This month we’re going behind the scenes in the world of artificial intelligence (AI) startups. Welcome to the interview seat, Kaveer Beharee, founder of Ubiquity AI, in Johannesburg, South Africa. His AI startup is an artificial intelligence tech company focusing on natural language processing and natural language understanding in the financial services sector.
Here he talks about getting in at the ground floor of the AI revolution, and how business communication skills are starting to be valued as much if not more than coding proficiency.
You can also read more job Q&As in our ongoing Interview with a… series.
What is your job title?
I am the founder and CEO of Ubiquity AI, which builds AI-based virtual assistants that can be accessed on online platforms like WhatsApp. We focus on AI solutions where traditional people-based models have failed and address such long-standing challenges as consumer over-indebtedness and the high cost of financial advice.
What does your job involve?
Developing a potentially disruptive technology in the financial services sector is no mean feat. Advocacy and building trust is top priority. It is hardwired into all our business processes, from developing our virtual assistants to educating potential customers and legislators.
Being a ‘mature’ startup means we still operate like a bunch of entrepreneurs rather than a corporate. So while our developers focus on product development, my role is expansive – from being a product owner to raising funding, liaising with our launch partner and customers, and promoting our vision to legislators and other influencers.
What background do you need to start your own AI company?
I’ve probably taken the unlikeliest route to becoming an AI entrepreneur, which shows there are no sacred cows and defined paths to making your mark in the tech industry. I became the youngest economics journalist in SA upon graduating and ended up in PR consulting in financial services. This coincided with sweeping regulatory reforms in the sector so I gravitated towards technical stakeholder and reputation governance.
Social media had started having a profound effect on corporate reputations. My quest to understand its impact on technical reputation management led me down an obscure and little known path of data-at-rest social analytics (a process of acquiring, structuring, storing and analysing social media data and metadata), natural language processing and dealing with highly unstructured data.
When we began developing AI virtual assistants, all these skills were invaluable in different ways.
Which skills did you find most useful in developing AI-based assistants?
The ability to handle and exploit consumer-generated conversational data, when combined with AI technology is key. Right now we use consumer-generated conversational data in new ways to:
- quantitatively identify and track business blind spots and enhance Data-Driven Decision-Making (DDDM)
- develop new solutions and innovation for rapidly training our virtual assistants
- embed consumer engagement to generate/automate internal business processes to address and track consumer complaints or pain points.
We are betting everything that companies who are the most customer-centric will win in the marketplace.
What is the most challenging part of being an AI entrepreneur?
There are numerous challenges for startups, especially those focusing on disruptive technologies. People are resistant to change as a default setting, so you need a thick skin and expect many doors to be shut in your face. It is extremely important to define your purpose as a business, your mission and vision, and never lose sight of those. You have to be your own cheerleader and never quit.
What is the best bit about being an AI entrepreneur?
You get to build the future you envisage.
What advice would you give to a new entrant to the industry?
Think really hard about your purpose and where you want to be in a decade or two, then work backwards from there. Maybe tech is the obvious route. Maybe it isn’t. Sadly, I see so many young professionals (and companies for that matter) get sucked into dead-end routes chasing tech hype. To me, technology is a means to an end rather than the destination.
What is the rate of pay?
Since the ’90s, coding and technical skills were glorified and very lucrative. I’m not sure this is still the case. People with communication and business skills add markedly more value than technical skills in our business, so there’s still hope if you’re not a coder. This may sound controversial but if you consider the three biggest technology innovations of the past decade – big data, AI and social media – all three are converging to make the world much smaller and provide mass-customisation of engagement with stakeholders.
Just like the railway and telephone did more than a century ago, I do not see a bigger opportunity for these technologies other than connecting people in more meaningful ways. Fully exploiting these technologies will require the skills of savvy communicators, and social and psychology experts rather than technology experts.
Is there job security?
In fintech – YES!
Any advice on training and development options?
We’re at the ground floor of an AI revolution. Read white papers, and get out there and meet people. While there are many fascinating books on AI, such as Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity by Byron Reese, I find the nebulous debate around the future of AI generally pointless and not very helpful – especially if you are seriously considering a career in this field.
A more pragmatic approach is finding what social or business problem interests you –addressing poor financial literacy or converting more leads to sales, for example – and investigating the solution from an AI point of view. Be a domain expert first and a tech geek second.
On the tech side, I usually keep up to date on new developments through resources by tech companies like IBM or SAS Analytics.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, we will be a market leader in automated AI debt management systems in whichever markets we enter.
Do you have a motto when you work?
Carpe diem. Carpe noctum. (Seize the day. Seize the night.)
Kaveer Beharee is a management consultant and the CEO and founder of Ubiquity AI – the world’s first company building AI-based virtual relationship managers to help people manage and transact credit agreements with credit providers. You can connect with him via Instagram (@kaveerbeharee), Twitter (@ubiquityAI) or LinkedIn.