College Startup Founder
Charu Thomas, a tech entrepreneur who founded her company while still completing her undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech, talks about how she almost didn't continue on with the business after graduation. Why did she change her mind? Listen in to find out.
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00:00  Guest - Charu Thomas: While I was graduating college, I honestly didn't really want to start a company. Like I didn't want to move forward with what I was doing in the business at all because I felt like I didn't have traction. I didn't have momentum. I just felt like it probably would have been a better idea to just let it go and start research. But the thing that really changed my mind fundamentally was my mom. She has a PhD in physics. She told me, "You know, you could get a PhD at any time. Like, it's not even a big deal, but you need to make Oculogx successful. You've already committed to this and that's what you have to do." So I was like, "Okay, she's right." Like, I've done something, committed to something, we have a little bit of money invested that I need to go and take and build into something greater. That was truly the motivation. If it wasn't for her saying that, I definitely would be in a different position.

00:52  Intro: Hello everyone. Welcome back to the Unpolished MBA podcast. In this episode, I had a conversation with Charu Thomas, a Georgia Tech researcher turned entrepreneur who made the Forbes 30 under 30 lists for 2020. While in college, she came up with a great technology solution to help retailers. And I remember meeting her when she was on campus at Georgia Tech, but at that time she chose to focus on her studies and work on this business on the side. Her technology was so groundbreaking though, she won a hundred thousand dollars in the Startup Battle competition in Atlanta, which is one of the largest competitions in the area. As you just heard, Charu didn't want to go forward with the business after graduating from Georgia Tech, but someone wise and highly respected in her life helped to change her mind. Listen in as Charu shares more about her journey.

01:58  Host - Monique Mills: All right, so Charu, are you an entrepreneur or corporate employee?

02:03  Guest - Charu Thomas: I'm an entrepreneur Monique. Thanks for having me.

02:05  Host - Monique Mills: MBA or no MBA?

02:08  Guest - Charu Thomas: I do not have an MBA.

02:10  Host - Monique Mills: So, tell us what your education background is.

02:13  Guest - Charu Thomas: I have a Bachelor of Science from Georgia Tech.

02:16  Host - Monique Mills: And so you said entrepreneur, so tell me a little bit about what you're working on, what's your business?

02:21  Guest - Charu Thomas: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I run a company called Ox, and at Ox, what we do is we build the tools and processes that retailers need to transform their stores into micro fulfillment centers. And what I really mean by that is I'm sure you like me are probably indoctrinated into the Amazon - it's just so compelling. And the way Amazon can get you your packages in such a short period of time is they have these e-commerce distribution centers all across the US. Now, the big challenge is that retailers in order to truly compete with that level of service; have to rebuild their entire supply chain infrastructure from the ground up, because if you think about it, their distribution centers are built to replenish pallets and cases to the store. They're not built to ship directly individual items to end consumers. And so, that's kind of the underlying infrastructure challenge that they have.

03:15  What we kind of propose is that instead of rebuilding their entire supply chain infrastructure to fulfill e-commerce orders, they could actually leverage their stores as micro fulfillment centers because they have greater access and greater touch points to the end consumer. But the challenge is obviously stores have existed for hundreds of years and you and I that go into a store. We actually spend as much time as possible in the store for impulse buys. So there's these competing, you know, requirements that are changing what it really is to be a store. And we essentially build the technology that enables that seamless transition to fulfillment through stores. And it can actually be up to 90% cheaper to fulfill from stores than even e-commerce distributions that are built for that purpose.

04:00  Host - Monique Mills: I'm going to break it down for the audience that is not necessarily familiar with all of the e-commerce terms or even terms like fulfillment, you know, they're like, "Huh, what's that?" So basically, I order something, I'll just use Walmart for an example. So, I've been one of those folks who have used the app to order groceries and things before we were in a pandemic. So I enjoyed the convenience of, you know, putting in the app what I need and backing up my car up to the back door and them bringing my items to the car. So, is your technology involved in that process behind the scenes for them?

04:41  Guest - Charu Thomas: Yeah, that's exactly right, Monique. So that's like the curbside pickup, buy online pickup in store process, and our technology directly involved in that fulfillment process. So, we build the tools that the store employees can use to go find the items in the most efficient way possible.

