In 2017, Ajay Vishnu won MTV Dropout, the Indian reality show that gives college dropouts a shot at fame and the chance to build their own business. Now the CEO of a healthcare robotics firm, he’s changed a lot since the days he was afraid to tell his parents he was skipping class to go to work.
Wise is a new way of managing your money internationally for a fraction of the price of a bank or PayPal. In our Lives Without Borders series, our customers and community explain how their careers and lifestyles have transcended borders. They share the good, the bad and the unexpected of moving or working between countries.
My friend said, “There’s a show for dropouts, and you should go on it.” Strangely, I ended up winning.
A dropout isn’t a very decorated word in India – we don’t have a lot of Mark Zuckerbergs. So I didn’t tell my parents I’d left college until one of my school friends bumped into them, and it came out. That’s when the whole thing broke down. There was a lot of friction at home, and we fought. Eventually they gave it up, saying, “He’ll realize the importance of a degree when companies don’t hire him.”
I realized I had to prove things for myself. I worked at startups, multinationals, and eventually an innovation lab. But I was frustrated at the lab because we couldn’t turn the ideas into products. That’s when my friend said, “There’s a show for dropouts, and you should go on it.” I was not averse to taking risks. I filled in the questionnaire, and got selected.
The show was a mixture of The Apprentice and Shark Tank: You got tasks, a budget, and you had to test your idea in real life. I watched the show each week with my parents, even though MTV had never been on in their home before! It was exciting to see the first shot of myself. The messages started pouring in, people started noticing me on the street, they knew my name. Taxi drivers would ask, “Are you in Dropout? How does it feel to be on TV?” It felt good. TV seemed like this far fetched idea, for people far away in Bollywood. And then people saw me like that.
Strangely, I ended up winning. In the final episode, we had to pitch a start-up idea to investors. I pitched a blockchain based idea for identity transfer. Blockchain happened to be a big buzzword in 2017. That helped. I got the prize money to start the business. But I realized I hadn’t thought through the show’s agreements. 40% of the company was already given away to the people around me, including the investors, and I didn’t have control – over the company’s valuation, trajectory, growth.
At that time, I realized – I have some savings, I have this fame for winning MTV Dropout, I should use this to start the company I’ve always wanted, which I can build forever. That’s how Jetbrain Robotics was born.
I was very angry. I was worried we weren’t going to be able to pay employees.
At Jetbrain we’re building robots that autonomously transport medicines around a hospital and patient-facing chatbots that answer patient queries, or alert doctors and nurses in response. We are trying to create a smarter hospital. Computers are good at keeping track of time, calculations, searching the web. We believe in giving things that are done best by computers to computers. Healthcare has mainly looked at surgical robots, so we’re addressing an overlooked area.
Our investment came from Hong Kong, and working out how to move the money to India was a headache. Originally, I tried a big bank, but I ended up paying 6% in fees, and $10,000 was tied up for weeks. I was very angry, and threatened to take them to court. We’re a team of 8, and I was worried we weren’t going to be able to pay employees. That’s where Wise came in. The fees with Wise came to less than 2%, and it’s so much faster. We’ve been using Transferwise for every salary since March. It’s much, much better.
Being connected to others around the world is so important. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration for our robotics plan from similar products in the US, which are too expensive to import to India. In fact, I went to the US a few years ago for a conference in Silicon Valley. I remember seeing Sergey Brin talk, which was exciting. He didn’t finish college, either!
I have always been a technology enthusiast. There are no boundaries in software. When I was at college, a few start-ups offered me jobs and I thought the work was more important than the theoretical stuff I was learning. I remember the CTO of the first company saying to me, “I care more about your skills.” Thankfully my parents have seen that I could be successful without the degree for a while now and it’s great. I’d advise anyone to just chase their dream, if you have a passion you can make it work.
As told to Chris Hockman, exclusively for Wise.
Photography by Bhuvesh Kapoor from Jaw Drop Works.
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