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Front & Center: Kaspien CEO Kunal Chopra leveraging technology to expand company into new markets

Kaspien CEO Kunal Chopra has led the company’s transformation into a retailer, an e-commerce agency and a software provider that will each help businesses grow online.  (Courtesy photo)
Kaspien CEO Kunal Chopra has led the company’s transformation into a retailer, an e-commerce agency and a software provider that will each help businesses grow online. (Courtesy photo)

For more than a year, Kaspien Inc. CEO Kunal Chopra has been leading the company’s transformation from a third-party retailer to a one-stop shop for brands to grow their online businesses via Amazon, Walmart, eBay and Google.

Chopra, who has more than 15 years of executive level experience with Microsoft, Amazon and Groupon, assumed the role as CEO of the Spokane Valley-based company in September 2019 and flipped it from operating at a loss to generating a 20% improvement in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

Chopra, this year, also led the company’s rebranding from etailz to Kaspien, reflecting its growth into a retailer, e-commerce agency and software provider. The company secured more than $30 million in financing to develop new products, expand inventory and grow retail partnerships.

Chopra attributes Kaspien’s growth to performance improvements, understanding customers’ needs and leveraging its assets as a third-party retailer to diversify the company into multiple business models.

“Last year was all about performance improvements,” Chopra said. “This year is all about growth and then next year, we’re moving into a phase which we call scale – really taking all that we have built this year and then expanding it out to becoming a truly global brand.”

The land of opportunity

Chopra grew up in what he describes as a “film family” in Mumbai, India. His father was a producer in Bollywood, which is the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.

Chopra recalls being surrounded by actors, actresses and movie events while growing up, but his father encouraged him to explore a path different from the film industry.

At the time, Microsoft was an up-and-coming company. Chopra’s father, who admired Bill Gates and his vision of the world, purchased a computer for Chopra.

“Ever since, I’ve just been a complete fan of technology, and that PC he bought me – which cost him a lot at the time – was really what influenced me to love technology at a very young age,” he said. “And I knew that this was a path that I wanted to take in life.”

Chopra obtained a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Mumbai.

“But I was hungry for more. I wanted to learn more. I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s in computer science,” he said. “So I applied to a number of universities in the U.S. and was accepted into Clemson University.”

Chopra recalls not having enough money to pay for first semester tuition totaling $6,000. Fortunately, he was able to borrow $10,000 from family members to pay for the tuition, living expenses and a one-way ticket to the U.S.

“I was lucky enough to get a scholarship at the university, where they paid for my full education, and I got a job on campus as a teaching assistant, then a research assistant for the professor as well,” he said. “So that really kind of changed my life at some level, and when people say ‘the U.S. is the land of opportunity,’ I’m a living example it truly is that. If you have the intent and the desire to do well in life, and you’re going to work hard for it, the opportunities are available in this great land.”

Chopra graduated with a master’s degree in computer science from Clemson University in 2005. He was then recruited by Microsoft, where he held various engineering leadership roles.

Chopra was hired as director of product management at Chicago-based Groupon in 2012, a position he held for two years. He also obtained an MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2015.

Worth the risk

In 2014, Chopra was hired as general manager of operations and finance for Unikrn, a Seattle-based esports company, and was promoted to chief operating officer six months later.

Chopra said joining Unikrn was risky but rewarding. He took a 50% pay cut to join the startup, but it provided him with experience in operating a technology-focused business – everything from building and selling products to thinking about fundraising, account management and the customer experience.

“Making the decision (to join Unikrn) was a life-changing experience for me that has propelled me to get all these other more executive level positions over time,” he said. “So that was definitely big for me.”

Dream big, set goals

Chopra has been a mentor and adviser to early-stage technology startups through Techstars, a Colorado-based seed accelerator. He’s also founded and invested in several startups, including Coursetake, a company that provides curated interview preparation material; Finagic, which uses artificial intelligence and analytics to manage investment portfolios; and Alignya, a platform that empowers managers to reach business goals.

Chopra encourages people – especially those who are younger – to join startups if they have an opportunity to do so.

“You may not get paid a lot and there’s a lot of risk – no doubt – but the experience that you will get from being part of a startup, or being part of an early-stage company and going through the struggles, challenges and deadlines will be a life changer for you,” he said.

Chopra tells people looking to grow their careers and businesses to set goals, make a plan to reach them and do good work that’s also marketable.

It’s also important to dream big and follow your own path, he added.

“And make sure you surround yourself with overachievers and mentors who can guide you through that journey,” he said, adding mentors can be found online and through books and courses.

Hobbies outside of work

Chopra enjoys watching movies on a regular basis for entertainment and studying the filmmaking process. He also enjoys learning new skills and information through reading, listening to podcasts and taking online courses.

Chopra has authored several books geared toward empowering readers to build successful businesses and careers. He’s working on a book that will guide people through operating a business and applying strategies for running a company to their personal lives.

“Everyone can be a CEO. Everyone should operate their life just like a CEO is really the concept around what I’m writing about. But it’s still in the making,” Chopra said, adding the book could launch at the end of 2021.

Expanding reach

Chopra aims to continue growing Kaspien through expanding products and services to help brands build businesses via online marketplaces.

The company launched three software applications this year and has plans to release two additional applications next year. It will be looking at expanding internationally into Singapore, Japan and United Arab Emirates.

The company is also expanding its nationwide marketplace reach by partnering with Target, Costco and Home Depot.

“That’s going to be our focus areas for next year,” Chopra said. “We’re already in the works with Target right now, we should close on that deal with them soon and we’ll be one of the first few sellers on the platform going into (the fourth quarter) of this year.”

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