Episode 4: Hello Alice! Scale your business… with AI

Transforming a company into a digital business is hard, for companies of any size. It requires transforming the company’s culture, business processes and, most certainly, its IT. We are beginning to see the potential of AI in defining human machine partnerships that will allow companies to scale their business. Meet Alice, an AI business engine for entrepreneurs.
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Becoming a Digital Business in the Era of Human Machine Partnerships

Transforming your business into a digital business is hard. It requires transforming the company’s culture, business processes and, most certainly, the IT organization.

Michele Perras, who leads Strategy and Market Development at Pivotal Labs, understands that and explains that often businesses, even those who never considered themselves technology or software-driven companies, have to learn these skills to stay relevant and move forward on their digital transformation journey.

An entrepreneur and founder of an accelerator herself, Perras shares the key elements of helping companies via a fully immersive, co-location based software development consulting program. Businesses take home replicable best practices for business processes, organizational structures and best tools to use, as well as a new mindset and culture needed to improve efficiency, agility and ability to innovate.

In a groundbreaking project, Pivotal, Circular Board and Dell Technologies partnered to develop an artificial intelligence business platform, Alice. Alice, pushing new frontiers in human machine partnerships, connects female founders in real time with mentors, resources and events that help scale their businesses, constantly improving via machine learning.

Featured Luminary: Michele Perras, Head of Strategy and Market Development at Pivotal Labs

Michele Perras is an entrepreneur, consultant and advisor. As Head of Strategy and Market Development at Pivotal, Michele leads startup ecosystem initiatives and business development. She advises on product, sales and digital transformation, working with startups, the Fortune 50 and Silicon Valley accelerators.

“Alice is an AI platform that’s targeted at giving women entrepreneurs the resources they need, when they need them… mentorship, capital, legal advice, strategy, marketing, product development, technology.”

— Michele Perras, Head of Strategy and Market Development at Pivotal

Luminaries Hosts

  • Mark Schaefer Author, Consultant, College Educator. Mark is a leading authority on marketing strategy, consultant, blogger, podcaster, and the author of six best-selling books, including "KNOWN." He has two advanced degrees and studied under Peter Drucker in graduate school. Some of his clients include Microsoft, GE, Johnson & Johnson and the US Air Force
  • Douglas Karr Technologist, Author, Speaker. Pre-Internet, Douglas started his career as a Naval electrician before going to work for the newspaper industry. His ability to translate business needs into technology during the advent of the Internet paved the way for his digital career. Douglas owns an Indianapolis agency, runs a MarTech publication, is a book author, and speaks internationally on digital marketing, technology, and media.


0:01 WOMAN: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech.

0:05 MICHAEL DELL: We have always believed that if we built the right technology, we could amplify and enhance and enable human progress. And when I look at what lies ahead, I realize that we’ve really just barely begun.

0:22 NARRATOR: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.


0:29 MARK SCHAEFER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another episode of Luminaries. This is Mark Schaefer, your host. And this is where we talk to the brightest minds in tech. We’re going to be talking about transforming technology, transforming our businesses, transforming our lives. And as always, I’m here with my co-host Mr. Douglas Karr. How are you, Doug?

0:53 DOUGLAS KARR: I am well.

0:54 MARK SCHAEFER: Well, we have an amazing, amazing show today. We’re sitting here with Michele Perras. Michele is the Head of Strategy and Market Development for Pivotal Labs. Welcome, Michele!

1:06 MICHELE PERRAS: Hi, and you.

1:08 MARK SCHAEFER: I’m so delighted to have you here. And we had the opportunity to spend a little time together earlier, and you just have such an interesting career path that started with gold.


1:23 Tell us a little bit about your path–

1:25 MICHELE PERRAS: Thank you.

1:26 MARK SCHAEFER: –from gold to technology gold.

1:30 MICHELE PERRAS: Of course, oh, that’s great. So thank you, first of all, for having me. I’m super excited to be on this podcast and to talk about all the great work that we’re doing together. So I’ve always been an entrepreneur, and my first startup was my goldsmithing practice.

1:47 So I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from a leading university in Canada, where I’m from. And I studied how to, essentially, make jewelry, and how to scale and build a business around making jewelry. And really working with customers early on to understand– making these really meaningful things for them, what it was that they wanted and needed.

