It is easy to feel as if one is navigating a landmine, as the person tries to do their best to understand how the world works. And why wouldn’t a person love to understand how the world works? After all, if one can really understand the systems and processes that humanity has created to bring prosperity to the greatest number, isn’t it prudent to say that this person will feel secure in his or her knowledge, as he or she chooses to direct life on one’s own terms?
No one likes to feel insecure.
It feels like a constant pull of dread and discomfort, and over time a human being conditions himself or herself to such an extent that, these feelings are suppressed and ignored, or worse, dismissed out of hand, rather than introspecting why the feeling has arisen in the first place. Today, we try to understand the concept of language. The spoken word has shaped the interactions of humanity for millennia, and over the course of time, we have seen the rapid adoption of a select few ‘global’ languages, spoken by the greatest number. English is one of them.
Today, at Bangalore Insider we spoke to Manit Parikh, the Country head of ELSA Corp, an education technology company that wants to harness the power of artificial intelligence to create a generation of good English speakers all over the world. Below are the excerpts from our interaction.
Give a brief info about your company?
ELSA Corp is a US-based Edu-tech start-up, founded by Vu Van and Xavier Anguera in 2015, which later received funding by Google Gradient Ventures. It is headquartered in the USA with tech offices in India, Portugal, Vietnam and Indonesia. It entered the Indian market in September 2019.
ELSA boasts a team of speech recognition scientists and linguistic experts who came together and continue to create ELSA (English Language Speech Assistant), the world’s smartest A.I. Assistant for pronunciation training and accent reduction. ELSA Speak is an AI-powered mobile app that aims to help users learn, improvise and better their English through narrative modules and sessions. It is a personal virtual pronunciation coach. ELSA can listen to you speak English, pick out the exact errors as you speak at an individual sound level or intonation, rhythm, and pitch. ELSA will then give you instant feedback and recommendation on how to fix those errors. The feedback is fully automated using a proprietary speech recognition technology based on a deep-learning algorithm.
ELSA Corp’s vision is to enable the 1.5 billion language learners around the globe to speak foreign languages with confidence and unlock opportunities in life.
What made you start your company and what problem does it solve? What made you bring it to India?
ELSA was started by Founder Vu Van, a Vietnamese in America, who faced social ostracisation due to her accent and dialect of her English among Americans which many failed to understand. It became the everyday life struggle for Vu Van and thus affected her productivity. English is generally acknowledged as the most accepted business language across the world. A higher proficiency can brighten prospects of career growth and lead to a better standard of living.
An alumnus of Stanford University, Vu Van along with her team, built ELSA using artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP), catering to different native languages. It provides instant feedback once you speak and gives detailed analysis. It lists out your strong points and the areas that need to be improved. It seeks to, with the right framework, guide users to speak English without external assistance.
ELSA uses proprietary speech technology with deep learning and A.I. to detect people’s pronunciation mistakes with 95%+ accuracy. The app listens to the way language learners pronounce words, sentences or conversations to pinpoint exact errors and provide real-time feedback on pronunciation mistakes with specific suggestions on how to improve.
ELSA Speak has a user-base for learners across age groups. ELSA Speak is also widely used by BPO/KPO, hospitality, aviation, retail, banking, call centres, schools, colleges, vocational training institutions and more in India and internationally.
It offers a comprehensive assessment of the phonetic challenges one faces, including feedback on individual sounds, rhythm and intonations. It personalises a curriculum that tailors to one’s specific pronunciation challenges with over 1600+ English lessons and conversations covering 40+ different topics. It also tracks the user’s progress and improvement over time.
Tell us about yourself, your previous jobs/ventures? What were you doing before handling the role of Country Head for ELSA Corp?
Before taking over as the Country manager, I started my career as an analyst in Goldman Sachs and over a period of 3 years I moved on to become the Sr. Associate. Post Goldman a job where I got laid off due to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and global financial meltdown I joined KPMG, USA as an Assistant Manager in the Business Advisory Department and 23 months within doing the company I was transferred to the Hong Kong office on a global rotation program. Post the completion of the program I chose my base as APAC and eventually over 5 years I transitioned to become the head of KPMG’s Digital, eCommerce & OmniCommerce vertical across APAC. In search of a new challenge I came across DTDC Logistics, a part of DPD Group and Indian based company in a complex social, political and economic country like India where I was hired as their Chief Strategy & Business Officer. After working for DTDC Logistics for 18 months, I decided to join Ace Turtle, an eCommerce & Omni-Commerce company, as their General Manager. After working with Ace Turtle I chose an exciting opportunity to be a part of the Senior Management at Yellow, a Blockchain / CryptoCurrency based company, where along with being an Investment Director, I am also the Head of business in charge of Sales / BD, Strategy, Finance, & Account Management functions.
