locally and she's mobilizing around 14,000 people locally in her community to get them on a platform for data science. She's using AI algorithms in the background to identify who would be the right fit, what would their learning module be like. For example, if you and I both are on the same platform and if you're smarter than I am, and you can pick past faster, your career curriculum will automatically be picked up.
Whereas I'll be on pace. So, she's using some really cool technology to actually educate and bring skills for employability and education in the local community. Think of the power that has in the community there. Now we may be sitting in developed nations and thinking what is the big deal, it's just an online digital platform? But it is super powerful for the local community, leveraging AI and looking at the power it has in terms of doing good in that space. It has huge potential; we barely scratch the surface. I think there are a lot of emerging new cases that are trying to figure out how to use AI but are definitely on the path. But definitely, there's a huge upside in the space.
Nikita RE•WORK [16:15]
Something I've been thinking about over the past few weeks is COVID-19, the renewed inspiration for social innovation to address some of these global challenges. I don't know if it's something that you've come across, or that you've kind of had a feeling about. But I just think that there seems to be more of a shift into thinking about how we can, even though we've been kind of apart in many ways because we've all been socially distancing and been working from home a lot of the time. There seems to be more of a collective thought I'd say, people, wanting to come together to address some of these challenges. Using technology is one way for some people such as ourselves that are lucky enough to work in this space. I think it's just a feeling that there seems to be more of a shift towards being more inspired or passionate about applying technology for social innovation and to address some of these problems.
You know Nikita, that's an awesome question. As I mentioned earlier on that COVID-19 has, of course, a lot of downsides, but it's also put us on a path of this reflective thinking which is, what are we doing right? And where could we have done better? Let's accept it, we all dream of reaching our potential at some point in our lives. That potential parameter may differ from everyone for everyone. Social entrepreneurs often see the mission of the organization as the embodiment of their own personal mission. Perhaps they know this better than anyone and play an important role in solving societal issues, exploring the use of renewables, and large, large labour market participation, climate change, improving health, we're in the middle of a pandemic so healthcare is at the top of mind for everyone.
Social entrepreneurship in general signals this imperative to drive social change and it is this potential payoff, with this lasting transformational benefit to society that sets this field and iteration upon. I've been saying this in the last few months over and over again, in any of the panel discussions or keynotes that I've been doing, is there actually has never been a better time than what it is today to be a social entrepreneur because what we are doing right now is we're coming up with solutions that are not just laser-focused on hey, let's raise a series A, for $30 million, and will accrue the ROI in the next two to three years.
We have seen a very, very slow shift in mindset and thinking. This is a social impact startup, the ticket price of funding may be low, but it has a rippling effect on the economy, society and the community. I think we have started to respect more and more of these new cases that have come up in the last few months and it's actually taught us a really good lesson. I'm really glad to see social entrepreneurs being sort of at the top-line team in the space.
Nikita RE•WORK [19:30]
Definitely. And on that note of collaboration I think it would be great perhaps for our listeners, which are coming from those large enterprises or corporations, why should those that are working in those types of companies at the moment work with startups? And what would you say are the key benefits to that large enterprise startup collaboration?
You know I have spent many years as I mentioned on the enterprise side and I've spent the last few years on the startup side. I see sort of the matchmaking, the amazing happy marriage that can take place between the startups and the enterprise space. And that's because enterprise, the number one challenge that any enterprise customer has is how do they beat the odds and stay ahead in the market? Right, so there's always that constant thinking of innovation and being ahead of the competition, impacting the PnL, all those combined together is a common force within the company.
You may sit differently because large enterprises are huge, a large number of employees, you may sit anywhere within the company, but at the end of the day, anyone's job is to make their customer successful, so an enterprise's customer is successful. For that you need cost efficiency, you need speed, you need agility, and oftentimes, it's very hard for any enterprise customer to be agile because they are huge, right? Chain Management is extremely challenging and that's where the startups come in because they're this fertile ground of innovation. And I love to see some of the emerging use cases coming in where enterprise customers say, gosh, you know, this has been on our roadmap for the last year and we really have had no idea on how to practice. But here the startup has come in, let's have this conversation, let's have a PLC, a proof of concept and see where the conversation goes.