2:07 And so I ran that studio for seven years, and then hit a wall where it was not scalable without significant capital investment– like many startups face right now. And decided to figure out what the next phase was.

2:20 And so from there, went into– during this time in my arts career, I had been writing for many publications across North America– craft, metal, arts, et cetera, and had built up a pretty great roster and portfolio of content. And when I decided to shift my practice, was brought into an institute that was focusing on design thinking.

2:43 And this was in 2004, 2005, so pretty nascent in terms of thinking about how the heritage of design practice could have an impact in business, and what that impact could be. So I helped to write a book called The Imagination Challenge– Strategic Foresight in the Innovation Economy. And that was essentially my entree into technology and innovation and strategy.

3:07 DOUGLAS KARR: Wow, well, and part of Pivotal Labs I’m curious about– Pivotal Labs is obviously the newest part of Dell Technologies, and it’s a little bit unique–


3:17 DOUGLAS KARR: –with Dell Technologies.

3:18 MICHELE PERRAS: Absolutely.

3:19 DOUGLAS KARR: Can you talk about Pivotal Labs’ role?


3:23 DOUGLAS KARR: Especially with respect to advancing IT transformation?

3:26 MICHELE PERRAS: Absolutely. So actually, Pivotal Labs is one division within Pivotal Software, which is our newest entity. And Pivotal was formed in 2013 when Pivotal Labs and a number of other companies were rolled up to form this new company, Pivotal Software, et cetera. And we have three main business units.

3:44 So we have our Pivotal Cloud Foundry which– Dell EMC world, we’ve been talking about quite a bit. It’s our Cloud technology. We have our Big Data suite and tools, which– consulting and many software products to help companies scale their data. And then Pivotal Labs, like you mentioned.

4:01 And it is a really interesting organization. We are a startup who happens to work with the Fortune 50. We are a startup who happens to have investment from GE, Ford, Microsoft, and now, being part of Dell Technologies, has the power of one of the biggest technology companies in the world.

4:20 But we’re still small. We’re just over 2,000 people, with roughly 20 offices worldwide. But it’s a very unique organization within the Dell family.

4:31 MARK SCHAEFER: Well, the thing that’s so interesting is we had a chance to talk a little bit preparing for this, and your first question to us was, OK, who’s the audience?


4:41 So you live design thinking. And what I love about this is that you are in the right place in the right company, because this is your passion and this is what you do. So tell us a little bit about this amazing process with Pivotal.


4:57 MARK SCHAEFER: And how you’re bringing your design thinking to help your customers in this amazing process.

5:04 MICHELE PERRAS: It’s a great question, and I think what’s really interesting is that as the practices of building new software products have evolved over the last 20 years, design thinking becomes one tool that you have in a portfolio of tools that you think about applying depending on the context, the business schools, and the customer need. And so with Pivotal, on the consulting practice side, we have a very specific methodology that we apply.

5:26 And we’re very rigorous in that methodology for two reasons. The first is because we’ve been able to tweak it over a number of decades keeping in mind that Labs was actually founded in 1989, and we have been doing this kind of work for a really long time. So we’ve been iterating on this process, and we feel that this is the best process to get the best results for software development.

5:48 And also because we work with our clients so closely. When we start an engagement with someone, they come and they co-locate with us for three to six months. We do care–

5:57 MARK SCHAEFER: It’s immersive.

5:58 MICHELE PERRAS: It is completely–

5:58 MARK SCHAEFER: You’re living together!

5:59 MICHELE PERRAS: –immersive culturally. Absolutely. Our teams are 100% dedicated to whatever it is that we’re building.

6:05 MARK SCHAEFER: It’s such a unique process.

6:06 MICHELE PERRAS: We have a ritual that goes along with every aspect of our stand ups, our retros, our iterative planning meetings, and we adhere to that really strongly. So that when our clients disengage with us– and we want them to, we want to become obsolete eventually–

6:19 MARK SCHAEFER: That’s the goal.

6:20 MICHELE PERRAS: –that they’re equipped and enabled to be able to take an element of that process back to their respective offices. Not only to accelerate their velocity and stabilize their velocity from a software development perspective, but also to power their use of Cloud Foundry overall.

6:36 So it’s a really interesting model. I think we’re one of the only consulting companies in the world– or rather, we’re one of the only software product companies with a consulting arm– that has this model of very intense enablement.

