A Middle School Friendship Led to the Engineering of a Visual Recognition Tech Company

Dr. Nashlie Sephus and Ivan Walker were born and raised in Jackson, MS. Nashlie credits her 8th-grade science teacher for introducing her to an engineering summer camp for girls where she became fascinated with the fundamentals of computers.

“I still often say that I naively chose the field because I had no idea how difficult yet rewarding that decision would be, as I also considered majoring in music,” she said.

As a kid, Ivan recalls his instant connection with a Brother word processor then learning how to repair the family desktop. The two connected in the gifted program in middle school and through the Academic and Performing Arts Complex, a magnet program across several Jackson Public Schools.

“She was always the top achiever who did everything right. I was the guy who always ‘marched to the beat of his own drums’. We often disagreed in approach and then found value in our differing perspectives,” Walker said.

Following their early interests in STEM, naturally, their college careers would design a path to computer engineering. Dr. Sephus received her B.S. in Computer Engineering at Mississippi State University, later completing her Masters and Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech. Her research was centered around digital signal processing and machine learning, specifically including speech recognition, automatic video tagging, and music information retrieval.

Ivan received his Bachelors and Masters in Computer Science at Jackson State University completing research through the Army High Performance Computing Research Center (AHPCRC) at the University of Minnesota as well as summer research at the Army Research Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD rooted in navigation and video tracking using drones.

Over the years they kept in touch, both attending Tech and later becoming fellows at the National GEM Consortium, a program designed to support top-notch underrepresented students at the master’s and doctoral levels in engineering and science, matching their talent with GEM employees.

“My GEM fellowship allowed me to focus less about how I was going to pay for school and more about my purpose for being there, especially since it was the only fellowship I had during my first semester in grad school at Georgia Tech. The work experience I gained with my GEM company (Delphi) gave me the confidence booster I needed to “weather the storms” of my first few semesters in grad school,” Dr. Sephus said.

Walker said, “After a year at Tech, I was considering leaving the program while at an internship. This internship led to Intel becoming my corporate GEM sponsor and me continuing my education/research at Tech. This led to me becoming a Teaching Assistant for several semesters and then an instructor for three semesters.”

They both value the efforts of the GEM fellowship and programs of its caliber to improve equity in STEM.

“The solution to this problem must include a holistic approach led by those like myself, Nashlie, and others like us in the tech space who understand the barriers, culture, and that it is human nature to resist ideas that don’t align with your own. Often the tax of being the minority even when in the majority is bearing the responsibility of being historically excluded on top of performing your designated job,” Walker said.

Their years of research and persistence paid off.

Nashlie met Jewel Burks, co-founder and CEO of Partpic. Jewel approached Nashlie with an idea to “create technology that would allow people to take a picture of a replacement part (such as a fastener) and automatically recognize the part, displaying a link to purchase the part.” Through her expertise in machine learning, Nashlie joined Burks in creating Partpic (co-founded by Jason Crain). In 2013 and 2014, Nashlie developed algorithms and prototypes.

She brought Ivan onto the team in the early stages of the company.

“The team’s knowledge of TPI and fastener types is what I feel ground the company and allowed us to develop something novel as evidenced by Partpic’s patents led by Nashlie’s technical acumen,” he said. “Also, it requires lots of work to acquire the right mix of people and talent to make a startup work. This was an issue that Nashlie was facing when she recruited me back to Partpic.”

In 2015, the company closed a $1.5 million seed round. Nashlie left her position at Exponent and joined Partpic full-time as CTO. Amazon acquired Partpic in November 2016, and Nashlie tells me Amazon/A9 hired the team to continue the technology in Atlanta.

Following the acquisition, Nashlie says the two joined Amazon in similar roles. Ivan says he’s currently working on infrastructure and dev-ops. Nashlie leads the A9 Visual Search Hardlines tech team at Amazon in addition to developing her non-profit, The Bean Path by collaborating with colleges and universities in Mississippi as well as tech companies to host programs for youth.

“As an African American female engineer, I have set goals to diversify the tech industry. Having been a CTO of a successful tech startup and as a software development manager at Amazon, I seek to tell my story to provide exposure in hopes to inspire others to pursue this field and other dreams,” Dr. Sephus said.

In 2017, Ivan and Nashlie were honored as National GEM Consortium alumni of the year.

Their friendship turned into a lifetime of innovation.

“We must give women and people of color access to the tools and resources to enter and be effective not only in the field of AI/ML but any field. Equal representation always leads to increased strength,” Walker said. “That strength can manifest in the form of an individual growing by having their ideas and philosophies challenged, an idea itself being more robust and vetted, or a business creating solutions that reach a broader audience.”

ThePLUG Staff

Our stories move beyond popular deficit narratives to show the substantive ways that Black people are affected by and engaged with the innovation economy, including analyses of modern technologies and the structures and cultures.