Mack has built a successful business optimized for autonomy and profitability. Excellent navigation!
Sramana Mitra: Let’s go to the very beginning of your journey. Tell us where you’re from. Where did you grow up? Where were you born and raised?
Mack Sundaram: I was born in South India in a village near Chennai. I spent some time of my childhood in Chennai and Pondicherry. I later went to school in New Delhi. Since then, I moved over to the United States where I got an opportunity to pursue a doctoral degree in Economics. That’s where the transition happened.
We’re a middle class family from India. There was a lot of support and pressure for doing well in education. I appreciate my parents for doing that, but there was always the push to find something that you really like to do. I still remember my parents telling me many times as a child that I’ve got to find something.
If you’re a painter, you’ve got to be the best painter on earth. You’ve got to push yourself that way. That was the environment that I grew up in. I carried that with me throughout my life. It wasn’t easy to find the right thing that you’re good at. Fortunately, I did discover it, which was being an entrepreneur.
Sramana Mitra: You said you were pursuing an Economics Ph.D.?
Mack Sundaram: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: Where was that?
Mack Sundaram: At Purdue University.
Sramana Mitra: Did you finish the Ph.D.?
Mack Sundaram: No. I was highly motivated to learn about Development Economics. I was a big fan of Amartya Sen who’s a Harvard economist and Nobel Prize winner. I wanted to pursue that line and do research in Development Economics. I had my own theories of how poor countries can ameliorate themselves. I wanted to pursue that.
Unfortunately, I found that I wasn’t the right fit for that environment in Purdue because they were not focused on Development Economics that much. They were focused on Macroeconomics. It was a different fit. But I got the chance to pursue my passion somewhere.
After I finished my Master’s, I got the chance to work at a startup as one of the early founders. I started doing that right about the time when I was finishing the program. That was an incredible opportunity because it was a very futuristic startup. It brought all my learnings together. As I told you, my dream was to be good at something which I really like. Somehow I really liked Economics. I got into Economics only because I wanted to understand people well. I like the social and psychological aspects of life, if you will.
This startup was being started by my professor at Purdue. He was working for the US Marine Corps and the US Army. They were looking to us to build an artificial intelligence system that would create synthetic economics. You’d create different economic scenarios by programming them – economy in recession, good economy, poor economy.
The problem that they were trying to solve was, if we had different economic scenarios, what are the kind of people that we should recruit so that in 10 years’ time when we have battles, we will have a competitive advantage. It’s a pretty incredible problem to solve. We did a fair amount of work on that for about two years and built a system which they really liked. My time was spent going back and forth between Indiana and Virginia. The Marine Corps was there. The US army was also there.
We had to talk with them a lot about our wanting to model this thing and then build artificial intelligence into it so the system can learn by itself and produce battle combat results that will be meaningful. Now we’re in 2018. We’re talking 21 years ago. At that time, people hardly knew the term artificial intelligence. Now, everybody is talking about it.