We had the good fortune of connecting with Kiran Jesudasan and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Kiran, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk-taking to me is the inevitable consequence of living in this ultra-faced-paced world that seems to highlight or celebrate nonconformity. The idea of risk seems to stem from the apprehension of doing things where the consequences of doing that thing aren’t fully understood. There are uncontrollable or unknown aspects of an activity that lets fear get the best of us. And these fears can cripple or act as self-generated barriers that ultimately prevent us from living in the moment or doing what can/may/or will be necessary.

Doing things rather differently has seemingly been my default setting. I was never really great at school and I was from a community and culture where kids tended to have 2 options when picking a career, either engineering or medicine. Yet I was just fascinated by anything that moved. Whether it be cars, planes, or Nimitz class aircraft carriers, not necessarily from the engineering sense but what they allowed, what it meant and ultimately how beautiful and complex a creation it was. I preferred losing myself in what was going on outside the window of a plane, rather than schoolwork. Seeing all the pieces that came together to ultimately allow a plane to fly to me was magical. Anything seemed possible while looking out of those oval-shaped windows.

This drew me into the field of design which inevitably had the wondrous ability to position itself in the middle of almost any career, product, or human endeavor. I hardly knew that back then. I thought wanted to make beautiful yet functional things. I was extremely fortunate for my family who, though they had no clue what this field entailed or where it would take me, supported me emotionally, practically, and at great cost to them, financially. There were times when my chasing this seemingly elusive dream did push us to breakpoints. I wasn’t getting into the colleges I wanted to study in and the dream was very much a dream, nothing seemed to fall in place for years. But through sheer determination and support from them, I finally got into arguably the best transportation design college in the world ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

Going through this process taught me, albeit slowly, that people have their time cycles, and obsessing over results, destinations and outcomes can blind you to what’s right in front of you and can cripple you. Letting go of those expectations opened up the possibilities to things I would have never imagined. And design as a field trains you to never go into a project or a problem space with a solution in mind. It can damage the outcome if you bring your own biases into the equation. This is a hard thing to teach though. It only comes through going through the design process repetitively. How can you do something without really having any idea where it could go? That was how I started to confront that risk concerning one’s own life or trajectory isn’t real. It’s entirely self-generated.

Doing this professionally or as part of school is one thing. But the totality of this lesson when applying to my own life was a rather tough concept to grasp because my mind (and probably many other minds too) was always trained to succumb to those fears. And that’s how we plan for the future right? We use the worry that is self-inflected to map out sets of strategies to assuage those fears. That’s how I seem to deal with the idea of risk, and how to get comfortable with taking those steps into the unknown because there was a plan. In truth only for that moment did those plans seem to get rid of that anxiety. And if every aspect of those fears did happen, they tended to happen in drastically different ways that I had a plan to deal with. At that moment that prebuilt plan was nearly useless. So what was the point of even having that fear in the first place? What is the point of obsessing over risk?

After grad school, I joined an autonomous vehicle startup, an empirically risky decision but why not step into the unknown? The startup was well funded, so I wasn’t fearful, but as what happens in the tech start-up field, the industry shifted, and the startup collapsed. As an international student in the US, I had 90 days to find another job before I would be forced to leave the country. Thankfully, the head of one of the core projects the startup was working on, managed to spin it off into its own company. We were not funded; uncertainty was everywhere and at any given moment things may just collapse. Heh, funnily enough, the company’s name was dRISK, de-risk, de-risking autonomous vehicles. Get it? Hilarious right? Especially given the focus of this essay?

The sane person or a person which much less tolerance for risk may have called it quits but the contrarian in me stuck on almost for just to see what would happen. Keep fear aside and focus on what is in front of you. This is what I kept telling myself through it all because if I let the fear of failure and the infinite unknown build, I’d crumble. “Oh no, the fact that I’ve taken a lot of my folks’ savings to come here, all potentially for nothing.” And of course, it was very hard. I needed to find healthy ways of clawing back my sanity to focus on what was in front of me. On that note running is unbelievable. But anyway back to the topic at hand. Through absolute and almost reckless grit we got funded, got funded again, and the team went from being as lean mean, and scrappy as possible to now, having some of the smartest people in the world working for and with us. Things have never been as good as they are now. And being the creative weirdo who barely scraped through school, always looking at big pictures and generally lost in my head, it’s amazing seeing how from a mathematical side we measure and calculate risk for autonomous vehicles, but also once in a while to take the time to introspect and look at the narrative of the bigger pictures and just observe how different things can pan out from how they were planned.

