Some of the greatest inventions and product innovations of our time were born out of necessity, grit and pure tenacity. I sat down with Maryam Nabavi, CEO & Founder of Babbly to talk about her inspiring personal journey and the adversity she overcame which ultimately inspired the development of Babbly. Not only did she take matters into her own hands and solve the problem – she then took action created a product to help others in her situation.

Read more about Maryam and Babbly in the interview below!

Babbly was born from a challenging personal experience. Tell us how the idea came to life, what Babbly does, and where you are at today?

In 2018 after my son’s second birthday, I noticed he wasn’t speaking much, so I took him to the pediatrician. From that initial appointment it took us 12 months to convince our doctor to connect us to the right resources. After 6 months of speech therapy my son was able to talk. Although it was a happy story, it was a frustrating process, because I didn’t have the right resources or information to make a decision about my child’s health.

This experience was the inspiration behind Babbly’s product. The product is a mobile app that attempts to create a way for parents to track their child’s speech and language. Parents can upload a video or audio recording and we can instantly give them results on what kind of speech skills their baby has and give ideas and exercises that can help them.

What’s unique about your product?

There are many apps, books and Facebook groups around children development, however most of them offer activities that are based on how old a child is. The issue with that is children grow at different paces, and there is no one formula.

Babbly helps differently by giving child a set of activities customized to their stage of development. Similar to personal training, these activities are curated by experts and are a set of exercises tailored to a child’s own stage and goals. 

You have an interesting background – from your education in Aerospace, to your consulting days at Idea Couture. What are the key pieces of your experiences that you feel have helped you persevere as a tech entrepreneur at Babbly today?

There are 3 pieces of my past experience I think have really helped me as an entrepreneur:

1.  My training in engineering has enabled me to pull problems apart into fundamental pieces to make sound assumptions. It has also given me the ability to effectively communicate with my developers and speak with more technical team members.

2. Innovation strategy – I started my career as a product and design researcher and was heavily involved in innovation research from the very start. Experience in consumer research, ethnographic research and the art of interviewing gave me the ability to figure out how to see and hear what people don’t tell you when a new idea is put in front of them.

3. Client Pitching – without my days in consulting and constantly pitching clients on different ideas, I don’t think I would be where I am today without it.

How has your business been affected by the pandemic? What opportunities do you see in front of Babbly as the new world is emerging in front of us?

I’m lucky to work with a number of smart experts who are passionate about our product. My co-founder Carla is one of strongest woman in tech I know. We also have team of developers who are all used to working remotely, so luckily our day-to-day work hasn’t been impacted much. 

We’ve also seen some interesting opportunities come out of pandemic. In the first week, all in-person appointments with speech therapists were cancelled or put on hold. This is heartbreaking for parents as many of them have been waiting for 6-12 months to get an appointment. To help parents get access to a therapist faster, we launched a pilot that allows them to at least get connected and speak with a therapist via Zoom. Shifting to video appointments is a big change in healthcare that I think will continue.  

What is your top piece of advice for women tech entrepreneurs who are looking to pitch/launch a product? Are there any learnings that you would pass along?

Toronto’s tech ecosystem is really supportive and provides a ton of resources and events for those looking to launch their own product. The diversity of the space has really evolved and it’s very common to see woman pitching and launching their own products now.

My advice for women who want to take the next step – be bold and creative; every industry has been challenged because of the new world we live in, so there’s a huge opportunity in creating new order. There’s no better time to take risks as the old notion of normal and comfort has gone by already.

When you are starting out, finding the path to your perfect job can be tough. In fact, defining what that perfect job IS can be even more difficult. There’s a Japanese principle called Ikigai – “A Reason for Being” which can be found at the crux of 4 P’s:

  • Purpose: What you’re good at
  • Passion: What you love
  • Problems: What the world needs
  • Profit: What you can get paid for

It can take time, effort and persistence to discover your own Ikigai. My advice to candidates starting out is always the same: take a chance and seek new experiences. Even if your first few roles are not the “perfect role”, they will give you opportunities to learn from smart leaders, discover what you’re good at (and what you’re not), and define what you like doing (and what you don’t). Eventually, with time, effort and intention, your learning and experiences should guide you closer toward where you’re meant to be.

Stephanie McGuinty is a fantastic example of a woman who did just that. Currently she serves as Chief of Staff at Real Ventures, a leading venture capital firm for early age startups. However, she originally joined the firm in a role that wasn’t very clear – but thing she knew: she would be able to learn from smart people.