04:59  Host - Monique Mills: So I've had that pleasure of seeing a video of the way your technology works, like with someone using it. Of course, a short video, you didn't give us all the details, on YouTube. So I'm wondering, so I know that was like when you were first getting started and how long have you been in business now?

05:14  Guest - Charu Thomas: So actually we were incorporated in 2017, but I like to think of our true starting date in January, 2019 because that's when I started full-time.

05:22  Host - Monique Mills: I mean, so much happens in such a short amount of time as a startup. Wait a minute, you just mentioned that 2019 is when you started doing it full-time, so what were you doing in between that timeframe of when you first had the concept and I guess your prototype into then doing a full-time? What were you doing in between that gap there?

05:40  Guest - Charu Thomas: Yeah, so actually during that time I was doing research at Georgia Tech. I was still in college and so I was getting my Bachelor's in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Tech's number one ranked program. And while I was there, I also did a lot of research with Inventor of Google Glass and published that work internationally. We won best paper actually, and it was a really awesome experience. I was building a lot of technology, understanding hardware and software, and just all the space there and was able to leverage that knowledge when I started full-time to build the actual product or the first elements of the product.

06:16  Host - Monique Mills: You know what, that's really awesome because one of the things that most people don't think is possible is to, you know, create something while they're in college and then actually continue on and create a full company out of it afterwards. So, that's something that you've managed to pull off, which is rare, and you are an anomaly. What do you think made it different for you? What gave you the courage to be like, "Oh, you know what, let me continue on in this journey?"

06:44  Guest - Charu Thomas: Wow. Yeah, Monique, that's actually a really deep question because when I was graduating college, I was kind of weighing the options. Like, I was thinking, "Should I be a researcher or an entrepreneur?" I even wrote about that summer and had spent months and months thinking about what the right choice would be. Basically, the conclusion I came to was that I really loved being a researcher. I liked inventing new things, but I was really frustrated by the fact that I spent six months working on a paper and published it, built the technology, you know, did a user study, whatever, and three people would read the paper. It was just so frustrated with me because I felt like I spent so much time and poured my heart and soul into it and no one really cared.

07:26  And what really drew me to the idea of entrepreneurship was that idea of impact. You know, I could build something that actually helped a lot of people in their day-to-day lives, and that's kind of what drove me to entrepreneurship. But that being said; I'm not what I would say a quintessential entrepreneur in any way, shape or form, so it was really uncomfortable for me. And while I was graduating college and kind of weighing the two options, I honestly didn't really want to start a company. Like, I didn't want to move forward with what I was doing in the business at all because I felt like I didn't have traction, I didn't have momentum; I just felt like it probably would have been a better idea to just let it go and start research. But the thing that really changed my mind fundamentally was my mom. So, I remember this conversation, so deeply, because it was like one of those pivotal moments that I didn't know it at the time obviously, but is one of those pivotal moments.

08:18  But she told me... she has a PhD in physics. She told me, "You know, you could get a PhD at any time. Like it's not even a big deal, but you need to make Oculogx successful. You've already committed to this and that's what you have to do." I mean, I took that to heart. I was like, "Okay, she's right." Like, I've done something, I've committed to something; we have a little bit of money investment that I need to go and take and build into something greater. So, that was truly the motivation; if it wasn't for her saying that I definitely would be in a different position.

08:50  Host - Monique Mills: Wow. You just mentioned something that I am so passionate about when it comes to like representation and having people that you know, or respect, or love being an example for what's possible. And you're definitely, you know, blessed, I would say to have that person be your mom, who also is a, you know, woman in STEM. And you know, my kids, they're still younger, they don't appreciate that about me now, but hopefully, I'm hoping one day they may sound like you. But that is so awesome. I’m definitely giving virtual hugs to your mom because you know, she's done an incredible job by just even encouraging you to keep going forward.

09:33  Guest - Charu Thomas: Thank you, Monique. Yeah, I really appreciate that because she is genuinely the smartest person in the world in my eyes. And is someone I look up to quite a bit, like, I think that I aspire to be like her every single day, so it means a lot to say that.

09:48  Host - Monique Mills: Wow, that's awesome. I love it. I love it. So, you know, you say, well, I'm not the quintessential entrepreneur. You know, no one has it all figured out, right. Everyone is figuring out as they go along, and I guess the longer you're in it, you realize that to be true. But when you first get started, it can be a little bit intimidating, right, because it seems like everybody else knows so much more.

