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From Data to Decisions: The Power of AI in Business

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In this episode of the Executive Connect Podcast, host Melissa Aarskaug interviewed Raj Shroff, Director of Applied AI Research at Blu Artificial Intelligence. They discussed the evolving landscape of AI in business, the practical applications of AI in various industries, the ethical considerations surrounding AI, and its potential to drive sustainability and innovation. Raj shared insights from his experiences in AI strategy and education, offering valuable perspectives on how businesses can leverage AI to optimize operations and stay competitive.

Key Takeaways

0:00 – Introduction

10:12 – The Evolution of AI in Business

  • AI is transitioning from a niche technology to a mainstream tool across various industries.
  • Businesses are leveraging AI for digital transformation, enhancing decision-making processes and operational efficiency.

15:05 – Key Business Problems Solved by AI

  • Business Insights: AI helps in understanding customer behavior, market trends, and company performance to make informed decisions.
  • Risk and Cost Reduction: AI applications like fraud detection and inventory management systems reduce operational risks and costs.

21:00 – Cybersecurity and AI

  • AI is enhancing cybersecurity by identifying unusual network activities and potential threats through machine learning models.
  • Educating employees about cybersecurity threats, such as AI-generated phishing emails, is crucial in preventing cyber attacks.

27:00 – Generative AI in Various Industries

  • Generative AI serves as a tool to augment human creativity and productivity, rather than replacing human jobs.
  • Industries such as marketing, content creation, and design are increasingly using generative AI to streamline workflows and generate new ideas.

34:00 – Ethical Considerations and AI Governance

  • Companies must ensure AI decision-making processes are transparent and ethically sound.
  • The rise of roles like corporate AI ethicists is essential to oversee and guide the ethical use of AI within organizations.

Guest Bio:

Raj is the Director of Applied AI Research at Blu Artificial Intelligence, a consulting firm specializing in AI strategy, projects, and education. He also teaches university courses covering the business applications of AI & emerging technology. Raj previously worked at AXA, an insurance multinational, across IT projects and finance.

Personal LinkedInwww.linkedin.com/in/rajendrashroff/

About Melissa Aarskaug:

I’m an energetic executive with 15+ years of experience steering companies to new heights of growth and scale. An engineer at heart (I started my career as an engineering manager on one of the world’s largest concrete bridges), I’ve become a trusted leader and business builder in the technology and cybersecurity space.

Personal LinkedInwww.linkedin.com/in/melissa-aarskaug
Podcast LinkedInwww.linkedin.com/company/my-executive-connect
Websitewww.executiveconnectpodcast.com

Transcript

Raj Shroff 00:00
AI is just a tool to achieve an objective. So the objective is whatever you want it to be. Do you want it to save you money? Do you want it to save you time? So just as Microsoft Excel was a tool, just at the calculators a tool, AI is increasingly going to be seen as just a tool. The real question is, what do you want that objective to be? What problem do you want to solve? And then it’s really about finding the right application of machine learning or computer vision or generative AI to make that happen for you to help you achieve that objective.

Narrator 00:38
Welcome to the Executive Connect Podcast, a show for the new generation of leaders. Join Melissa Aarskaug as she speaks to a wide variety of guests that bring new insights into leadership, prosperity, and personal growth. While no one has all the answers, by building a community of open minded and engaged leaders, we hope to give you the tools you need to help you find your own path to success.

Melissa Aarskaug 01:08
Welcome to the Executive Connect Podcast. I am so excited to have Raj here today to talk with us about AI strategy and education. Raj is the director of applied AI research at Blu Artificial Intelligence, a consulting firm that specializes in AI strategy, projects and education. He also teaches university courses covering business applications of AI and Emerging Technology. Welcome, Raj.

Raj Shroff 01:36
Hey, Melissa, great to be here. Happy you could have me on.

Melissa Aarskaug 01:41
I’m gonna jump right in and just ask you from your perspective, can you share with us what initially drew you into the AI? consulting space?

