Talk­ing AI and ma­chine learn­ing with Sheenu Chawla co-founder and CEO of Skai Labs Tech

Jon Massey meets Sheenu Chawla whose com­pany, Skai Labs, of­fers a tai­lored ser­vice to busi­nesses want­ing to make the most of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing

The Wharf - - Canary Wharf -

Se­rial en­tre­pre­neur Sheenu Chawla has spot­ted a niche. Hav­ing built a busi­ness in New Zealand help­ing com­pa­nies and or­gan­i­sa­tions reap the re­wards of mo­bile tech­nol­ogy, she came to Lon­don in search of big­ger op­por­tu­ni­ties and mar­kets.

Based at Level39 in Ca­nary Wharf, her lat­est ven­ture is Skai Labs, which she runs as co-founder and CEO.

“The com­pany is ba­si­cally an en­ter­prise in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) con­sul­tancy,” said the 33-yearold. “We help or­gan­i­sa­tions use AI and ma­chine learn­ing (ML) strate­gi­cally to trans­form their cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences and in­crease their in­ter­nal busi­ness value.

“We are not a prod­uct com­pany, we’re very much a be­spoke ser­vices com­pany. It’s very much tai­lored to our customers’ needs.

“We un­der­stand what the cus­tomer is look­ing for, what the busi­ness looks like – what kind of chal­lenges they are fac­ing.

“We un­der­stand what kind of data they are col­lect­ing and then look­ing at how AI and ML can en­hance their ex­ist­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.”

A lit­tle like the mo­bile ex­plo­sion her pre­vi­ous com­pany ex­ploited, there’s rea­son to think her lat­est ven­ture has quite a mar­ket to tar­get.

She tells me when we meet she’s just read an ar­ti­cle sug­gest­ing 51% of busi­nesses in the UK “haven’t thought about their AI jour­ney” yet.

But those that have adopted the tech­nol­ogy are “al­ready per­form­ing 5-10% bet­ter than those who have done noth­ing”.

It’s a solid ar­gu­ment and Skai is aimed at help­ing firms in any sec­tor in­ves­ti­gate how AI and ML might ben­e­fit them.

“I’m sure if you’re an or­gan­i­sa­tion in to­day’s world, given so many of your customers are re­ly­ing on mo­bile de­vices or the in­ter­net to trans­act, read, browse and do all kinds of ser­vices, there’s a lot of data you col­lect over time and from in­ter­nal pro­cesses as well,” said Sheenu.

“What ML helps you do is gather in­sights out of this data. That can be done by a hu­man but it takes ages and lots of re­source to do that.

“Ma­chines can process this data much faster and where ML is com­ing up and ris­ing, it’s not only now about gain­ing in­sights, it’s also about do­ing a feed­back loop – how can you make ML au­to­mate these pro­cesses, in­tel­li­gently learn and add value, then re­peat?

“When a ma­chine is do­ing it, with the pro­cess­ing power we have to­day, it’s much quicker.

“Take the churn prob­lem – when customers cease to have a re­la­tion­ship with your busi­ness – ML lets you be proac­tive in not only learn­ing which customers are go­ing to churn but also be­ing proac­tive in sug­gest­ing how you can re­duce that.

“It’s not just look­ing at one data set in a silo, it’s look­ing at hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent data sets in com­bi­na­tion and learn­ing how to make sure those customers don’t churn.

“Ask­ing if you have any mit­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms and what would be the suc­cess cri­te­ria of those, and whether the same ones need to be ap­plied to all customers or just some of them.

“Com­pa­nies spend mil­lions on mar­ket­ing – many times they don’t re­alise it’s not the same mes­sage that ap­plies to each and ev­ery cus­tomer, es­pe­cially now con­sumers’ pref­er­ences are be­com­ing so per­son­alised.

“So how can you learn and di­rect the right mar­ket­ing of­fers to the right customers? We say still spend £1mil­lion but get dou­ble the re­sult.”