Where is your company based out of? Why do you think that is the best place for the company?
ELSA Corp is headquartered in the USA. In India its base is in Bengaluru. The reason I believe Bangalore is the best place for us because of the following reasons
Accessibility – It’s very important to have your office located in a place where people can easily commute to. The public transport link to Koramangala is very good.
Convenience – Koramangala provides a variety of amenities. The food joints ease the experience of taking our clients or staff out for a drink. Life goes on while we are at work too, so there will be errands our team will have to take care of. It is easy for people to get their bills paid or finish up some bank-related work during lunch hour. Other highlights of the place include the hospitals, major service centres, accommodation facilities, hotels etc. This helps us attract great, young talent.
Restaurants – Majority of Bengaluru’s population is floating, and the biggest need for them is to eat their local cuisine. The large number of restaurants makes it easier for the staff to dine out based on the place they come from. It’s just like home.
Safety – To me, Koramangala is one of the safest places in the city. Nobody needs to be worried about leaving the office at odd hours, and this is key for any start-up.
Trendy – Koramangala is trendy and having an address in Koramangala matters a lot. This really helps in attracting quality clients as well.
Cost – Koramangala is start-up-friendly in terms of cost when compared to the CBD, while being as prestigious as any other neighbourhood.
As a Country Head, what are you paranoid about? What keeps you awake at night?
We are currently growing at a rapid pace and the thing that keeps me up is how to achieve the next stage of growth and sustaining the growth levels.
Who are your competitors and how are you better than them or what gives you an edge over them?
We don’t have any one holistic competitor. Players like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and others all have their USPs and differentiation. For ELSA, its Artificial Intelligence powered application that complements training to assist people to gain command over their spoken English. With over 1600+ in-built modules spanning a plethora of everyday-life scenarios and a seamless customization module to deliver extended learning, ELSA is changing the way people learn, pronounce words and speak business language. which differentiates us from them and vice versa.
How hard is it to have a work-life balance as the Country Head and how do you manage it?
When your wife and kid don’t complain about spending time you know you are managing your work and personal life well. All kudos goes to the great colleagues I have, who know their roles and responsibilities and perform them exceptionally which allows me and them to spend enough time with my wife and kid.
Furthermore, with the right process in place and not micromanaging frees up your time and allows you to manage your time well.
Have was the funding raised when ELSA started out? Have you raised funds recently? If yes, then we would like to know the details. If no then please tell us if you are looking to raise.
ELSA has raised funds from 2016 -2019 from the likes of Monk Hill ventures, MOX/SOSV, Gradient Ventures and others.
The last round we raised was in 2019 from Google’s Gradient Ventures along with Monk Hill Ventures and SOSV amounting to USD 7 Million in series A.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you? Why do they have that? What’s the reality?
The biggest misconception that people have about me is that I believe that I am always right. The reason they have this as I put across a justified reasoning for my strategy or the way forward. I do get oppositions, but none give a justification why the opposition and a solution. The reality is I believe I have a great idea / strategy because I try to look beyond the end of the tunnel, and I try to justify the same with data. I bring the same up for a discussion with my managers and with their inputs we finalize our idea or strategy.
What gets you excited about this company?
The new challenges and roadblocks that come every day and trying to solve it and coming on top is what I love about the company along with all the folks, partners and vendors that work with us.
Tell us how a day in your life looks like? Your schedule for a day right from the time you get up till you hit the bed at night.
My day starts at 5 am with some stretching and light exercises for 30-40 minutes. Post that I catch up on all my emails and plan my day. At 7am I play squash for an hour. At 8 am I get ready, catch up on pre-market news while eating breakfast. I spend 20 minutes with my wife and kid and at 8:50 am I walk to work which is 1 km from my home. Every day (M-TH) From 9 AM – 6 PM I have an internal team meeting with each manager. Post that we have a 15 minutes companywide huddle where we discuss what we want to achieve our targets and more. Starting 11 AM I have 4-5 meetings (Sales, Vendors, Lawyers, Accountants & Partners) and I squeeze lunch in between my meetings. At 5:30 PM I have an end-of-the-day catchup with the entire team and post that one-on-one with the managers. Around 6-6:30 PM I walk back home and post that my time is my wife’s and my kids time where we watch tv, play board games, I read to my kid and chat with my wife about my day and our future plans. 1 hour before I go to bed I watch some of my current favourite shows and read up on sports and Bollywood. By 10:30-11 PM I am off to bed.
So that’s what my day looks like.
Tell us about your team and how did you meet each other?
My team comprises people who I have worked with in the past or have been highly recommended by someone whose opinions I trust. My teams average experience ranges from 10-25 years with folks having backgrounds in sales, marketing, PR, account management, operations and product.
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