10:09  Guest - Charu Thomas: Totally, totally. Yeah. Like for me personally, I always saw myself as an academic type, honestly. Like, I wanted to be mathematician and economist when I was growing up in high school. And it's just so surprising that I'm on this path, especially after getting involved in research, because that would have been just almost natural next step for me. I was comfortable in research. I think I was a pretty good researcher too, to be honest, and I had incredible mentors to thank for teaching me how to do good research. But again, like I said, I was drawn to the impact of entrepreneurship, but I don't think you can really see the same impact in research, unfortunately. I mean, maybe I'll take that back. I think you can see that, but it's just so much longer of a timeframe typically. And so, you know, you can do research that truly changes the world for decades and decades to come, but I guess I'm a little bit impatient and I want to see the change in less than a decade.

11:05  Host - Monique Mills: That desire to solve problems, to have some immediate impact, to also like make things happen as far as solving a problem that you see right now. Those are several characteristics of entrepreneurs and quite often we get a bad name for having ADHD and all those different things, which I think is a good thing. We make things happen.

11:26  Guest - Charu Thomas: For sure, and movers and shakers. I appreciate that.

11:31  Host - Monique Mills: So you mentioned that previously the company was called Oculogx, and now it's called Ox.

11:39  Guest - Charu Thomas: Oculogx is a name that I came up with and I'll give you kind of the background on where it came from. So Oculogx means, you know, "Ocu"--which was like eyesight, because originally we were focused on pick division technology. And “logx” was supposed to be a reference to logistics, first of all, and second of all, like the log of X function, because, you know, I wanted to be a mathematician. That was reference there. And plus, it had a domain name that was available, there was no trademarks on it, and so...

12:12  Host - Monique Mills: I know that trap, Charu. I know that trap.

12:16  Guest - Charu Thomas: Yeah, it was so good.

12:17  Host - Monique Mills: Especially with the whole domain name you write, "Oh, this is what's available, so I'll name it this, and so everything could be consistent, even if the name isn't the best." Like, I've been there.

12:29  Guest - Charu Thomas: Yeah. So, you know, you can see the pitfall coming basically. But yeah, I mean, we were called Oculogx for probably like three or four years total. But it still didn't really catch on like, even our customers that we've known for years and years, still misspell it, there's an “I” in it - Oculus, like there are so many issues. So, we were like, "Okay, you know what?" We were raising a round and that was happening. And so we wanted to align the renaming and the round coming out pretty closely. And so, we announced those about a month or two between each other. So, it's a stronger brand. We have a cool logo now, I mean, I'm pretty thrilled about it. Our team did a fantastic job.

13:10  Host - Monique Mills: Well, just in case people, because I mentioned the cool YouTube video from when you first started out with the optical technology; they'll probably look up Oculogx and see a lot of different things online relative to that, because you won some startup competitions and things like that, and so, your name is pretty much out there.

13:32  Guest - Charu Thomas: Oh yeah, that is true. That is true. Yeah, so we do a lot of backlinking I guess. I mean, I'm not the expert on it, to be honest, but...

13:40  Host - Monique Mills: What do you think your strength is within your company... because----I can level with you; you and I are both engineers so I understand for myself how I can be a little quirky in ways that some people don't necessarily understand because I'm constantly problem solving. That's the way I'm designed. So, you know, the way I may run a company may be different than someone who has more of a creative background, right. And so, I'm wondering... but that's my superpower. So, what is your superpower in your company?

14:11  Guest - Charu Thomas: I would say maybe it's... I think it's between two things. And I think they're both pretty important, but maybe there's like one word to describe both of them. One, is I think the energy. I think that that's fundamental that you need to be an entrepreneur. Like, you need to have that optimism and that excitement and that energy. And I think it's been really helpful because, whenever you're building a team, that's where people are super drawn to, so that's one aspect of it. I think that's one of my biggest strengths personally. But another one that I think is really important too, is the ability to anticipate need. I'm not sure exactly what to call that. I mean, I don't think empathy is exactly correct in describing it, but it's more like the ability to be able envision what the obvious logical approach is even if it doesn't exist today. And I think that that's probably coming from like the research background, you know, where we were literally forced to do that for years. And so, I think that created or pushed my brain in that way where it's been super useful now.