6:51 MARK SCHAEFER: It’s like an immersive accelerator.

6:53 MICHELE PERRAS: Completely. And that’s often what our clients feel like. They feel like they’re in–

6:57 MARK SCHAEFER: It’s such a different model than what I’ve been accustomed to.

6:58 MICHELE PERRAS: –a completely special environment. And we do this, as well, because if the Labs arm was a normal consulting practice, you would meet once a week. You would maybe work together a little bit. But we would be working fairly independently.

7:15 Or we would go on-site to a client and work with them, but it would be weird because you’d be 10 to 20 people working on this weird project together in an environment where nothing else is changing. And we bring them on site with us so that that cultural immersion can happen really fluidly and they can get as much out of it as possible.

7:31 So that when they go back to their organization, they can be the catalyst for change and transformation within their own teams because they’ve seen a better way of developing software.

7:39 MARK SCHAEFER: As I’ve learned about Pivotal, it’s almost like– most of the other accelerators I’ve been involved with, they’ll help a startup solve a problem, and you’re helping them solve a culture.

7:50 MICHELE PERRAS: It’s actually all of it.


7:52 MICHELE PERRAS: It’s all of it. And we are a for-profit business. And we are very committed to our customers’ success. Whatever we build with them within Labs, we want to make sure that it is helping them achieve their business goals.

8:06 But to your point– we also want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. And that’s part of our core values, is to do the right thing, be kind, and do what works. So we really want to make sure that we’re setting our customers up to be successful, regardless of which area of the business they engage with.

8:24 DOUGLAS KARR: I’m curious as a self– you called yourself an entrepreneur. Now you’re an intrepreneur slash entrepreneur. And your history– Hello Alice. I want to talk a little bit about that partnership between Dell and Pivotal Labs.

8:42 And just how special is this? Especially given your history–

8:45 MICHELE PERRAS: Of course.

8:46 DOUGLAS KARR: –and your leadership in the industry? What is this going to do for other women in technology?

8:52 MICHELE PERRAS: It’s such an absolutely fantastic platform, and we are so thrilled to have been able to partner with Dell’s entrepreneur in residence Elizabeth Gore, with Carolyn Rodz who is the founder of Circular Board, and with Dell Technologies to be able to help bring this to the world. So for those who aren’t familiar, go to HelloAlice.com and go and sign up for the platform. Anyone can sign up.

9:15 It’s a platform that’s targeted at giving women entrepreneurs the resources that they need when they need it. This is things like access to capital, legal advice, strategy, marketing, product development, technology to help global female entrepreneurs everywhere break down some of the barriers that they’re going to encounter with investments, with bringing things to market, et cetera.

9:39 The reason why this is so important is because there has been a gap in the market for service specifically targeting female entrepreneurs in this particular space. There are so many amazing organizations that focus on aspects of what Alice does. So some groups will focus on product development. Some will focus on technology and engineering. Some will focus on legal, HR, or finance. Some will focus on strategy or marketing, or what have you.

10:06 But there’s nothing that brings it together in a really smart and iterative way to give you what you need when you need it and connect you with other female entrepreneurs around the world. That is the special power and magic of what Hello Alice and the Circular Board has done, which is– we’re just so fantastic.

10:20 And when I think about the industry at large, in technology and in business, we all know the diversity statistics. We all know the inclusion statistics. And so anything that we can do to help accelerate and close– as we talked about earlier, Mark, the leaky pipeline– not only for entry-level career but also through middle management and leadership, anything that we can do to help support women in technology and business and retain them, I’m all in.

10:48 MARK SCHAEFER: Talk a little bit about how it works. Because it was interesting– there’s an artificial intelligence component. So talk a little bit about the engine behind it.

10:59 MICHELE PERRAS: So we at Pivotal– one of the things that we pride ourselves on is being able to help enable our clients build the technology that they need in order to be successful. And so when we think about machine learning, when we think about natural language processing, we think about how we can leverage those tools in various capacities to help people be successful.

11:22 And so those are some of the things that Alice incorporates when we think about the technology behind what it’s going to be doing. And also keeping in mind, as well, that one of our mandates when we build software is to continuously be iterating, launching multiple MVPs, and treating an MVP like a test.

