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    We’re in the basement of the spacious East End home of Ankur Gopal’s parents. He’s been living here in recent months with his wife and their two preschool-age children while plans to build their own residence take shape. A large bar dominates one side of the downstairs; the other Gopal has turned into an entertainment room with plush couches, a super-size video screen, two four-foot-high speakers and a microphone on a floor stand.

    The 44-year-old pulls out a mock electric guitar designed to be plugged into a game console. He uses it to play and sing along with the video game Rock Band during evening de-stressing sessions. “Full disclosure,” he says, smiling, “I have impromptu two-hour concerts down here while my kids are asleep and my wife is watching something I don’t want to watch.”

    Perhaps even more than starring in these solo performances, however, Gopal loves to whiteboard. Enthusiastic and energetic, his green Rolex Oyster watch flashing, he’s often diagramming new initiatives at the offices of Interapt, his tech firm in the West Market Street building commonly known as Glassworks. “If I can’t draw it,” he says, “I haven’t thought it all the way through.”

    There’s a whiteboard at home as well, which has amused his wife, Dr. Kiran Gill, who specialized in cosmetic dentistry in Los Angeles before the two met on
    Match.com and who now runs the Natural Smiles practice in Louisville. She recalls writing resolutions on the board at his suggestion one New Year’s Eve. On another night while spending time with Gopal’s parents, Vijay and Ruby, he whiteboarded everybody’s personal goals. “He believes if we write it, then we’re going to commit to it,” Gill says. When I spoke with her over the phone back in the spring, she told me the whiteboard was often in the couple’s bedroom, adding, “If he wakes up and has a thought in his mind, there it goes on the whiteboard. And he just carries that whiteboard with him. He’ll move it around the house.” By late summer, when I arrive for a second interview with Gopal, the board is no longer in the bedroom, per her request. But he knows exactly where to find it when I ask him to diagram Interapt’s current business strategy. After a few minutes he comes up with a marker pen, and then he’s sketching the basics of a revolutionary plan to train tomorrow’s technology workers by tapping into the talent of previously undereducated people.

    One of the current initiatives is happening right here in Louisville: In partnership with the University of Louisville, and with a $325,000 grant from Humana, Interapt is launching the Louisville Skills program. It will train 25 carefully selected students in an intensive course of computer programming. High-aptitude learners from west Louisville and other communities underserved by the education system are selected and the students are paid $100 per week to attend. Once they complete the classes, the students will have options to seek out employment opportunities with local and national firms. Some graduates also have the option to join Interapt for a year-long apprenticeship working on real projects for local companies, which then may hire them once they’ve achieved familiarity with the company’s technology.

    There have been several moments during the past year when connecting the dots on this plan seemed nigh impossible. A promising start to teaching programming to underemployed-but-naturally-gifted residents in Eastern Kentucky fizzled after the first group there completed training in 2016. A similar program in Barren County graduated its first students last year and is offering more classes, but a sustainable model for creating larger numbers of programmers has proved elusive. Too many pieces on the whiteboard were floating free.

    But now Gopal can draw a clear picture of his plan to grow Interapt while providing a pathway to technology careers for capable workers previously locked out of the system. And it’s all right here before us on the basement whiteboard.

     

    Ankur Gopal has come a long way since he first set up shop in his parents’ basement in 2010 in his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. He has founded three companies since and suffered the ups and downs nearly every entrepreneur experiences. But the consummation of a deal this summer with the large tech-training New York firm General Assembly supercharged his latest venture, Interapt, and promises to create a pathway for major expansion here in Louisville.

    We’ll whiteboard that later, but first let’s follow the education of Gopal, who could well become the face of a new national movement helping relieve an acute shortage of technology workers in the U.S. economy. This son of two India-born parents emerged from the white-bread surroundings of Owensboro to excel as an information-technology consultant while working for the international professional-services company Accenture in its Chicago office. Not satisfied with corporate life, he dropped out to attend an entrepreneurship course of study at the University of Chicago, then set about starting his own businesses.