15:10  Host - Monique Mills: You definitely describe yourself accurately when it comes to the energy you bring to a room, so I can only imagine within your company how that can be contagious.

15:21  Host - Monique Mills: Oh my God, thank you so much, Monique; that means the absolute world to me. What I will say is, I mean, I do definitely think it's a big part of our culture, but in addition to that, we have so many incredible people who've contributed their own slivers of themselves to our culture, which I think is super important. So like one thing that I really admire that we do every single day is we ask each other, did we wake up excited? And that comes from one of my teammates, Tanner, who his personal philosophy is, you need to wake up five out of seven days excited. And I think that that is such a powerful...

15:55  Host - Monique Mills: It is. So, tell me how big your team is now.

15:58  Guest - Charu Thomas: We are 13 people.

15:59  Host - Monique Mills: And where are you located?

16:00  Guest - Charu Thomas: We are based in Bentonville, Arkansas.

16:03  Host - Monique Mills: You were in Atlanta at Georgia Tech, and now you're in Arkansas. How did that transition happen?

16:07  Guest - Charu Thomas: Yeah, so I originally came to Northwest Arkansas to be a part of a Walmart-backed startup accelerator called Fuel. And it was here that I met a ton of community leaders, mentors, business leaders throughout the ecosystem. And I was very well plugged in and connected to the ecosystem, and I just fell in love with it. I mean, it's a really great community, and I'm from Atlanta and my heart, you know, obviously, there's a huge part of me that's still in Atlanta. My family still lives there. I come back as much as I possibly can and Atlanta still has a huge chunk of my heart. But Northwest Arkansas also has a lot to offer, and it's kind of almost a small town, but it's incredibly vibrant. It's growing incredibly quickly. It's beautiful. There's really great art here too, and mountain biking trails, so the quality of life is phenomenal and...

17:01  Host - Monique Mills: Sounds like a great place to live.

17:03  Guest - Charu Thomas: Oh yeah, it's amazing. It's amazing. It's a place that is very unexpected, I suppose, but I was really, really impressed when I got here.

17:12  Host - Monique Mills: And I know, like you mentioned Walmart innovation takes place there and Walmart has a presence there. Did they create that kind of domino effect with setting up shop there and then it kind of attracted other things?

17:23  Guest - Charu Thomas: Oh yeah, 100%. I think Walmart... so there's three Fortune 500s within the Northwest Arkansas ecosystem; it's Tyson Foods, JB Hunt, and Walmart. And I think by locating in this area, they’ve essentially created their own economy because Walmart requires a lot of vendors to have offices here, which means that some of the biggest companies that supply to Walmart directly have offices and presences here. So, NCR, and Zebra, and General Mills, and Tata, you know, like so many different big companies ended up moving here because... or at least having a location here because they were required to, which I think created that economic flywheel basically.

18:05  Host - Monique Mills: And I'm sure there's incentives by the state that helped make Walmart comfortable with setting up shop there. And then it's kind of like this, you know, like domino effect, and that's wow. I'm so glad we brought that up during this episode because a lot of people don't realize how ecosystems, like, if you're intentional, you can build ecosystems out like that and a lot of people win.

18:28  Guest - Charu Thomas: Oh yeah. No, it's huge. It's huge, and it's pretty cool.

18:34  Host - Monique Mills: Well, that's it. So, what did you think? Charu is a ball of positive energy and a force in the tech startup world. She had other options and paths to pursue, but as you can see, she decided to bet on herself. And in the beginning, it's tough when things aren't moving as fast as you want them or expect them to, but that's really just part of the journey. And I'm so glad that she hung in there and is now building an incredible company, serving large industry leaders like Walmart and Google.

One thing that I hope you learned from this episode is that you can be innovative at any age, and it's really up to you how far you want to take it. Also, I hope that her experience with picking up and moving to a new state to give her business the greatest chance for success, encourages you to know that moving outside of your comfort zone is sometimes literally moving. And it's required in more ways than one. And don't be surprised when you find unexpected beauty, experiences, and joy in your new location. Charu is actually quite active on LinkedIn and her company Ox can be found at getox.com.

Thank you for listening to the Unpolished MBA Podcast. To hear more episodes or to request, to become a guest, please visit unpolishedmba.com.

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