Raj Shroff 01:52
Yeah, so my background and my path into AI and AI consulting is not really standard by by most people’s understanding. So I’m not a programmer, I don’t I’m not coming from a tech background, I actually got my start in the insurance industry out in Asia, I work for a French multinational insurer called AXA. And I was sitting out in Hong Kong and our office was running digital transformation IT transformation programs for our businesses in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. So I actually did that for about seven years. And I got a really front row seat into how not only the insurance industry, but also financial services in general, was moving from paper based in person ways of doing business, to doing business over the internet, website based mobile based, and really collecting a lot more data from customers and the business in digital format and taking action on the data using basically intelligent IT tools. So I did that for about, like I said, seven years and I went off to business school, I went to the University of Hong Kong to do my MBA there. And while I was there, like every MBA students, I had a choice to make, what do I want to do with my future? And I had it all planned out in my head. So I thought, okay, insurance is great, but I want to pivot into finance. So I had done my CFA, got my CFA credentials, passed all three exams, I thought, I’ll move on to investment management. But as it turned out, quite fortuitously, I ended up taking a course at the University of Hong Kong called AI for business leaders. And when I took that course, it wasn’t just an introduction to AI from a technical standpoint, it also covered how it’s applicable for enterprises. And something really clicked in my head because I thought, hey, in my past life, I was doing this digital transformation, IT projects how to work. And now that I’m learning about what AI can do for the enterprise, I really felt that digital transformation had laid the groundwork for using machine learning to automate business decisions, or at least make more intelligent business decisions based on data. So I thought, hey, that’s exactly where I want to be. And I ended up getting an internship for a short amount of time, and just stuck with the company I’m with and the company I’m with is called Blue Artificial Intelligence. We’re based out of Canada. We have offices in Canada and Hong Kong and just do business all over the world.

Melissa Aarskaug 04:37
I love it. Isn’t that how life happens? Sometimes we just pivot on a dime. If you were to told me 10 years ago, I’d be in the casino gaming industry working in cybersecurity. I would have laughed to you. Hear we are today, right? It’s funny how we pivot and things that interest us and our passions become things that we explore, You know, as it pertains to AI, what type of business problems is your organization solving right now?

Raj Shroff 05:11
Yeah, so that’s a great question. And what my company does is we do a mix of AI education at the executive level. And we also do do strategy consulting, that really builds off on the AI education and awareness. So in terms of the business problems that we saw, we’re really have found out that any company in any industry, forgetting about AI, specifically, they have to solve three business problems, or do business in three ways to optimize these three metrics. And the metrics are getting business insight, what do your customers want? How is the market evolving? How is our company performing? And when do we have to pivot? So business insights? The second is how do we reduce risk? So if you’re a bank, how do you reduce the risk of fraud and money laundering? If you’re a supermarket, how do you reduce the risk of running out of inventory, so risk reduction, very important. And finally, there’s cost reduction, not really firing all of our employees, but really finding ways to do more with the same amount of resources that a company has. So those are the the three problems that we solve our we help our clients tough. And if I can give a couple of examples without really naming the clients, we work for factories and manufacture clothing, and apparel, and we help them build a computer vision based defect detection system where you have literally a mobile phone that’s plugged into the assembly line, taking real time videos and saying, Oh, this product is defective, take it off the line, this product is fine, send it on to the next point. Things like this, just save so much time for the factory itself and like. And it’s just helped with quality control. It’s a very simple tool. We didn’t need a lot of hardware. It wasn’t a high cost project. But it had real results and desperately on the risk reduction cost reduction side. And if you look at the business incisor, so one of the other projects that we’ve done. A little bit of a while ago was working for a property manager that, owned a bunch of commercial real estate. And they wanted to maximize the occupancy within their within their proper property of so getting more customers in and really finding a way to maximize occupancy in the place without increasing prices too much. And this wasn’t really a machine learning kind of solution. It was more data science driven. And we just found a way to say okay, here based on the data that you have customers coming in and going out, what kind of vacancies you’ve got. Here are some ways you can maximize occupancy or increase occupancy, without really increasing prices so much. So we just brainstorm a bunch of ways where you could use the input from statistical modeling or data science to give yourself inspiration and how to make more impactful business decisions.

