On entrepreneurship, immigration, and spearheading the skills-first future of hiringShane Battier did nothing exceptional. As a basketball player, his stats were unremarkable; yet, every time he stepped foot on the court, his opponents were outplayed. So, how do you find people like Shane, who don’t conform to the traditional ways that we assess success? That was the question that Johnson Kanjirathinkal set out to answer with his startup pitch for his Haas class on entrepreneurship. The catch? He wasn’t even a Haas student, let alone pursuing an MBA. On the contrary, he graduated from UC Berkeley with a Master of Engineering degree. This is his story. Though his curiosity was particularly piqued by Silicon Valley stories of garage-based start-ups, Johnson began his pursuit of entrepreneurship on the other side of the world. Working at the intersection of data, design, and product, Johnson built products for users all across Asia and soon became infatuated with the unknown. “As someone working in data and product with a very insatiable curiosity — sometimes a little too much— all of the data models they were building were kind of like a little black box for me,” Johnson recalled. “I knew what went in and what went out, but I really wanted to know what was happening in the middle.” It was this curiosity that led him to the United States both to open that black box and gain access to the entrepreneurship space he had always been chasing. By 2019, he was doing just that in UC Berkeley’s MEng program. With a focus on machine learning, statistics, and data science, his curiosity was indeed satiated by his chosen degree. “Berkeley’s program was particularly interesting because it was a one-year intensive program and it was a good mix of the ability to choose pathways,” Johnson said. “At the same time, … they focus a lot on personal development…not things that were taught when I was growing up, but I think the most common skills you would need when you go into the workforce.” Having moved countries for the program, Johnson made it his mission to take advantage not just of all the MEng program had to offer, but all that Berkeley had to offer. As he wrestled with whether he should also be pursuing an MBA, Johnson took it upon himself to enroll in or audit Haas classes he found interesting. This was how he found himself in Kurt Beyer’s entrepreneurship class at Haas, sitting in the very same building as his future co-founders. Shane Battier’s success was the question around which Johnson centered his company pitch on Darwin Day, a day for the class to determine whose company ideas they would rally around and pursue for the rest of the semester, all culminating in a pitch to investors. “My whole premise was how do you find people like Shane where, if you’re looking through the traditional lens of assessing or evaluating someone, you would miss him?” Johnson asked during his presentation. “I go down and sit down after that pitch and a few pitches later, this guy gets up on stage and he starts by saying, ‘What Johnson was talking about is not mumbo jumbo. There is a lot of truth to it.’” The classmate, Brett Waikart, then proceeded to describe his own idea for a company, Skillful.ly. The idea proposed by Brett was that a resume isn’t an effective tool for hiring. “If someone has gone to this specific program or this specific school, then there’s this assumption or this belief that it’s a proxy for success,” Johnson said. “And for a lot of the time, sure, it can work, but it’s because of the absence of something better than that.” Coming from UC Berkeley, Johnson understands the irony of steering companies away from accepting applicants based on their alma mater. But, alongside their third co-founder Kelly Cure, Brett and Johnson were determined to pursue the idea post-graduation. Johnson soon learned, however, that co-founding a company as an international student comes with its own set of challenges. Though he utilized the resources Berkeley International Office had to offer, he said they were wary to provide legal advice without a lawyer. He found the best advice from his peers and alumni. “I started talking to other international students who were also in the space… and building these companies… and that was kind of like a mindset I built up over time,” Johnson said. “The tidbit there is you would need to put in the effort to become like a semi-expert in your own immigration law but as a result, you’d feel a lot better about the process.” Though immigration law is an uphill battle, it has not stopped Johnson from looking toward the future of their company. After spending the first year or two testing, validating, and determining if enterprise customers would even pay for their product, they were struck by the explosion of employer interest in generative AI-linked solutions to persistent problem areas like candidate recruitment. “This uptick in interest is really helpful for us because the HR sector is very much a space that we’ve always operated in, but the new appetite for these tools and the momentum around AI adoption is accelerating our customer work extensively,” Johnson said. “As a result, what we’re seeing is that enterprise companies are more open to adopting new tools like language learning models (LLMs) or a generative AI product suite than at any other time in history when there’s been a similar breakthrough in technology.”
“In my opinion, today’s market conditions are unprecedented. And that makes building a company in this environment fascinating.”At Skillful.ly they had already been using LLMs to simulate workplace tasks for their job-seeking members and make connections between a candidate’s self-reported skills and their ability to carry out the tasks that will be required of them — a skills-centric lens for a more inclusive, meritocratic recruitment process. Though the emergence of AI gave them a leg up, Johnson recognizes that no one is going to change their processes overnight. “Resumes aren’t going to disappear, but we can help our employer customers understand that there are better ways to assess a candidate’s skills,” Johnson said. As he views it, resumes tend to focus on proxies for talent rather than talent itself. They focus on the same set of questions, regardless of whether they are relevant to the job:
What school did you attend? What was your GPA? Where did you intern 3 summers ago?Instead, Skillful.ly puts forth an “automated, objective assessment” of one’s demonstrated skills to determine their fit for a position and expand the employers’ field of vision when looking at a talent pool. “Employers have a tough job,” Johnson said. “They need to hire millions of fresh graduates every year as efficiently as possible so they pick the same top 25–50 ‘target schools’ because they have a fixed amount of time, energy and people to throw at the task. Those places are where they’ve hired before, so why look elsewhere?” According to Johnson, this results in a talent pool that only includes about 2% of the students enrolled at higher education institutions across the country. “Employers would love to hire from wider audiences, but they just aren’t able to scale their same old approach to go to like a thousand community colleges and do the same thing,” Johnson added. “So…we’re trying to bridge that gap by helping them vet the skills of a wider pool of candidates and as a result, meaningfully engage a far wider swathe of the labor pool.” With Skillful.ly, Johnson and his co-founders are looking to leverage LLMs and other advancements in AI to spearhead a disruptive skills-first future of employment and create the new gold standard for hiring. And to think, it all started with an idea in a classroom. His advice for MEng students? You only have two semesters to take advantage of all that MEng, and Berkeley, have to offer. Make it count. Connect with Johnson. Edited by Veronica Roseborough.
Johnson Kanjirathinkal, MEng ’20 (IEOR): “Grit goes a long way.” was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.