11:40 To be able to say, what is it that we’re going to build? How do we know whether or not we’re successful? And then what’s the next thing that we’re going to prioritize and build? And so what’s amazing is that where we see HelloAlice.com today is a wonderfully strong platform. And where we know it’s going to be going is something that can literally fundamentally change the way that women entrepreneurs look to grow and scale their businesses.

12:01 MARK SCHAEFER: Well, that leads perfectly into my next question.

12:04 [LAUGHTER]

12:05 It really does. Thank you so much.

12:07 MICHELE PERRAS: You’re very welcome.

12:08 MARK SCHAEFER: Because one of the things I admire about you is just what you have done. I mean, you have immersed yourself as a solo-preneur, as a startup person. You’ve been immersed in the startup culture. Now you’re at a pretty large startup with 2,000 employees and you’re advising other startups.

12:29 So what I’d love to get your perspective on is, how has this world changed in the last five years? What’s better, what’s easier, what’s more challenging for someone starting a business today compared to five years ago?

12:46 MICHELE PERRAS: There are so many more resources available. And being able to become connected to individuals through social media, through your own extended networks, through conferences and events, the building of relationships– that has scaled effectively. So anyone can go and set up a business within four hours. Anyone can go and build out a prototype of an application within two or three hours, given the tools and the know-how.

13:15 And there are so many resources that are now available to help support entrepreneurs in this way that weren’t available five years ago. I started an accelerator in 2007 that was focused– it was based in Canada, focused on smartphone technology. We were the first one of its kind. And it was just after the iPhone had been released.

13:31 And our goal was to think about the role of UI and UX in developing quality applications. So we brought students and interns in to companies to be able to help them design this, because there were no other resources at the time. And at that point in time, as well, we were really building something that had never been built before.

13:49 Now, 10 years later, you can go anywhere and find those resources. But the challenge is finding the right resources at the right time for your moment of need. And that’s part of– going back to Alice, what Alice does for entrepreneurs. So that’s how it’s changed.

14:03 There’s also better access to capital– for some. Women still get less than 3% of all investments overall.

14:09 MARK SCHAEFER: Less than 3%?

14:10 MICHELE PERRAS: Less than 3%. It’s horrible. But it will get better, so we hope. So access to capital is still problematic, at least in terms of the traditional VC model.

14:23 What has also changed is that there’s a more diverse set of funds that are available– family offices, foundations, government granting programs, et cetera, that will support entrepreneurs worldwide. And entrepreneurship, because of so many successes of major companies, it is now the thing that people want to do. And there are so many communities and resources to be able to help support that.

14:45 So it’s a lot easier, but also still quite difficult. It’s easier to get started.

14:49 DOUGLAS KARR: Well, your journey has been absolutely amazing. I mean–

14:54 MICHELE PERRAS: Thank you.

14:54 DOUGLAS KARR: –goldsmith, so artist, author, entrepreneur, accelerator starter, now executive with Pivotal. I just– one of the things that you had mentioned before, when we were speaking about the show, was transforming yourself. And I– boy, you are a living model of that to other people. Can you talk about that role of transforming yourself–

15:22 MICHELE PERRAS: Of course!


15:23 DOUGLAS KARR: –transformation.

15:23 MICHELE PERRAS: Sure. So I’ve always been driven and ambitious and really curious about the world. And I think that early on– I grew up in a blue collar family. They all worked at GM. I was the first one in my family to go to university. Very similar situation to what you see in Michigan these days, except north of the border.

15:48 And it was always this desire to see what was out there in the world. And so having to adopt a growth mindset really early on and learning how to learn. So it’s not even so much, what else is out there? How do you do this? But it’s being driven intensely by discovering new things, making new things with other people, and learning new things to be able to then help support others that have been in similar situations as me.

16:13 That’s been the thing behind it. And I’ve had four or five careers already, and I’m barely 40. I know that I’m going to have another four or five careers by the time I’m 80, at least. This is just the way it goes. And I think being adaptable and flexible with whatever it is that you’re doing is going to bring you the most success.

16:33 And when I think about our clients, when I think about our peers in the industry– our leaders, our leadership– they have these innate qualities already. They have cultivated these qualities. What’s interesting is two things.

16:46 How do they, then, set the example of modeling behavior and support that within large enterprise so that everyone can adopt flexibility and resilience when in the face of change so that their company becomes an even more dynamic engine? And then also, how do they help their reports? How do they help their peers? How do they help the people that are all the way through the organization be incentivized to be learning learners, to have growth mindsets, to be resilient as well?