Melissa Aarskaug 08:19
That is interesting, one of the areas that I’m most fascinated by an AI is the intersection between AI and Cybersecurity and how companies can use AI tools for to help support cybersecurity. I know you know, I joke I joked recently on a panel I was on where back in the day, I used to get a lot of these phishing emails and they spelt Microsoft wrong, or they’ll click here and the logo for Wells Fargo was wrong. And virtually overnight, all of this has become so hard to spot the it’s perfectly written with a perfectly colored logos and it they’re hard to spot. So I know, you know, the intersection of AI and Cybersecurity. I guess the question is, how does your organization or help mitigate some of those risks now and maybe your insights as AI crosses into cybersecurity AI tools?

Raj Shroff 09:18
Yeah, this is an area that every company is looking at. And I can speak to this from two standpoints. One as a consultant, and also I teach university courses on AI when I’m not working. So when we go into the classroom, how do we talk about cybersecurity? For younger business leaders, I can kind of share both stories. I guess one of the things we tell our corporate clients is pretty much exactly what you mentioned, like people are using chat GPT to write really high quality phishing emails. Where if you’re an overworked employee, and you get this email, you’re like, This looks legit. Just provide my credentials because it asked me for them, because I need to reset, or I need to like upgrade my assets. Let me just do it. So what’s the way around this? I mean, in a way, it’s, the solution is less to do with cybersecurity and just like more, making humans trust emails less to like be more critical, and really look through it. And I mean, at the old company I worked in before all this AI stuff. We had a saying that said, security is everybody’s responsibility, not that we’re kind of putting the blame on to the employee that clicks on the email link, but just company wide education, saying, This is what a phishing email could look like. These are the things that our IT departments or human resources department will never ask you for. So just raising awareness to kind of put up, a shield saying, Okay, I got this email, it looks legit. But then one or two things don’t make sense, because my own company has told me that we would never do something like this. So that really starts with educating the workforce on what a reasonable email request could be. So that’s maybe the most effective short term way to counteract this AI written, fraud, fraudulent emails. But I was just I just wrapped up teaching a university course over in Hong Kong called big data and finance. And I mentioned it was in Hong Kong, because literally, when I was teaching the course, there was a really high profile like deep fake scam. Where there’s this Hong Kong company, financial services, they didn’t name the company, obviously, but a fairly entry level, finance clerk got really scammed by a deep fake video that was pretending to be the CFO of the company and a few other high ranking employees that made a request to say, transfer $25 million into an offshore account. And of course, this employee, he’s not dumb, like, You’re smart. He’s been doing this. For a few years, he was like, Okay, this doesn’t make sense. So the scammer said, let’s get on a video call. So you can see our faces. And the faces were completely deep fake. The the audio was deep fake, because all these people were relatively famous. There were clips of them speaking at public events. And the scammer just took those clips, train their models to basically create a filter Fake a filter to appear as the CFO or this finance director. And they got this poor employee to transfer $25 million. And that money is essentially gone. I hope that guy is doing okay. So, I guess, how do you mitigate these risks? I mean, it’s very hard to just start with education. But then there’s another angle here, which maybe you can appreciate from a cybersecurity standpoint is just how do you detect when a hacker is potentially in your network? And really, the answer to that which companies are working on is just building neural networks to kind of understand what does normal network activity look like within our servers, and train a model with example of normal network activity and malicious network activity to the model learns over time, it gets better and better, the more examples of seeds. So when there is somebody that’s potentially intruding on the network, the system could automatically flag it saying, okay, investigate this, this doesn’t look right. So we can go from the very low tech ways of just making people more aware to spot a scam. We’re also building a machine learning model to automatically detect very hard to find malicious network activity to kind of not solve or at least mitigate some of these cybersecurity concerns.

