Akul Bali




University of Michigan alumni Akul Bali (Tauber alumnus: EGL BSE/MSE ’15) and Josh Gottesman (BBA) met while working at Google. They developed Privee - a new social media platform that eliminates advertising and tracking - during socially distanced hangouts and video chats.

While a student in the Tauber Institute, Akul and his project teammates Kelsea Ballantyne (MBA/MS '16) and Martha Neubauer (EGL BSE-Chem/MSE-IOE '16) helped devise a strategy to make Boeing's 777 X Composite Wing Center a zero-waste-to-landfill site for carbon fiber waste. The program continues to be successful for Boeing today.

We talked with Akul and Josh about their experiences as Michigan students and their plans for their new company.

What drew you to the University of Michigan?

Akul: Coming out of high school, I was definitely looking to do engineering and Michigan provided the perfect blend of a college experience. You get all the rigorous academics on the engineering side, plus the benefits of a large state school - you have football and all the fun stuff that you stereotypically think about college as you're growing up!

When you think back to your time with the Tauber program, what stands out?

Akul: I think that it was a very interesting experience working on a multi-disciplinary team. It was me, Martha Neubauer who was also an engineer, and then Kelsea Ballantyne who was an MBA student at that time. It was a great experience just working with people from different backgrounds.... I think that's probably what stood out the most - and, obviously, getting all the interaction with MBA students, seeing a different perspective from people who had previously had jobs and been out in the "real world."

In what ways did your Tauber experience shape the professional that you are now?

Akul: I think the Tauber experience between the capstone [2015 Boeing 777X team project] and also the LeadershipAdvantage modules we had around presentation skills helped a lot with building a strong foundation. So, after I was done with Tauber I went and worked in consulting for three years, and then I was at Google in a similar kind of biz OPS role. I think that kind of foundation of managing multiple stakeholders, having a more refined presentation skill set, definitely helped with executive presence, executing well across  larger projects where you have many different people who want different things to happen and getting consensus among them.... That was definitely a key piece of the Tauber experience that helped me jumpstart my career in the consulting field.

What type of advice would you give to current or future Tauber students?

I'd say for current students to definitely take advantage of the multidisciplinary aspects of Tauber. I think it's very helpful just to see different perspectives and how different people think. Being an engineering undergrad, the first four years you've largely interacted with engineers, so it's nice to see a different way of thinking about the same things. I know on our project Martha and I definitely learned a lot from Kelsey. She was seasoned when it came to managing executives and presenting and so forth. I’d like to think we also taught her some things! And then as part of Tauber you get to take classes at the other school as well, so it's a good way to explore other interest areas and gain that exposure in a relatively low-stakes environment.

Your company, Privee, is a social media platform "made for members not advertisers." Can you tell us what that means to you?

Josh: Privee is an ad-free privacy-preserving social media platform. In it, members can win money through community-themed contests. So, our closest comparison would be like Instagram and Twitter without ads or tracking. So, really leaning into the privacy component. 

Akul: The genesis for the idea came basically in the summer of 2020. Both of us were working at Google at the time, working from home, which, if any of you ever end up working in the Bay area when you don't have to commute, you have a lot more free time to think about things. So COVID is rampaging across the US, you have the US election cycle in full gear, and misinformation was just rampant across social media.... it kind of got us thinking, "Why does misinformation spread so fast? Why is this allowed to happen?" Because we worked at Google, we know the technical aspects aren't the issue here. The technology is there to solve this if you truly want to. And so that leads to the overarching question of, "Is this really the best social media can be? Or are we just conditioned to be like, okay, this is what it is?"

As we delved deeper into that, we started realizing that the ad-based business model is the primary problem...  The issue is, to maximize ad revenue,  platforms are incentivized to maximize engagement, and studies have shown that controversial content is more engaging. So, as a result, almost all your social feeds now are algorithmically driven to maximize your engagement. And you as a user have very little control, so they're going to show you controversial stuff or influencers, and it's less about the original genesis of social media to connect with people.

So that's where we came up with Privee. By being a subscription-based service we align incentives directly with the end-user, rather than advertisers. Our aim is just to provide the best possible experience to you as an end-user.

What has been the biggest surprise for you in launching Privee?

Josh: A big surprise so far has definitely been the prevalence of low code and no-code tools. So essentially it removes the barrier to be super-technical to create prototypes and the MVP [minimum viable product] for new ventures. Right now it's actually very easy to use tools like Sigma and Bubble to create an MVP, which makes it easier to test and iterate on concepts really fast, rather than having to have all that deep technical knowledge and code everything from scratch. Of course, over time, you do need that fully functional technical knowledge, but to start it definitely makes it easier to ramp up in the space fantastic!


Tauber Alumni Community


Alumni bring their operations expertise to leadership roles in a wide variety of fields, all over the globe. Read about what our alumni are doing today, and learn about the impact their Tauber experience has had on their career paths.

Tauber alumni