community outreach

Becoming an Entrepreneur

My advice to anyone who wants to start their own company or create a product is to stop talking or thinking about the idea and just start doing it. Leap into making your vision your reality. In the end, you’re going to be happy that at least you tried. I remember that it was very difficult for me to start the project at first because there was so much work to be done and so many people to coordinate all of the logistical aspects with. No matter how tedious it got, I pushed myself through my next task and slowly all the pieces came together.

It all started when I was six years old, I had started my first “company.” I created a large amount of artwork and went down to the lobby of my apartment building to sell it. From then on, I knew that I had a love for entrepreneurship and innovation. Over the next few years, I fabricated many other small “businesses”, such as my art-selling company, my nutrition company, and my in-home postal office. Using the money I made, I was able to develop other projects later. In fourth grade I gathered some of my friends and we bought beads and made jewelry to sell at my school’s annual Fall Market. Each year that we participated in the market, we gained more knowledge and connections. I learned how to profit from a company with a limited budget, and how to interact with customers to sell my products.

From sixth through ninth grade, I interned at Alexandria Wills, a leather product company based in New York and Chicago. There, I worked alongside the founder, Alexandria, to create products, sell to customers, and grow her business. This taught me how to put my entrepreneurial drive to good use and discover a network of people who will support the company. By making products from scratch and watching a few strips of leather become a functional object, I was able to track my progress and improvement. This encouraged me to finish projects, try more risky ideas, and incorporate Alexandria’s useful feedback. In seventh grade, I interned at Atelier Rouba Moukadem in Lebanon for a month. Rouba is a fashion designer who taught me how to build a company up from the ground and brand it. She showed me that to build something that you are proud of, you need to push yourself to put your idea out into the real world. Rouba encouraged all of my ideas when we were doing fittings with clients and even guided me through the entire process of creating outfits. I designed an outfit with a shirt and pants and worked with the seamstresses and other designers at the atelier to create it from scratch. This experience allowed me to collaborate with an entire team of people to make a masterpiece. Through this experience I learned how to combine everyone’s strengths on a team to create something worthwhile.

When I was thirteen, I interned at Mashallah, a jewelry store in Chicago. Mashallah Ghouleh, the founder, taught me how to create an online presence to establish yourself. I learned how to design jewelry pieces that fit current trends and even set new ones. During my freshman year summer, I interned with another designer at EM Parker. Emily, the founder, taught me about how she founded her startup and set up her materials suppliers, her clients, and how she branded herself in a way that would sell her products to her customers. My next internship was at Stanford CSR. I was responsible for organizing the content of the camp and making marketing strategies. I provided insight into how to organize the camp and the activities to appeal to students in my age group. I also did the marketing of the camp at my school, Henry M. Gunn High School. I changed the format of the camp to emphasize the teaching of skills in the beginning because that enables more participants to build applications. All of the people who I learned from helped me grow and change in monumental ways. I combined all of the skills that I had accumulated through my different internships and founded a handmade jewelry and clothing brand called Atelier Yara with products being sold on Etsy, at maker markets, and in two retail stores: Cassis and Leaf & Petal. Getting my products into retail stores was a much different process than what I had expected. I was walking down a street when I found myself in front of Leaf and Petal. I started working at Cassis and became in charge of product operations.

In ninth grade, I decided to put all of the information that I had accumulated throughout the years to good use. I founded a startup built around a teddy bear for children with autism whose impact I am passionate about. When I was at a design thinking workshop at IDEO, I connected with a woman called Connie Liu who had created a school program for young entrepreneurs to start their businesses called Project Invent. I asked her whether it would be possible for me to build a business through her program, and she immediately responded with a yes! We began to work on launching this program at my school a few weeks later.

I decided to take things into my own hands and started the program myself because the school was taking too long to approve the program. I set a weekly meeting time at my house and got connected with an incredible mentor who is also a software engineer at Cisco who committed to guiding my team and me through the process of launching our business. Once I had set up the basics needed to start the business, I texted a few friends about the project and created a team of five. Our goal was to attend Demo Day in May, where we would pitch our product to a board of investors in hopes of getting funding so that we could grow our business and have our product reach the maximum impact possible.

We decided we would focus on helping children with autism using a technological solution. We did a lot of user research and even named our startup after the first child with autism who we worked with, Drew. A few weeks later we finished our MVP just in time for Demo Day. We created a teddy bear that helps children with autism understand and identify their emotions better so that they can react to them appropriately before they have an autistic meltdown. I am excited about this project and its potential impact because it can help so many people. Fifteen percent of children are diagnosed with autism and many parents struggle to cater to the needs of their children.

This teddy bear is a companion that educates children about their disability early on in life so that they can be better equipped to live a healthier life later on. It fosters independence and allows children to embrace who they are. The first feature is a pulsing heartbeat generator in the bear to help soothe children before they reach the point of an autistic meltdown. This will teach them to take a step back from situations where they feel uncomfortable to analyze their own emotions. The second feature is the music that the bear plays to help explain to children the emotions they are feeling by relating them to physical symptoms that they are experiencing.

