[Techie Tuesday] From working on oil fields to building an AI startup that was acquired by a Valley unicorn: Deepti Yenireddy’s journey
As VP Product, Conversational AI, for US-based unicorn Phenom People, Deepti Yenireddy is learning how to build everything for scale at a fast clip.
It’s quite a change from the time she built My Ally, an HR tech startup, which was acquired by Phenom People in September 2020.
“As the founder of My Ally, I built everything from scratch. Here, I am continuing that journey at scale - building the product and tech from scratch, and looking at scale at the same time. It is similar yet very different,” Deepti says.
Her decade-long journey taught her that while technology could be used to solve user problems, bringing in transparency and trust were not easy.
“It is important for users to trust technology and get the right ROI. While everybody loves the idea of AI, nobody trusts a black box that can make decisions for them, where they cannot see the different aspects,” she says.
This was one of her core works with My Ally. She and her team had come up with an activity centre that opened up the decision-making workflow of their AI assistant SKY. It was able to tell users the parameters, and users could change the models. This brought in transparency.
“It isn’t just how we use tech from our perspective, but address all aspects around trust and safety - and think of the user. Every company is trying to do that today. There needs to be some semblance of control in the hands of the user,” Deepti says.
For the love of physics
Deepti’s love for physics and science started early. Born in a middle-class family in Hyderabad to a father who was a tennis coach and homemaker mother, sports played in important role in her life. Her brother, Sandeep Yennireddy, has also played tennis internationally.
“My father would take us to play tennis every day. I did play and liked the game, but was more interested in the library at NV Stadium. But I went on to play tennis in college and won a gold medal for IIT Madras. The reason academics was significant was because my parents inculcated in us early on that education was the biggest equaliser,” Deepti says.
Deepti with her mother and brother
In high school when she was one of the top 10 in a mathematics Olympiad, Deepti knew she wanted to do something in mathematics and sciences instead of medicine, which was her mother’s dream.
“I knew the best bet was engineering. I had fallen in love with physics. Even today , I passionately read about physics discoveries, talk about physics problems with my son, and love teaching it,” she says.
In 1999-2000, Deepti learn about IITs and went through the standard test preps. In 2002, she got into IIT Madras.
Learning at IIT Madras
Deepti was keen to study electrical engineering at either IIT Bombay or IIT Madras. She got through IIT Madras and went through the grind for the next four years. She was one of the six girls in a class of 120 people.
“IIT was a life-shaping experience for me. It was the first time I could see people create and build things, and do things on their own. Everyday people were building things, conducting tech tests. In my first year, I was soldering on my own, and it wasn't out of a book. I was fixing a tool to a bicycle to figure out how many km it was going, to measure the distance,” Deepti says.
This experience changed her life, and she realised that there was a lot that people could do even with a little knowledge. She tinkered around with several apps and appliances during her college years, and even thought of starting up.
Deepti worked on desalination projects and other small ideas, but by 2006 decided to get a job. She worked at oil field companies like Schlumberger and Shell from 2006 to 2009, but the idea of starting up was always there in the back of her mind.
At Schlumberger, which she joined in 2006, she would build and run hardware tools to collect data for ONGC etc within the oil and gas space.
In 2008, she joined Shell where she worked on collecting and interpreting data from different hardware tools across various countries. During this time, she travelled to Bahrain, Egypt, and Scotland.
Deepti with her son
Standing up for herself
Deepti says one of the constants was “I was always one of the few women on the teams”. “”I learnt building things from scratch. I was managing teams of people in high pressure situations with millions of dollars at stake. This was in remote places across India where there were no toilets, no places to sleep…I was the only woman,” she says.
Being the only woman and one of the youngest on the team meant there was bias. “It took time even for clients and my own teammates to take me seriously. I had to put in extra effort. I always felt like an imposter, and had to work 20 times harder for them to take me seriously,” she recollects.
This also meant that she had to develop a thicker skin and learn not to take a no for an answer.
“As a founder, you hear a no every day…you develop a thick skin and understand that nobody is seeing what I am seeing. I, as a woman, was never believed but it kept me going.”
Deepti with her BSchool classmates
Learning the business side of things
In 2009, Deepti realised she would have better opportunities in the US, as that was where the newest technology and innovation were being seen. She wanted to understand how businesses function, and joined the business school at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, US .
When she passed out in 2011, she knew she needed more management experience and interned and worked at early-stage VC firms like Silver Creek Venture Partners and Oppenheimer Funds. She went on to work at UGST Investors LP until 2014 end.
“I got super-excited about VCs, startups, and the greatest companies being created. I had my son in 2013, pivotal because I knew I had to jump ahead and start. I felt that I wouldn’t have add any value to anyone if I continued what I was doing. This led to the decision to start up,” Deepti says.
Deepti at LB Stadium, Hyderabad
Starting up My Ally
In 2015, Deepti started My Ally with a friend from IIT Madras. It started as a AI-powered executive assistant that would set up meetings through NLP and ML - a personal pain point throughout Deepti’s business life.
This evolved to recruiting point automation solutions, where they focused on the fact that building AI in business scenarios needed accuracy.
“You need guidance to make it function in a constrained manner, and determine how interviews happen in organisations. This set the product up for success; it was then expanded it to a full-fledged platform. Our AI would automate conversations between the company and candidates,” she says.
My Ally, an AI-powered HR automation solution, raised funds from Storm Ventures, had Valley biggies like Gokul Rajaram as investors, and had clients like Booking.com and SAP. In September 2020, it was acquired by Phenom People, a unicorn in the HR Tech space.
Today, My Ally automates millions of conversations and provides over 70 percent efficiency gains for customers.
At IIT Madras
Focusing on the user
Deepti is now focused on building strong and responsible tech. She looks at product managers and engineers from two lenses. “I think, for a product, what is important to me is extreme empathy towards users. A product manager should think from the user 's perspective every way. Use a data-centric and qualitative approach and focus on the user,” she says.
She believes engineers are of two kinds: those who code quickly and are extremely important at an early stage as founders need people who can build fast, and those who are structured and have a proven track record (needed to scale).
Deepti advises all women techies to believe in themselves. “We are here for a reason, [and should not feel] the imposter syndrome where we believe we don’t belong. We deserve our place.”
She adds that it is important for techies to create products that create good for the community.
”Every product is mostly for profit and to make money. Fast growth is needed, but it is also important to think of collective common good. We need to think of safety and trust, if we are missing something, if we are creating a monster,” she says.
Every single leader should learn to focus on their top three priorities and align everything they do to those three priorities they have chosen.
“That is your North Star. I always step back and ask if whatever I am doing is aligned with my top three priorities. I have abandoned everything that isn’t related to them. There is always something to do. Everyone brings things to you, but are they in your three top priorities?” Deepti says.