Melissa Aarskaug 13:56
Absolutely. Well said I agree. I know. You know, if you follow me, I’m always traveling somewhere that side of the globe, that side of the globe and learning people’s behaviors is key. You know, I don’t usually work at two o’clock in the morning. Now, I might if I’m in another country, and it’s a different timezone. And so I think you just understanding your people when they work, how they communicate. And really, I hate to use the word but common sense, right? Do we normally send, you know, this large amount $25 million dollars at midnight? Do we normally is there level as levels of approvals that need to happen? So I think, yeah, it’s education. People are best learned offense. And it’s also stopping and thinking about, you know, what you’re being sent is, should I get a second opinion? I had it happen to me recently, where they used my social media profile, how I communicate online. And they went in and targeted somebody else that knew me well. And I saw the email of a communication like, well, that sounds exactly like me exactly something I would say. And it was so similar, that it’s almost like they put one of my social media post in chat GPT or something and rewrote it. And it sounded exactly like me and something I would do. And so they’re getting to be so so good. And so like, you mentioned, mitigating the risks and protecting our employees, because like you said that the employee probably lost their job. And unfortunately, it’s, it’s hard. It’s hard now, right? And so, and then kind of pivoting when I think of generative AI, you know, how how do you think generative AI is transforming and changing other industries?

Raj Shroff 15:52
Yeah, so, I mean, we can talk so much about this, we can look at the impact on creative industries, such as your writers, visual artists, designers, you can also look at corporate white collar work, like how is it changing these industries, I mean, my general thesis, they use water generative AI tools, I use chat gpt, I run these models, open source models on my computer, use mid journey, all the video generation stuff. And my general takeaway at regardless of which industry you’re in, is that we can, anybody out there can use generative AI, more as a thought partner, kind of to augment their own thinking their own work, and speed up the time it takes to produce an output, whether that whether that output has a blog post, or a marketing post, for your company. And it’s really about augmenting content creators that are already effective. It’s not going to automate everything that we’ve produced, like, honestly, if I look at Chat GPT generated writing, most of it is really bad, I would not read it. Whereas if I read a blog post, or an article from, let’s say, a journalist or a blogger that I follow, that like resonates with me in a different way. So AI is not good at doing this yet. But this same author or Blogger can say, okay hey Chat GPT helped me brainstorm ideas for this topic, or here’s something I’ve written, am I missing anything? So I’d like to see generative AI use more as an augmentation tool, rather than a straight up automation tool.

Melissa Aarskaug 17:31
Yeah, I like that idea. I might have to use that Raj is asking chat GPT or Grammarly, or some of these other tools to missing anything? That’s a real, that’s a good tip, I’m going to use it. Pivoting a little bit. From an ethics standpoint on AI from an ethical standpoint, how do you think companies should be paying attention to asset?

Raj Shroff 17:33
Yeah, so..I mean, I keep seeing this, meme online where I believe it from IBM from a management training seminar they had really in the 80s, or even before, they said that a computer cannot be held accountable for a business decision. Therefore, they should never be allowed to make this decision. So I might be paraphrasing it or taking creative license, I believe it was IBM, if not, it was somebody else in that in that league. But that really applies to how we use algorithms for decision making today. And because an algorithm can’t really be held accountable for discriminating against one of your customers, or making a decision that loses the company money, it’s really important to have some level of human in the loop operations. Now, from an ethics standpoint, every company or industry is going to take a different approach. So for example, if you look at banking versus advertising, if in banking, if you if you if your algorithm discriminates against a customer that wants a loan, or a group of customers based on their background or their income category, that’s generally bad, like the reputational risk is high. And the fallout from generally being unethical or discriminatory is pretty bad. Now, so banking and financial services really customer based client based industries, they’re going to really look at putting in robust systems where these AI systems that are making decisions or making recommendations that the models are explainable in sample where you can go in and audit the model and say, Why did you make this recommendation to make this law to a customer. Or to let’s say to this kind of operational activity, and generally, there’s probably going to be a lot of human oversight, where in a perfect world there’s going to be employees that have the right to veto what the model recommends, saying, we’re going to do something entirely different because based on our expertise, and our understanding of the business and the customer, we think that what the models recommendation does not make sense. So that’s kind of one way to mitigate the ethical damage from relying on models too much. And when I teach about AI, and we we get asked the question, What will AI do to careers in the future, one of the things that stayed is, it may actually give rise to something called a corporate AI ethicist, where you have a department or a person or a team sitting in a company, where their job is to really look at all these algorithmic decisions that we’re doing, are they actually serving the needs of our customers? Are they making our customers lives better? Instead of just focusing on top line revenue or, or bottom line growth? So really, the the ethicist in this sense is not really, really not a machine learning engineer. But somebody that understands the business well enough, and also understands technology well enough to say, Okay, this is where the bottles are operating in an acceptable way. Or this is how they can be improved, so that they meet the needs of customers better without violating just normal, social or ethical or business norms. So that’s something I really see accelerating as more companies become more data driven, more Model Driven when it comes to making decisions.

