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 had 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 is being an entrepreneur.
Sramana Mitra: You said you were pursuing an
Mack Sundaram: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: Where was
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 is a Harvard economist and Nobel
Prize winner. I wanted to pursue along 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 had 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 that 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 started by my professor at Purdue. He was
working for the US Marine Corps and the US Army. They were looking for 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 kinds of people should we 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 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 2019. We’re talking 22 years ago. At that time, people hardly knew about the term artificial intelligence. Now, everybody is talking about it.