How Nithya Thadani Is Bringing Voice Technology To Deskless Workers

February 23, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.


Nithya Thadani is the CEO of RAIN, an industry leader in voice and conversational AI. After building her career in investment banking and innovation, Thadani moved to voice technology in 2016, and RAIN’s story in voice began. 

Over the past five years, RAIN has built voice-assistant experiences for Fortune 500 companies including Nike, Nestlé, BlackRock, Starbucks, and Wynn Las Vegas. RAIN recently raised a Series A round led by Stanley Ventures, the investment arm of Stanley Black & Decker, to build voice solutions for the workplace.

In this Q&A, we ask Thadani about how she navigated fundraising, her aspirations for voice technology, and what advice she would offer to others on the entrepreneurial journey.

 

Q: Tell us about your background. What led you to enter the voice AI industry?

I’ve been leading RAIN for the past four years. I started my career in investment banking and went on to work in new product innovation before moving to voice technology. Investment banking was a two-year crash course on how businesses operate, while my innovation work was all about uncovering white space opportunities for the future. These collective experiences have helped me a great deal at RAIN as we navigate new territory in voice tech. 

When RAIN started out in voice AI, there were many early indications that voice technology was going to become ubiquitous – smart speakers were adopting at an incredible rate, faster than even the smartphone – and RAIN built a unique right to win the space with our voice UX design and technology capabilities. We went all-in on voice and quickly became the go-to voice tech partner to many leading brands. To date, we’ve built over 70 custom voice-assistant experiences for dozens of enterprises and our portfolio averages about 15 million user interactions per month.

 

Q: You’ve just closed a Series A round. What is your solution and what problem does your company solve, or aim to solve?

Through our work in voice, we recognized an opportunity to build employee-facing voice solutions for the “deskless workforce” – the skilled workers in industries like agriculture, health care, construction, and manufacturing. Despite being 80 percent of the global workforce, this audience has been drastically underserved by technology – a reality that’s been emphasized during the pandemic. 

Have you ever tried to make a call from a ski lift with gloves on? Or attempted to reroute Google Maps while driving? That’s more or less the technology experience that exists for most professionals today – juggling devices, trying to read small text while wearing specialized gear, and often on the move. We’re building voice productivity tools that are purpose-built to make workers smarter, more efficient, and safer through assistive AI.

Today, only a fraction of the $300 billion spent on business software each year has gone to deskless workers, while only 1 percent of enterprise software funding is allocated to deskless worker solutions. This is astounding because, in our experience, there has not been a more compelling audience that’s ripe and ready for a technology to support the critical work they do.

 

Q: What makes your solution so exciting for this audience?

Voice technology is different from other enterprise technology. For one, its infrastructure is scalable. You can voice-enable a smart speaker, mobile app, or wearable, or create a new experience entirely. Voice is not a device or channel, it’s an interface, which makes it exciting for the deskless user.

Also, voice thrives in situations where hands and eyes are tied up. Speaking is natural and frictionless – humans can speak 3 times faster than they can type or text. We built a voice-assistant app for Starbucks where customers could say “Starbucks, order my regular” while en route to pick up coffee, and we found that customers who used it ordered more frequently and continued to default to voice for ordering. For workers, voice is a natural solution for functions like quick data entry or retrieval, where simply uttering a sentence can run laps around menu bars and keyboards. 

 

Q: How is your product different from what’s in the market today?

Surprisingly, there aren’t many solutions out there that are targeted toward deskless workers. The majority of software that exists sits in the back office or with executive teams, where it’s not accessible to those out in the field getting their hands dirty. And when it is introduced to workers, it isn’t being adopted because it’s not purpose-built for workers’ specific needs. You can’t take very specialized trade professionals and throw general-purpose solutions at them. 

The reason two professionals can quickly converse with one another about a highly specialized topic is because of their shared knowledge base. Our goal is to build a voice-user experience that can interpret industry-specific jargon in the same way – one that professionals will actually want to interact with. To do that well takes domain knowledge, as well as a polished voice UX, which is a muscle we’ve been building for a number of years now.

 

Q: Can you describe what it was like to fundraise during the pandemic?

Fundraising during the pandemic was both challenging and rewarding. Despite the current environment, companies are investing in new spaces with compelling long-term potential. It was a great feeling to have achieved something so positive for our company this year. 

As with most new relationships in 2020, meeting investors for the first time virtually posed its challenges – it’s simply not the same as a face-to-face coffee or drink where you can get to know someone. On the flip side, I found that investors were more available this year because of that very reality – rather than being at a conference or on a plane to San Francisco, most investors were hunkered down like everyone else, which made it easier to get on their calendars and move quickly through this process. We’re excited to have found strong partners who are invested in innovation, even in difficult times. 

 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your company?

People are the single-most important asset to a growing business. As we onboard and integrate new hires quickly into the organization, it is so important that everyone is operating on the same cultural foundation. 

At RAIN, we’ve developed Eight Leadership Principles that serve as the guiding light to everything we do as a team and organization. Not to mention, they’re fun too. Some of my personal favorites include “Brave to Change” – which highlights our need to disrupt or be disrupted and constantly evolve with intention or “Experts With Humility” – the understanding that expertise is a verb and that we must have the humility to continue learning, particularly in a rapidly evolving industry like voice tech. And finally, “Bias For Action” (borrowed from our partners at Amazon and featuring the one and only Ruth Bader Ginsberg as its icon) – which acknowledges that our team is made up of doers, not talkers, and that strategy is only as good as its execution.

These core values represent how we work with one another and with our customers. They’ve helped to define our culture and standard of performance as the business scales and evolves.

 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to other female founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey?

Appreciate the value of those you meet along the way. I learned this lesson the hard way. 

After having my daughter, I took some time off between roles to spend time at home with her. When I made the decision to return to work, reconnecting with my network was challenging. Throughout my years in banking, consulting, and business school, I’d met and connected with so many interesting people, but I simply had not done a great job of keeping up with each of them. Reaching out to people cold after many years and asking for a favor is not fun. I don’t recommend it.

I decided to never put myself in that position again. I learned how to keep up my network. Even better, I learned how to enjoy doing it. If you are the kind of person who loves giving gifts, you can network. It’s a wonderful feeling to send someone a helpful article or connect two people in your network who need one another. This simple gesture is enough to keep those relationships alive.

When thinking about growing a business and fundraising, it’s important to understand the value of your relationships. Most of RAIN’s early customers and investors came directly from contacts within our personal networks, something I’m proud of.