Melissa Aarskaug 21:51
Yeah, I probably go out on a limb and say a lot of companies, everybody’s using AI. Now, I don’t think I know any company that’s not using some form of AI tool in their sales or marketing, or finance department. I would you say that most companies now are using AI tools?

Raj Shroff 22:10
Yeah, absolutely. They’re using AI driven decision making apps for sure. Because even if you’re looking at a tool like HubSpot, that you people use to manage their customer, customer Resource Management Systems marketing systems. There’s a lot of AI tools built into HubSpot. So even if a company themselves is not using AI as a core business is not something they’re designing the definitely relying on third party tools that are using machine learning in some way. And if we look at more data driven industries, they absolutely had to be using more AI for operational decisions. So even if you’re like a supermarkets, you may think, oh, supermarket, it’s a brick and mortar business people go in. But then every supermarket that’s of this particular size, they collect a lot of data on who goes in, what do they buy? when do they buy it? So they have a pretty good idea of the customers behavior, customer of preferences. And they’re kind of using that understanding of their customers to really do better demand forecasting. So they figure out okay, what kind of products are in demand at certain times of the year or certain times of the week? Which products have seasonal demand? Is there any weird spikes in demand happening, like during the pandemic, when everybody bought toilet paper for some reason that I still don’t understand? And even at this point, you can the supermarket, which is traditionally seen as a old fashioned, not data driven business taken plugin all of these data inputs into an AI system or a machine learning tool that kind of makes predictions about what should be stock? What should we have in stock? What do our customers want, which products should be marketed to our customers, so that we get the biggest bank for our advertising dollars. And that these models can plug in seamlessly into inventory ordering systems procurement systems to automatically replenish stock before you actually stock out. So to your point, every business is using AI in some way, either consciously, in ways that we don’t think about like supermarkets or unconsciously when a small business is using topspot using maturity Chat GPT, just to make their daily life easier in some way.

Melissa Aarskaug 24:38
Yeah, and I see a lot of buzz right now on sustainability and climate change. And you know, I know all over the world now everybody’s having weird weather places that didn’t snow is now hot and the hot places are now raining and snowing. So, you know, I know it’s become really popular and not online now. AI and climate change. How do you any thoughts on on AI as it pertains to sustainability and climate change?