The biggest benefit that any enterprise could draw from startups is actually in the field of innovation speed, right? Low costs, like the example that I gave you of $50 million into a blockchain business unit, why? Let's put that money into some other use, let's bring some startups in who can actually solve that business problem. I think those are the core areas where startups could definitely add huge value to enterprise customers.
Nikita RE•WORK [22:07]
I think there are some great examples there. A couple more I guess, personal questions really. What would you say drives you and what's your main motivation?
What drives me? That's a great question, a very reflective question. I am driven by ambiguity and chaos. There's an opportunity there and I view it as almost, think of it as a white table in front of you that has lego pieces which are different, in different shapes and different colours. And it's chaos on the table. So what I love to do is just put together a structure with a strong foundation and bring it all together. I'm absolutely driven by something like clean slates or even unstructured and to bring structure out of it and drive it back.
For me the core principle, my working principle is impacting. You can say that the years of experience that I've had, have had a lot of failures in my professional life. I've had a lot of successes as well. But failure is something that I very, very clearly remember in my mind, which is what have I learnt? What have I taken away? And how can I apply that knowledge onto my next endeavor? And to me, that comes back to once again, my ambiguity and chaos on structure, an opportunity to make an impact is what personally really, really drives me.
Nikita RE•WORK [23:43]
I think that's a fantastic way to look at it. What would your advice be to any aspiring entrepreneurs who are currently listening that would like to get involved in working with larger enterprises like yourselves and Microsoft?
A few things, one is the biggest advice that I give to entrepreneurs out there, is don't get disheartened with a no, right? Look, the fact of the matter is you're going to knock at 10 doors and probably nine out of 10 will shut on you, maybe one will open and maybe not, so don't take no for an answer. Don't just take it sitting down where you're like, yep, you know, if you say my product sucks, it sucks. No, I mean this is your baby, this is your vision, believe in it, own it, and then nurture it, right. Number one is don't give up, be definitely persistent and stay on track.
The number two thing that I would say is to surround yourself with top leaders, with coaches, with mentors and with investors who can actually guide you. When I say investors, I don't mean necessarily investors who are investing in your company, but those who carry this top leadership, who have the experience, surround yourself with those folks because they have the experience. They've taken the bruises and they can guide you on the path to success. Then there is something that you know whether an entrepreneur or not, I always share this, is train your brain muscles to breed forward because today you're in a position to get advice, tomorrow you're going to be in a position to give advice.
Make sure you take time out of your busy schedule to just pause, maybe for an hour a week, set some time up and look for people who are looking for help and guidance and guide them through this. So play this forward, there's a favorite quote of mine, Nikita, from House of Cards. It's a very, very popular Netflix series and Kevin Spacey is in it and he says that when you go up in the elevator, make sure to send it down. It is very, very critical to keep playing forward because there's so much better that our industry means in terms of knowledge and inspiration as well.
Nikita RE•WORK [26:21]
Definitely, and I think that's just pretty central advice really for anybody. No matter which industry you work in, whether it's AI technology or something else. I think that's a great piece of advice to leave us with.
Nikita RE•WORK [26:41]
Fantastic. It's been absolutely great to have you involved, Shaloo. I know that we've been trying to get this confirmed for a while so it's great that we've finally been able to get it into our calendars. Just one final note, if any of our listeners would like to get in touch with you or keep up to date with what you're doing, what's the best way for them to do so. Is it through Twitter or LinkedIn? Or where can they find out a bit more about what you do?
LinkedIn would be great, it's Shaloogarg. Nikita, I want to thank you and your organization Rework as well, you guys do a fabulous job in the community, driving the message really hard. I wanted to thank you for all the good work that you're doing. And of course, thank you for the opportunity to bring my voice to the table here. Thank you very much.
Nikita RE•WORK [27:27]
No problem, our pleasure. Thank you Shaloo I'll speak to you soon.
Nikita RE•WORK [27:32]
Thank you very much, bye.
Nikita RE•WORK [27:41]
A huge thank you again to Shaloo for taking the time out of her busy schedule to chat with us this week. It was fascinating to learn more about what drives her and also to hear more about how the current pandemic is influencing her work.
If you're keen to learn more about how you can get involved in using AI in tech for good, then check out our library of the content with dedicated talks on the application of AI to solve important challenges in society. You can currently sign up for a free trial on the video section of our website. Until next time, take care.