Devaki Raj, CrowdAI — Founder Q&A
We had the mentality that we weren’t going to build a startup for the sake of building a startup. We wanted to build a company that could grow to shape the way people work.
Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Devaki Raj often trekked out to nearby Walden Pond. But it wasn’t just to seek out the tranquility of the bucolic lake made world famous by the 19th century writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.
“I had to identify different species of pitch pine and how they adapted in different environments for a science project,” she recalled. “And Walden Pond just happened to have a lot of pitch pine. It was also beautiful and calm.”
These days, Raj doesn’t have much time to smell the flowers, not with a hot startup to run — especially one that’s been garnering an enviable number of accolades since opening its doors in 2016.
Raj was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in 2019, and her company, CrowdAI, received both an Nvidia Deep Learning Inception Enterprise finalist award in 2018, as well as recognition by Forbes in the 2021 list of AI companies to watch.
This recognition is warranted, given the increasing volume of visual data being generated by everything from cell phone cameras to satellites. The trick is to make sense of that data trove so that organizations can make more informed decisions, and with CrowdAI’s software platform, customers are able to extract meaningful information from all that visual information, without needing a data science background. CrowdAI allows users to build their own AI models around this imagery to solve everything from locating leaks in gas pipes to detecting wildfires and getting a more accurate handle on changes in the environment.
Raj and her co-founders are busy putting that theory into practice with government agencies and enterprise customers. The company’s technology is helping the Pentagon more quickly parse infrared drone imagery to identify wildfires. And after Hurricane Michael in October 2018, CrowdAI’s technology allowed telecoms provider WOW! to analyze satellite images of ground damage across Panama City, Florida, enabling teams to reach locations hardest hit by the storm and restore service.
We caught up with Raj recently to get our own data download from a tech entrepreneur whose name is popping up on a lot of radar screens these days.
Q: Your family came here as immigrants from India. How do you think their life experience rubbed off on you?
Everybody says that building a company is really hard, but it’s nothing compared to the amount of change they had to go through. I think that it speaks to the importance of empathy and why it’s important to be really supportive of people.
Q: How does that filter through to what you’re trying to do at CrowdAI?
The families of my two co-founders went through the same thing. Nic Borensztein’s family came from Argentina while Pablo Garcia’s family is from Mexico. So even though CrowdAI is a small company, we sponsor H-1B visas and hire people from around the world. If you’re extremely talented, we will try and make it possible for you to come to America and join CrowdAI and get on the path with a green card and eventually citizenship.
Q: Your father’s a geneticist — as is your sister. And your mother?
She works in clinical trials, so a lot of my family is in the science field.
Q: Growing up, you got to know Jane Goodall, which is not something many people can say. How did that come about?
When I was young, my parents took me to a lecture and book signing she gave at Yale University. Years later, I got involved in Roots & Shoots (a youth volunteer program run by the Jane Goodall Institute) and was subsequently invited to the Institute’s global youth summit during my freshman year of college where we were able to talk. Later on, I invited her to give a speech at the Oxford Union. She came and I had the honor of presenting her at the event. I think that was one of the most highly attended union talks with the longest standing ovation.
Q: Sounds like Goodall made quite the impression.
She’s amazing. I think that it’s incredible how this one person has been so single-handedly focused on one act of public service for so long. And now even more so, given the acute effects of the changes to climate happening all around us.
Q: OK, so at Oxford University you studied biology and statistics and also got your master’s degree in applied statistics. Where did you think you wanted to take your career?
Ever since I was a little kid, I really liked math. Given that my family was mostly in academia, I guess as the middle child, I was trying to rebel and so I was on a different path. When I graduated with my BA in 2010, it was a really good time for me to transition into working on statistics. And I was lucky enough to do that at Oxford and then fortunate to start at Google after finishing my master’s degree.
Q: Four years after joining Google, you decided to go out on your own. What led to your decision?
When you work in the Bay Area, there are generally two modes of operating: join a startup or a big, big company — or you start a company. At a certain point, I was like, `Well, why not me?’ Why can’t I work on something that is so exciting and have the opportunity to influence and touch billions of people in ways that are impactful.
Q: What was the origin of the idea for CrowdAI?
