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Meet Ben Harvey, a CEO who rose above his challenges

Ben Harvey is the founder and CEO of AI Squared. He is a Jacksonville native who graduated from Wolfson High School in 2003.
Will Brown
Jacksonville Today
Ben Harvey is the founder and CEO of AI Squared. He is a Jacksonville native who graduated from Wolfson High School in 2003.

Ben Harvey founded AI Squared during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, the artificial intelligence company has a valuation of more than $50 million. Next year, the company plans to start its next stage of funding, where it looks to raise another $50 million.

The lack of a daily commute, lack of a social life and scores of hours by himself “were an opportunity of a lifetime” to figure out how to further integrate artificial intelligence into applications and technologies.

Harvey grew up in Northwest Jacksonville near Lem Turner and Capper roads. He is the fifth of seven children. When his older brother Joseph graduated from Stanton College Preparatory School and enrolled at Bowie State University, it was the seed that allowed him to realize college was possible.

Harvey earned a football scholarship to play at Mississippi Valley State University. He was a defensive back for the Delta Devils who graduated with a degree in computer science.

Harvey followed in his brother’s footsteps by enrolling at Bowie State. He earned his master’s degree and doctorate from the historically Black college in Maryland before accepting a position at the National Security Agency.

Monday, he served as the keynote speaker of the Youth Empowerment Speaker Series presented through an effort from the Partnership for Child Health, Kids Hope Alliance, Center of Hope at Emmett Reed and other local organizations.

Recently, he discussed the company and his backstory on "First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross."

That conversation is edited for clarity and context.

You spoke Monday at Emmett Reed on Sixth Street. What was the message?

The message was really a group of students ranging in different ages, and my goal was to help them see the path.

When you think about someone from the same background, the same environment, the same type of struggles and disadvantaged nature that they have growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, I wanted them to be able to see that, "Hey, Dr. Harvey was able to come from this background and achieve extremely high levels of success. And, this is the same opportunity that you have, and you do not have to be a product of your environment."

You have to see role models to believe in a path for yourself. So I would think it was pretty powerful for some of the people there to meet you and see you and hear your story about growing up in Jacksonville, under challenging circumstances.

Yes, 100%. And that was really the message of the day was really, "Hey, look, I grew up in this environment." I went to some of the 'F' schools, according to the FCAT testing. I had to dig really deep, figure out ways that I could achieve the levels of success by working extremely hard, putting in that energy and that effort, and being curious, finding opportunities." And, if you figure out that — one of the things that I told them is being the hardest worker in the room — if you can be determined enough to put everything aside and focus on being the hardest worker in the room, when you're in elementary, when you're in middle school, high school all the way to college.

I was really pushing that and trying to plant the seed in their mind. So that these are things that they could understand that could help them in the future. And I think it really did that.

Tell us about your life today and your company AI Squared.

Here's a couple of different things that I'm currently a part of. One of them is being appointed faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Not only am I a part of the biostatistics department, but I was also the first African American that was ever appointed to faculty within the biostatistics department at Johns Hopkins University.

I'm also, as you know, the the CEO and the founder of AI Squared. There's a lot of activity that's going on in regards to really focusing in on our next round of funding, which we started off with close to $10 million at close to $50 million valuation. And now, in our Series A funding, we're going to be shooting for $50-plus million dollars at close to a $500 million valuation.

We've been really blessed to start to win a number of early clients, which is really a predictor of product market fit. We're showing huge commercialization potential across multiple markets, including financial services, cybersecurity, as well as retail.

On the research side of the house, on the academic side, I was able to really talk to the students about the connection of computer science and health care, and how I was able to build one of the COVID-19 risk model application that Johns Hopkins used that was published and used by over 2 million Americans to assess their risk for COVID-19 during the pandemic.

We're able to really kind of show them and showcase, ‘Hey, you know, there’s opportunities in academia. There are opportunities in research, from an entrepreneurship perspective. There are opportunities for you to take ideas, incubate those ideas and creativity create a company."

The goal is to help them understand.

When I was in Jacksonville, growing up in some very difficult environments, I've seen friends that were either locked up or, a lot of times, even getting killed in these difficult environments.

And I wanted them to understand and see that there are opportunities to get out of your environment that don't require you to have to play sports or be a rapper or a drug dealer. There are extremely high-level individuals that have had an abundance of success that were able to work extremely hard in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and use their, their background and their knowledge and their platforms to be able to go and build billion-dollar companies.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.