Attempting to avert risk because there are unknown aspects to me is to be pretty silly and in most cases pretty facile because unless you completely understand something, especially concerning the future and what could happen it can be extraordinarily hard to predict. And through turbulent times what has kept me sane, is just focusing on what’s right in front of me.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I work at a start-up called dRISK.ai. We create synthetic training data to test and eventually train autonomous vehicles to be more performant on the roads. Imagine all the weird things you’ve seen on the roads. Like the truly insane things. Tires falling off cars? A random mattress on the freeway? Or just seemingly simple things like someone running a red light. We collect data about any and all of these cases, create simulations of those events, and feed it to the brains of the autonomous vehicle to see how it handles that particular scenario. In a startup, everyone does several things but primarily I work on our simulation capabilities, ensuring all of the weirdness of our world can be captured by us. But this is the other great thing about startups. You really have to do a bit of everything. And this gives you both a great view and understanding of the little things as well as the big picture.

As an aforementioned creative weirdo, what I am very grateful for is the opportunity to see all the ebbs and flow of start-up life. Things happen so ridiculously quickly, every day things are changing, and experiencing that effervescent energy is really an unparalleled experience. But the grander mission is what keeps me going. Technologies like autonomous vehicles have the potential to really rewrite how we navigate our world. But like with anything new there are growing and adoption pains. Experiencing these little details not just around technology policy but the ones reflective of the state of the industry and seeing what is behind the curtains is truly something special.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Well, firstly I’d take them to the variety of eateries around where I stay in Pasadena. It’s home so it’s a place where I’ve done a fair bit of exploring. There’s definitely so much one can do and eat here. I’ve lived in several places in India, Bhutan, Malaysia, Baltimore, and LA but the diversity in food culture in LA is unparalleled. But, beyond that a drive down PCH is a definite must, nothing is more Californian than that IMO. If it’s their first time in LA, a beach day is needed as well.

But really the beauty of LA to me is the sheer diversity in neighborhoods and how each area has its own little subculture. LA’s street art is also really amazing. I’d explore the little alleys of the arts district and stop over to some of the local breweries. One way I like to experience a place is by running or cycling through it. So another thing I’d want to do with them would be to bike down from Santa Monica down to Palos Verdes. So, pick a direction, really any direction and I’m sure we’d find a little hidden treasure.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Well, my family first of all. My dad had passed away when I was 8. This was, and in many ways still is a huge shock to the system. Only through the strength and sheer grit of my mom and my grandparents together were we able to step out of the shadow of that tragedy collectively. They’ve been the backbone to my story and through thick and through thin they’ve imparted me with the confidence to pursue a career in something completely unknown at that time for me, transportation design, and of course, coming from a little community in India where engineering or medicine was the norm, this was a move completely into the unknown filled with loads of uncertainty. Yet their support came without the application of pressure or being pushy but when asked for it, it flowed bountifully.

Secondly, my friends. I was fortunate while growing up to have a friend circle who were happy to oblige and discuss my weird ideas about movement, history, cities, and generally the forces that shaped the world. They weren’t from a design background but nonetheless offered amazing feedback and provided a fertile environment for ideas about different and interesting ways people can move around instead of just buying a car.

Also, when. traveling to a new country, leaving family and friends behind is extremely challenging. My classmates, seniors, and eventually juniors in grad school became my second family. We were going through the same trials and tribulations – we were all dealing with trying to find jobs, internships, deal with visa issues, heck figure out how to go about taxes. And their advice became an essential tool in how to deal with the unknown, well cause they’d done it before.

Finally, my colleagues. I work at a start-up called dRISK and we create synthetic training data for autonomous vehicles. Think of the weirdest things you’ve seen on the road while driving, or just walking around. Like really weird stuff. We create simulations of those to see if an autonomous vehicle can handle that particular scenario. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with some of the smartest people around. Working in the deep tech space, figuring out how to make autonomous vehicles actually safer, is an extremely challenging task but the team I work with is unbelievable and consistently inspires nothing but the best.

Website: drisk.ai

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/driskai

Twitter: https://twitter.com/drisk_ai

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