This is essential because often children with autism are only taught about recognizing other people’s emotions but they are never educated about their own. That’s why our invention is giving children the tools they need to help them identify their emotions, reduce the amount of emotional buildup that can cause autistic meltdowns, and foster essential skills that will help the child live a happier life. Our bear is unlike the other toys on the market because it is not stimulating or distracting. In many ways, it is more of a companion to help soothe the child rather than a toy.

My team and I attended the Project Invent Demo Day, where myself and two other team members pitched our product and answered questions about it afterward. We received $1,000 in funding from Google. We are continuing to grow our business and iterate on our product using the money we have earned. The money that Google invested in Drew will be allocated towards the research and development of our product, in addition to user outreach. We will spend $750 on developing our product to become advanced enough to detect children’s emotions using finger temperature, skin conductivity, and pulse. These emotions will then be documented on an app the parents, teachers, or therapists have on their phones. This will be incredibly beneficial to users because the people supervising the children with autism will know before the child has an autistic meltdown. They will be able to see the child’s emotions on their app and pull them out of their stressful situation to help. The other $250 will be used for user testing and other expenses that the business may sustain.

Our product is unique because it teaches children about their own emotions and how they can bridge the gap between themselves and communicate with others. All of the other toys for children with autism teach them how to identify other emotions, while our product teaches kids how to identify their feelings first.

The team and I realized after a trip to IDEO that I organized, there were still things that we needed to improve in our product. Since we started creating Drew late into the game, we didn’t observe any user observations, only interviews. Our empathy process was rushed and incomplete, which led to gaps in our design that did not fit our user’s needs. We are preserving our pulsing feature but iterating upon the form of our toy and changing the song feature. This decision taught us a very important lesson: to never get attached to any single idea because no matter what it is, the idea can always be improved. We learned not to be afraid to start over, which is an essential part of the design process.

Since having made this decision, we have reached out to several people to do additional interviews but most importantly, user observations. A superintendent for special education in nine Bay Area schools offered us the chance to observe students in her classroom and later do user testing with the MVP. We plan on using the feedback we receive from user testing to finalize our product so that it’s completely user-friendly. Many team members, myself included, have been connecting with other entrepreneurs who have launched their products to guide us through the process of user observations and interviews, finalizing our MVP, patenting it, and preparing it for manufacturing.

My advice to anyone who wants to start their own company or create a product is to stop talking or thinking about the idea and just start doing it. Leap into making your vision your reality. In the end, you’re going to be happy that at least you tried. I remember that it was very difficult for me to start the project at first because there was so much work to be done and so many people to coordinate all of the logistical aspects with. No matter how tedious it got, I pushed myself through my next task and slowly all the pieces came together. I celebrated every small victory, every little accomplished task that got me one step closer to making my dream of having a startup come true. Most importantly, I never lost faith in what I was doing. My school principal told me I couldn’t get the district to approve Project Invent fast enough for us to make it to Demo Day, but instead of giving up I decided to host the meetings at my house. Many people told me I was staring too late in the game so I should push the launch till the next year. Instead, I made sure I started the program as soon as I could and pushed myself and my team to work as efficiently as possible. I proved myself not because I wanted to impress anyone else, but because I was genuinely passionate about what I was doing and I believed that I could do it. If you want to start any project, you need to have the drive to push yourself to do it. You can do anything you set your mind to as long as you’re inspired by what you are doing.

Another lesson that I learned from this experience is that the people you work with and your connections are essential to your business. It was connections that allowed me to start the project in the first place. My connection to Connie Liu allowed me to get in touch with our project mentor, who has guided us and allowed us to grow in ways that we had not thought that we could before. It was the bear I helped build due to these connections that opened doors for me and allowed me to connect with more people at Demo Day who gave feedback to my team and me.

Even after Demo Day, the people who we met were still giving us advice and reaching out to us. Connections with other people are the key to growing a business because, without a support system or people to advise our team, we would not have been able to learn from our mistakes or try new things that ended up paying off in the end. Whenever I am at an event, I always go up to new people and introduce myself. Oftentimes, I end up exchanging information with them and get introduced to opportunities that I didn’t even know about! Networking has opened many doors for me and I consider it an essential part of life.

Having a team with people who you work well with and who help foster a positive culture is essential to your project. Without the incredible team of strong girls who I worked with, Drew would be nowhere near where it is today. We all support each other and motivate each other to do our best, and that’s why we were able to get so much done in only a few months and continue to do so today. So remember, whether you’re starting a company or just choosing friends to hang out with, always make sure you’re spending time with people who will support you and bring out the best in you.

Written by Yara Samad.

Edited by Amirah Khan.

*This post was originally published in July 2020.

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