This spring, The Wall Street Journal published a story titled, “Your Gen Z Co-Worker is Hustling More Than You Think.” The article focused on 20-something entrepreneurs who are turning a stereotype that younger generations aren’t into hard work on its head. One of the entrepreneurs featured was Charu Thomas, the 25-year-old founder of Ox, which is headquartered in Bentonville.
If you haven’t heard of Thomas, or Ox, you’re about to now. Not only does her story indeed prove that younger generations know how to hustle (OK, boomer), but it also is emblematic of the astonishing transformation taking place in northwest Arkansas where young entrepreneurs are moving in droves. (In August, The Journal, coincidentally, also published a story that designated Bentonville the “capital of cool.”)
Thomas, a graduate of Georgia Tech where she finished a degree in industrial and systems engineering in less than four years, landed in Bentonville for the 2019 inaugural cohort of Fuel, a 12-week accelerator program in northwest Arkansas for seed and growth-stage startups.
“I didn’t even know where Arkansas was on a map at the time,” Thomas recently told me. “I wish I were joking about that.”
Thomas arrived in Bentonville with nothing but a car, some basic necessities and about $100,000 in funding she’d won at a startup competition while still in college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
After participating in Fuel, the entrepreneur decided to stay in Bentonville to continue to grow her company, Ox, an abbreviation for “operator experience.”
Thomas and her team (there are 35 employees) have developed technology for what she calls “human-centered automation across the supply chain.” Combining artificial intelligence with wearable devices (think something similar to virtual reality headsets or an Apple watch), Ox provides logistics companies with supply-chain software that increases efficiency while improving the job satisfaction of frontline employees who spend hours in warehouses completing redundant, and often mentally exhausting, tasks.
Ox’s solutions hit at just the right time. The pandemic led to dramatic upticks in online shopping while revealing weaknesses in supply chains. Employee turnover also dramatically increased, forcing logistics providers to search for solutions to retain workers, or operate with increased efficiency with fewer workers, in fulfillment centers. “One of our customers has 90% turnover every three months, so it’s a completely unsustainable business model,” Thomas said.
To date, Ox has raised more than $16 million from big-name venture capital firms, like MaC Venture Capital of Los Angeles. “We admired this really precocious, smart young woman who is a minority [Thomas’ family is from India] who moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, of all places and was building this company in a very male-dominated space,” said Michael Palank, general partner at MaC VC, who spoke via phone with me outside of Onyx Coffee Lab during a recent trip to Bentonville to meet with Thomas and the company’s board of directors.
“I would not expect [Ox] to come out of Los Angeles or New York. It has to be born out of Bentonville,” Palank said. “People talk about supply chain, logistics and retail here. This is what people nerd out on. This is the place.”