CEO, TRANSFR VR
New York, New York
As a child, Bharani Rajakumar (MBA 2011) was intrigued about money. “It seemed like everyone had it except us,” he said, and so when he went to college at the University of Florida, he decided to study finance. With a career at a major investment bank, he found himself making more in his early 20s than his parents had — a scientist on an H-1B visa and a stay-at-home mom.
He attributed his success to the opportunities he found in education, such as Florida’s “Bright Futures” program, which allowed him to attend college for free. He wanted to find a way to help others have the same opportunity for success, and knew education was the best way to get there.
Rajakumar had become familiar with the sophisticated technology used in the financial industry, and believed it had applications in education. His sister, Mohanalakshmi Phongsavan, had been a leadership program coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University, which is when Rajakumar first learned about CMU’s contributions to technology and ultimately decided to start his education technology business while doing an MBA at CMU.
Following the successful acquisition of his first company, LearnBop, an automated tutoring software for teaching math, Rajakumar is already hard at work building up the customer base for TRANSFR VR, a virtual reality education company that helps people develop job skills.
What is your elevator pitch?
TRANSFR VR creates training simulations in virtual reality to help people develop the skills that will help them get a job and improve their performance for their first career.
What was the “aha” moment?
I went to this gaming conference out in San Francisco called GDC — Game Developers Conference — and I experienced virtual reality for the first time. The biggest industry for VR is gaming. I thought, “I don’t think people understand how big this is going to be for education.” Everything is so visual; everything is so hands-on. It basically involves almost all of your senses.
The only thing I care about is education. So anything I see, I’m going to immediately think, “How do you use that for education?” So when I went to this conference and felt the immersive experience of virtual reality and how it tricks your mind into thinking what you’re seeing is real, I knew the technology could be used to teach people soft skills, like how you interact with a customer or how you negotiate. It could also teach procedural things for how you become a bartender or a chef or a surgeon. I just thought the possibilities were going to be endless.
I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble raising money for my second venture because of the success of the first one in LearnBop. I raised some angel money and started putting together a plan.
How did Carnegie Mellon help shape your entrepreneurial path?
Once I got onto campus, I learned about the fantastic interdisciplinary approach that CMU fosters across the campus. I learned about a lot of really neat stuff that I knew nothing about, like human-computer interaction, learning sciences, cognitive science — even some general psychology. Once my professors learned that I was really interested in education technology, they pointed me to all the various departments on campus that could help me get going. Dennis Epple [Thomas Lord University Professor of Economics] introduced me to Carnegie Mellon’s Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research, where I took classes in human-computer interaction and psychology in addition to my entrepreneurship coursework at Tepper.
The Tepper School was the launching pad for my entrepreneurial career in education technology. CMU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is way more robust today than it was in 2009, but they had panels where I got a chance to interact with other CMU entrepreneurs, and the support system and advice were incredible.
Dave Mawhinney [Associate Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship, Executive Director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship] was the very first person I shared my business plan with. My business plan was terrible: It didn’t really have any of the information that’s useful; it was me talking about hopes and dreams. I remember how patient he was, walking me through what could be improved. It turns out CMU has a lot of people like this, who are really willing to spend time with students and help them refine their thinking and build an actual product and business.
CMU was one of the first institutions to try to create a free education model through the Open Learning Initiative. It was run by a woman named Candace Thille, who’s now Director of Learning Science and Engineering at Amazon. The staff there shared their philosophy about education and where technology and education collide. A lot of other organizations were just thinking about video; they were putting up educational videos for consumption. But the way CMU thought about education technology was more about interaction. It was about putting something in front of a student that he or she could interact with, and based on their interaction with what was on the screen, you could gather data about the performance of that student: Are they performing well? Why are they performing well? What are the gaps in their learning? When you have that information, you can then use that information to coach them.
What were your pivotal moments?
