Most of us are searching for some combination of meaning, impact, compensation, and growth in our professional lives (known as Ikigai). Some people find it in a single job, while others manage multiple jobs and projects. For Dhairya Dalal — an NLP Researcher and Engineer at Posh — this search has been quite the odyssey. But, before we dig into that, let’s start with Dinosaurs.
Young Dhairya loved Dinosaurs. Was it because his parents were scientists? Was it because he was impressionable during the peak Jurassic Park years? Was it because Dinotopia was amazing? To all these questions, the answer is yes.
But while Dhairya indulged in science at home (he had an astronaut phase too), school didn’t stimulate his intellectual curiosity. The school culture didn’t push him and his early 2000s middle school textbooks still referred to Moscow as the capital of the Soviet Union. Further, he nor his classmates had academically-oriented role models. There were no positive examples to help students understand the value that academic achievement could provide. This perspective would go on to shape Dhairya’s worldview.
At the time I wanted to escape, but upon reflection, I realize those experiences impacted me to ensure the values I hold are aligned with the work I do.
So what happens next?
Dhairya attends the University of Rochester, double majors in Computer Science & English, and struggles at first before more than finding his feet. To hear him say it, his mathematical foundation was insufficient for the Computer Science curriculum. He would eventually go on to double major in English & create an interdisciplinary degree based on Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics. The most important part of his college exploration though wasn’t academic. It was when Dhairya began a career of service.
At university, Dhairya discovered the M.K. Gandhi Institute For Nonviolence, a Rochester-based organization dedicated to Love, Community, Justice, and Courage. His involvement kicked off a decade of impressive balancing acts between professional development and service.
After graduating, Dhairya worked in various roles. He’s worked at Harvard, the Allen Institute for Brain Science and AI and various other places. Dhairya made the non-traditional transition from business analysis and project management to fundamental AI research. He worked on acquiring the technical skills to be an AI researcher through self-teaching and getting a masters degree in Software Engineering from Harvard University. Excited about research, Dhairya recently enrolled in a PhD program where he’s focusing on causal reasoning in AI.
All the while, he spent time with numerous social impact organizations focusing on Boston and globally including:
He is most proud of helping co-found the non-profit City Awake, which later was acquired by the Boston Chamber of Commerce. At City Awake, he launched a social impact accelerator in partnership with the Unreasonable Group, helped organize Boston’s first social impact festival which has evolved into the Fierce Urgency of Now.
I’ve zigged and zagged to get here. I self-taught. I worked. I went back to school. I volunteered. I’m proud of my journey.
Dhairya lights up when I mention Posh, and the first thing he talks about is the impact. I’ll just let him say it:
Millions of people rely on credit unions and community banks for their banking needs and NLP is fundamentally changing the way that people bank. AI technologies shouldn’t be reserved for large banks with vast resources, but rather should be broadly available, no matter who you bank with.
Dhairya leads deep learning research at Posh, primarily focusing on the development of the underlying language models that power Posh’s conversational AI. One project Dhairya was excited to tell me about was his work on a financial literacy bot. “How do we build a conversational bot to help people understand their personal finances?” Imagine a bot that can answer questions like “What do I need to do in order to save money for my daughter’s college?” or “I want to retire at 55, what can I do to get there?” Financial literacy is one of many problems Dhairya is excited to tackle at Posh.
Dhairya acknowledges that he had his own degree of good fortune to end up where he is, but goes on to tell me that technology can be an equalizing force. If you are privileged to have a laptop and internet access today, then the biggest friction is your ability to learn. If you know how to code, you realize that the distance between your ideas and making them into realities isn’t that far. In fact, Dhairya goes on to say that he thinks people in tech from nontraditional backgrounds have superpowers.
“Non-traditional backgrounds often are quicker to think about the work they do and the ethics of it — the sociological impacts of their work. This can be a superpower if we can get the same access.”
My conversation with Dhairya was inspiring and profound. It’s not every day you find a leading NLP Researcher who dropped Computer Science as an undergraduate because of the difficulty of the math only to later become a leading Data Scientist with multiple degrees But then again, it’s not every day that you meet someone who jumps at every opportunity to learn something new either.