    The willingness to go it alone and the belief in his own abilities can be traced to the journeys his parents took to prosper in America. His father, Vijay, a petroleum engineer who retired after a 30-plus-year career with Texas Gas Transmission in Owensboro, made the lonely leap from a small town near New Delhi at age 22 to obtain a master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology). He then moved to Owensboro to begin his career. “I was so scared when I boarded that plane, which was good,” Vijay says. “I came out on my own and made my life. I said I want to go to an American town, not a city.”

    Vijay Gopal returned to India to bring back Ruby, a young woman three years his junior, whom he’d met as a 13-year-old in family settings. She moved to Owensboro with him and served as a family-practice physician for more than three decades. Ankur was the firstborn of three, followed by sister Purva, currently a medical doctor at the University of Texas at Dallas, and brother Shankar, who works for Accenture and also lives in Dallas.

    The father recognized early on the free spirit in Ankur. “He was very independent, and quite an out-of-the-box thinker,” Vijay says, “and he did not like authority. In my view, he always listened to a different drummer, and I let him be.”

    Despite his sometimes alienating minority-of-one status at Owensboro Catholic High School, Gopal learned to navigate western-Kentucky culture. He played on the school’s tennis team and started his first business while a teenager on the regional summer tournament circuit. At Ankur’s request, Vijay bought a thousand-dollar racquet-stringing unit, which Ankur brought to tournaments, charging $10 or $15 per stringing to other players between matches. “I wasn’t expecting it, but he paid the thousand dollars back to me,” Vijay says.

    “My entire life I’ve been told I can’t do something,” Gopal tells me during our interview in his parents’ basement. “I remember a guidance counselor in high school who asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘Maybe someday start my own business.’ He said, ‘That’s too risky; you should go to work at the hospital or the bank.’”

    Horizons broadened for Gopal when he left Owensboro for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This massive flagship state university boasts 47,000 students from all 50 states and 100-plus countries. So what does a budding tech entrepreneur study as an undergraduate? History. “People joke about the validity of a liberal-arts degree, but it exposed me to multiple lines of thought,” Gopal says. “I learned how to be a learner. That’s what I think differentiates me from a lot of entrepreneurs, frankly, whose business or idea failed because they weren’t able to solve for everything, which is hard. One of the things I got out of Illinois was the ability to rationally think your way out of problems. They’re never going to go away, and once you accept that, you start solving puzzles.”

    Gopal describes the diverse student body and multitude of courses and clubs he experienced on campus as a “buffet of opportunity.” He found a home among the large Indian-heritage student population, making his first stage appearances as emcee for the group’s highly anticipated annual cultural show. Soon thereafter, he began a DJ business, teaching himself to mix new sounds and perform at parties and events. To promote himself, he built an email list of 40,000 by gathering addresses from any emails he’d been copied to. He put together a website before other DJs thought of the idea and pushed out its link. This was during the era of dial-up Internet connections. “I remember being up at 2 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday writing lines of code to put pictures of our last night’s event on the Internet,” he recalls. “And I would send that email out to 40,000 and say our next party is in a month.”

    His roommates majored in engineering, so he read their books and had them show him what they were studying. He followed up by taking some free computer-science classes offered on weekends. He landed in Chicago as a strategy and information-technology consultant at Accenture, working mainly with banks and government agencies building online systems for transactions and accounts monitoring. Oh, and he also joined Second City, participating in onstage improvisation at the famous comedy training school and performance venue.

    His next risk-taking venture was to jump off the high-paid, high-stress Accenture career road and follow a path back to school. He enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center, embarking on a two-year program in strategic management and entrepreneurship. “The idea was to find balance in my life,” says a bemused Gopal. “You quit an 80-hour-a-week job to take a 100-hour-a-week job.”

    In 2007 he went out on his own, founding Revasyst, a company that designed medical billing software for the healthcare industry. Soon that market became crowded with bigger players and Gopal sidestepped into text messaging as more businesses and consumers started typing on flip phones. He moved back to Owensboro with his parents and set up an office in the basement to launch Agent 511, an information-on-demand service. Users texted the word “weather” along with their zip code and received the forecast on demand. Other messages were made available for emergency room wait times, power outages and school closings. “I’ve pitched a lot of projects at Accenture and in my own company that were turned down,” Gopal notes. “There’s a lot of maturing you do that way.”