Raj Shroff 25:06
Yeah, we go talk about this all day. And the issue really starts with there’s no real accepted understanding of what climate change is. And the truth is, many people just don’t take it seriously enough to invest into it. So I actually was speaking at a climate change conference a couple months ago. And when I went in, I was like, Alright, so we have, we have metrics to track climate change, whether it’s the 1.5 degrees, warming temperature, like sea levels rising, and so on. But most of you will, that doesn’t resonate with most people. You just have jokers saying, Oh, if it gets a little bit warmer, I would like that, because the very cold here in Minnesota or wherever, or in Toronto where I am. So my real thing when it comes to how AI can make climate change more manageable or counteract the effects of climate changes, just reduce pollution and waste? Like how can you kind of do this? And you show them a picture of New Delhi, where smoggy all the time shown picture of Beijing, where it’s smoggy, and is polluted, that really gets with people. And then they ask the question, how can AI make this better? So the real impact that AI can have not just to reduce emissions, but also to save companies money? Is optimizing energy use not using less energy, because over time, we’ve used more and more energy, this is going to continue, there is no such thing as a low energy prosperous economy. So the real question is, how do we not waste energy, so that it, we’re just not burning coal or burning gas for no reason. And AI can really help here. So if you’re an office building, or if you’re a data center, you’re spending a lot of money to cool the building, keep the lights on, keep the air conditioning and the data center running so your servers don’t overheat. So what machine learning models can do as they can take data on temperatures? How many people are in the building? What’s the air quality in the building, and it can kind of train the model to understand at what times of the day should the air conditioner be on? What times of the day should lights be on help me modulate energy usage, so that things are comfortable for the people or the servers in the building without just using too much energy. And one of the people that did this very early on was Google, really back in 2016, where they found a way to use machine learning to automatically modulate the air conditioning in their data centers. And they managed to reduce their electricity bill by 40%. And, and that’s a huge number for a data center, you can imagine the similar effect that it could have on a commercial office space. And you’re not just through to saving money, you’re you’re also reducing your energies and your energy usage. And that’s just great for most countries that are still reliant on natural gas, fossil fuel for their energy needs. And if we look at any city in the world, it’s not residential units that are using a lot of electricity, commercial, commercial real estate manufacturing, do use a lot more energy, So if you can find a ways to optimize that or modulate that, that in my view can have the quickest impact on mitigating the worst effects of not just climate change, but increase emissions.

Melissa Aarskaug 28:42
Yeah, that’s 40% is a humongous number for, humongous number. I realize that was that high. So living in Austin, you know, everything’s AI right now. You can’t. It’s the big buzz. Everybody’s anticipating the next big thing. There’s tons of startups here. And there’s more moving every day. And so I’m curious, from your perspective, being in the education space, what are you the most excited about as it pertains to AI? And, you know, as we continue to develop, you know, AI and generative AI?

Raj Shroff 29:19
Yeah, so what I’m the most excited about is really this overlap between AI and augmented reality. And I should explain this a little bit, because what is the most cutting edge AR VR tool we have today? That’s probably the Apple Apple vision Pro or the medic quest. They’re really bulky, they’re hard to use. You look like a kind of a dork when you walk into the streets wearing them. So but then the proof of concept there, where you can overlay a layer of intelligence really over the real world that has some real impacts. So in going into the future as these models get better, or as these pieces of hardware get better. We could really come back to the era of smart glasses that overlays information about the real world, in front of us. So your point about whether you’re living in Austin, whether you’re living in Toronto or somewhere in Asia, people are just doing normal people things, and how can AI kind of integrate into that length experience and make better. So, literally a couple of examples, if you’re wearing smart glasses that gives you information about the real world, you got a camera on the glass, it’s looking looking outward, is giving you feedback. It can be as simple as, hey, I’m in Austin with summer we’re barbecuing home, my glasses are telling me to take the steak off the grill. Now before as far as burning, they’re just little little tips like that. Well, let’s say, tou’re on a first date you are dressed to impress. And then you get feedback from your smart glasses saying, or based on your dates, Body, body language, she’s really not into this right now. So maybe time to tell a funny story, have her think have her think that you’re interesting and a fun person, just little tidbits like this, that seem futuristic. And, and you it may be hard to believe now. But that mix of augmented reality, and just reality, just our physical reality, if AI can somehow feed us information to kind of help us navigate life in a more seamless way. I see a lot of potential there. And I’m pretty sure in next three, four years, nobody’s going to be wearing these bulky headsets, it’s probably going to be smaller, leaner. It may even be other devices that you can clip onto your ear, that’s even less obtrusive. But it’s still giving you feedback on the real world in some way. So that’s personally what I’m really excited about.