In 2009, the nation was really focused on Common Core math, raising standards to be more on par with international math standards, and there was a lot of angst about that. And so we wanted to adapt this idea into an automated tutoring system. The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center has some of the world’s leading experts on intelligent tutoring systems. We built an authoring tool for some of the best math teachers in the country to input the questions that they would ask students whenever they got a math problem wrong. We ended up creating a program where students would see a math problem, and if they got it wrong, the software would ask them questions step by step like a human teacher would, and they would learn to solve the problem on their own. They would learn from their mistakes in real time. That’s what became known as LearnBop which was started in 2011.
We put it in low-performing schools that needed help with math. Our claim to fame was a school in Brooklyn called MS385. The principal said to us, “Whatever you have, we’re going to try it. We’ve tried everything else, and nothing’s worked.” They piloted our program for one hour a week for an entire school year. The students in the pilot classes went from only 30 percent of their kids passing the state math exam to 96 percent passing.
We went to sell this program to schools around the country. The company was acquired by K12 Inc. in 2014. For me personally, that did a couple things. I was glad to see the positive increase in math achievement, especially with a student population with almost all of them on free or reduced lunch and almost all of them minorities. This is a group of the population that doesn’t necessarily get all the latest and greatest resources. For me, it was satisfying to see these kids, who have it more difficult than your average middle income or upper income family, can still do well if they get the right resources and right tools.
Pivotal players who get included in your thank-you speech?
What’s different this time around with my second startup is that I have a wife and a 2-year-old. I am really lucky that I have a wife who lets me work as hard as I do on trying to contribute to the education industry. Despite having her own accelerating career in finance, she still manages to be an amazing mom to our daughter, and that inspires me.
What’s the best advice you have received?
A professor at CMU named Jack Mostow [Emeritus Research Professor for the Robotics Institute] said that flattery will get you everywhere. It’s so true. You have to meet a lot of strangers in business, and so one of the best ways to break the ice and build a relationship is to find something about that person that you like and talk to them about that. A lot of business has to do with relationships.
Don’t get too discouraged when things don’t go your way. And don’t get too excited when everything seems to be going your way. At the end of the day, if you’re trying to set yourself up for long-term success, every day is going to have its ups and downs, so you want to be focused on what your goals are. Obviously, celebrate things that go well, but don’t let it go to your head. And if things aren’t going well, try to find ways to improve, but don’t beat yourself up over it and give up. You have to keep persisting.
Does anything keep you up at night?
It’s business, so it’s very competitive. One of the things that I always think about is, Are we doing the right thing at the right time? Is what we’re doing today absolutely the thing that we need to be doing today, or are we wasting our time? There’s a lot of competition out there, and if you’re not working on the right things at the right time, that could mean you’re not setting yourself up for long-term success. I think figuring out what we need to be doing is one of the hardest things to do, because there isn’t one path to success — there are a million different paths — and figuring out the right path for you and your team is pretty hard.
What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?
Probably one of the biggest mistakes that people make is jumping in and building a product without fully understanding how the market works. The best thing that you can do is, first, before building anything, just go out there and talk to people who you think would be your customers. Don’t worry about the fact that you don’t have anything to show them — just go talk to them and find out what their life is like. What are their top three most pressing issues? How much do they spend to solve the problems that they have in their lives? If, at the end of the conversation, you find out that the things that they view as their biggest problems aren’t in the ballpark of the idea that you have, then that’s probably not your target customer.
TRANSFR VR is in the customer discovery phase. We have a great technology and a great team, but we want to find the best market opportunity. We’re currently speaking to everyone we can, in manufacturing, hospitality, medicine, K-12 schools, higher education, career development programs — all of it. We want to really understand what their problems are in training people and figure out where our technology will be the best fit.
The good thing about this approach is that the only thing it costs you is time. You’re not out there spending tons of money building something and then hoping someone will use it. You’re out there talking to people, figuring out what their problems are, so that you can actually build something that will be useful. I think one of the biggest mistakes a lot of people make is that they’ll build something and hope they find a market for it. A less risky way to do that might be to go talk to people who you think are going to be your customers and figure out if they, in fact have the problem that you are trying to solve.