    By 2011, Gopal was seeing the future in apps and smartphones. He researched the new technologies and corresponded with Polsky Center colleagues. His collaborations with Chicago friend Phil Leslie revealed the potential of in-app development. That same year he founded Interapt and decided to headquarter it in Louisville rather than Chicago or one of the nation’s tech-center cities.

     

    The commitment to his home state comes from a deep place — Gopal’s belief that Kentuckians do not lack the talent to be successful on the national and international business stage. That so many leave the state to pursue careers disturbed him and motivated him to make Louisville his base. “I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about my home state,” he says. “I know plenty of hyper-intelligent people who come out of Kentucky. They have the same education I do and they’re living all over the world doing wonderful things.”

    Still, as Interapt began to gain more clients for the app-based business tools it develops, he found himself short on staff. Unable to dig up programmers in Louisville, he collaborated with a friend, also of Indian heritage, who returned to India and set up a tech shop with computer coders there. Interapt grew, yet the ability to lure programmer talent to Kentucky remained difficult. Off-shoring projects to India was not a long-term solution. “I decided to find local people who have the drive and determination,” Gopal says. “So we hired folks from engineering schools, from the Speed School and computer-science department at U of L, from small regional colleges, and others with some background. We ramped them up with the training mantra from India, which is to say, ‘Hey, you need to learn this on your own.’”

    Where a larger company might have six to nine months of acclimation for new hires, Interapt could afford only weeks of basic training. “‘I’ll pay you as an intern,’” Gopal told the programming students. “‘If you can learn this in six to nine weeks, I’ll convert you to a full-time employee.’ Most people we picked did it.”

    As Interapt’s staff grew, as well as its skillset, it began taking on more complex projects with larger companies. Soon it was creating sophisticated technology products for the likes of Humana, YUM! Brands and Kindred Healthcare. The breakthrough project came about through a web of connections you might commonly find in San Francisco or Austin, Texas, but rarely in Louisville. At a reception for the incoming 2015 class of Leadership Louisville, Jason Zachariah, who at the time was senior vice president of Kindred Rehabilitation Services, met Gopal. “I was new to Louisville,” says Zachariah, now president of Kindred Rehab. “My first impression was that he was like the mayor of the town. There were about 50 of us, and everyone knew Ankur. He lit up the room.”

    Zachariah’s parents also immigrated to the U.S. from India. His father, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, and mother, also a physician, moved the family to Rochester, Minnesota, and later Jacksonville, Florida. Zachariah and Gopal became friends. They also partnered on plans Zachariah had to develop a mobile compliance app for in-patient rehab facilities under the Kindred umbrella.

    The documentation requirements for stroke and brain-trauma patient care at these hospitals were confounding. In order to be reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid, various pieces of reporting by doctors, hospital staff, Kindred and the hospitals themselves needed to be coordinated. And it needed to be expedited. A sophisticated app, if developed, could bring all of the parties together in a timely fashion. If not documented in time, expenses for a patient’s care might not be reimbursed to Kindred and its partners. In fact, improper documentation often resulted in zero reimbursement. “This exposure was about $80 million per year to our partners,” Zachariah says. “So a $1-million investment in this was a no-brainer.”

    Gopal did not tell his friend that Interapt’s staff of 15 or so at the time had never handled such a large project. He hired a few new people and found a couple of contractors out of town with the advanced skills to develop the app, known as Relay. “We got it done,” Gopal says. “It showed us that we were capable of doing it.”

    Now, a few years down the road, the Relay tool is still in use and Interapt is currently at work with Kindred building a customer-relationship database that can be accessed by nurses and physicians.

    Interapt now operates in high corporate clover, with a client list that includes the aforementioned Humana and YUM! Brands, as well as General Electric, Accenture, Ernst & Young and Elavon, an e-commerce services company. But it’s the homegrown training model that could bring Ankur Gopal the most lasting notoriety.

