I sat down for two drinks with Deloitte’s version of Shingy, startup-whisperer Duleesha Kulasooriya, the latest in a Re/code series called “Two Drinks With” (you can order kombucha, but I will judge you). Kulasooriya talked about getting people to care about makers, the power of his mohawk and going to Burning Man for Deloitte.
He may be camping next to you at Burning Man. He may be at your hackerspace, fooling around with his new mini-home project. He may be at the local underground wine bar, chatting up the vintner.
But Duleesha Kulasooriya is working.
You might not know this, and that’s the point.
To understand how startups work, the consulting behemoth Deloitte has employed Kulasooriya to act as a full-time “embedded researcher” in the Bay Area’s fringe communities. His role is to explore new and strange emerging industries, to decipher which companies may succeed and to take the best practices he sees on the small scale and help corporations change their ways. The strategy lead for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, he specializes in navigating makerspaces, 3-D printing and hardware startups.
We first met when Kulasooriya — a 41-year-old resident of San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood — pitched his tent next to mine at Burning Man. I couldn’t quite believe that this giddy, mohawked man with a Sri Lankan British accent was there doing research for Deloitte. We met again this week for two drinks at the Irish Monkey, a wine bar in Oakland, near the old school bus he has started restoring.
“Embedded research doesn’t scale easily, but with all these startups, it’s hard to tell what’s a good idea or a bad idea from the outside,” Kulasooriya said, over a glass of red wine. “People are starting to want information about these companies, especially in the last year. There’s more and more equity in the hardware startups — that changes the game. Now there are exits. Now there are people looking at exits when they start companies.”
He showed me the vehicle he’s working on, a 1988 school bus from Sacramento that he bought for $3,000; he plans to make it into a “tiny home” that still feels like a bus, with “panoramic light.” He’ll be putting some of the old school bus seats back in to make a dinette, building a small kitchen with a mini fridge and a stove, installing three couches that fold out into two beds, and adding a deck to the roof, along with hammocks, some solar panels and a composting toilet.
“At the Center, we always talk about how it’s easier than ever to learn something — this is testing that. How do you do something when you know nothing?” Kulasooriya said. The way research has been done in the past is as an “outside observer looking in. We do that. What’s different about the piece I’m doing is I’m doing embedded research, participatory research.”
Whether building the bus with new hackerspace friends or going to Burning Man, it’s work.
“One part of me is messing around, but another part is like — look, these are deep societal shifts,” he said. “What will these young people want going forward? How will they want to live?”
We walked through the East Peralta industrial park to the nearby Irish Monkey Cellars, a tiny winery manned by Bob Lynch, who offers a special holiday wine, a cabernet franc and merlot mix — the 2014 Nouveau Rosso — that isn’t barrel-aged, and which Lynch says will go bad by New Year’s Eve. Lynch had covered the walls in pictures from a backyard wine-stomping at his house in Alameda.
I told our vintner that I write for a tech blog. “For the record, I still know C++,” said Lynch, who was a programmer before starting his winery.
Kulasooriya had been at Deloitte as a consultant for 10 years when they asked him to help run the Center for the Edge. He has been at this new outpost for seven years.
“Deloitte at the time was setting up these Centers for Excellence — they figured, ‘Tech is what’s going on now, how do we understand that?'” he said. “Deloitte still doesn’t know how to commercialize this yet. If they start trying to run the ROI on me hanging out with Bob, it doesn’t work.”
The Center for the Edge, he said, is “trying to scale edges — when you identify an edge, how do you scale it?”
“The Center is about looking around the corner. It’s a bit of an odd beast,” he said.
Kulasooriya and Lynch started talking about how to insulate the school bus.
He has written two big papers summarizing his embedded research. His first co-authored paper, an introduction to the concept of hackerspaces, was “A Movement in the Making.” Next he wrote about its effects, in a paper called “The Impact of the Maker Movement on Innovation.” Now he’s working on a third: “The Future of Making and Manufacturing.”
As an example of the problems with manufacturing that he wants to fix, he talked about his cuff links. He has custom cuff links made from old typewriter keys that are the same price as “crappy” Macy’s cuff links. “There’s something wrong with that. The money is stuck in the value chain,” he said.
Does Deloitte monitor their embedded researcher?
“Not at all. They have no idea what I do,” he said and laughed.
We ordered another glass from Lynch, the 2012 Chateau Louis Sangiovese Master Blend.
“When I first started, it was all Maker Faires and hackers, and people were like, ‘Okay, we don’t care,'” Kulasooriya said. “They still don’t care that much, and that’s okay. But it’s funny to see how it’s all suddenly grown in the last year.”
His personal style is crucial for embedded work, he said.
“You see a brown person and you think, ‘Oh, he works in tech.’ But then you see the mohawk, and there’s something different, you pay attention. Your brain is working harder to figure out what’s going on, and I have more meaningful conversations,” he said. “Irreverence and humor are too tools we don’t use enough in corporate settings.”
We went outside to a little picnic table, and he pulled on a sweatshirt with the phrase “Everybody Poops” on it.
“It’s about going back to that human element,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.