As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing AJ Richichi.
AJ Richichi is the CEO of Charleston, South Carolina-based SENTIO, a leading hiring platform designed to help companies reduce turnover and hire great hourly employees. At SENTIO, Richichi drives the organization’s strategic growth, builds the product vision, and oversees the company’s talented and passionate staff.
An experienced technology Founder, Richichi’s work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Yahoo! Finance, International Business Times, and Vogue. After winning the New York State Business Plan Competition, Richichi was named a 40 under 40 recipient and “Technology Executive of the Year” as a teenager in Central New York before relocating to Charleston.
A leader in the South Carolina technology community, Richichi is the co-chair of Charleston Open Source and founded the global human resources conference DisruptHR in Greenville. He also volunteers as a technology mentor at the College of Charleston “ImpactX Program” and the Citadel “Bulldog Business Bowl.”
When he is not working, Richichi can be found on one of Charleston’s many beaches with his high-school sweetheart and daughter.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I first built SENTIO as an assessment tool for professional sports teams. The idea started with Tom Brady who was selected 199th overall in the draft. I wondered, how could 32 NFL teams with a $155 million salary cap pass on the greatest athlete of all time so many times? The answer was simple. Scouts were looking at the wrong metrics. While it’s important to observe the hard skills — running, jumping, throwing — they didn’t have the tools to efficiently measure what was “between the ears.” SENTIO changed that by providing a cost-effective, simple way to quantify an athlete’s mental makeup to predict their future success. In our first two seasons, we doubled our client’s win percentages and even led a major league team to the championship game!
As we started to scale, we engaged with a few really smart human resource professionals at big companies who insisted that the technology could be used to screen job candidates, and the results were better than expected. Our early beta testers saved a ton of time reviewing resumes, saw a reduction of turnover, and made better hires. The technologist in me wasn’t yet satisfied. The only companies that could afford the assessments were white-collar companies and professional sports teams. So, after recruiting really smart people, we launched the first screening software platform for the hourly workforce where customers use our technology to hire cashiers, truckers, call center reps, car salespeople, and so much more. It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch such a powerful tool help companies nationwide who would not otherwise have access to high-powered people technology.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I had an important investor meeting a few days after my daughter was born. My wife needed some well-deserved rest, so I took the call dancing around the room with my daughter in my arms to keep her quiet. At the end of the call, one of the investors said: “I really admire your ability to multitask.” It turned out that my camera was on the entire time and the committee was watching me waltz around the room for 30 minutes.
I was mortified. Up until that point, I was manically focused on “professionalism” and constantly found myself jumping through hoops to fit the mold of a Fortune 500 CEO. I learned that it is okay to be human and since then have learned to be more authentic and vulnerable as a leader.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
It is difficult to pick just one book. I constantly find myself re-reading Winning by Jack Welch (RIP) and Suzy Welch. Starting a company like SENTIO required great ingenuity and technical prowess, but scaling it to $100 million will require strong leadership and managerial skills. Mr. and Mrs. Welch built a tremendously practical guide on how to run a successful company and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
To connect people with possibilities. It’s a special day when a company hires the right person. Retention rates increase, turnover costs decrease, and the culture gets stronger. Candidates leave with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. They call their loved ones to share the good news and optimism for the next few years. At SENTIO, we’re obsessed with building these relationships as we believe that everyone on Earth deserves to be happy and excited to go to work.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Build a great team.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
With travel restrictions and COVID-19 concerns, we have not been able to see the majority of our extended family that live in New York. We miss them deeply and wish they could visit us in warmer weather in Charleston. In addition to having a toddler at home, my wife is due in late October with strict instructions to isolate so it has been challenging to manage everyone’s expectations of when/if they can visit.
To combat this anxiety, we have family dinner every night with a different extended family member “at the table” (Facetime on the iPad). It really feels like they are eating with us! There is no substitute for in-person contact, but this has become a great routine that we will most likely keep long after COVID-19.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you have done to address those challenges?
Outside of life or death situations, COVID-19 has presented countless challenges for technology companies like SENTIO. We sent our employees home earlier than most and have been working remotely since early March. Work from home, especially before COVID-19 hit the United States, seemed like a risky decision. We’re growing very quickly with expectations to accelerate in Q2. Our office culture is vibrant and proud. Any deviation from our growing success could hinder it, so I thought.
Fortunately, we have not had any layoffs or drop-offs in productivity. On the contrary, we found our outbound activity, especially with the SDR team, to increase with WFH. We use our own SENTIO assessment technology to measure the mental makeup of applicants before we hire them and specifically look for things like “grit” and “challenge” during the hiring process, so I was not surprised by the team’s resilience. But, as CEO, it is my job to keep spirits high, the team together, and the business growing even with a pandemic in the background.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Whether I’m talking to family or a SENTIO team member, I first listen then empathize. It’s critically important to understand someone’s concern on an intimate level before providing any advice. I find that it helps pinpoint the exact source of the anxiety and leads to a more productive, thoughtful conversation. After isolating the main cause of stress, I do my best to put myself in the person’s shoes and, more often than not, the individual develops their own solution just by “letting it out.”
Obviously, we can’t know or certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post COVID-19 economy?
In two months, the United States went from roughly 3,000,000 people in unemployment to 30,000,000. These numbers rival the Great Depression. Industries like retail, entertainment, travel, and gyms have been obliterated along with their technology and strategic vendors. As the economy resets, it has become clear that the downturn was not simply a 30-day ordeal. COVID-19 has shifted the U.S. economy and the accompanying workforce entirely.
Although the health pandemic may curtail, the economic pendulum has begun forcing millions of companies in the United States to make very difficult “people” decisions in 2020. As sales continue to plummet across the board, human resources has quickly become the most complicated and busy department at most companies.
As the world re-opens, millions of business owners will need to fill 30 million open positions. The current hiring process will collapse under the pressure. This is where SENTIO can help — we are uniquely positioned to excel in the new labor market by helping companies to navigate the new hiring challenges that will be brought about by this pandemic.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
COVID-19’s impact will be long-term and profound. If I had to pick just one behavior change, I would predict that companies and individuals will become more frugal. It’s easier to justify excess in bear markets with historic rebounds than bear markets with no precedence. With an uncertain future of a potential COVID-19 resurgence, I think people generally will be in a mindset to stay conservative and save money.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
At SENTIO, we, fortunately, maintained our rapid month-over-month (MoM) growth despite COVID. Our screening technology is uniquely positioned to thrive in an economy with high unemployment. Our customers like McDonald’s, Visiting Angels, and Chick-fil-A that once received 10 applications per week now cannot keep up with the influx of applicants. SENTIO provides hiring managers with the tools to hire the right candidates, reduce turnover and screening times, and increase hiring efficiencies.
Our strategy is to continue innovating. We have been ahead of the curve to date and are manically focused on providing forward-thinking solutions to our amazing customers.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
This is a difficult question as every business is distinctively different. If I chose one thing, I would challenge my peers to be pessimistic about the next 12 months. How can you flourish in today’s strange world if the pre-COVID-19 conditions never return? This is hard for most founders to do as many of us are hardwired to be optimistic. Fortunately, founders are also nimble and savvy- and most likely executed a pivot or two when the company first started.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My foundation is based on Jim Rohn’s “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I surround myself with people who are smarter and more experienced in business and in life. They push me to get better, and in turn, I am becoming the best husband, father, and CEO that I can be.
How can our readers follow your work?
SENTIO/ mysentio.com; @sentiotech
AJ Richichi/ @ajrichichi