     

    It’s instructive to regard the training initiatives as a second entrepreneurial thrust. Within Interapt, the various efforts to develop tech-savvy students are given their own division, Interapt Skills. They made news in 2018 when Interapt ran a training program in Eastern Kentucky that sparked national media coverage, including a lengthy article in the New York Times.

    The program’s beginnings transcend politics — almost. A cyber-security bill passed the Kentucky General Assembly near the end of Gov. Steve Beshear’s term in 2015, requiring companies with a data breach of customer information to notify those customers within a specific time period. The governor’s office asked Interapt to serve as an IT backdrop to help with application of the new regulation. When Beshear, a Democrat, met with Gopal, he asked him how Interapt obtained its young tech talent. Hearing that the company had built an in-house training program, Beshear talked about it with others, including Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, and they came back requesting a proposal from Interapt to conduct a similar training program in Eastern Kentucky.

    When Republican Matt Bevin took over as governor in 2016, he seconded the enthusiasm. These politicians were key players in getting the Appalachian Regional Commission to approve federal dollars to fund the program. “I explained that it would have to be done in a disruptive sort of way,” Gopal says. “First of all, we’d have to pay people to learn. That had jaws dropping.” The six-month time commitment and the Eastern Kentucky ethic that you earn a good day’s wages for a good day’s work demanded that, as did the fact that many students had families to support. Indeed, Gopal says, he heard from members of the training group that they did not really take it seriously until they opened their packets on the first day and saw that first $100 check for the initial week’s classes.

    For that first cohort in 2016, Interapt received 800 applications for 50 available spaces. Of the 50 accepted, 35 graduated. Interapt gave 25 of them apprenticeships, and companies in the region hired 10 of them. Gopal considered it a success, but criticism came from a few who did not graduate. Too few companies in Eastern Kentucky were enlisted to hire graduates. And another coding “boot camp” training agency in the area drew attention. The guy from Louisville felt like an outsider. “Some people didn’t want us there and let politics dictate their actions,” Gopal says. “I’m proud of the work we’d done, but I remember how betrayed I felt because we didn’t have to do this. I would have made more money if I’d just stuck to (business clients) rather than going down this path. I put my family and my company through some hardships that I didn’t expect to because we got railroaded to look like a bad guy.”

    But it never occurred to Gopal to erase from his whiteboard the effort to train tech workers from underprivileged backgrounds. As his wife Kiran Gill explains it: “He sees the potential. He sees the positives so much clearer than the negatives.”

    She learned this six years ago when on a whim with a friend one night she put her profile on Match.com. Within 48 hours she received 800 emails from interested men. She replied to two. Subsequently, Gill and Gopal exchanged emails and phone calls. Then he told her he had a two-week rule: After two weeks of talking on the phone, he would fly out to go to dinner and meet her face-to-face. One dinner can change your life, he said. “When he wants something he figures out a way,” says the woman who married him a year later in 2014. “The guy does not see barriers.”

    The Eastern Kentucky program produced Alex Hughes, a 46 year-old from Prestonsburg in Floyd County who is currently a lead software developer at Interapt. He’d been unemployed for about six months before learning coding from Gopal’s team. “I even applied for a grocery bagging job,” he says. “I couldn’t get them to call me back. I was either overqualified or underqualified to bag groceries.”

    He had a high school education and a background in repairing computers and installing large-format printers for coal companies. (The installation business dried up when the coal economy went bust.) After a test and a couple of interviews, he was selected for the Eastern Kentucky cohort. The training exposed Hughes to “a lot of abstract concepts, a lot of reading and a lot of overtime hours,” he says. Graduates master skills beyond the use of specific coding languages, leaving them with tools they can build on in many new-technology applications. Hughes says he now receives multiple email messages every week from all over the country asking him to apply at worker-starved tech companies.

    Hughes has moved his wife and children to Atlanta, where he mentors two graduates of an Atlanta cohort that Interapt trained using its boot-camp apprenticeship model. He’s been with Interapt since 2017 and moved up from junior software-developer status. With the Atlanta grads, who are serving one-year apprenticeships with Interapt, he’s working on a project for Elavon that involves building a plug-in connecting customers to the company’s payment gateway.