Check out the interview below to learn more about Stephanie!

How did you get into Venture Capital, what enticed you to get into a career in the space?

Interestingly, I hadn’t thought about a career in Venture Capital. I always worked in large organizations and held different roles until I joined a startup while completing my master’s degree – and absolutely loved it. As I was looking to make a career transition after school, I met with Janet Bannister at Real Ventures and was immediately drawn to the work she was doing.

At the time, Janet was a team of 1 in Real’s Toronto office. Real was looking for someone to be her right hand and manage a bunch of projects. Although the role wasn’t clearly defined, the opportunity to dive into new challenges was really exciting. I wanted to be a sponge and learn from an experienced, smart leader – and Janet was just that. I believe my first year working with Janet and the team at Real was equivalent to completing a street MBA – the learning curve was steep, but it ended up being the best career opportunity I could have hoped for.

You’ve served in a few different roles at Real Ventures and have grown up with the company. Tell us a little bit about your journey and your current role today.

When I first started, I supported Real’s portfolio companies, managed our pipeline, Real’s platform, and focused on building relationships within the ecosystem. I loved it because it offered a breadth of learning and development opportunities.

After two years, I decided to hone in on a few things. I’ve always been interested in how people behave in organizations. At the time, Real had 24 employees and we needed someone to build our people processes, streamline our operations, track our performance and initiatives, and support our Managing  Partners on a bunch of other projects. Real approached me with the idea of carving out a role focused on creating alignment across departments and providing better visibility across the firm’s top priorities. It was something they were really receptive to – and this was when my role formally transitioned to Chief of Staff.

Today, my work consists of internal/external communications, change management, people processes and policies, our platform, and building our ecosystem. During this particular time, our team needs support more than ever – so a lot of my time is spent ensuring our team remains focused, positive, and engaged.

What are some of the best startup portfolios to promote and foster a diverse culture? 

Simple things such as offering flexible work hours and inclusive leave policies make a big difference to employees. Doing something as simple as shifting away from “Beer Fridays” to team lunches or afternoon activities and games, shows that you’re conscious of everyone’s life circumstances. More recently, given the remote work situation, being understanding and empathetic around work hours and supporting a healthy work-from-home environment is very important.

Companies that are great at fostering a diverse & inclusive culture typically build it into their processes/policies from the start. Finding like-minded investors and advisors that fundamentally believe in building diverse & inclusive workplaces is also key, and helps ensure that an inclusive culture is always part of the equation as the company scales.

What advice would you give to other women looking to get involved in a VC?

Venture Capital is a relationship-based business. There are two main ways of getting into VC – the first is working with a portfolio company and the second is through a more traditional route like investment banking and/or consulting. So many things are learnt on the job – so having an open mind, learning quickly, and building strong relationships is key to success in the industry.

What resources or top networking events would you recommend to other women looking to get involved in the startup space?

From a local perspective, there are so many! TechTO has done a great job at facilitating connections through their virtual events. The fact that so many of these in-person events (such as Collision) have moved to virtual-only is removing some barriers to entry, and therefore the opportunities to network (albeit different) will be greater. Participating in events organized by accelerators and incubators is also a great way to network and get to know the ecosystem.

Who are some of the top female entrepreneurs that inspire you/you’ve looked up to in your career?

I really admire and look up to Noura Sakkijha, Co- Founder & CEO at Mejuri – a direct to consumer jewelry company headquartered in Toronto. It has been inspiring to watch her, and her company grow. In addition to being a lovely person, she’s extremely focused and thoughtful about how she’s building her business.

Overcoming barriers to building your own purpose-led business in the tech space takes a lot of belief in yourself, the communities you serve, and the sheer tenacity to never give up. Aisha Addo is someone who has not only done this once, but twice.

Tech entrepreneur, non-profit founder, and One of 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada – Aisha is an inspiring leader who has founded two organizations based on one mission: to make the world a better place for women. As the founder of both Power to Girls, and DriveHER she has dedicated her career to building programs and products that create safe spaces for girls and women.

Aisha also opens up about some of the barriers she has faced as a Black woman in the tech space, and how she thinks the tech community can be more supportive of Black entrepreneurs. Check out the full interview below!

Tell us, how and why did you create Power to Girls Foundation?

