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
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 skai.io 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