We had the mentality that we weren’t going to build a startup for the sake of building a startup. We wanted to build a company that could grow to shape the way people work. At Google, I worked on different projects focused on the future of climate change, including one that used aerial imagery to identify good candidates for solar panel installation. While working on that team, I realized that so much data was being locked up in video and imagery which could help people accelerate any type of workflow — if we could just unlock it. And with my background in machine learning, I thought there was a big opportunity.
Q: You’ve been a CEO since 2016. Obviously, no single formula for building a successful startup fits all, but what lessons have you drawn?
If you build a good enough tool, if you build a good enough workflow, if you build a good enough team, and if you build a mission that people are working towards, that’s how you build a good company. It’s a much grander vision than just, ‘I want to build a startup to see whether I can do that.’ We firmly believe that the tools and platform we’re creating are going to fundamentally change and transform businesses over the next couple of decades.
The other lesson I’ve learned is that team and culture matter. That’s really important and it’s something that CrowdAI really values. We’ve been lucky that we’ve retained our team over the years. You don’t usually see that at small startups. I think we have a great team with a really strong company culture. I know everybody says that, but we do.
Q: What did you do to keep people focused given that you were forced to work apart from each other for more than a year due to Covid?
We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sure our people feel comfortable and connected. We’ve actually been hiring a lot during Covid, which means many of the people on our team haven’t met face to face. During the pandemic, we’ve held many activities over Zoom, like happy hours or events like gingerbread making or learning embroidery, where we could do things together just to make sure people felt connected, and to help us get to know each other.
Q: You and CrowdAI have garnered a lot of awards. Does being that much in the spotlight help and how can you use it to your advantage?
It’s helped for certain customer engagements. For example, I’ve been brought in to speak at the McKinsey Global Institute and the Forbes CIO summit, where I was presenting to the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, like Johnson & Johnson and Stanley Black & Decker. And the amount of exposure that I’ve received directly with our customers has been extremely helpful. From a tactical perspective, it’s only useful if it ultimately benefits the business. As a startup, we’re fairly different in that we are an enterprise-first company. And everything we do has to be in service of how to get in front of those types of people that startups aren’t exposed to generally.
Q: What’s been the most pleasant surprise for you as a startup CEO?
I have been so incredibly blessed to have worked in so many different places and met so many incredible people and I’ve found that people love to be part of your journey and help.
The fact that people I worked with 12 years ago have introduced me to some of our current customers has shown me that relationships really do matter and people are really incredible and willing to help. That’s the most wonderful thing. I strive to do the same.
Q: What about the challenges? What’s been top-of-mind?
Building a startup is hard. Patience is really important, especially in our line of business of selling to enterprises.
Q: How so?
You have to build relationships, and these sales cycles can take six to nine months to close. It’s about building trust and demonstrating value over time, but that’s also what’s so exciting. You get to meet people from different walks of life, and they get excited about what you’re building and how it can benefit them and their employees or their teams. That’s super exciting when they come back and say, ‘I tried the product and it can help me in these specific ways — I have been searching for this.’
Q: Sounds like you’re going full throttle. How do you manage the work-personal divide?
I probably do need to be better at finding that balance, but as a startup founder, it’s not a luxury that one has. Still, I’m lucky enough to have an incredible team, so going to work every day is an absolute joy. I have a great network of female CEOs where we share the ups and downs of building and running a company. I’m also lucky that my network has gone through every single thing that can happen to you as a startup and so talking through that is fairly cathartic.
Q: Keeping with the personal side, what’s your favorite book?
I liked Dune (by Frank Herbert) a lot.
Q: What is your top movie?
12 Angry Men. I’ve probably watched it at least 12 times. It’s so extraordinary and so beautifully done.
Q: Who has been the biggest influence on your professional growth?
My Appa (Dad). Starting when I was young, he would bring me to talks and encourage me to ask questions. And that gave me the confidence to never feel intimidated in a room.
Q: What motto best sums up how you approach business?
I know this sounds cliche, but you have to surround yourself with people who can bring different things to the table. You need to acknowledge that everyone has different strengths — even yourself. So, as you grow, it’s really helpful to be surrounded by brilliant people as you continue on that journey.