We’ve seen a paradigm shift in retail over the last five years. I believe that for retailers to compete, they need to adapt to the new experience economy, and AI will be the driving force behind this evolution. As a company, we’re helping brands gear up for this new experience economy by providing the tools to automate their processes so they can focus on building the concepts meant to entertain their customers. Think of what Nike has done with their members-only store format complete with localized products and hyper-personalized service, or Casper’s nap lounge, with bookable pods designed to help New Yorkers to get some sleep. DisneyWorld theme parks are entirely experience based, where pictures, payments, wait times, etc. are almost 100% automated.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashwini Asokan.
Ashwini Asokan is the CEO & Co-Founder of Mad Street Den, a Computer Vision and Artificial Intelligence company. At Mad Street Den, Ashwini and her team of 175+, give the power of sight and learning to machines, teaching them to see and experience the world like we humans do. Working across US, India, LatAm, EU and Japan, her team has been known to build some of the most cutting edge AI tech and products.
In 2016, the company launched its first industry vertical Vue.ai — an AI based Intelligent Retail Automation solution that is redefining the future of retail, online, across social channels and in-store. After more than a decade in Silicon Valley, Ashwini returned to India to bootstrap her startup which she founded with her husband, Anand Chandrasekaran, a neuroscientist. As a product leader working at the intersection of socio-cultural and technological systems, Ashwini has been exploring how Artificial Intelligence can be brought out of the Science and Tech labs of the world, applied meaningfully and made accessible to billions of people across the globe. Prior to starting her own company, she led the Mobile Innovation Portfolio as part of Intel Labs in California, driving research and development of AI & mobile products.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the long run, the road to pursuing your passion is less about a skill, a road, or a particular path and more about the ability to grow tangentially across a variety of skill sets over time. This is a mantra I had drilled into my head from the time I was 5, and one that I have held close to my heart ever since. Art was a crucial part of my upbringing, as were design, science, knowledge about computers, debate and logic. I’ve been a UI designer, an ethnographer, a product manager, a program manager, an artist, a business development rep, a wife, a mom. I’ve worn many other hats throughout the last 16 years of my life, and I believe this cross-section of experience has allowed me to do what I do today. I am very well aware that having the freedom to pursue this career path is a privilege.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve had mentors and teachers across a variety of the fields I’ve worked in. These mentors taught me to dream BIG and also taught me the discipline I needed to reach my goals in every step of my career. My career was not a straightforward move up a ladder. Most of the ladders I wanted to climb were not available to me for a variety of reasons. I learnt to make my own opportunities, design my own path, my own journey and create new roads where there were none. I have stopped asking for a seat at someone else’s table, and now I insist on building my own. I have my mentors to thank for that confidence.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
Like most other founders, I assumed that if I did all the research and followed all the steps in building a customer problem centric product, the customers would just come. In the early days, people would keep asking us why they needed AI and I’d often say, “Why won’t you need AI?”. Learning how to sell my product was one of the steepest learning curves I experienced. Developing a greater understanding of sales and marketing has changed me, and humbled me in ways I never imagined — they have taught me about human needs, relationships, intent, trust and so much more.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
AI is evolving alongside our society. AI cannot succeed without societal and cultural change. AI for AI’s sake often leads to use cases like deepfakes, celebrity swaps and face recognition for surveillance. While there is a dystopian vision of the future of AI,we’re working hard to overcome that, to tell a different story. Our goal is to show how AI can have a meaningful impact on how people work and how businesses can imagine the future of their industry.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Reality checks. I have a few friends who routinely keep me grounded, and remind me of life beyond my startup. It’s hard to keep that perspective when you’re growing a young startup. It’s not easy to keep working an 80–100 hour work week for years at a stretch — it’s important to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Sounding boards and reality checks can help you navigate back to ground zero and remember your foundational principles when you’re lost.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Building a startup is like raising a child, it takes a village. There isn’t one person I can point to. I can point to about 50. My parents, my close friends, my cousins, my board members who are routinely there to show me a mirror, my cofounder … the list goes on. It really does take a village.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I don’t presume to have brought goodness into the world. What makes me tick is the ability to be surrounded by fantastic people; their creative and logical processes come together to create something special. Building a global AI startup across multiple countries with some of its largest foundations in Madras, India — my hometown — has been a hugely rewarding experience. I don’t know if I can pinpoint the goodness I’ve brought to the world, but I can definitely say that the world I’ve surrounded myself with has been a product of mutual creation and co-existence.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main question of our interview. Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
We’ve seen a paradigm shift in retail over the last five years. I believe that for retailers to compete, they need to adapt to the new experience economy, and AI will be the driving force behind this evolution. As a company, we’re helping brands gear up for this new experience economy by providing the tools to automate their processes so they can focus on building the concepts meant to entertain their customers.
- Think of what Nike has done with their members-only store format complete with localized products and hyper-personalized service, or Casper’s nap lounge, with bookable pods designed to help New Yorkers to get some sleep. DisneyWorld theme parks are entirely experience based, where pictures, payments, wait times, etc. are almost 100% automated.
- Steve Dennis famously said ‘boring retail is dead’. Companies that have been unable to keep up with societal change are dying. Only those that understand the new consumer are growing. If you’re boring, you’re over.
- Web Smith, Editor in Chief of 2pm, routinely talks about ‘commerce as content’ and vice versa. This is not just a trend, it’s reflective of how people around the world engage with media. Experiential retail is about storytelling. Commerce will be part of a larger experience, not just a roadmap of ways we can buy. Take Away for example — the luggage company touts itself as a travel experience company, it sells the experience of travel, not suitcases.
- The secondhand market is likely to grow to $51B by 2023. There’s going to be a heavy focus on Resale, Rental and Subscription models which can be attributed to the new conscientious consumer and the Gen Z shopper. I recently read a Forbes piece about a survey conducted by the NRF and IBM Institute for Business Value. The article noted that 40% of consumers’ purchases are driven by sustainability and wellness, with over two thirds saying that they are prepared to pay more to organizations who serve their values.
- Better Data for Better Customer Experience — At Vue.ai, we often talk about retail having a data problem. To really put the customer at the forefront in a meaningful way, retailers will heavily invest in AI and big data. It’s not just about collecting and analyzing your customers’ data, it’s about using it effectively to personalise experiences. AI will be retail’s biggest investment in 2020.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe I already have. At Mad Street Den and Vue.ai my team is made up of 50% women across all levels of our almost 200 person global organization. This was one of my goals from day one. I stand on the shoulders of so many women who are bringing about change in their own ways. We have a fabulous gender ratio, maternity/paternity policies, equal pay and so many more foundational principles surrounding diversity. It’s a core philosophy at our startup.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@ladyashborg on Twitter and Instagram, Ashwini Asokan on LinkedIN.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!