From big dream to Silicon Valley success

Turning tech innovation from big dream to Silicon Valley success

Co-founder of multimillion-dollar software company Cyara, Alok Kulkarni employed grit, adaptability and a willingness to learn to reach his dream of becoming a technological entrepreneur.

Alok Kulkarni, Distinguished Monash Alumni
Kulkarni is the co-founder and CEO of Cyara, a software company that tests large-scale customer communications platforms.

His silences spoke louder than any words. At the beginning of his address to graduates in 2019, Monash University alumnus Alok Kulkarni paused several times to regain his composure. It wasn’t because he was nervous or unprepared. He was emotional.

The co-founder and CEO of Cyara, a software company that tests large-scale customer communications platforms, Kulkarni graduated from Monash with a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical and Computer Systems) in 1994.

Today, his global company is headquartered in Silicon Valley (although run out of Melbourne) and services corporate giants including Telstra, Tesla, Oracle, eBay, ANZ Bank and Microsoft.

But looking out over the assembled graduates that day, Kulkarni’s personal journey was front of mind. “My road to arriving here at Monash was not simple, or one I took for granted,” he began.

Migrant experience 

Born and mostly raised in Mumbai, India, Kulkarni arrived in Melbourne as a 17-year-old, with his mother and sister, to join his father, a chef. The family squashed into a two-bedroom apartment in Glen Iris, with furniture donated by The Smith Family.

Kulkarni, sharing a bedroom with his younger sister, Suhasini, went straight into Year 12 at Hawthorn Secondary College. “It was daunting, because I was very nervous,” he says of those early days.

“At that age you’re always worried if you’re going to be made fun of because your English isn’t good enough, or because of the clothes you’re wearing. Everything was different.”

When I came to Australia, I looked at the Monash degree, and I thought, ‘technology is my passion and this is what I want to do’.”

Thankfully, he says, people around him were welcoming. Kulkarni put his head down and finished dux of his year, enabling him to get into his first-choice university course: computer systems engineering at Monash.

“It was like a dream come true,” he recalls, adding that in India, out of thousands of student hopefuls, only a very small number get to work in this field. “It is the most sought-after thing. So, when I came to Australia, I looked at the Monash degree, and I thought, ‘technology is my passion and this is what I want to do’.”

Entrepreneurial spirit 

After graduating, Kulkarni decided he wanted to become a technology entrepreneur. He wrote down his goal on a slip of paper that he kept under his pillow, re-reading it every day to keep focused.

In 1996 he landed a job with a Japanese software development company and met Luan Tran, a former refugee from Vietnam who shared his passion for tech start-ups.

The pair formed a partnership and, in their spare time, built a medical practice management software system. It failed. They got another partner on board and pivoted to hotel management. It also failed.

Meanwhile, Kulkarni added a Master of Business Administration from the University of Melbourne to his qualifications and concentrated on gaining more experience in sales and business development. And he continued learning from his mistakes.

Digital mystery shopper 

In 2006 he and his partners struck on the idea for Cyara: a “digital mystery shopper” that tests customer communication platforms, such as call centres and AI chat systems, using software and tailored algorithms.

Kulkarni calls it a “customer experience assurance platform” that synthetically creates the journey of a real customer. Rather than leaving customers frustrated because an automated system doesn’t work, Cyara can test it digitally and quickly find and address faults.

Cyara

It was an exciting moment because the idea was original and, unlike previous ventures, the team knew their market intimately.

“[But] it was the toughest decision of my life,” says Kulkarni, who by then was married, with two children and a mortgage. He had a lot to lose.

Global market leader

Encouragement from his wife, Buena (a biomedical graduate), was crucial. “I’ve got to give it to her,” he says. “If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably be still on the fence.”

Three keys to success: one, set clearly defined life goals; two, have grit and back yourself; and three, be a lifelong learner.

Today, Cyara (founded by Kulkarni, Tran and Bonny Malik, who met Kulkarni studying at the University of Melbourne’s Business School) is a global market leader in customer experience assurance with annual revenues in the millions. It employs more than 200 people in Australia, the US, London and India, and is backed by Silicon Valley institutional investors.

Kulkarni still lives in Glen Iris (but in a bigger house), with his wife and teenaged sons. Back at Monash, Kulkarni shared with the graduates his three keys to success: one, set clearly defined life goals; two, have grit and back yourself; and three, be a lifelong learner.

They are now traits he looks for in anyone he is considering working with professionally, too. “You need to constantly adapt to the new environment [and] keep learning.”