Sanjay ChopraChief Executive Officer Cognistx Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Appointed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Board of Directors Sector Representation: Information Technology Current term ends December 31, 2024
Sanjay Chopra picked up the phone and called Google. It was April 2001, and he was excited about a product his company had developed and eager to share it. One call led to others, and Google was impressed. It bought the intellectual property and patents of Chopra’s company Intellions.
“That was our little connection from Pittsburgh to Silicon Valley,” he says.
Intellions was one of three tech companies Chopra started and the second that he sold. Although he also spent some time in corporate positions, he prefers running his own business. Both offer him challenging problems to solve, but Chopra is better able to nurture and mentor young employees as an entrepreneur, and he prefers to play a role in keeping that talent in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, region.
Settling into the States
After growing up in India, Chopra came to the United States for graduate school—first at Virginia Tech for computer science, then to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University for an MBA—and Pittsburgh is where he continues to make his home.
Although he thought about relocating to California’s Silicon Valley at an early point in his career, his young family was getting settled into Pittsburgh. Plus, he enjoyed the proximity to Carnegie Mellon and the connections he had forged there. Chopra is happy he stayed, but he does note that it’s getting harder to keep young talent in the region. He wishes more cities in the United States were like Silicon Valley in their ability to entice and retain young talent and attract funding for projects. Boston, Massachusetts, and Austin, Texas, are two other cities that can retain young talent, he says, but Pittsburgh and most of its nearby former rust belt cities struggle in that regard. “Even though we attract talented foreign students, we aren’t able to keep them here,” Chopra says. “That becomes a big challenge. We are becoming an older district.”
He made the decision to leave his home country and come to America and believes that a steady stream of young people immigrating to the United States from all over the world enriches American universities and the overall employment pool. Chopra was determined to make a success of his new life, like so many other immigrants he’s met. “The US is a land of immigrants, and I think it’s a very critical part of our economy,” Chopra says. “It’s very important to have a melting pot.”
He fondly remembers how Virginia Tech purposefully brought foreign students together to share with them important details about American culture and bureaucracy. For example, university staff would walk those students who had assistantships, like he did, through doing their income taxes. He remembers another important lesson he learned during orientation, one that was, perhaps, a little more immediate. They warned vegetarian students not to go to McDonald’s because at that time it didn’t offer meatless sandwich options. He still laughs about that bit of useful advice today.
With these cultural lessons and his master’s in computer science in hand, he landed a job in Florida with a company that had Pittsburgh roots, the Allegheny Management Company, a software developer for home healthcare agencies across the country. He worked with them for a couple of years before an opportunity arose to relocate to Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Group, a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon, had a project from the US Department of Defense. The research that Chopra had done while at Virginia Tech gave him a solid background on this new project, so he joined the company.
On a whim, Chopra decided to get his master’s in business administration. While he was out for drinks with colleagues after a long day of computer programming, one colleague told the group that he wasn’t drinking since he was taking the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) the next day because he was thinking about getting his MBA. “Well, that sounds like a good idea,” Chopra told him. “I’ll join you.” He showed up—no time to study—and took the test. He did well. And while he might not phrase it this way, such actions are a testament to Chopra’s entrepreneurial spirit: See an opportunity? Take it.
On the strength of that test and his past experience, he later applied to and was accepted at Carnegie Mellon. It was there that Chopra took a class on entrepreneurship (Carnegie Mellon was one of the first schools in the country to teach the subject) and formed a close bond with Professor Don Jones.
At the urging of Professor Jones, Chopra wrote a business plan and was encouraged to share it with Draper Triangle and Lycos Venture, the venture arm of Lycos, a web search engine and web portal that began at Carnegie Mellon. After a few months, he landed $4 million in venture capital from Draper Triangle, Lycos Venture, Duquesne Light Company, and the Hillman Company to fund his plan, graduated from business school, and, in 1999, started OnlineChoice, a website that allowed consumers to join free, no-obligation buying pools to receive volume discounts on services such as utilities and home security. OnlineChoice was a great learning experience for him.
