Ever since I was little, I have always loved entrepreneurship. It all started when I was six years old and I made 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 knack for entrepreneurship and a love for innovation. Over the next few years, I fabricated many other small companies, such as my art-selling company, my nutrition company, and my in-home postal office. Using the revenue from these companies, I was able to develop other projects later.
For example, 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 about entrepreneurship. I learned how to profit from a company with a limited budget, and how to interact with customers in order to sell my products.
From sixth through eighth grade, I interned at at Alexandria Wills, a leather product company based in New York and Chicago. Here, 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 create 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 one 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 in order 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 the outfit. This experience allowed me to collaborate with an entire team of people to make a masterpiece and I believe that this experience is truly where I learned how to combine everyone’s strengths to create something worthwhile. Then, in eighth grade, I interned at Mashallah, a jewelry store in Chicago. I learned how to create an online presence and establish a company from the founder, Mashallah Ghouleh. She taught me how to design jewelry pieces that fit the current trends and During my freshman year summer, I interned with another designer called EM Parker. She taught me about how she founded her startup and set up her materials suppliers, her online presence, and how she branded herself in a way that would sell her products to her customers.
Later on, 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 (an international design and consulting firm), I connected with a woman called Connie Liu who had created a school program for young entrepreneurs to start their own 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 yes! We began to work on launching this program at my school a few weeks later.
After months of emails, meetings with the school district, and no results, time was running out. It was clear that the school district was not going to approve this program fast enough for us to be able to have a prototype and business plan by May, which was when we were pitching to investors from companies such as Google, Wieden+Kennedy, and Social Within. I decided to take things into my own hands and started the program myself, setting a weekly meeting time at my house. I 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 had created a team of five freshmen girls. Our goal was to attend Demo Day in May, where we would pitch our product to a board of investors in hopes of getting an investment so that we could grow our business and have our product reach the maximum impact possible.
The team started working in mid-March 2019 and had decided what target group we wanted to help by April. We first wanted to help people who did not speak English prepare for natural disasters better by creating a product that would notify them in the language they spoke, but we soon realized that this user group was too small and our idea was not feasible. The reason for this is because it would have been very hard to market to people who do not speak English and creating a product like this is not something that many people will want to buy due to the fact that a natural disaster is not an immediate threat. It would have also been very difficult to have a walkie talkie be programmed to translate to many different languages and make it work even after power lines go out. There were too many variables and we decided to pivot. This was a huge turning point for the team because we suddenly had to think of something that we all wanted to do in a very limited amount of time. All of the other teams had started working in September or October so we were already at a disadvantage but we did not let that discourage us.
We decided we would focus on helping children with autism using a technological solution. We did a lot of user research and spoke to parents, therapists, and aids of children with autism. One of our team members had a close family friend with autism, so we reached out to his mom to ask her questions about her son’s autism. She helped us and inspired us so much that we decided to name our startup D.R.E.W. (Defining Realistic Emotional Welfare), which is similar to his name. We named it this way because we wanted to do exactly that for all children with autism. 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 are unable to cater to the needs of their children.
This 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 early on in life. The first feature is a pulsing heartbeat generator in the bear to help soothe children before they reach the point of an autism meltdown. This will teach them to take a step back from situations where they feel uncomfortable and analyze their own emotions. The second feature is music that the bear plays to help explain to children the emotions they are feeling and 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 bear is giving children the tools they need to help them express their emotions, reduce the amount of emotional buildup that can cause autistic meltdowns, and foster important 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 nor is it 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 D.R.E.W. will be put 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 relayed to an app on the parents, teachers, or therapists phone. 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 in order 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 communicating with others. All of the other toys for children with autism teach them how to identify other’s emotions, while our product teaches kids how to identify their own feelings first.
We have applied to a few competitions, one of which was the T-Mobile Ashoka design competition in hopes of receiving more funding and are in the process of launching a GoFundMe. After we complete our website and establish ourselves on social media, our goal is to start manufacturing the DREW bear when we finalize our MVP (minimum viable product).
We have reached out to several people to help us develop our product and test it. A superintendent for special education in nine schools offered us the chance to give our product to classrooms across the Bay Area for children to try it out. We plan on using the feedback we receive from user testing to finalize our product so that it is completely user-friendly. Many team members, such as myself, have been connecting with other entrepreneurs who have launched their own products in order to guide us through the process of 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. Take the leap to start making your vision your reality. In the end, you’re going to be happy that 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 my reality. Most importantly, I never lost faith in what I was doing. The principal of my school told me the process would take too long, but instead of giving up I decided to make the meetings at my house. Many people told me I was staring too late in the game so I should push the launch til the next year. Instead, I made sure I started the program as soon as I could and pushed myself 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 a company of your own, 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 who 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 connections 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 connections that opened doors for me and allowed me to meet even more people at demo day who gave feedback to my team and I. Even after demo day, those 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. Connections are also incredibly important because when you meet people who, like you, are just as passionate as you are about your business or product, it can open up a whole new world of possibilities. Having a team with people who you work well with and who help foster a positive culture with a growth mindset is essential to your business. 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. 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.