by Anzel Singh

Ex-Pat Files: Priyanka Shekar

by Anzel Singh

Ex-Pat Files: Priyanka Shekar

Triple threat: Engineer, entrepreneur and entertainer Priyanka Shekar recognised Stanford was a necessary endeavour to carving out her path in the realm of Music Technology. Setting sights on the prestigious university after completing a Bachelor in Electrical and Electronics Engineering degree at the University of Auckland, Shekar’s vision to immerse herself in Silicon Valley and work with music tech companies such as Shazam soon became a reality. Anzel Singh had a chat with her.

Currently, her home town is Auckland, though she swears she is a “Palmy girl at heart”, having attended Palmerston North Girls’ High and Westlake Girls’ High Schools ahead of doing her undergraduate degree. Now an international industry expert, Shekar has not only been an alumnus of two of Stanford’s incubator programmes but has mentored and launched one herself. Having recently been admitted to MIT Sloan’s elite program for global executives, her career is again set to be catapulted to new heights. Priyanka Shekar shares her journey as a Music Technologist to date, simultaneously walking the tightropes of music, tech and business.

Stanford and CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics) is like a Disneyland for creatives, we’ve got the whole spectrum from composers using devices and technology, all the way to DSP engineers who are building plugins and effects, and everything in between.”

Miles away from the hustle and bustle of the States where she’s been based with her life in Silicon Valley, and now MIT, Priyanka Shekar feels grateful to have made it back to New Zealand during these unprecedented times.

Talking with me in early August she is feeling for friends and family back in the US who cannot take advantage of simple pleasures such as going to a cafe like the one we met at for this interview. She mentions she is making the most of getting some fresh air while revisiting the familiar spots she used to visit as a University of Auckland student, reflecting often on what she didn’t know then, that she does now.

“I came in thinking that I would specialise as a DSP engineer because that was a direct move from electrical engineering. I never would have imagined that an engineering degree would lead to so many creative doorways.”

No doubt it being her soft spot for music influencing her to make the right moves, that would open countless doors. Its ability to always anchor her is something she keeps close to her heart.

“Music is very nostalgic for me, coincidentally in the same way as coming home to New Zealand. It takes me back to a moment in time. Music keeps me grounded and connected to my roots which I need in my life which is so fast-paced and changing. The same goes for all of us living through these uncertain times, music is such a comfort food.”

Having discovered the crossroads to her passions near the end of her undergrad honours degree, Shekar notes the moments that nudged her closer to finding her purpose.

“Music and engineering were two separate interests of mine and they stayed that way. I played classical piano and sang. It was only in my last year of engineering that I took a class in signal processing, and I enjoyed that. And I knew that audio signal processing was a thing. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to explore that intersection at some point.”

The light bulb moment followed not long after, as smart devices and apps began rising in popularity, and she saw an opportunity for both of her worlds to collide harmoniously. Particularly appreciating how Music Technology is both highly artistic in the message and highly technical in the medium

“It happened during the first iPhone and Smule release. This was the first time that a phone was being thought of as a device, or a computer, or a musical instrument. That was groundbreaking. I wanted to figure out how to build the next big thing like that. Researching that startup took me directly to Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.”

Shekar explains her drive to be proactive and take her career into her own hands. Understanding that the MA in Music, Science & Technology at Stanford was the best option for her, Shekar earned her place along with being offered a Stanford fellowship and Fulbright Award. With a goal in mind, plans were set in motion.

“I meant to go there and work with these companies. I had this Silicon Valley dream. Smule was very much on my horizon of companies that I’d like to work with, and fortunately, I was able to take classes and do projects with Ge Wang, one of the founders.”

It’s easy to see that her Stanford ’experiences left a positive lasting impression. Shekar had artistic performance opportunities with the Stanford Laptop Orchestra led by Ge Wang which is exactly what it sounds like, and the Stanford University Singers, a select classical repertory choir she still sings with today. On the other hand, her technical prowess was also stretched.

“I was just blown away. It was like a playground for an engineer, so many wild ideas and innovation. Those two years at Stanford were transformational. I got to get my hands dirty and do a lot of practical research projects!”