It really started as a fluke. I came to Canada when I was 14 and realized there wasn’t any spaces for marginalized girls to come together and have conversations about challenges they were facing. For me, it was about – how could I create this space? It started with six girls meeting together. It turned out we all connected on similar challenges. As time went on, we build out bigger meetings, got involved in conferences, corporate partnerships, and more.

Today, we work directly with the Toronto Catholic School Board and run programs in class. We currently work across 7 schools. Sessions have been different during the pandemic, but we’ve been able to transition to virtual, which has been interesting. The same six girls who joined me in the beginning are all still with us and serve as volunteers for the organization.

What is DriveHER, and what’s the story behind it?

DriveHER is a ridesharing App that’s designed to provide a safe space for women and people who identify as women through transportation and technology.

The idea initially came about as an extension of Power to Girls, as I wanted to create safe spaces for women when they were taking a rideshare or taxi. I wanted women to be at the forefront of their own safety.

At the time, I was always the designated driver for many of the girls. Their parents trusted me, and knew their child would safely get from point A to point B. I, myself, had experienced incidents where I felt uncomfortable traveling or riding in a taxi, which I know many women can relate to. I didn’t want girls or other women to have to go through that experience.

What have been some of the biggest challenges and/or learnings you have experienced from building your businesses?

DriveHER has been one of the most challenging but exciting projects I’ve embarked on. It’s been a whole different ball game, especially because I don’t come from a technical background. However, I’ve also seen it as an opportunity for personal development and to gain skills I never would have known I was capable of. It’s been an interesting ride!

What has been a career defining moment for you?

Oh, that’s a good question. The focus of my career – or rather – my life in general, has always been about creating safe spaces for women and girls. My goal is have everything I do try to amplify that. Being able to see the impact Power to Girls has made on girls, and the progress of DriveHER has been huge.

DriveHER, in particular, has taught me a lot, and has taken me through a lot. I realized I could build up skills I didn’t even know I was capable of. In the end, it was validating of my main mission and that I can and will do whatever it takes to support it.

What has your experience been as a Black woman in the startup/tech space? What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

I think one of the biggest challenges has been access to resources and funding. I’ve realized there’s a weird mold of what a “tech startup” or “tech founder” looks like, and if you don’t fit that mold you’re often not eligible for a lot of resources and programs.

There’s been times where I’ve been rejected from accelerator programs, asked for feedback so I can reassess and improve – and the only answer I get is “it just isn’t a fit”. When you hear that so many times, you start to question what the real reason is. There are implicit biases the tech community has against People of Colour. Whether it’s known or not known, it is definitely there.

How do you think Black women in tech can be better supported and championed by the tech community?

Overall – its really about identifying implicit biases, making a conscious effort to remove them, and creating a solid foundation that allows everyone to play on an even field. From a micro level, its being conscious of the fact that people have biases that impact their everyday decisions. From there, it’s being intentional to check them and change them.

It’s not about giving us special treatment, but giving us the opportunity. Let us mess it up, judge us based off that. But if you’re not giving us the opportunity and you’re not judging us based on what we’ve demonstrated – we will never have the same experiences. Give the opportunity – not only because she was Black, or because she is a woman, or because she was young – but because you recognized this person needed an opportunity.

Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN) is also a great resource that supports the advancement of Black professionals in tech. Get involved; whether it’s through attending events, becoming a corporate partner, volunteering or other.

Power to Girls has helped so many girls and women. What you’ve built is truly inspiring. What are some of the most notable successes?

We’ve had the opportunity to work with over 500 girls in the past 8 years in Canada alone, which is incredible. We also brought on the Ontario Trillium Foundation as one of our major funding partners, which has given us access to several resources. To gain support like that was a huge accomplishment.

At the end of the day the biggest success is witnessing the progress and growth of my girls. I call them “my girls” because so many of them have been with me for a very long time. There are women that started with me at the very beginning who are still with the organization. I’ve seen them go to university, graduate and now serve as Power to Girls facilitators. It’s truly beautiful to be part of their lives and see them grow!

What is your biggest piece of advice to other women looking to start their own business (or foundation?)

Just go for it. Does it mean that it’s going to be easy? No, everything you start will come with its own challenges. But – you need to believe in yourself and your ability to create change. I always share with people that you have to believe in yourself, enough for the people who do not believe in you. Believe in yourself so much so that you are believing in yourself for everyone. At the end of the day, what’s the worst that could happen?