Interview a Founder – Nina Alag Suri of X0PA
DS: Please tell us about the source of the name X0PA and give us your elevator pitch for the company.
NAS: X and 0 (zero) stand for numbers and PA stands for predictive analytics, so that’s how we got the name. But importantly we said it should make sense, so “Qué xopa!” in many countries means, “Wassup, people!” We thought that was pretty cool.
An elevator pitch for X0PA would be, it’s an AI platform that enables companies and job seekers to find the right match with each other, in terms of job fitting, skills, but also culture so there’s a high level of retention and engagement and it drives good performance on both sides. Most importantly making hiring objective and a science.
DS: Thanks. Please tell us about yourself. What’s your origin story?
NAS: Sure. So, I was born in India to an army officer dad and a homemaker mum. I studied engineering. I grew up in a city called Pune which is not very far from Mumbai, the financial capital of India. I worked for a couple of really large companies, ICL and Steria, but I was always determined to be an entrepreneur. My dad gave me the conventional wisdom and said, “Why don’t you work five or six years for a good organization, learn the other side of the table and then venture into your own thing.”
There’s always a trigger to become an entrepreneur. When you’re in a cushy job, you never know when it’s a good day to call it quits and like anybody else, I had this trigger. I had a boss who was extremely prejudiced against pregnant women and he thought that a pregnant woman in a sales role is not the best option. And I thought this is the best time for me to quit and I was really unhappy with him but now, on reflection, I thank him. Thank God he pushed me to do this.
I started my first company in 1997 in India, expanded it to Finland, and then London, and then Singapore in 2005. Expanded to the US and Canada. The previous company was in HR Consulting, using a lot of technology within the HR world and executive search – really helping companies build amazing teams. And three years ago, I thought it’s time I disrupted and pivoted from my own business, before somebody else disrupts us. So that’s how X0PA was formed, on the back of 20 years of domain experience in the market. It’s backed by all the data we collected over the 20 years, outcomes, time series, decisions – We had such amazing data with good feedback and time series that that was the training set for the initial algorithms.
So, the main objective that really pushed me to create X0PA was after having seen 20 years of pains that other companies go through when hiring. But, more importantly, job seekers. Life is not easy when you’re looking for a job and what used to really bother me is that even after 15 or 20 years of working, senior professionals would tell me that, “you know, Nina, I’m at this crossroads in my life. I’m not inspired. I’m not happy. It’s just Groundhog Day.” And I said, “what a waste of life!” So that’s what really inspired me to enable this technology, an AI to make sure that everybody is in the right space, in the right company, the right role in the right team. Both ways. If the job seeker is happy and engaged, the company benefits and of course the job seeker benefits.
There were also other issues around bias, prejudice, a lot of it not conscious, which doesn’t help anyone. So that’s all we’ve tried to do with AI: maximize objectivity, remove subjectivity and make hiring a science.
DS: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome, either personal or professional when you first started defining X0PA? What advice would you go back and give yourself?
NAS: The very first thing I realized is that you are as good as the people that you have. In the initial part, because it was at the R&D stage, there were a few penny wise, pound foolish decisions in terms of hiring people. I had multiple people who were not top notch, just because I was bootstrapping the business, so I was conscious of what I was spending. With hindsight, I finally got my CTO, Sri Harsha Allamraju, who, without exaggeration, is the best CTO on the planet! He was with eBay in California and we managed to entice him, but I wish I had hired him in the first stage. My data science leader, Roy, and his team are all world class.
I would say when you’re building a new business, get the right folk!
DS: Sound advice that I think will resonate.
NAS: Yes, and I want to add that now we do not hire anyone outside our platform. We use our AI and our algorithms to predict about anybody that we hire, and we haven’t made a mistake so far.
DS: Can you take us through a typical day of yours so we can see how your time is accounted for?