Melissa Aarskaug 31:51
Yeah, when you said that made me think of the old cell phone, like the big bulky old cell phone with the top high antennas. And now you know, our iPhones or like our computers now are walking computers. And that’s a really quick timeframe that I went from, you know this to this. So I’m also interested to see how it develops, coming from the education space, just kind of enclosing here some key takeaways for the listeners that you want to leave as it pertains to AI. From your perspective, maybe top three? Yeah, so first and foremost, AI is just a tool to achieve an objective. So the objective is whatever you want it to be, do you want it to save you money? Do you want it to save you time. So just as Microsoft Excel was a tool, just as a calculator as a tool, AI is increasingly going to be seen as just a tool. So from an educational standpoint, whether I’m in the classroom or talking to executives, the real question is, what do you want that objective to be? What problem do you want to solve? What opportunity do you want to take.

Raj Shroff 32:57
To take by the horns really, and then it’s really about finding the right application of machine learning or computer vision or generative AI to make that happen for you to help you achieve that objective. And I guess the last thing I’ll say is like, AI is evolving. So quickly, there’s, there’s a fear among people that they’re kind of getting left behind, or there’s too much information to, to take on board. My general advice there is just try using some of these AI tools, you’re not that far behind, you’re you’re actually very, very early. Most people have not used chat GPT, it’s free to use just log in and use it, see what it can do for you. And if you like it, keep exploring it. If it’s not for you, that’s totally fine. But then in the future, if we’re in one of these jobs that are potentially at risk of AI doing more of it, I don’t think it has been replaced most jobs. I do believe, however, that people that are good at using AI to do their jobs, might get more job opportunities than people that are not good at using AI for that same job. So it’s a never ending learning experience. And hopefully we have fun with it along the way.

Melissa Aarskaug 34:12
I love that people have to tell the tools what to do. And then the AI tool so it’s a person that’s telling him what to do. The tools aren’t telling us what to do. So it’s really great points. Raj, thank you so much for your insights, your information and your knowledge in this space and connect with Raj he’s on LinkedIn. Thank you for your time and that’s Executive Connect.

Narrator 34:38
You’ve been listening to the Executive Connect Podcast. If you have questions or ideas on how to bring leadership to the next level. Email us at executiveconnectpodcast@gmail.com And don’t forget to subscribe so you can catch every new episode. Until next time.

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Bryan Hancock Headshot — Founder of Integrity Development

Bryan Hancock

Founder of Integrity Development

Integrity Development

Executive Biography

Bryan Hancock has been managing real estate investments—and overseeing development and construction projects—for nearly two decades. He has deep roots in Austin, Texas, and comprehensive knowledge of the opportunities and challenges in this fast-growing market.

Through his development and syndication companies, which he built from the ground up, Bryan has developed 50+ urban infill projects and managed $25M in real estate sales with approximately 35% return on investment at the project level. He also co-founded two private equity funds.

Bryan brings in-depth industry awareness, sharp business acumen, and extensive in-the-trenches experience to his work as co-founder and principal of Integrity Development. He partners with a team of professionals and industry experts (many have been involved in Austin real estate for 40+ years) to identify value-added and opportunistic investments that protect capital and reduce risk for lenders—while delivering outsized returns for investors.

Earlier, Bryan founded and directed Inner 10 Development, a residential development firm focused on Austin’s top zip codes and surrounding communities, and H2i, LLC, a real estate syndication company. He steered these organizations for 17+ years, overseeing the acquisition, buildout, and sale of single-family and multifamily properties, including a 350-unit urban infill joint-venture project.

Bryan was successful in delivering strong returns while minimizing risk for bankers and investors by taking a targeted, data-driven approach to opportunity analysis, due diligence, and strategic decision-making. He zeroed in on potential risks and developed proactive mitigation strategies to protect and grow investments.

Concurrent with his work at Inner 10 Development and H2i, Bryan established Gentry Lending Group, a private-equity debt fund. He also served on the board of Bullseye Capital Real Property Opportunity Fund. These experiences provided Bryan with a grasp of both investor and banker viewpoints, including an understanding of risk and liability on the lending side. This aspect of his background continues to shape his real estate decisions to this day.

There is another unique aspect to Bryan’s career—a corporate history that differentiates him from other investors and developers in this field. Bryan has built organizations, controlled multimillion-dollar projects, and supported billion-dollar programs for some of the world’s largest companies: Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Dell, CACI, and Charles Schwab. He managed teams and vendors in the US, China, France, and India, and often balanced up to 10 projects at a time. He was trusted with a Top Secret Security Clearance from the United States government.