With a team of 60, in­clud­ing staff in Be­larus and In­dia, Skai has de­lib­er­ately cho­sen not to spe­cialise in a par­tic­u­lar sec­tor. Sheenu, whose back­ground is in tech and busi­ness, be­lieves that’s a strength for the con­sul­tancy she launched in 2017.

“We’re very much an en­ter­prise con­sul­tancy,” said the Isle Of Dogs res­i­dent. “Be­ing broad is by choice – it’s ob­vi­ously chal­leng­ing but I think it keeps it pretty in­ter­est­ing for our team.

“It adds value to our customers as well. When­ever you are con­cen­trated in one par­tic­u­lar or­gan­i­sa­tion or sec­tor you can be­come very nar­row-minded in your think­ing.

“Go­ing wider, it helps us take learn­ing from one in­dus­try and to take a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive in an­other. When com­pa­nies are en­gag­ing Skai Labs – a third party ven­dor – they need that fresh per­spec­tive.

“For us it re­ally helps. We have a good mix of prac­ti­tion­ers and re­searchers as well.

“I think there are a lot of com­pa­nies who have evolved from just techies who are do­ing the best in class mod­els for ML and I think that’s good for com­pa­nies that are do­ing lead­ing-edge stuff like Ama­zon.

“But there are a lot of com­pa­nies who are still get­ting their heads around it. How do we speak about ML? Who do we speak to?

“Are there peo­ple who com­fort­ably un­der­stand their in­dus­try?

“That’s an im­por­tant role as well and it’s why our team is very much a mix of peo­ple who un­der­stand in­dus­tries, peo­ple and ML, and how to com­bine them.

“My back­ground is a bit of both. I did my de­gree in tech­nol­ogy but my mas­ters in busi­ness.”

As the fe­male CEO of a tech startup, Sheenu is in a mi­nor­ity.

But gen­der isn’t some­thing she feels has played much of a part in her busi­ness carer.

“I know there’s a lot of news about women in tech and the chal­lenges,” she said. “It’s maybe just be­cause of my ex­pe­ri­ence – I’ve al­ways owned my own busi­ness, I’ve not worked for peo­ple.

“I be­lieve you very much are in a place be­cause of who you are.

“I’ve not been in a sit­u­a­tion where I was held back or not given busi­ness. For me you cre­ate your own space, whether you’re a woman or a man, if you’re good at it you’ll cre­ate your own space.

“It’s about believ­ing in your­self – I don’t be­lieve there’s any rea­son why a woman would be less ca­pa­ble than a man at do­ing a job in tech.”

Born in In­dia, Sheenu moved to New Zealand in 2006.

The de­ci­sion to found her lat­est com­pany came partly from her ex­pe­ri­ence there.

“It’s a bit re­lated to my back­ground,” she said.

“In New Zealand I had a mo­bile con­sul­tancy – in 2007 mo­bile was very much at the same stage ML is now. That’s where we did a sim­i­lar thing – help­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions get into mo­bile, build their apps.

“My back­ground has al­ways been in mix­ing busi­ness and tech­nol­ogy, and cre­ate in­ter­est­ing so­lu­tions out of it. That’s one rea­son we’re not fo­cused on a sin­gle in­dus­try. Mul­ti­ple in­dus­tries re­ally ex­cite us.

“My last com­pany was ac­quired by one of our customers.

“After work­ing with us for three years they recog­nised the value in the team – I did the han­dover and I was look­ing for my next chal­lenge. When I was in mo­bile, AI and ML was the next emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy.

“I don’t think there’s an easy an­swer as to how to start a com­pany. You just need to give away your com­fort­able life and do it. It’s not go­ing to be easy – it takes time.

“Hun­dreds of star­tups fail. But it’s per­sis­tence, it’s be­ing there and de­cid­ing you want to do it, not want­ing to work for some­one else and say­ing: ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I know’.”

Go to for more de­tails.

‘‘ We are not a prod­uct com­pany, we’re very much a be­spoke ser­vices com­pany Sheenu Chawla, Skai Labs

‘‘ My back­ground has al­ways been in mix­ing busi­ness and tech­nol­ogy, and cre­at­ing in­ter­est­ing so­lu­tions out of it Sheenu Chawla, Skai Labs

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