She refers to her research in Vocal Fry Modelling, Vocal Pitch Matching, Harmonic Exciter, as well as new audio recognition techniques during an internship at Shazam. Shekar’s model of the Harmonic Exciter led to the popular vintage hardware effect becoming more flexible and affordable, which Shekar achieved through translating it over to real-time software where it could be used as a plugin. Halfway into her Master’s she also took part in Stanford’s Ignite program, regarded as a mini MBA in Entrepreneurship, run by their Graduate School of Business. The music app concept she pitched was chosen out of 140 others to be developed.

“That was a chance for me to validate the business case for my research. My venture was a social music app to record soundscapes in 3D spatialisation. It was great to be able to take a team of people with me to work on everything from need-finding through to commercialisation. It validated a lot of what I wanted to do at Gruv.”

Seeing the value in understanding business plans for technical ideas, Shekar began switching gears, moving her career towards the process of focusing on products in the second year of her Master’s. This proved valuable for her startup Gruv, which she co-founded upon graduating, finding her co-founders through the close-knit CCRMA community.

Venturing straight into Stanford’s top-ranked StartX incubator as a fresh Master’s graduate, Shekar and partners had specific goals to fulfil in funding, growth and validation.

“Getting into an accelerator program like StartX, broadens your networks immediately. We got so much advice from investors, advisors and fellow founders, and pivoted a lot.”

Having already gained an extensive amount of experience and with an innate desire to pass knowledge on to others, it was a natural progression for her to step into roles as an advisor and mentor to students and other startup founders.

“There’s definitely an evolution from being a student and startup founder to teaching students and startup founders. Teaching and advising have always been close to my heart. I’ve mentored since I was in high school. In the niche Music Technology industry you look for connections and role models to grow.”

She supports many startup incubator programmes as their music technology expert, providing product and partnership advice. Her standout experiences include teaching courses and judging design challenges at premier music business and technology-focused universities.

As Program Director for Real Industry, Shekar was a catalyst, building unique strategic partnerships between academia and industry for collaborative innovation and experiential learning. Real Industry inked partnerships with industry-leading companies including Pandora Media, BOSE, LANDR, Korg, and DTS. She brought Pandora Media into the classroom for USC and NYU students aiming for careers with record labels and artist management. With BOSE, she ran design challenges for engineering and music technology students at Stanford and UC Berkeley. As well as teaching thousands of students worldwide through the company’s online MOOCs.

Facilitating this cross-collaboration through strategic partnerships was done effectively by Real Industry where Shekar experienced firsthand the connections between students and music industry heavyweights being established. However, a particular offering titled Real Startup that she launched, in which students gain an alternative path to do a startup in contrast to working for a larger company shines through as a career highlight. Real Startup was Stanford’s first entertainment tech incubator class for student startups, with an open invitation for students from other universities including Berklee College and NYU.

“It was a three-week full time intensive, very accelerated, where we gave students startup advice and industry expertise with direct access to c-suite executives to design and get feedback on their products and startups. It’s just amazing the kind of exposure students get, presenting in the boardrooms of companies like Dolby.”

After leading that successful programme, and going on further to advise for Abbey Road Studios and Nashville Entrepreneur Center, Shekar finally felt that all the management experience she accumulated could benefit from formalising through an executive-MBA. Knowing that MIT has a Media Lab with impressive applications in media, design, and technology, and that BOSE was born at MIT, the highly selective and elite MIT Sloan Fellows MBA programme for global leaders caught her eye.

“There are many fellow entrepreneurial leaders, and my differentiation in music technology expertise has already sparked academic and commercial collaboration opportunities.”

In June, Shekar flew to New Zealand where she started the exec-MBA programme in managed isolation, admitting she currently lives in three time zones with an erratic schedule. Still, she is content to be getting closer to what she describes as her ideal product/market fit, mentioning self-reflection as being a big part of the executive MBA, through which process she’s been able to realise how important self-investment is.

“My previous experience in the entertainment technology industry created strategic partnerships between academia, industry, and startups to propel innovation and talent. The ecosystem is increasingly complex and fragmented, and there’s now an opportunity to apply my experience to a new challenge: to lead the crossover of entertainment technology for health and lifestyle.

“We cannot underestimate the power of connecting across industries to create personal technologies which heal, inform, and entertain to serve our wellbeing. Our current pandemic has rippling global impacts, and only reiterates this critical trend. I love this field and I’m so passionate about the future.”

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