A business-savvy leader and lifelong learner, Bryan holds an MBA in Finance and Entrepreneurship from Texas Christian University and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

Bryan founded the Wealth Investment Network, co-founded RealStarter (a crowdfunding platform for real estate investors), and was a member of the Urban Land Institute and Central Texas Angel Network. He has been a guest speaker at 20+ national events, including conferences and meetups through the Information Management Network (IMN), SXSW, Rice University, Bay Area Real Estate Summit, Soho Loft Conference, Texas Entrepreneur Network, and many others.

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Melissa Aarskaug Headshot — Founder of Executive Connect

Melissa Aarskaug

Founder of Executive Connect

Senior Executive, Board Member & Advisor

Vice President of Business Development
Bulletproof, a GLI company

Executive Biography

Melissa Aarskaug is a global executive and business leader at the forefront of the technology/cybersecurity industry. She shapes strategy, leads teams, and partners with Fortune 500 companies and other enterprise clients to protect their organizations from risk and noncompliance—while improving operations and accelerating growth.

For 15+ years, Melissa has taken the reins to propel organizations to the next level of performance. By combining business acumen and revenue optimization with the sharp mind of an engineer, she uncovers and seizes opportunities for profitable growth in the US and around the world.

Melissa has established a distinguished career with Gaming Laboratories International (GLI), where she is a key member of the senior executive team. Throughout her tenure, she has assembled teams, developed new markets, and influenced P&L impact, ultimately positioning GLI as the #1 provider of testing, certification, and cybersecurity services to the global gaming and lottery space.

After achieving this feat—a big win for GLI and game-changer for clients worldwide—Melissa steered both GLI and Bulletproof (acquired by GLI in 2016) into untapped verticals: finance, government, healthcare, higher education, hospitality, and retail. An enthusiastic, knowledgeable growth driver who cultivates partnerships and rallies teams, she led GLI/Bulletproof to dominate these markets as well.

Before joining GLI, Melissa shaped and executed strategy as Vice President of Business Operations for LV Investments, where she built and optimized a portfolio of commercial and industrial properties. Earlier, in a very different role as Project Engineering Manager for Fisher Industries, she directed and mobilized a team of 550 employees and contractors to develop the world’s largest concrete bridge. Previously, she headed a major engineering project for Pacific Mechanical Corporation.

A curious, lifelong learner, Melissa holds dual Bachelor of Science degrees in Civil and Environmental Engineering with minors including Business and Mathematics. She is a Karrass Master Negotiator and C4 Executive Coach who actively pursues ongoing education and inspiration as a member of Chief, Austin Technology Council, Austin Women in Technology, and Toastmasters International. In addition to her own personal and professional development, Melissa is committed to helping other people thrive both inside and outside of the workplace. She actively mentors and empowers team members at GLI/Bulletproof, and is an executive leader and coach for Global Gaming Women. She founded Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) Austin and is a current or past board member of many organizations, including Emerging Leaders in Gaming, Ballet Austin, Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, the Society of Women Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. She has been a Junior League volunteer in Austin, Las Vegas, and Reno for 15+ years.

Throughout her career, Melissa has inspired individuals, teams, and entire organizations to think differently about innovation, cybersecurity, leadership, and business development. She was honored as one of the “Emerging Leaders in Gaming: 40 Under 40” and she continues to share her ideas and expertise through publications, podcasts, webinars, and presentations.

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This is the Executive Connect

A show for the new generation of leaders. Join us as we discover unconventional leadership strategies not traditionally associated with executive roles. Our guests include upper-level C-Suite executives charting new ways to grow their organizations, successful entrepreneurs changing the way the world does business, and experts and thought leaders from fields outside of Corporate America that can bring new insights into leadership, prosperity, and personal growth – all while connecting on a human level. No one has all the answers – but by building a community of open-minded and engaged leaders we hope to give you the tools you need to help you find your own path to success.