Tech entrepreneur Kabir Shahani named 2014 Distinguished Alumnus

The honoring of Kabir Shahani as the UW Information School’s Distinguished Alumnus for 2014 represents a number of firsts. At 32, he is the youngest recipient in the history of the award, and also the first to do so with an Informatics degree. The latter is particular noteworthy in that the honor closely follows the 10-year anniversary of the first graduating Informatics class.

In the decade since receiving his B.S., Shahani’s rise in the business world has been mercuric. After first dipping his toe into the start-up waters shortly out of college, he plunged in with the founding of his own company in 2007; when that company sold six years later, it was reportedly one of the largest venture-backed exits of 2013. Along the way, Shahani has earned numerous accolades, including one of BusinessWeek’s "Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs of 2009,” “One of the 100 Most Inspiring People in Pharma” by PharmaVoice Magazine, and “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

All of these achievements are rendered perhaps even more impressive by the fact that Shahani almost didn’t get into the iSchool in the first place. The story is a tale of perseverance that foreshadowed the determination he has exhibited throughout his business career.

A Washington State native who attended Issaquah High School, Shahani began his academic studies at American University in Washington D.C. “About half way through college, I realized that building software products and creating new technology was the space I wanted to be in,” says Shahani. “I was always really fascinated with the way in which we, as people, use technology. And the UW iSchool’s Informatics Program was clearly the leading program for that.”

Despite this enthusiasm, Shahani’s transfer to the iSchool was not smooth sailing. “I had to scratch and claw to get in,” he says bluntly. Initially rejected, he spent the summer crafting an appeal, first building a portfolio and then tracking down then-Program Chair Batya Friedman, who was working remotely in California at the time. “We eventually spoke, and she was kind enough to show some mercy and let me in,” he recalls. “It’s one of those moments that changed the trajectory of my life, and I’ll never forget it.”

The Informatics Program that Shahani joined was still very new—so new that the very term informatics had yet to really catch hold in the lexicon. But for Shahani, it represented an ideal blend of disciplines. “I knew computer science was too far on one end of the spectrum for me, and the block-and-tackle skills taught in business school was to far on the other,” he explains. “My interests are less in the architecture of a system, and more about how the system delivers value—I want to understand the users of those systems more than just the componentry.”

Shahani put these skills to work right away with his first job at Avanade, a business technology joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft. It was a typical first-rung career job in which Shahani worked with enterprise customers to help create solutions using the company’s software products. Shahani recalls the work as interesting and stimulating. But then two friends with a newly founded company approached him about joining their venture. Encouraged by his boss at Avanade, who generously offered to rehire him should the prospect fail, Shahani leaped off the conventional career ladder and into the startup maelstrom.

The company was Blue Dot, a consumer Internet startup focused on social networking. Somewhat akin to Digg, it allowed users to bookmark products and venues, thereby driving traffic to other partners and opportunities. As employee number four, Shahani’s duties spanned everything from writing product specs to forming business partnerships. For two years he worked on strategy alongside the company founders on a day-to-day basis.

Blue Dot ultimately closed its doors, but Shahani cites the crash-course in business development as critical to his future success. “You learn the things that work well, and things that don’t work well,” he says. “It was certainly a great experience on both sides.”

In 2007, Shahani began formulating plans for a new company along with former Blue Dot engineer Chris Hahn. Hahn would build the software, Shahani the business. Based on their Blue Dot experience, the two decided to focus on the enterprise customers rather than consumers, specifically in healthcare and life science. Looking at the space, they realized they could fill a need for more sophisticated marketing technology.

That company was Appature, and it’s product was an enterprise marketing suite that provides companies the tools to focus on their target customers, make more informed business decisions, and drive overall revenue while saving money on marketing campaign execution. Appature’s product enables health care companies to aggregate all of the available data into a complete view of their individual clients. Using this business intelligence, the software’s tools facilitate the deployment of sophisticated marketing campaigns across multiple channels—email, direct mail, social media and messaging. Built-in analytics capacities enable enterprises to figure out what is working and what is not, and how to tailor future communications.

Most readers will recognize aggregation of data and sophisticated analytics as the essence of informatics, and Shahani notes that the company was focused on Big Data long before the term became popular. “That’s the thing about informatics,” he says. “The program is just so well aligned to creating software businesses.

“I’ve heard so many people with impressive degrees say, ‘I don’t use anything tangibly day-to-day that I picked up in school.’ But I had the very opposite experience—most of what I learned in the Informatics Program about solving problems has applied day-in and day-out throughout my career.”

Appature enjoyed phenomenal growth for six years, and in 2013 was preparing to expand into other market verticals. That’s when IMS Health came calling. The global pharmaceutical and healthcare solution-provider was looking to bring Appature’s sophisticated technology into its commercial suite of products. The company’s acquisition was finalized in March of 2013.

Today, Shahani continues to live near the UW along with his wife Noreen (also a UW grad). He is now vice president of technology and applications for IMS Health, and looks forward to future challenges. “It’s not about keeping score, it’s about doing things that have impact,” he explains. He also admits to feeling quite humbled at sharing the Distinguished Alumnus honor with the school’s impressive past recipients.

Asked to identify a pivotal experience from his undergraduate days at the iSchool, Shahani points to Dr. David McDonald’s Computer Networks 341. “Man, that was a hard class!” he recalls. “We were all infuriated—we really wanted some hands on help in how to do some of this stuff. The thing was, the only thing he’d tell you was, ‘figure it out.’  And now all I can say is, God bless the guy for not helping us and making us figure out how to do it on our own—because that’s exactly what building businesses takes. There’s a million books on business, a million place you can go get an MBA, but nothing replaces being able to just get in there and figure it out.”

That epiphany has shaped the advice that the 2014 Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient now offers to today’s students. “You should really embrace the experience of completely immersing yourself in your coursework,” Shahani concludes. “Don’t just try to ‘get by’ and get the degree. When you really embrace the experience, there’s a lot of value to capture. It’s the classic case of you get out what you put in. The Informatics Program has been well architected in that model.”