17:17 MARK SCHAEFER: I love that idea that– it’s something that we haven’t really talked about on this show so far– is the idea a key component of digital transformation is personal transformation.

17:27 MICHELE PERRAS: Absolutely, and cultural.

17:29 MARK SCHAEFER: Is just the idea of embracing fear, embracing change. Maybe even, in some ways, embracing failure, which is kind of a mantra these days. But applied to a big company with stockholders and quarterly sales goals– I mean, that’s a big challenge, isn’t it?

17:52 MICHELE PERRAS: It’s huge challenge. But there’s ways to do it successfully and strategically. So we’ve worked with the Home Depot and Ford over the last number of years helping them transform their organizations from traditional IT orgs that have– and I would say, actually, companies that found themselves in the place of having to become software companies and having to become startups, where they’ve had their respective industries and verticals.

18:14 And having to adopt a new way of thinking about reaching their customers and generating new business. And so much of that comes down to culture and empowerment, transparency, autonomy, within their teams. And I’m using– you can’t see, but– giant air quotes here. Somewhat easy– giant air quotes– to do at the team level with your individual contributors, your managers, where you have the people that are building the products and services.

18:40 It’s much more difficult to do organizationally in middle management. And one thing that we always do when we start a transformation engagement with our major enterprises is bringing in ancillary industry. So it isn’t just under the CIO or the CTO, it’s including the head of finance, the head of HR, and people, the business units, the sales organization, the customer success organizations.

19:01 That you could all align around a business goal and have that be the thing that helps to move the change and the empowerment that you need throughout an organization.

19:12 MARK SCHAEFER: What’s one technology that really is exciting you right now as you look forward? You look–




19:23 MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah.

19:24 MICHELE PERRAS: Hands-down, is the most interesting thing that– well, I should say–

19:27 MARK SCHAEFER: Well, let’s back up, ’cause I knew what CRISPR was. And actually, I’m quite proud of that.

19:32 [LAUGHTER]

19:34 MICHELE PERRAS: And Cloud Foundry, of course.

19:35 MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. Well, but let’s back– explain a little bit what CRISPR is and why you’re–

19:39 MICHELE PERRAS: Sure. So CRISPR is a genetic sequencing, editing technology that allows geneticists and scientists to be able to take a gene sequence and essentially snip out– and this is super non-scientific, non-technical language– but be able to edit and remove aspects of a genetic code and then essentially distribute that modified code back into genetic– those modified genes back into a living entity.

20:10 And so this has huge implications for– it works well– again, big air quotes right now– for very specific symptoms or very specific things like diseases. And I’m blanking on the most recent story that we heard about in the last couple of weeks where they had some early stage success with– I think it was Lou Gehrig’s disease in mice, but that might not be it.

20:32 It gets much more complicated when you think about ongoing chronic diseases, when you think about syndromes– which are a collection of symptoms– and other types of things. But right now, where we are, we have the ability to do genetic modification.

20:48 And there’s lots of really interesting ethical concerns. There’s lots of really interesting future concerns around, what does this mean for our species, for health care, preventative medicine, et cetera? But it’s super fascinating. It’s complete science fiction.

21:02 MARK SCHAEFER: Well, we’ll have you on the next podcast. The transhuman podcast.

21:07 MICHELE PERRAS: Exactly.

21:08 MARK SCHAEFER: Michelle, this has been absolutely delightful.

21:10 MICHELE PERRAS: Thank you so much.

21:11 MARK SCHAEFER: And I want to invite you to come back when you’re 80 to see if you’ve had four or five more careers. We’re going to check on that–

21:20 MICHELE PERRAS: Wonderful, you’ll hold me to it?

21:20 MARK SCHAEFER: –and we’re going to see how it goes.

21:22 DOUGLAS KARR: I have a feeling we won’t have to wait that long.

21:25 MARK SCHAEFER: We’ll see how it goes.

21:26 MICHELE PERRAS: Wonderful.

21:26 MARK SCHAEFER: But thank you so much. And thanks to all of you for listening. We appreciate each and every one of you here at Luminaries. This is Mark Schaefer. On behalf of myself and Doug KARR, thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.


21:44 NARRATOR: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech. A podcast series from Dell technologies.