    The apprenticeship work for Elavon is crucial to the model Gopal has developed. Before future training cohorts get launched, they’ll be funded by partnerships with companies that send projects to Interapt. The newly trained software programmers are assigned to these projects as apprentices with a one-year employment at Interapt. After the year has ended, the companies have the option to hire the apprentices, who now know their systems. Often, Gopal says, they do so; in other cases, they ask Interapt to keep the apprentices on staff and then forward other projects for them to deliver through Interapt. “I had to go to Atlanta to prove this model works with some of the biggest companies in the world,” Gopal says. “My whole vision was to do this in Kentucky. Funny that I had to go outside of Kentucky to prove it and bring it back.”

    He admits that moving Interapt out of Louisville to Atlanta occurred to him a year ago. Where would the sponsoring companies come from? Who would teach the wider variety of programming classes needed to service the ever-evolving technology needs of U.S. companies? Louisville entrepreneurs Brook Smith and Corky Taylor mentored Gopal through the thickets. The former recalls the fallout from the Eastern Kentucky experience: “He kind of got chopped off at the knees,” says Smith, a regular Saturday coffee shop brainstormer with Gopal. When several of the 35 graduates in Paintsville, just north of Prestonsburg, were having trouble finding jobs, Interapt hired many of them. “He navigated that as well as he could,” Smith recalls, “but it put his business under a lot of pressure. He’s had a few moments when most people probably would have given up. His perseverance and his tenacity are probably his best qualities.”

    The pieces fell into place when Gopal met this spring with General Assembly’s co-founder and CEO, Jake Schwartz. A leader since 2011 in training for the in-demand skills for today’s workforce, General Assembly currently has offices in 25 cities and more than 35,000 graduates worldwide. It provides training and staffing transitions for approximately half of the Fortune 500 companies. GA’s systems for selecting the right talent to train in computer programming, as well as its highly developed curricula and teaching resources, matches up perfectly with the model Gopal has developed to bring in businesses that need the employees. Those businesses provide funding and projects for students to work on during their apprenticeships. Jay Nappy, a director of client engagement and operations at General Assembly, says, “We will find and train them and Interapt will give them the senior mentorship required to make them successful. It becomes a repeatable thing that benefits everybody.”

    General Assembly vetted the class in the Louisville Skills group that began its instruction in late September. There were 250 or more applicants within the first week, Nappy says. GA closed the application portal then because just 25 slots would be filled. “Think of General Assembly as the training experts and us as the work-apprenticeship experts,” Gopal says. “We’ll take your three- or four-month graduate and put them through a real rigor of tasks so they know how to work in a development shop.”

    Diversity is a big priority in the cohorts to be trained, Gopal says. “Recent research points out that diverse teams are more productive. So now we’re seeing a surge of cities and companies willing to work with us. They are calling us.”

    He’s back at the basement whiteboard now in his parents’ home, explaining the new model with the General Assembly partnership. The first three months are devoted to recruiting and selecting the class for a new training cohort. The next four are spent in immersive training, with the last 30 days in specialty learning. As of now, he says, approximately a dozen cities have entered discussions with Interapt and General Assembly to bring in the model, including Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Cleveland and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

    Gopal draws a longer, one-year line running all the way to the end of the whiteboard, indicating the 12 months these students will work for Interapt on projects for companies in participating cities. “The next year they do an apprenticeship at Interapt,” Gopal says. “They’re going from training to being employees of the sponsoring company, with an on-ramp apprenticeship at Interapt.”

    Previously, companies partnering with Interapt were staffing up to 10 employees at a time. But now Gopal’s vision rises up and off the whiteboard. Currently, he has 45 employees. He envisions many, many more.

    “By bringing General Assembly in to handle this with us, we can basically outfit any company in the country right now,” Gopal says. “There’s no reason why we can’t have 1,000 people here in Louisville in five or 10 years. It would be really cool to say we built a company doing that headquartered in Kentucky. I’d be really proud of that.”

     

    This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “The Code Breaker.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

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