Spotlight on Sunjay Pandey
Meet Sunjay Pandey — He’s started his own company, he worked for Amazon on the Alexa team, and he is now Capital One’s VP of Product and site leader for their Seattle innovation hub.
As a child, Sunjay Pandey began thinking about his career in a way familiar to all of us: entrepreneurially. Having migrated to the United States with his parents at a young age to escape a coup in Africa, he watched his parents create an entrepreneurial home. He learned from them how to do everything from clean the kitchen, to make the payroll, to read profit and loss statements.
After graduating from college, he spent the first five years of his career in corporate America. He returned to his entrepreneurial roots after surviving being hit by a car -- a horrific accident in which he was thrown into the air and broke his leg. A few months later, on September 11, 2001, he drove by the Pentagon minutes after the plane flew into it. These events reminded Sunjay of the preciousness of time and life -- and motivated him to start a strategy and tech consulting company, which he ran for 12 years.
Today, Sunjay leads Capital One’s Seattle-based digital product team and he is the site leader for the company’s innovation hub there. I had the chance to sit down with him to learn more about his career path, his current work, and of course, his best advice to young founders much like who he was at our age.
Haley Hoffman Smith: Tell us about your career path.
Sunjay Pandey: After taking it as a sign from the universe that I should start a business, I began a boutique strategy and tech consulting firm. We helped Fortune 500 and emerging internet businesses build and scale digital products. From our success with these clients, we then started building first-of-their-kind products in our labs. One of our first products made chat searchable in real time before Google’s GTalk. You could find experts, connect with them in real-time and have your interactions made searchable immediately. It was like Slack before Slack, or Quora before Quora. We also created the first software-as-a-service product for planning and estimating the schedule, costs, and people for Agile software projects. These were algorithms we had built to help us plan our clients’ software projects and we decided to turn this intelligence into a product anyone could use. Finally, we created an automated hedge fund. We were on the path to funding, but then the recession hit in 2007. Circuit City went out of business, and they were one of our biggest clients at the time, and all of this resulted in us having to make some very difficult decisions, including downsizing our team significantly.
With a much smaller team, we re-tooled, and for the first time took some client work with government sponsored entities. Again, we built up our retained earnings. Then, we began another startup, called Wovenly, which capitalized on the over one million apps devoted to kids under 13 at that time. It was an software development kit, or SDK, that enabled a network of game developers to provide educational content inside of games. Parents would subscribe to have their kids see educational materials inside of those games.
My wife and I had one son during this time, then our daughter was born in the summer of 2012. My wife has been with me since the founding of my first company and with two children, I wanted to give the family more stability. An opportunity with Amazon had presented itself earlier in the year, and after my daughter was born, I decided it was the right time to consider it.
At Amazon, I led two cloud services in Amazon AWS that enable companies to build large scale systems and apply machine learning. These cloud services were used by companies like Dropbox and Netflix. I went to Amazon with the desire to gain exposure to cloud business and mobile. After working with the cloud, and choosing to move into the mobile space, I took a job with the Amazon Echo team. At Echo, I was responsible for defining and building the product and SDK that allows developers and brands to write skills for Alexa. We presented our strategy to Jeff Bezos early in January 2015 and launched the SDK, which is now called the Alexa Skills Kit, in May 2015.
When I was transitioning from AWS to Alexa, Capital One called. I was always fond of Capital One because it had been a client of mine in my startup days. I especially appreciated its test-and-learn process. It simply felt like the right fit, because Capital One was trying to transform itself at the time. We were contemplating a third child, and I was proud of what I’d accomplished at Amazon, but I was also ready for a shift. I was drawn to Capital One’s far-reaching efforts to change how people interact with money by leveraging technology. I liked the idea of being able to apply my skills to help other people in their financial journeys. It was the right next step.
HHS: What do you do for Capital One?
SP: As the VP of Product and the site leader for the innovation hub in Seattle, my day to day is about connecting what we learn about users and customers and how they think about their finances with disruptive technology that can reimagine consumer relationships with money and set them on a better path. We use research and data to connect deeply with customers and understand what products can have a positive impact. Then, we work on bringing those products to market. Capital One's core values and mission have a deep focus on diversity and inclusion, and that includes how we serve our customers.
HHS: What is your best advice for today's young people?
SP: Purpose matters. Find the things that inspire you and that have impact. Finding those things will naturally give you propellants and rocket fuel to build and grow successful enterprises. There is no better source of motivation and hard work than knowing you are making an impact. There's a quote from the Dalai Lama that says, “The easiest way to forget about your own problems is to focus on the problems of others." I think that is not only beneficial to you in terms of relieving your own worries, but more importantly, intrinsically wanting to do something meaningful for our fellow people. We are social animals, so finding and tapping into service for others will carry you further, and help you work harder, solve technical problems, and work better together as a team. This is the same regardless of if you work for a nonprofit or a business.
And, to entrepreneurs, specifically -- beyond your purpose, identify a metric that measures the customer impact, then figure out how to build your business with a cost structure that drives costs lower as you add more customers to your platform. Digital unit costs are important and finding the metric that proves you've delighted your customers can yield the recipe for a successful enterprise.