Thejas Prasad said his path to entrepreneurship began by “happenstance.”
During his junior year of college, Prasad took an automated question-and-answer class to fill an internship-less summer. By the end of the course, he and his classmates won the IBM Watson Competition with a prize of $100,000 to start a company.
That company is Cerebri AI, a start-up transforming customer experience for Fortune 500 companies. Cerebri AI is currently backed by Microsoft and has 50 employees across offices in Austin, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
“I never thought it was my thing to do,” Prasad said. “My dream was always to go do my PhD and become a Microsoft researcher in AI.”
IBM Watson held a competition in New York City featuring teams from universities across the nation. Prasad’s team created a social services app that answered questions using Watson’s AI capabilities.
After the competition ended, Prasad said he figured he and his team members would collect their prize money and go their separate ways — until he realized they still had to deliver on a contract they signed with a company during the competition. After some time, Prasad’s classmates left to pursue other endeavors, but he decided to continue with entrepreneurship.
“Graduate school will always be here,” Prasad said. “All that stuff will always be here for me. I wanted to take a risk.”
Prasad’s team’s initial idea centered around social services such as food stamps and homeless shelters, but the company later pivoted toward product affiliation for a construction company and now helps Fortune 500 marketing teams increase their sales. Throughout these changes, Prasad said the company’s goals have remained the same.
“When we were doing social services, the product was giving individuals the product they need,” Prasad said. “If you consider food stamps, any of the social services, as an individual product, it’s still a product of affiliation of sorts.”
Prasad said his three and a half years at Cerebri AI have had their ups and downs, but when things took an emotional toll, he would try to look at the big picture.
“What I usually try to do is take a step back and say, ‘Okay this is a down moment, but I know it will come back to better. Let me just persevere and stick with it,’” Prasad said.
Despite the hardships, Prasad said working at a startup can be more engaging than working at a large company because he applies so many skills from different sectors of business.
“The skill is necessary is when you go into tech,” Prasad said. “You should be able to pick up random materials — especially in the way our field is going. There are new things coming on very fast.”
Now, Prasad said Cerebri AI’s plan is to expand and attract more clients in order to sell the company in the next couple of years.
“After that we’ll see where it goes,” Prasad said.