Chopra went on to his next startup, Intellions, a software company specializing in pricing and promotion analytics for online sales. After eight years, he made that fateful deal with Google.
After two startups and as many sales, Chopra opted to try out corporate culture. He joined IBM as a business development manager and stayed for seven years. He also worked with the regional supermarket chain Giant Eagle as director of digital commerce and helped launch the mobile apps for the supermarket, its GetGo gas and convenience markets, and Curbside Express, the store’s curbside pickup and home delivery app.
For Chopra, the difference between heading a startup and working within a large corporation is clear: “An entrepreneur is able to call more shots and take more risks. In a big organization, you have to swim within the lanes to do well.”
In each of Chopra’s startup businesses, he’s found that it’s imperative to give employees challenging problems to solve to keep them stimulated. “As a CEO of the company you’ve created, it’s up to you to build an environment where everyone will bloom, deliver their best, and contribute to the company,” he says. Most corporate cultures “unfortunately, are run top down,” Chopra continues. “In a good entrepreneurial company, if you set the right culture, it’s almost bottom up—every employee is empowered. They feel it’s their company. They want to make the right decisions. They want to make their particular part of the business successful. That makes all the difference.”
Now he’s back to being his own boss. His latest endeavor, another startup called Cognistx, is an applied artificial intelligence (AI) company serving the retail, cybersecurity, supply chain, logistics, and manufacturing industries.
Asking questions, getting noticed
As a business leader in the Pittsburgh community, Chopra is part of a local CEO group that meets monthly for programs at different area businesses. One of their outings brought them to an event at the Pittsburgh Branch of the Cleveland Fed. Attendees toured the facility and listened to an economic presentation from the branch’s vice president and regional officer.
“At Carnegie Mellon, I was really intrigued by macroeconomics, monetary policy, and fiscal policy,” says Chopra, “so I asked a lot of questions during the presentation.”
This thoughtful questioning got him noticed. From that interaction, the Cleveland Fed invited Chopra to join the business advisory council in Pittsburgh, a group of area business, civic, and community leaders who advise the Fed on timely economic and business conditions. From there, Bank leaders approached him about becoming a director on the Pittsburgh Branch board. He was subsequently appointed a director in December 2021.
“There’s a deeper sense of responsibility that being a board director has given me,” he shares. “It’s important for all directors to bring their perspectives to the board meetings, and my perspective is different from the perspectives of most people in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Manufacturing, healthcare, and finance are the big sectors in the region; unfortunately, technology is not.” He makes sure that he shares insights and anecdotes from his business and its employees that may vary from the others coming from the more prevalent industries represented around the table. He’s also recently been nominated to join the Federal Reserve System’s Technology Council.
Serving on one of the Cleveland Fed’s branch boards is a two-way street. Chopra says he’s gained a better sense of how important the Federal Reserve is and how impactful the Fed’s work is in communities. “The security, the amount of currency the Fed processes, and the magnitude of the operations are very hard to fathom,” he admits. “Serving on this board is intellectually stimulating and impactful. To be able to serve here is a privilege.”
Chopra met his wife, Anju, in Florida when he was working with Allegheny Management Company. Also originally from India, she was in Boca Raton studying for a PhD in electrical and computer engineering. To join Chopra at Carnegie Group, she soon left Florida and her doctoral program, moved to Pittsburgh, and began working with her new husband. Anju later earned her MBA from Carnegie Mellon and now works as a chief innovation officer of cyber-risk practice.
The couple has two daughters: Anya, who graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from Cornell University and is currently an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School, and Aiyana, who is currently a student at the University of Michigan studying information systems.
If you’re going to work with somebody, play a game of golf with them, suggests Chopra: “It’s a great way to get to know someone very well.” Golf has connected him to many investors and also, most recently, to the now-VP of sales at Cognistx.
By the way, he plays with an 8 handicap.