NAS: I’m not a morning person, so I cannot claim to get up at four o’clock or five o’clock unlike a lot of my contemporaries. I like to sleep in, but then I tend to work really late. My kids are grown up and my husband travels a lot with his work, we are in various continents, so the first thing I do is wake up and see my WhatsApp to see are there any pictures from them? Are there any messages I should be aware of? And then I head straight into work and lots and lots of client meetings. I love customer interaction, be it sales or client consulting, and I love being with clients. In spite of all my other operational responsibilities, I love being in the deal making and the sales team knows that. If I’m in town, they’ll drag me to the best negotiations and the toughest clients and it’s great fun. So, typically, it’s very outward focused during the day and I tend to do my emails in the evening so that I don’t become reactive. I come back home, have my dinner and then back onto my laptop and clean up all my email and make sure any proposals or any deadlines are all taken care of. There’s a fair bit of flexibility and I can afford to do that now.
DS: Do you have any tips or strategies for others about balancing work and life and about balancing your life at work between meetings and trying to move the needle?
NAS: Two questions there. One was about work and life and I think that work/life balance is a decision you make. It’s not a compulsion, it’s a decision. Throughout my entrepreneurship, that was my biggest driving force. If I’m not going to be happy at home, I’m not going to do a great job at work, and vice versa. I need to be accomplished and I need to be challenged and I need to be doing well at work for me to contribute well at home. It’s always been important spending time with family, with the kids. I was lucky to have the flexibility around time which is now offered to every single person in my company. We’re very flexible around time, around PTAs, sports days or whatever. It’s really important that employees come back feeling happy at home. Of course, working in a startup is very demanding, and the team is aware of the pressures on performance, but they value the flexibility that supports it.
In terms of their work, I tend to feel that on days that my calendar is not chock-a-block, I become a little more reactive, and this is what I try to avoid. During the daytime, you need to be controlling your calendar, rather than the calendar controlling you. One of the things that I’ve been very careful about is not to become too transactional but not to let the calendar rule my day. If I don’t have around 70% of external meetings, I start to get a bit jittery that I’m not “out there” and covering the ground.
DS: Can you tell me a little bit about your company’s path to Azure and your relationship with Microsoft for Startups?
NAS: My relationship with Microsoft goes back three years, to when I just started the company. It started with me interacting with people in Microsoft, and I’m going to be honest here, for one year I was like a chicken without a head. I was going from one department to another. The complexity of Microsoft started to swallow me in. I was meeting hundreds of people, but not getting anywhere. But something in me said that I had to hang in there and that some dots are going to get connected, and that’s exactly what happened.
I think, honestly. it’s probably the best thing that has happened to our startup, to get this Microsoft partnership. Once the dots were connected, the kind of support we get is incredible, in terms of both the Microsoft for Startups program as well as Microsoft as a company: in terms of technology, integrations, training programs, and, of course, the Azure credits!
For a startup, these are great tools because every penny counts and then suddenly it just took a massive formation. And today our relationship with Microsoft is so solid in terms of coselling, how we go to market, how we approach large enterprise. Also, the universities and all of the clients that we’re working with. It’s so tight. And in terms of product as well, we’re integrated with Dynamics, we’re integrated with Teams. There’s something or other constantly happening and hats off to Microsoft for the effort, time and dedication they put into their partners. Honestly, it is mind-blowing.
DS: When you’re not at work, what are you streaming, reading and listening to, to relax?
NAS: Our family is obsessed with music. I learned Indian classical music when I was younger. My son is a professional musician, he’s a composer. So, music is a big part of our lives. Even my puppies go to bed with music.
My husband and I love playing tennis. We are very competitive, both of us, so we play a lot of Scrabble and then we fight over it! And now I’m spending a lot of time with my husband, which is awesome, with the kids away at university. Traveling is a big deal in our lives as well and we tend to take short holidays, given the stressful life that we have. We have homes distributed over three locations Singapore, London and Helsinki.
DS: Finally, if you could pick one change in the world which would make your business explode, what would that be?
NAS: I think an appreciation of equal opportunities, power of diversity and inclusion, appreciation of objectivity in hiring, because that is what we stand for and if every company wanted to achieve that and give those equal opportunities, whether it’s to graduates or to experienced people that would make a big difference.
DS: Thank you so much!